But politicians fail to understand why.
The Telegraph article Pupils asked ‘why do some people hate Jews?’ in GCSE exam highlights a huge mistake on the part of AQA. Asking such a politically, racially and religulously charged question of a fair few thousand 16 year olds is clearly in poor taste. It’s in poor taste for many reasons, not least of which at least a few of the kids answering the question will already hate Jews themselves and might unsurprisingly give some pretty hateful answers.
An answer along the lines of “Because they run a secret cabal which rules the Earth on behalf of their shape-changing alien lizard overlords” is not especially enlightened, but is pretty damned enlightening for anyone who might read it. Additionally, there is a fair amount of scope for people who would feel pretty offended to have to explain, however briefly why some people hate one another for no good reason. For some, it’s okay, and for others not so much.
So the really dumb part is not necessarily the question (which I’ll get to later), but the fact that 16 year olds are being essentially forced to answer it. If you’re going to require participation in an exam, probably the best thing to do is to leave questions which remain highly charged in the world of today out of it.
But, predictably, Michael Gove and I don’t see eye-to-eye:
Michael Gove, the Education Secretary, branded the move “insensitive”.
He told The Jewish Chronicle: “To suggest that anti-Semitism can ever be explained, rather than condemned, is insensitive and, frankly, bizarre. AQA needs to explain how and why this question was included in an exam paper.”
“Insensitive” is indeed the word that describes the actions of AQA, but our agreement stops there. In fact Michael Gove’s second paragraph is kind of inexplicable. The only way I can make any sense of it is to assume that he can’t tell the difference between the words “explain” and “justify”. For example, the text of the exam question is:
Explain, briefly, why some people are prejudiced against Jews.
When what I think Michael Gove read was:
Justify, briefly, why some people are prejudiced against Jews.
Now, the difference between these two is crucial. The former is asking for the real reasons why people think something which is very very bad to think. The second is asking people to support the prejudice itself. Michael Gove’s statement applies well to the latter question, but not so much to the former. Both questions, as I’ve already said, are not really appropriate for an exam question, but his statement is not just wrong when it comes to this discussion among adults, it’s blatantly counter-productive.
For example, were I a world-reknowned social and political scientist (I am not), and I wrote a paper with the following abstract (I have not), I would be perfectly justified in suggesting that anti-Semitism can be explained:
An explanation into the motivations of anti-Semitic belief. The following paper, using interviews and polling data from the US population, investigates the fundamental vehicles for the inheritance of anti-Semitic beliefs. In modern society, open anti-Semitism justifiably has pariah status, and yet many continue to openly profess such beliefs. This paper concludes that a combinations of religious belief and political motivaton of group leaders often act as catalysts for such beliefs, and that other group members undergo conformative biases in order to fit in with their group. Once such a belief is expressed openly, the very nature of the belief encourages its holders to retreat to enclaves of anti-Semitic communities, causing groups to become even more closely knit and exacerbating the in-group/out-group hostilities which often arise.
The paper further concludes that greater integration, particularly during primary and secondary levels of schooling would act as a powerful factor in reducing the incidence of such beliefs as they cross such in-group/out-group lines and allow children the capability to see people from different backgrounds.
The point is that explaining a belief is a good thing, even if the belief itself is unjustifiable – understanding why people become anti-Semitic would help us learn how to improve things. We can hope people with stupid beliefs change, but the only thing each of us truly have the power to control is our own actions, and searching for explanations for why other people behave abominably informs us on the best steps we can personally take to reduce such behaviour.
Compare and contrast, for example, the reactions to the London riots last year. Gove, and the rest of the Tories, were quick to dismiss all who took part as part of a feral criminal underclass who can’t be saved. Anyone who suggested that we investigate why they did it was met with scorn: “How dare you suggest it is our fault?” they would scoff.
Of course it’s not our fault, responsibility for criminal behaviour lies with the criminal behaver. But once again: we are not trying to justify the actions of the rioters, only explain them. The riots began for a reason, and all governments have the power to do is change the way the government itself behaves. So the only questions we can ask following the riots is what the government can do differently to prevent more riots, and we can only do that by understanding why it happened in the first place.