Via Haaretz, “In exam, U.K. pupils asked to explain bias against Jews“.
The question under fire, on an exam paper about Judaism, reads:
“Explain, briefly, why some people are prejudiced against Jews.”
It has been criticised by Education Secretary Michael Gove, who says to suggest that:
“anti-Semitism can ever be explained, rather than condemned, is insensitive and, frankly, bizarre,”
The first thing to note is that the question is a ludicrous challenge. Any question in the format “explain, briefly, why people believe X” is going to be a farce. A long, discursive article couldn’t do justice to the subject of anti-Semitism. It is the subject of countless studies, books, and articles.
More important than another dumb question on an exam paper is the brazen anti-intellectualism in Michael Gove’s statement.
He surely cannot literally think that the AQA exam board used the word “Explain” as a substitute for the word “Justify”. Firstly, because that isn’t the word they used. Secondly, because if he thought that exam board was literally asking students to justify racism, one would hope that Gove’s condemnation would be expressed in more severe terms than “insensitive” and “bizarre”.
Gove is drawing a parallel between the explanation and justification: as if the former risks or implies the latter. He draws a false dichotomy between “explanation” and “condemnation”. Rather than trying to understand anti-Semitism, we must condemn it.
This is nonsense on several levels. First and foremost, effective and just condemnation rests on explanation. In order to establish that it is right to condemn an anti-Semite, several things need to be explained and understood:
- That anti-Semitism is, like the other forms of racism, an irrational and baseless way to evaluate human beings, with no founding in science.
- That the anti-Semite is worthy of personal moral blame, and hasn’t been forcibly brainwashed or put under duress.
- That there are degrees of anti-Semitism, and diverse circumstances which might lead to somebody adopting such views, which might merit different levels of condemnation for the individuals involved. For example, a 10 year old child who repeats stereotypes about the Jews that he has heard at home is not the moral equivalent of a holocaust denier, or of a senior official in the Nazi party.
None of this occurs to Michael Gove, who apparently prefers his condemnation to be blind, unjustified, and emotional. This attitude is especially revealing on this issue, since blind, unjustified condemnation is exactly what anti-Semitism is.
Secondly, the idea that anti-Semitism can be explained is in no way bizarre. People have been doing it for some time. There are many social, ideological, and political reasons why somebody might arrive at an anti-Semitic position, and I doubt we will ever be able to catalogue and contextualise them all, but we can certainly try to, and perhaps achieve some good with the knowledge we gain.
I’m reminded of David Cameron’s attitude following last year’s riots in London. Commentators tried to explain the riots from different perspectives. Socialists emphasised the financial situation of the poor following the 2008 economic crisis, conservatives emphasised the effect of unemployment and dependency on people’s respect for property. David Cameron seemed threatened by attempts at explanation when he condemned the events as:
“mindless violence and thuggery”
The attitude is the same one as Michael Gove’s: Explanation might amount to justification. It is far better to blindly condemn on the basis of emotion, than to make some attempt at understanding the situation. The people of London, apropos of nothing, became foaming-at-the-mouth lunatics overnight.
Hostility to explanation and understanding isn’t a desirable trait in an Education Secretary, and a dangerous one in a Prime Minister.