Why we should blame the parents
It is never too early to learn. That message was even more succinctly put by Napoleon, who declared that a child's education should begin 20 years before its birth with the mother's training. And it lies at the heart of a seemingly trivial British controversy over racial abuse that has a resonance in all multicultural societies.
At one level, it seems silly that the Crown Prosecution Service in the Lancashire town of Salford should drag a 10-year-old boy to the youth court for calling a schoolmate a 'Paki' and 'bin Laden'. District Court Judge Jonathan Finestein, who heard the case, dismissed the charge as 'crazy' and 'political correctness gone mad'.
On the face of it, this seems eminently sensible. It is especially pertinent in this case because the two sets of parents met and amicably sorted out the spat.
It is in the nature of children to quarrel and make up; in the process, they often hurl unkind epithets at each other. Apparently, the other boy, obviously an Asian, had first called the accused 'white trash'. As Judge Finestein rightly put it: 'In the old days, the headmaster would have got them both and given them a good clout.' But alas, the old days of corporal punishment have vanished from many schools.
Police officials, as well as representatives of Britain's National Union of Teachers, have underlined the social and political consequences of racial abuse. Schools are under an obligation to report all such incidents, and the police are compelled to institute action. There is no scope for discretion.
Some of Judge Finestein's critics drew attention to Britain's local government elections and the unexpected gains made by the race-oriented British National Party. Clearly, a child does not exist in the innocent isolation of the nursery. He is caught in the web of adult cross-currents and tensions.
Perhaps he always was. The once-popular children's game of Cowboys and Indians reflected a harsh reality. As an American sociologist pointed out, mirroring history, the cowboys always won. A 1960s Middle Eastern version pitting Jews against Arabs also ensured the former's victory. The cold war, too, inspired a variety of war games that reflected events on the ground with a fair degree of accuracy.
No one planned these games as preparation for competitive adult life, yet it would be surprising if they did not also have some bearing on later actions. Similarly, the 'insults' that the boys mouthed reflected perceptions that they had imbibed, presumably from their families and friends.
A 10-year-old English child may gain some knowledge of Pakistanis but is most unlikely to know anything about Osama bin Laden. Nor can an 11-year-old Asian boy in Britain be familiar with the connotations of 'white trash', which was once used in America's Deep South. But both boys knew, instinctively, that the terms were pejorative and that they applied in denigration to certain other individuals, not themselves.
It is this awareness of the 'self' and the 'other' that is the greatest enemy of universalism. It can be exploited to justify, explain or excuse differential treatment amounting to discrimination and exclusion based on physical characteristics, race, religion or some other element of identity. That awareness would disappear in an ideal world but given the state of society, the next best - and attainable - objective is co-existence with tolerance and respect. That, in turn, makes what Judge Finestein and many others derisively call political correctness the essential element of harmonious living in all but the most unitary society.
The argument would never have arisen if the children's vocabularies did not include such derogatory terms. This shortcoming must be traced to the parents. Napoleon knew what he was talking about when he spoke of a child's education starting 20 years before its birth.
Sunanda Kisor Datta-Ray is a former editor of The Statesman in India