If you happen to have been employed as a dressmaker in the past, and you have children of school age, be careful when you tell them about your former occupation, and make doubly sure they know how to spell it. The word “ex-seamstress” might seem harmless enough, but in the hands of a child lacking in either understanding or good spelling, it could see you winding up as the victim of a dawn raid by the police. They’re on the lookout for “extremists” like you, you see.
That seems a little far-fetched, doesn’t it? Well it might, but for the fact that a 10-year-old in Lancashire has just been interviewed by police as a result of a misspelt word. He had meant to write that he lived in a terraced house, but unfortunately managed to mangle it up so badly that the “terrace house” became a “terrorist house”. Which of course was grounds for the teacher to report the incident, for the police to call around his house the following day to interview him, and for the family laptop to be taken away for examination. Obviously!
I don’t know about you, but I think the incident could have been handled in a somewhat different way that wouldn’t have resulted in the interrogation of an innocent child, the confiscation of property, and the finger of suspicion pointed at his no doubt incredulous parents. How about this:
“Ali, would you mind staying behind for a couple of minutes. I just need to have a quick word with you. It’s about your story. Yes, the one about your family. Yes, I liked it very much. There was one thing I wanted to ask you about, though. I wondered if you could tell me a bit more about the…what did you call it…terrorist house you live in.”
Now if Ali replies by saying that his parents are strict followers of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, and have lately been trying to build a homemade bomb using instructions they sourced from the internet, then I would probably deem it wise to inform the police. If, on the other hand, Ali replies that the house he lives in is part of a row of houses which are joined together, then it’s probably safe to say that there is a problem of a different nature going on – Ali needs help with his spelling, and the police needn’t be called upon to launch a dawn raid on his little terraced house.
I can imagine a number of other scenarios that teachers might want to approach with a similar caution. When 7-year-old Tracey writes that she lives next door to a burglar, before sending the police around to check for stolen goods, it might be a good idea to check whether she really meant to say that the house next door is a one story abode. Or, if 8-year-old Michael says that his dad is a psychopath, before calling on the authorities, it’s probably best to check with him to find out if his father’s line of work has anything to do with analysing the mind.
The original incident was of course hilarious, and in a sane society it would have been dealt with in a matter of minutes – with the added bonus of the staff at the school having a cracking story to tell for years to come. But in po-faced modern Britain, such incidents cannot be allowed to pass off with a giggle, but must instead be handed over to the authorities to investigate. And there they somewhat seem to lose their hilarity.
Stories of heavy-handed bureaucracy are now absurdly commonplace and with each one of them we are being told something. And, no, the lesson is not simply one of a failure to apply common sense. Nor is it something to do with – as those who still don’t get it repeatedly say – “Political Correctness gone mad”. Something that is mad cannot go mad, can it?
No, the theme that runs through each one of these types of stories is that people are more and more willing to resort to authority in cases that they could easily have dealt with themselves, and indeed would once have dealt with themselves. We are passing the responsibility which rightfully belongs at the level of the individual, the family, or the community to the authorities to deal with. Why are we doing this? Because the authorities have conditioned us to think we should behave in this way. They insist – and more and more we comply. That’s why they decided to shred marriage, break up families, and destroy any hope of building community. That way they gradually reduce our ability to govern ourselves, and we get to the point where we look to them for everything.
Alexis de Toqueville called this phenomenon ‘Soft Despotism’, describing it like this:
“Thus, after having successively taken each member of the community in its powerful grasp and fashioned him at will, the supreme power then extends its arm over the whole community. It covers the surface of society with a network of small complicated rules, minute and uniform, through which the most original minds and the most energetic characters cannot penetrate, to rise above the crowd. The will of man is not shattered, but softened, bent, and guided; men are seldom forced by it to act, but they are constantly restrained from acting. Such a power does not destroy, but it prevents existence; it does not tyrannize, but it compresses, enervates, extinguishes, and stupefies a people, till each nation is reduced to nothing better than a flock of timid and industrious animals, of which the government is the shepherd”.
(Alexis de Toqueville, Democracy in America, Volume 2, Book 4, Chapter 6).
Sound familiar? Someone somewhere seems to have read that and instead of taking it as a warning, thought “What a great idea. Let’s try it.” And so here we are today, with the spirit of Soft Despotism smothering us in its all-encompassing embrace, slowly asphyxiating us, stifling rational and reasonable actions, and impeding us from doing perfectly normal things – like sorting out a child’s bad spelling.
Nowhere is this seen more clearly than in the Chief of the Soft Despots, Sir Michael Wilshaw, Head of Ofsted. It appears that Sir Michael spent his childhood much like Eustace Clarence Scrubb (from CS Lewis’ Voyage of the Dawn Treader) reading the wrong books – “all about exports and imports and governments and drains” – and it has had that most unfortunate effect of making him believe that the regulated life is the good life. Born to monitor, destined to inspect, he’s currently hoping to get the green light to regulate activities that the law-abiding have been doing sans regulations for centuries, and no doubt he’d regulate your bedtime if he could.
As an aside, though I am of the opinion that this country needs another regulatory body like a hole in the head, I make one exception. I propose the formation of ‘OfWilshaw’ – a new body dedicated to monitoring the regulatory inclinations of Sir Michael, with the power to “Fail” him if it is found that he persists in letting power go to his head.
How do we deal with Soft Despotism? Don’t look for any more statist solutions, that’s for sure. Only bottom-up, grassroots answers will slay this particular dragon. So ignore it where you can. Resist it where you need to. Comply cheerfully with it where you absolutely have to. Build your family in spite of it. Teach your children to loathe it. Pray for communities to be built that will one-day force it to crawl back into the abyss. Be as wise as serpents, gentle as doves. And may the day hasten when the ex-seamstress can live with her husband and poor-spelling children in their terraced house without fear of either police or more regulations.