Of all the animals of prey, man is the only sociable one.
Every one of us preys upon his neighbour, and yet we herd together.
The Beggar's Opera: John Gay

Sunday 30 April 2023

Thrown to the wolves

A minor but disturbing news story last week concerned a teacher in an all-girls school compelled by the management to apologise to a class of eleven-year-olds for addressing them collectively  as ‘girls’.

The story was picked up at the time by JuliaM, who drew attention to the lunchtime protest which followed the teacher’s refusal to comply with the pupils’ demand that she use the preferred pronouns of one of their number - a grievance, one suspects, which had sprung, fully-formed, into existence after the previous week’s assembly on gender presented by the school’s ‘equality and diversity prefects’.

The desire to impress one’s peers or a visiting speaker is an unpredictable force which often finds expression after ‘issue-based’ assemblies; I’ve seen the most unlikely pupils vying with each other to produce highly dubious first-hand descriptions of bullying, eating disorders or mental health issues in the led discussions which often follow and I suspect the aftermath of a presentation on gender would be no exception.

Something about this attention-seeking scenario and the involvement of older girls rang a bell so, following a hunch while writing a comment at Julia’s place, I rummaged around in the internet and, almost immediately, came up with this sample student essay on Arthur Miller’s ‘The Crucible’, based on the Salem witch trials:

 Although Abigail Williams is typically thought of as the antagonist of The Crucible, she is in fact a victim as much as any other tragic character in the play. The true antagonist of the play is the town of Salem itself, because of the judgemental and self-concerned people, and its oppressive views. (Sample essay from 123helpme)

This is not not an isolated example; there is a wealth of material out there drawing on the violent death of her parents and her affair with an older man to portray her as a sympathetic character driven by trauma and exploitation to rebel against the censorious townsfolk using the limited weapons at her disposal (conveniently ignoring the fact that she describes the fate of her parents while coercing the younger girls to support her machinations and that the whole plot arises from her desire to harm the wife of her former lover).

To portray Abigail as a victim is to upset the whole balance of the play, effectively reducing Miller’s explicit allegory for the McCarthyite persecution of alleged Communists in 1950s America to a seventeenth century version of the film ‘Mean Girls’ (2004), in which the actions of the accusers, while clearly reprehensible, can be understood and potentially condoned (or even applauded; it’s worth bearing in mind that, after the release of ‘Mean Girls’, a teen comedy drama based on a factual study of bullying and cliques in US high schools, schoolgirls in uniform-free countries began consciously copying the sartorial codes of the eponymous group).

While it would be reassuring to think that this paradigm shift is confined to unqualified students rather than academia and is mainly the result of immature teenagers identifying with and romanticising the character, in an age where the internet gives a spurious authority to anything put online it’s easy to imagine it taking hold in a wider context. More disturbingly, the growing cult of the victim makes it an increasingly attractive interpretation to those for whom participating in online witch hunts is becoming an acceptable way to approach any difference of opinion, thanks to social media.

It’s only a few weeks since I used the Crucible analogy* to describe young employees exerting undue influence over publishing companies or cultural institutions fearful of damaging social media campaigns over issues of race or gender; the experience of the unfortunate teacher at the hands of a group of unscrupulous, entitled (and ill-mannered) eleven-year-olds (and her bosses, who all seem to have gone down with a bad case of Witchfinder-General’s Knee) over gender identity suggests that the contagion is spreading into ever-younger cohorts.

Certainly the school management who offered their employee up in sacrifice on the altar of political correctness would be well advised to do a little research into both the real-life Salem witch trials and the actions of Mao’s Red Guard, a movement which combined the ruthless solipsism of adolescence with fanatical loyalty to an inflexible ideology. Now even their youngest pupils know how much power they can exert, who knows which members of staff could be next in line for denunciation? 



  1. Twenty years working in secondary schools taught me that there are few creatures as malicious as teenaged girls.

  2. Very true!

    I’d add that the potential for unpleasantness increases exponentially with every member added to a clique up to a maximum of about six (any more and the clique tends to split into hostile rival factions, thereby providing a welcome reprieve for its victims).


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