Thursday, 27 May 2010

Take away their dictionary license

Operation Black Vote reports that the General Teaching Council has cleared a teacher who posted "racially offensive" comments on the internet. Given the comments, there has been a lot of criticism of this decision, and rightly so.

[trigger warning for racist and dehumanising language]

Here's what they said, among other things:

"Our country is fast becoming a dumping ground for the filth of the third world. And all we do is sleep. If we do not wake up and get a grip soon then the country we have fought and died for and cherish so much will itself be turned into a third world cess pit. Indeed, in some parts of our country it already has!!!! We have enough on our plates sorting out our own home grown scumbags and scroungers without allowing filth from other countries to come here and destroy us."


"Pull all of our soldiers out of all foreign conflicts and get them back here to patrol our own borders. This will prevent our country from being over-run by third world savages, the likes of which we have seen murdering our people and destroying our way of life."

So, some pretty clear dehumanisation and racism there.

Here's what the General Teaching Council decided about those postings in particular (all quotes from the Word document linked on that page):

The Committee's view is that such postings contain offensive terms and demonstrate views or an attitude that might be considered racist. The Committee notes that some postings appear to have been cut and pasted from other documents or websites, but the postings above appear to convey Mr Walker's views in no uncertain terms.

Very understated - "might be", indeed - but so far the case looks clear. And then...

However for the GTC to prove its case in relation to particular 2 the Committee has to be satisfied that contributions made by Mr Walker demonstrated views suggestive of racial intolerance. Although "suggestive" may be a relatively low threshold, "intolerance" is a significant word which the Committee has considered very carefully.

The Legal Adviser provided the Committee with a definition of intolerance from the Oxford English Dictionary which suggests it might mean "not tolerating opinions or practices different from one’s own, denying or refusing to others the right to dissent." The Committee has found this definition a helpful way to consider the ordinary meaning to be given to this word.


The Committee’s view is that, to be suggestive of intolerance, the postings would need to deny or refuse to others the right to dissent.

Well, yes, if you use that particular definition of "intolerance" then nothing Mr Walker did would count. He could be as racially abusive as he liked, but provided he didn't call for immigrants to be banned from the internet forum in which the discussion was taking place, it wouldn't be "intolerance".

The OED, good as it is, is not always up to date. This is trivially true in the case of "intolerance", since the definition, in common English usage and included in other dictionaries of "abnormal sensitivity or allergy to a food, drug, etc." is not included in the 1989 Second Edition (it will, of course, be in later revised editions)

Given that, it's fairly clear that the rest of it might also not reflect contemporary usage either. Relying on the dictionary is not, in any case, a sensible thing to do (I saw a good post on this not long ago, which I have no managed to lose - if I find it again I'll edit a link to it in here).

At any rate, the link there includes the slightly different definition:

lack of toleration; unwillingness or refusal to tolerate or respect contrary opinions or beliefs, persons of different races or backgrounds, etc.

"... refusal to ... respect .. persons of different races or backgrounds". That, it seems quite clear, is something that Mr Walker was doing.

Yes, under certain definitions of the word, Mr Walker was not being racially intolerant. But then, under certain definitions of the word "personal", they could have found him innocent of "personal use of a school laptop", if they'd used the OED definition 3b:

Affecting one's body; relating to one's physical safety or well-being.

Was Mr Walker repeatedly dropping the laptop on his foot? No.

Conversely, they could have found not only him but all of his colleagues guilty, by using definition 2a:

Done, made, held, performed, etc., in person, or by the person concerned; involving the actual presence or action of the individual (as opposed to an agent or representative). [...]

Oh no! They're using the laptops themselves instead of giving them to the designated laptop handlers to use.

Instead, they used the obvious and reasonable definition, not dissimilar to the OED's 1a:

Of, relating to, concerning, or affecting a person as a private individual (rather than as a member of a group or the public, or in a public or professional capacity) [...]

So if they could apply some basic sense to that, and consider what the rule was clearly meant to apply to, why throw it out - and change a relatively loose standard into a very tight and easily avoidable one - when discussing the specific charges of racism.

The criticism they are receiving from a wide variety of sources for doing so is entirely justified.