I often find myself telling history students that the truth isn’t always what matters, and that often it’s the stories people believed which stoked the fires of history. It doesn’t matter, for instance, that many of the plans of revolutionary France to invade England were totally bonkers: what matters is that the English were very afraid. And it doesn’t matter if some Nazi slogans were actually communist: what matters is that Göbbels used them more effectively. I’m not (before you write in) at all telling children lies. What I’m trying to do is say, “Look, we know x and y but these people thought z, and that’s why this happened. We need to have both in our heads: to know what happened and yet why people didn’t think this.” Often I’m then asked something along the lines of, “But if the facts were available why didn’t people believe them?” To which I respond, “The thing is, you can prove anything with facts, but facts aren’t always comfortable: people don’t necessarily want to hear facts – they want to be comforted, especially if the facts say something either wildly unexpected or demoralising.”
Now, chew over the morals of that if you like, but both white lies and national security exist to comfort and cajole, whether rightly or wrongly. In 1970 the Marxist government of Salvador Allende took power – democratically – in Chile. A year later US President Richard Nixon publicly reassured South Americans that for the US to interfere in Chile would have dire consequences, and yet the CIA did just that: from financing opponents to an attempted coup, the US tried very hard to covertly destabilise Allende’s regime. When, in 1973, Allende died (apparently committing suicide with an AK-47, which seems to be a particularly violent way to go) as part of General Pinochet’s coup, both Nixon and Henry Kissinger openly welcomed the outcome. This, however, begged questions about the CIA’s role, especially once Pinochet began to strongly assert his authority. Historians still debate how much support the CIA gave to Pinochet, but the feeling is that previous destabilising actions must therefore mean that Pinochet was militarily and financially supported. The facts do not, and will not, matter: that the US had conspired in economic warfare against Chile in order to create the conditions for a coup is enough. And yeah, it seems likely that the CIA actions caused more problems, but to commentators of a particular world-view Pinochet’s coup speaks for itself: it is, for some, but one event in a long line of violent US imperialist actions.
Staying with the US, when Francis Gary Powers’s U-2 spy plane was shot down over Sverdlovsk in the Soviet Union in 1960, President Eisenhower was told that given the altitude neither the plane nor pilot could have survived. Eisenhower thus insisted that a weather aircraft had simply wandered off course, before Soviet Premier Khrushchev delightedly showed off photos of not only the wreckage of the plane, but the photographs it had taken and Powers, alive and well. Eisenhower’s lie had serious consequences for US-Soviet relations but, actually, his own citizens were more than happy to be using advanced technology to spy on their mortal enemies. Again, the facts meant little because the narrative of American Cold War perspective argued for US superiority and moral righteousness. And when Kennedy’s Bay of Pigs invasion failed a year later the President’s approval ratings went up, despite stating that US forces would not be used to overthrow Fidel Castro in Cuba. Facts – that the US was putting down a popular uprising, precisely as the USSR had done in Hungary five years earlier – mattered not given anti-Soviet sentiment and a fear of a Caribbean domino effect.
So when, this week, Kevin Roberts was put on leave as chairman of Saatchi and Saatchi it mattered little that what he said was probably more clumsy than outrageously misogynistic. The original interview is, of course, far more nuanced than the reporting suggests, although Roberts perhaps does himself few favours when he says “I can’t talk about sexual discrimination because we’ve never had that problem, thank goodness.” This sort of comment opens up all sorts of possible criticisms, many of which go too far, but – again – it’s clumsy rather than icy gender bias. But the facts, in this case what was actually said, don’t necessarily matter to those with a particular issue to push. “Yeah, he might have said that but by also saying ‘I don’t think [the lack of women in leadership roles] is a problem’, he means that he doesn’t want any women to take his job, the dinosaur!” But that isn’t what he said, is it? A bit of a leap, I think, has to be made in order to take offence: by all means ask him to clarify, but let’s not train our ire using inferences and latent, jack-in-the-box anger alone.
Sexism and gender bias is still a huge problem for many women and stating, or implying, that we’ve made huge strides in terms of equality doesn’t negate that fact: too few women (apparently 30.5% if this is correct) are senior executives, though at Saatchi and Saatchi that number is 32%. This is still too small, but given that 65% of the company’s staff is female it’s not outrageous to suggest that the number of women in the top jobs will continue to rise. Let’s hope it does, but let’s also not misrepresent facts to argue a point which was never made in the first place. Okay, you’re annoyed: fine – why? Right, let’s look at that particular issue.
And this is, of course, what’s happened to Michaela Community School over the last few days. A letter, of which we know little, has been used to attack principles and teachers alike in a frenzied episode of #NAZIFREESCHOOL hatred. The facts are in reality a little obscure, and they should probably stay that way. But, then again, you can prove anything with facts, can’t you? The wonderful eduaction which these very lucky children have is of no importance to those with an axe to grind and my, there must be some dangerously sharp axes out there with the story unfortunately appearing at the same time as the genuinely awful news about Kings Science Academy. If you’re anti-academy/free school then no matter what happens facts just get in the way of a good old rant.
When I joined my previous school I was, probably, a little cocky. I’ve written elsewhere about how much I learned from both my own mistakes and the challenges I faced. When I left, a year ago, a colleague said to me, “Just be aware that you’ve not brought everyone with you. People still distrust you, and you know can come across as arrogant sometimes.” I laughed – she was right. And I think – I hope! – I have changed for the better in that respect. I’ve been far less radical this year, at least in terms of my conversations with colleagues. Because in any job you have to be aware of the environment, and breathe in the atmosphere a little first. And however frustrating it is, facts alone are often not enough.