In the vast and wonderfully rich vaults of the ABC’s archives there would be, I’m quite certain, a little news item shown on the telly just a few years back. It’s gorgeously thought provoking and it’s about a kiss.
The camera is in the classroom of a High School, going from student to student as they are anxiously peering into the glowing screens of their computers. Their teacher is there also, and she is just as excited as they are. All are waiting for their VCE results. Excitement all around. Bubbles and squeaks are heard and we, on our sofas at home empathise fully and feel bubbly and squeaky along with them. I, a retired teacher (is there such a thing?) also feel that bubble and squeak and know what it’s all about. I recognise the atmosphere of that classroom well. It is exhilarating and bursting with anticipation an atmosphere I’ve felt many, many times.
Suddenly, a young boy sees his results on the screen and screams with unfettered joy. Behind him stands his teacher. Quite spontaneously, she turns to him and gives him a kiss on the cheek, commonly referred to as a “peck.” She pecked no other cheek in that classroom, at least not while the cameras were rolling. It was absolutely nothing more than a motherly, a friendly, a very natural reaction from a proud teacher to her student, for whom she would have given her best that year to make sure he had reached his best potential in the subject she taught and he did, paying her back for her efforts. I know exactly how she must have felt when she saw the boy’s results. I would have felt exactly the same way. The young man received the kiss – yes, the peck – as if it was indeed, his own mum or his best friend who had delivered it on his cheek.
Not a single murmur or post in the social media was made about it being an inappropriate act, or an immoral one or one that was shamefully unprofessional or anything of this nature. The public, quite rightly recognised the deed for what it was and accepted it. No public outrage the likes of which we have been seeing the last few months. No observations about “power differential” or “workplace ethics,” or anything of the sort.
It was a kiss of excitement, an excitement that was well earned after a year’s hard work. A very much, valid excitement. I saw nothing, absolutely nothing untoward about that kiss.
I am a father as well as a teacher and know what it is to raise children, to love them to death and to be with them when they succeed in whatever it is they want to succeed and with them when they struggle with loss. The emotion is very near uncontrollably heart bursting, and nor should it be anything else. Win or lose, it is a team effort, and it is as intense as that during a footy game when the players rush to hug each other whenever one of them scores a goal or deprives the opponent of kicking one.
A teacher is not too unlike a parent when it comes to the love and the care involved. Not too unlike at all.
Nothing unnatural. Nothing to make one jab the air with a condemnatory finger. Nothing to scorn. Nothing to get angry about.
But had that teacher been me, a man, who had felt those very same feelings with his students -the joyful excitement when they won, the sad and sympathetic heart when they had to struggle against harsh realities – had that teacher been me, kissing that boy or – Zeus fore-fend, a girl ! – the story, I dare suggest with quite some certainly, would have had a different ending.
The federal Court judge, Justice Michael Wigney gives us a strong clue:
“I wouldn’t say ‘yummy’ or ‘scrumptious’ to anybody in my workplace but I’m a boring lawyer, and Mr Rush is an actor in a theatrical workplace where people use florid language,” he said and continued with “Obviously some people see tremendous significance but I have to say depending on the context I am grappling with it.”
Ah, the context!
This article, let me say with the greatest haste I can muster, is not about Mr Rush and what he is facing at the moment. It is not about his alleged actions and nor do I have the slightest wish to enter into any courtroom currently in process. This article is about something else. It’s about examining deeds, not people.
Examining people needs a very careful, a very thorough look at them, a look not unlike one presenting itself to a surgeon before an operation, nor unlike one presenting itself to a judge in a court of justice; and I’m neither a surgeon in surgery nor a judge in a court of justice.
But I am a retired teacher (is there such a thing?) and I have learnt of the crucial need to be thorough and of the need to judge the deed and not the person.
The judgement of people requires entering into hearts and brains and these are the best fortressed organs in our bodies. Fortressed better than the “topless towers of Ilium,” that protected Troy, walls that took ten years for the Greeks to bring down (as Christopher Marlowe put it).
And so, I agree with the judge: The context of the deed is highly, if not vitally important; the whodoneit is not.
When Euripides was writing his Medea in 431 BC, he was not describing the mind of a murderer, he was sending a message to the politicians of the day, politicians, like the great demagogue Pericles who had not long before implemented a law that said that only the children whose parents are both Athenian may be considered to be full Athenian citizens.
All other children are “barbarians” (effectively foreigners) even if they were born in Athens. Medea was born in the distant land of Colchis and was therefore a barbarian even though she was married to Jason, a local. (The play is set in Corinth).
The ancient Greek stage (5th c.BC) was a classroom, or even a pulpit. More of a pulpit for Aeschylus and Sophocles but more of a classroom for Euripides and Euripides was using the myth of Medea, merely as a platform to teach about the consequences of Pericles’ law. Mothers would be expelled and in doing so they’d kill their children to save them from the horrors of living in a land of xenophobes.
Euripides was talking about the importance of the context of a deed. Its birth, its reason, its cause. This is probably one of the reasons why the play came last in that year’s competitions.
The context is just as connected and as important to the deed as are the heart and the mind to a living body. To examine it, to judge it, to understand it one needs to look at its context, at its heart. This is not to say that the context will automatically excuse the deed but it is important for us to include it so as to have a full understanding of that deed. Understanding the deed is understanding the human and, as humans, that is our primary assignment, an assignment that written at the forecourt of the temple of Apollo at Delphi over two-and-a-half millennia ago and turned into a common aphorism by a whole lot of philosophers, including Plato and Socrates.
There is no deed that is naked of context. Not an excuse but a context.
Whether one says ‘yummy’ or ‘scrumptious’ or gives a peck on someone’s cheek depends on the context.
And I come to wonder what would happen in the smoggy atmosphere of the “social media” if the ABC showed that item again – just to agitate our morals up a bit, see what comes to the surface.
Is a kiss just a kiss, a sigh just a sigh, a peck just a peck?
I wish you all the merriest of Xmases, the happiest of 2019 (Good Loooord, is that the time?) and the jolliest of them all for the many years that shall follow.