Principal's assembly 19th March 2019

I’d like to start this afternoon with another scenario for you:
You have the task of setting financial compensation levels for victims of crime. You are considering the case of a man who has lost the use of his right arm. He was injured when he walked in on a robbery occurring in a local newsagents.
There are two newsagents near the victim’s home, one of which he frequented more regularly than the other. Consider two scenarios:
  1. The burglary happened in the man’s regular store.
  2. The man’s regular newsagents was closed for a funeral, so he did his shopping in the other store, where he was injured.
Should the newsagents in which the man was injured make a difference to his level of compensation?
There is usually almost universal agreement on this: no, the location should not make a difference, however unlucky we think he has been.
However, psychologists have replayed this scenario, but with one difference: for one group of people, they have said that the incident happened in the regular newsagents and a second group were told that it happened in the less frequently visited shop. When asked for a level of compensation, I’m sure you have already guessed what happened. The group who were told it happened in the less frequently visited shop awarded far higher levels of compensation than the other group.
What is happening here? It may be the sense of injustice that I talked about during my last assembly. It may be the emotional part of the brain victorious over the rational part. It may also be that we have a natural sense of sympathy for those who suffer. Sympathy and its close relative empathy, the human ability to understand the trials of others, lead to acts of great compassion.
That is why Gareth Southgate consoled the Colombian player after his missed penalty sent England through in the World Cup. It’s why you support your friends when you know they are struggling.
It’s why the British public donated £63m to Comic Relief last week. It’s why we are finding new ways – conquering the Yorkshire Three Peaks or running the Pudsey 10K – of raising money for our chosen charity, Candlelighters.
It’s why, when something goes wrong on the sports field, we don’t shout and swear at each other, but rather encourage and pick each other up.
It’s why we struggle to believe that one of our main political parties can stand accused of anti-Semitism in the 21st century. It’s why we reel in horror at what happened in New Zealand last week.
I sometimes worry about the level of debate that we have with each other, about the way in which we talk to each other. I worry about the way in which we can dismiss someone else’s view because it isn’t in line with our own. I worry that we limit ourselves to the depth of what we can learn in 280 characters. I worry that we think it is ok to question a teacher’s decision because we happen to be on a football pitch.
It’s easy to blame what we see on tele or read in the papers without taking any personal responsibility, but sometimes the media does make it easy for us to blame them.
Whenever I visit my in-laws, as we did this weekend, I always have a read of their paper. It’s not one I’d choose and I won’t name it in case you do. However, one column last Saturday was particularly foul. To give it some context, the columnist also wrote about Paul Hollywood’s affair, what you can’t wear on a Thomas Cook flight, a model’s eyebrows and Rihanna’s handbag.
The main part of the column, though, was about the on-going Brexit brouhaha and the competence of the Prime Minister. Amongst the language used about our politicians was “lacklustre”, “traitorous”, “hopeless”, “vapid” (I had to look that up), “lunacy”, “shoddy”, “shabby” and “gutless”.
My point is not to defend politicians; I think we are all fed up with Brexit. My question is whether you really want to engage with any topic you are discussing at such a puerile, base and wild level?
Some of you will be wondering why I’m so worried about this: isn’t it just about selling papers?
One week before the Brexit referendum in June 2016, Jo Cox, the MP for Batley and Spen, was about to meet with some of her constituents in Birstall. Instead, she was brutally murdered. The attacker allegedly shouted “Britain first” as he carried out the attack. Whether the heated language of the Brexit campaign had anything to do with it, we’ll never know for sure. To what extent was the attacker in New Zealand influenced and incited by aggression and Islamophobia on social media?
I’d like to finish today with a few moments of silence for us to reflect on what happened last week in Christchurch, with the now well-known words of Jo Cox as an inspiration:
“Whilst we celebrate our diversity, what surprises me time and time again is that we are far more united and have far more in common with each other than things that divide us.”

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