News or rhetoric?

A while ago one of my Facebook friends shared the following image:-

A school teacher has demanded a pupil remove a help 4 heroes band in case it offends muslims! Share if you think this is an outrage!On seeing this my first reaction, if not outrage, was to think the actions of the teacher were unreasonable. In general I would expect this to be a simple freedom of expression issue. In most situations a band is harmless and as such an individual should be free to choose whether to wear one. Free speech must include things that offend people, or it isn’t free at all.

So to my mind, “In case it offends Muslims” is quite a poor reason. Maybe there was more to it than that? Until I know more, I’d give this unnamed school teacher the benefit of the doubt.

Plenty of schools have, for some time, banned jewellery including wrist bands as part of their uniform policy. As I understand it this is partly motivated by health and safety concerns, partly to prevent distraction and to avoid teachers having to deal with thorny issues such as trading or theft of the bands. To say that the H4H bands should be allowed as they’re for a good cause leaves teachers having to police the grey area of how worthy other bands might be. So while individual freedom is a good thing, I can see the sense in simply banning all wrist bands to keep things simple and fair.

The details of this case are not referenced. A bit of Google searching suggests that the image was most likely motivated by this article in the Daily Mail. It was also covered by the Essex Chronicle. So at least it is based on something which actually happened. What is notable is that there’s some ambiguity over the reason why the band was banned.

From the Essex Chronicle:

His mother, Tracey Tew, 38, claims this was because he was told the band may cause offence. But the school, in Wantz Chase, said the decision was made for health and safety reasons, with the headteacher reported as stating that jewellery risks “being caught”.

There’s nothing very definite about the “causing offence” part. The Daily Mail article starts, “A teacher allegedly…”. They later quote a representative of the Royal British Legion to make a speculative link to Muslims. Whether you think “causing offence” was the real reason or one that was casually assumed in the hope it would make the story more shocking will probably depend on your political leaning and perhaps what social media posts you’ve seen recently.

Either way it’s worth noting that papers often try to make a story out to be more shocking than it is through misleading headlines and words like “claims” and “allegedly”. For example, The Daily Star has a headline from late 2013 that reads: “Outrage as school bans Help For Heroes charity wristbands”. But contain your outrage a moment. When you read the full article, they admit that in fact it’s not the H4H charity which has been singled out, but that all wrist bands are banned under school uniform policy. Presumably they only mentioned H4H bands as they thought this would get the most people angry so they’d read the article.

My friend seemed convinced that the story from the image, including the claim of “in case it offends Muslims” as the reason, was a fact. He further believes that it is a common occurrence in schools around the country and largely supported by liberal authorities. From what he said, this opinion is based on the accounts of friends and family members who are teachers. As anecdotal evidence, this isn’t very helpful, but unfortunately it is how people often form their opinions. I don’t claim to be immune to this kind of reasoning, but I do try to look critically at what I believe.

It’s hard to find any genuine information not equivocated with “allegedly” about whether apparently harmless things like wrist bands are being regularly banned by overzealous liberals afraid of upsetting Muslims. I would have thought that if it was commonplace it would be quite easy to find concrete examples rather than tabloid speculation and inflammatory images on social networks.

I say “inflammatory” because the image seems to have been produced to create anger. The exclamation marks, the word “outrage”, maybe even the clenched fist. Also, that isn’t a school pupil’s arm, unless their uniform involves disruptive pattern material.

Whenever someone tries to elicit an emotional reaction out of me to cause me to make a hasty decision, even if it’s something simple like clicking “Share”, I tend to back off and give it more thought. A common example is when an image tells a tragic personal story then turns up the guilt by claiming “99% of people won’t share this, will you?”. In such cases my answer is always no.

Another reason I didn’t share this was that I’m not exactly sure what the campaign’s aim is, besides encouraging outrage. I can only speculate, but presumably it intends to promote the idea that British values, including tolerance and free speech are under attack. What is less clear is whether the image intends us to see the attackers as overzealous liberals, Muslim extremists or Muslims in general. I would guess that the many people who shared this would have opinions across the spectrum.

As a simple captioned image, it can convey a message without having to provide evidence, references or follow the most basic journalistic standards. You may think that doesn’t matter, it’s just an image, but this has been shared some 26,000 times. So at least that many people bought into the simplified, black and white certainty presented and were outraged enough to pass it on.

In this case my friend was confident that the Muslims he knows would agree with his outrage and want the teacher to allow Help 4 Heroes bands. I expect he’s right, but I don’t think that the outrage-inducing captioned image he shared is constructive. When people are made to feel angry, maybe even afraid, they tend to be more suspicious and hostile to outsiders. At least the reverse effect appears to be real. When people feel secure and loved they are less hostile to outsiders. Perhaps a more helpful response is that suggested by the campaign group HOPE not hate.

Whether or not teachers are regularly banning things for fear of offending Muslims, a lot of people are now encouraged to believe that they are thanks to the implicit suggestion of the shared image. I start to wonder whether the people making these claims are doing so as a result of assumptions based on the same kind of evidence – anecdotes and images shared on social media. In any case we probably can’t find out what the teacher actually said. The point is that these captioned images, often used for harmless humourous purposes can also be a powerful weapon for anyone with an axe to grind. They don’t need to provide references and with no names there is little chance of legal repercussions if the claims are false. It might even be difficult to find out who created them.

I’m not saying don’t share things. I’m saying give it some thought.

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