Alms for Arms

DannyH, pixabay

This is about prejudice – about hearing what you want to hear, not what is being said. A class of ten-year-olds were asked what they’d do if they suddenly had a lot of money to spend. One schoolboy of south Asian extraction said that he would give alms to the poor. His teacher heard “arms to the poor” and, assuming he was calling for insurrection and encouraging terrorism, referred him to the authorities.

Now, I imagine that her reasons for referring the boy to the anti-terror squad were as much about protecting her own back as because she genuinely believed that he was a terrorist. If, for example, it really turned out that her family were planning to carry out acts of terror, and that she had said nothing, then she, too, would be in big trouble. But this is my own assumption. I’m trying to see her actions in the kindest light possible.

We all do it. And, indeed, it’s a necessary part of life. Even from one second to the next in what our eyes are “seeing”, our brains we do not interpret the world from scratch everywhere we look, but make assumptions of what we are seeing based on our past experience. And so with what we hear. Not everyone’s hearing is perfect at all times. Not everyone’s diction is perfect at all times. It’s a perfectly understandable error to hear “arms”, when “alms” is being said – after all, it’s not a word you hear very often. But it is part of daily discourse in many religious Islamic households, I believe, because the faith requires giving alms to the poor (as does the Christian faith, though you might sometimes find it hard to believe).

But to assume that you’ve heard “arms” and immediately to think of weapons taken up on the streets outside the classroom can only be described as prejudice, and not in a good way. And wouldn’t you say there’s something wrong in the fact that this teacher doesn’t even ask the question, but immediately involves the authorities? For a ten-year-old child? Yes, there have been child soldiers involved in wars, but that’s no excuse for this instant and damning reaction.

But we all make mistakes. We all make assumptions. I’m not condemning this teacher for what she thought she heard. I condemn her for not interrogating her own assumption and for immediately presuming the worst and acting on it with not a moment’s thought.

Because that is the duty of all of us – to think twice. In our daily lives, and – perhaps even more important – in our writing, to encourage others to do the same. Always question.

picture credit: DannyH on