Paris : Friday 13th November 2015. How can we know what to feel? A ToK stimulus by any other name…

A couple of hours ago I read a tweet from a twitter-colleague Emma Kell (@thosethatcan).  It read “When there was unprecedented horror in France in January, I was full of energised response for my students. This time, I’m all out of words.”  All Morning I had been trying to mark Year 10 essays about Much Ado and found myself staring out at the rain and thinking about Paris and the terrible events unfolding there last night.  Again and again my mind wandered and I found myself close to tears on numerous occasions.

If we return to school and cannot discuss such atrocities with the students, we let them down.  This is not about British Values, or some other such nonsense peddled by the Thought Police at the DofE, this is about being human and interpreting our emotions when faced by the unimaginable,

I suppose this is the assembly I shall never deliver, or the TOK lesson I wish I was due to teach.

Please:  if you do not want to explore the atrocities carried out in the name of religion last night, do not read this piece.  It is personal and does not in any way reflect opinions of any organisation I represent.  However, I needed to write it, to help me to clarify my own thoughts.

At the time of the Charlie Hebdo attacks in January and in 2012, I wrote this piece for my ToK students: Charlie Hebdo   I felt able to articulate comment  at the time in a way that leaves me now.  I believe it comes down to what the IBDP ToK programme might refer to as the Ways of Knowing.  In short, knowledge is transmitted and assimilated in four ways:  Language, Perception, Reason and Emotion.  Has Language ceased to be a useful medium for knowledge in these cases?

If we look at today’s papers, the language is all rather predictable.  Not just cliche ridden, but lacking in any ability to convey the real horror of events.  “Carnage”, “Chaos”, “Tragedy”, “Massacre” are simply not enough.  Nor can we deal with the perpetrators.  To some they are “scum” – a catch-all term used so widely these days it has no meaning at all, apart from to those left-wing twitter trolls who cannot refer to anyone of the Right without the label Tory-Scum attached.  This easy familiarity has robbed the word of any power.  To others: “terrorists”.  But, to call these people “terrorists”, though accurate, lacks emotion and the idea that a terrorist is to some a “freedom fighter” simply muddies the water when this word is deployed.  What they are is “murderers”.  A simple word, but again one that does not convey the enormity of the crimes committed against innocent souls last night.  We seem to have run out of Language, as Emma was suggesting in her Tweet.

Our perception of events last night is coloured by all sorts of things:  what were we doing when we heard and what was our frame of mind at the time? Which news channels do we watch, and with what language did we gain our knowledge of events?  What sort of response was our social media timeline providing? How old are we and what other events can we recall with which to interpret the events in Paris?  I am 52.  I was a student in London in the early 80s and recall IRA atrocities aplenty, both in London and in in Warrington and Omagh.  I recall vividly the events of 9/11 and 7/7, so have a strong field of reference.  Beyond this I am stuck, however.  My perception of the perpetrators and their warped sense of moral rectitude is one of utter evil, but beyond that, I can perceive no detail to help me to come to a clearer understanding of events.  I suppose that like many, I have a vague notion of a bearded warrior somehow sweeping along the Champs Elysee much as he had done in Iran or Syria.  This is clearly wrong, and one of the troubling niggles here is that witnesses have described men dressed in a quasi-paramilitary manner carrying guns.  Let’s face it, we see that in London regularly.  No one looks twice, we lower our heads and move swiftly on – it simply does not attract notice.

But I am clearly troubled emotionally, and so are many of my colleagues and friends if Twitter and Facebook are anything to go by.  We are left with Plato’s chariots of reason and emotion being pulled in opposite directions by the respective teams of horses.  What we cannot obtain is a cathartic response to rebalance the system.

The emotional response is staggering.  If emotion is to be the only route to knowledge, it is certainly readily implanted.  This morning’s social media posts were dominated by pictures of Paris with cursive script encouraging us to “pray for Paris”.  Curiously we were asked to pray for a city, not the families and loved ones of the victims, nor for the innocents touched by such scenes that their sleep will be troubled for days and weeks, nor for perpetrators in a sense of granting Christian forgiveness.  No.  This was a convenient application of emotional thinking – utterly well intentioned but ultimately a sloughing off of any responsibility to actually engage with the issue.  We pray, and then go about our daily business, the emotional crutch has done its job. It is so glib and so convenient.  It is also somewhat ironic that we were being asked to pray, since one of the many Gods to whom the average social network might pray must actually have been in some way responsible for the atrocity, if only by a failure of duty of care for his followers.  No, this does not wash with me.  I am sorry and I apologise if I offend, but the emotional fall-back of God, simply is not enough.  We are the ones on the planet who can change behaviours and who have to work out our route to salvation on a personal level in the light of such events.

My emotional level, curiously, improved when I listened to a recording of Beethoven 9.  The marking was long forgotten.  There is something tragic and uplifting about the Ninth symphony.  During the 3rd movement I began to feel emotion which was actually beneficial – to recognise the beauty of the little string filigree which accompanies the slow melody began to me me smile and stop living in a state of semi-fret all morning.  In the last movement in the setting of Schiller’s Ode to Joy, the Bass soloist interrupts and angry and grumbling orchestra with these words:

O Freunde, nicht diese Toene!
Sondern lasst uns angenehmere anstimmen und freundenvollere!
O friends! Not these sounds!
But let us strike up more pleasant sounds and more joyful!

Before launching into the well known tune – the European anthem no less!  With the message that “alle Menschen werden brueder” we are begged to remember that we are all human, regardless of divisions artificially imposed by governments or religious doctrine and this must be our foremost emotional response  – to seek to join  and not to segregate.  Funny how it can take an external stimulus to do this  –  to speak to our emotions and possibly carry the truth of an emotional response.  In my career as a singer, I sang these words many times, but they never had the resonance they carried today as I listened.  Cometh the hour…  (if you are interested in my thoughts on music by the way, try this post: on music ToK ).

So, having begun to channel my emotions, we come to the rational approach.  Far too cold for social media, but much needed all the same.  Voltaire’s Pangloss would have rationalised an explanation for such an act in his “best of all possible worlds” and in today’s world we can all begin to piece together a rational response.  Ideas begin to form and then float away, to return later and coalesce in order to allow us to leave our houses without irrational fear: 120 deaths (it may be more) in a city of 2.244 million (2010) is a pinprick; such events do not occur  with regularity and there is more chance of being struck by lightning or even wining the lottery than of being caught up in such  an event (thank you Adam Hills at @thelastleg); in the USA in 2014 there were 51.753 shooting incidents, resulting in 12.568 deaths (http://www.gunviolencearchive.org/tolls/2014 ).

All in all, the reasoning approach which emerges eventually allows us to respond in such a way that we can continue to live our lives and interract fully with our friends and colleagues.  It takes much longer to emerge, the more closely you are caught up in the event, of course.  And we should not discard emotion at all, because we must respond on that level – that is our humanity.  It is also what scares us about the murderers we see in the you tube clips and on the news – gunmen, suicide bombers and cowardly, black hooded executioners beheading innocents – why do they not have emotion?  This is the terrifying question and the one which should bring us up short.  Of course (?) it is better if a terrorist is brought to face justice in a court of law rather than being vapourised in a drone attack, but then again if the man in question has so lost touch with his innate humanity how can we expect any remorse or recognition of “wrongdoing”?

Uncertainty is part of the Human Condition, and we must cope with it on our own ways.  That’s what makes life worth living in so many ways.  The trouble is that when the ways of knowledge begin to fail us, the uncertainty can be unbearable,  We should always try to step back and allow room for our thought processes to coalesce.  Life is not perfect and it never will be.  At times, it is simply too painful and complicated for our brains to process.  That’s Life.

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3 Comments

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3 responses to “Paris : Friday 13th November 2015. How can we know what to feel? A ToK stimulus by any other name…

  1. Hello, I’m an ESL teacher and I live in Nantes. I too have been unable to carry on and can think of nothing else but these cold-blooded slaughters. Though I wasn’t teaching this morning, some of my colleagues were, and I did go to the lycée. Unlike the fellow-teachers I saw there, I feel I really couldn’t have gone on about my classes as usual without talking about what is happening, and yet I don’t know what I would have done. All the more as pupils have four different classes in a morning, were it a mourning one. And it’s pointless to address these eevnts in class is another colleague has done it just before you, or another one will do it right after you. Perhaps I would have studied “never ask for whom the bell tolls” or a Churchill speech (unlike yours, my pupils don’t know about this). Perhaps we may use a sideway to acknowledge the emotions and the issues. Or I guess we should need an organised assembly, with some much needed preparation or a special time allotted to it, but we in France never have assemblies–or special meeting times. Generally speaking, I suppose we educators have a huge part to play and have failed it, somehow. Some analysts here say that this war is also an ideological one, and I am afraid they have got a point. We are facing a sort of blind alien inhumanity, an ideology whose warped roots developed in wounded affects and festered in social and geopolitical issues. All this also asks anew the question about culture and barbary, that crops up so acutely about nazism. And yet culture ( and music) can help and solace us, as it is meant to. I’m struck by the fact that I am writing very uncharacteristically short sentences. I guess I am at such a loss. Unlike you, If I ‘ve read you well, I’m afraid the odds are there are new attacks to come. Sorry for being so inarticulate, thank you for your post ( even though I haven’t the faintest idea what a ‘ToK’ is) ( and thanks for other posts as well. One of them prompted me to study Refugee Blues with one my classes, for example), Anne

  2. Nate

    Hi there,

    A ToK student from the northern United States here.
    You’ve managed to embody much of my perception on the events that have occurred in the past week, and in a far more astute (and level-headed) fashion than I could produce. The concept of us using our emotions as a primary response is something I would consider to be indisputable when speaking of the human sciences. However, the most profound thought I gained from this piece was an over centralization on faith in order to achieve solidified or settled opinions on sensitive subjects–and furthermore I believe that this truly applies to western and monotheistic views. In a situation in which I would venture to say that no God can help us (assuming he/she/they exist at all), it would only be logical that emotion would overtake religion’s role to people of faith. I was disappointed, to say the least, that the notion “Pray for Paris” was swarming social spheres for two reasons. One, I can only imagine that in this scenario, everyone involved had had enough of religion for one day, and didn’t need any more. As a side note, invoking religion during times like this further divides the global community when that is certainly not what needs to be happening. Although most religions pray, the concept in this setting is inherently christian in nature, resulting in that divergence between cultures. As for my second belief, you stated yourself: we are using faith as a filibuster, in many ways, for avoiding a proper address of topics necessary to the progression of the human condition. I watched a video not too long ago arguing that religion was an evolutionary adaptation humans developed in order to uphold a moral code and to avoid devolving into anarchy. I still think this to be true, however as someone coming from the most recent generation, I would contend that evolution is making its next step, which is one away from deities and their teachings. Whether that proves true remains to be seen, however as an increasing number of events like this occur, it seems to be the case. Hopefully if that pattern ensues, the void created for a moral code is filled with emotion that promotes more intra-human empathy, sensitivity, and understanding, so tragedies like this can be avoided.

    Your perspective was something I needed to hear at the time, and I both applaud and thank you for your contribution on the topic. Know that halfway around the world, classrooms and their students are reading and listening to advancements in knowledge like this, and to say more than that–it is truly appreciated.

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