The phrase ‘proportionate response’ – once used almost
exclusively in a military context – nowadays gets bandied about in all kinds of
situations. And increasingly, it seems
to be applied to matters involving school discipline.
The PR words appeared this week in press reports about
a school in Meopham, Kent, which saw fit to punish a 14-year
old boy for making a straight-armed Nazi salute in class. Evidently he was doing no more than mimicking
a gesture by the teacher indicating that the pupils should sit down, but it
cost him two hours of detention, justified by the school on the grounds that
the gesture is ‘racist’ in nature.
The boy’s father, on hearing about the incident, was
livid, wasting no time in filing a formal complaint. Calling his boy a racist, he protested, was
unreasonable because a) he was no such thing; and b) he shouldn’t be tarred for
life with such a label. As for the
detention, he argued that the punishment was ‘disproportionate’ to the offence.
In response, the headmaster agreed to withdraw the
word ‘racist’ from the rap sheet, but insisted that the punishment was perfectly
‘proportionate’, arguing that Nazi salutes had no place in the classroom,
however innocent the intent.
This failed to satisfy the father, who declared his
intention to take up the matter with the school governors. The case, as the papers say, continues.
Pretty soon, one can easily imagine, the affair will
attract the attention of the Old Bill, always tireless in its campaign to wipe
every vestige of racism from our society, or at least to be seen doing so. Prosecutions might well follow, involving
bevies of lawyers and civil rights activists, resulting in a vigorous debate on
Question Time on the BBC.
By this time, of course, droves of journalists will
have descended on the picturesque village
of Meopham, blockading
the school gates and knocking on the doors of governors, teachers and parents for
inflammatory quotes. The hacks would
then be followed by pollsters conducting surveys of racial attitudes in rural England. The Prime Minister might be obliged to make a
statement in the House of Commons.
If that scenario sounds silly and far-fetched, it’s
because it is. But these days we’re
getting used to silly and far-fetched in minor matters that are thought to impinge
on major principles such as equality, human dignity and children’s rights.
Now, it can be argued until cows start jumping over
the moon whether a 14-year-old should or should not be expected to know that a
Nazi salute is likely to cause offence. It
can be hotly debated whether detention represents excessive retribution. There can even be a lively discussion about whether
an offence was committed at all. Whatever
the rights or wrongs of the Meopham Affair – as it might inevitably become
known – does it really warrant all the fuss?
Of course it doesn’t.
I don’t remember from my schooldays – spent in the
immediate post-war years – ever making a Nazi salute, but I probably did. We were fascinated by the war to the point of
obsession – its focus less on the heroics of our brave British lads than on the
evil, jack-booted, heel-clicking Germans in black uniform the lads had just put
in their place. Half our classroom
doodles seemed to involve swastikas.
I can also safely assume that, if I had been caught in such a gesture, the
worst punishment I could have expected would be a word in the ear – or a cuff
round it – from a master to the effect that perhaps it was neither a kind nor a
sensible thing to do – especially in a school like mine in the East End, with its
sizeable minority of Jewish pupils. (A punch on the nose in the playground might
have been the likeliest result.)
And if I’d gone home and complained to Dad that I‘d
either been given lines, or detention, or got a ‘slippering’, or even if I’d been
biffed by one of my offended Jewish classmates – the response would undoubtedly
have been, “Serves you bloody right”.
It qualified as a proportionate response then. It would qualify as such today in
We shall see.