Learning Together

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On the evening of the 29th of November, I am on the train home from London when Ben abruptly adds me to a WhatsApp group titled “News”. Ben types for a long time and I am considering asking if this is his way of announcing that his partner is pregnant when the message comes through. Ben tells us not to worry. He says that the knife attack on London Bridge on the news actually began earlier, at a nearby event that he was attending at Fishmongers’ Hall. He is safe but some of his friends are hurt. He says he does not want to talk but asks that we hold him in our thoughts and prayers. This is exactly the sort of request Ben would make.

It is the first I’ve heard anything about a knife attack. I have not read the news because I have been teaching all day. I cannot fathom what sort of event Ben would have been attending at Fishmongers’ Hall on a Friday afternoon during term time. The word terrorist gets used immediately in the coverage and my heart sinks. Terrorism had been recurring theme of that year, and each time I had found myself hoping that it would not turn out to be a brown Muslim man.

It is only when I get home that the news starts saying the attack began at a University of Cambridge conference celebrating the five-year anniversary of the Learning Together program.

On one of our early trips to prison, Ben tells us that the flat monotony of the landscape that we are driving through resulted from the draining of the Fens, an area of marshland in Cambridgeshire that was once underwater. What we are looking at is essentially sea floor. Ben is the sort of person who speaks in fully formed paragraphs, his speech dotted with oddly specific historical anecdotes. He mentions that one of the early investors in the drainage project was a “Potato Baron” interested in new farming land for his vast potato empire. We spend the rest of the trip laughing about carrot barons and soybean barons.

HMP Whitemoor, a category-A men’s prison, is located in the Fenlands, near the town of March. I made this journey every week for several months, as a group facilitator for the Learning Together program. Learning Together brings undergraduates into prisons to learn alongside prison students. There are a number of educational activities that fall under the umbrella of Learning Together, from reading groups to courses on everything from Law to French Literature. I was part of a course called “Good Life and Good Society”. Each session began with a lecture by a professor at the university followed by discussions in small groups, one of which I facilitated.

*

I am terrified that the attacker might be someone I know. Realistically this can’t be right, because I saw everyone in Whitemoor mere months ago and they could not have been released in the meantime. But I scour the news looking for a picture. When I finally find one, I try to imagine it in various permutations: without the beard, thinner, fatter, smiling. Finally I relax, reassured that I have never met this particular brown Muslim man.

Facilitating a group discussion in prison is no different from teaching in general. I worry about the same things, obsessively. I worry about how to get certain students to talk more and others to talk less. I try desperately to stop John from telling meandering stories about his nights out in Glasgow, which leave us laughing but completely off track. I attempt to lure Ahmed into speaking. He only opens up, truly, when he is talking about his son. I worry, in turn, that the material is too difficult or not stimulating enough. I suspect that Gary would have enjoyed university – I am proved right when I read his essay at the end of the course and find myself thinking that of my students, he is the best suited for philosophy. He is the only one who openly challenges the material. This is the wild egalitarianism of philosophy that I love. You can never be too famous, too clever or too well-established to be wrong; even a prisoner may disagree with Aristotle.

I worry about the same things, but with added salt. I worry about what it means when it is the Whitemoor students that are not speaking. Their silence embodies a complex shyness to do with lost educational opportunities and shame. I worry when the Cambridge students listen, riveted, when the topic turns to prison. It is voyeuristic but it seems monstrous to interrupt and redirect to the readings; I cannot pretend that I am not also fascinated.

The sessions are hit and miss – Aristotle early on is popular; the one on the methodology of anthropology, disastrous. Something shifts when we have the session on Criminology. Alison Liebling lectures on trust in prisons. She has worked in Whitemoor before and seems to know most of the people in the room. Suddenly, the Whitemoor students are voluble with stories of complicated interactions with prison guards and loved ones. Someone asks how trust is possible when, by the time they get to prison, they have watched their friends and family testify against them in court. Gary tells us of the time he spent in isolation, how there were years when he did not get to see the sky. I do not know what to say. I relinquish control over the discussion. This time, the Whitemoor students have no trouble speaking and those of us from Cambridge listen silently, the reading forgotten.

That night, after the session on trust, I went to the pub. I do not normally drink alone. I am angry, I feel cheated by my profession. Nothing I have ever read or learned in my many years of studying philosophy gives me comfort, or even comprehension in this moment. I began the course wondering idly about moral terms, how I was to reconcile the badness of the act, murder, terrorism, what have you, with the person who had committed it. A person who I could find funny, or hospitable, or interested in the same obscure Dracula remakes. The criminologists and the ordinands that populate the course seem far better equipped to navigate this distinction, largely because they do not seem to make it in the first place. It occurs to me that when I have needed solace in the past, I have read Ecclesiastes, not moral philosophy, and certainly not moral philosophy in the analytic tradition, of which I am a part. Moral philosophers seem to be children quibbling over the most useless of words – “permissible”, “blameworthy”, “superorgarative” – determined to stick the peeling labels of obscure moral terms on to phenomena that barely resemble the agony of lived experience.

I drank, watched the moon over the river, and wondered if the cost of taking a life was commensurable with being deprived a view of the sky.

*

Once it becomes clear that I do not know the attacker, I panic about who was hurt. I start checking the social media of people who were likely to be present. Ruth Armstrong and Amy Ludlow, the founders of Learning Together, had to be there. Their Twitter accounts have been locked down, which I find promising someone had to change the account settings, so they are likely to be unharmed. I think of Alice next, Alice who was one of the coordinators for my course. She has not posted on Twitter since yesterday. I am about to message her when I realise her number has been somehow replaced with a different Alice’s since the course ended. I send an email and a flurry of messages to other Learning Together friends, asking for her number.

Shortly after Alice replies, the papers start saying that Jack is dead.

I am in Alice’s office, telling her the worst thing I have ever done. It is the sort of thing you inevitably end up doing, when you are the sort of person who reaches too readily for anger. When you reach for anger first. After I finish, I ask jokingly whether she is going to run away. Alice is not so stupid as to think this is actually a joke. She conducts interviews for a living. Her research is on men convicted of sex offences, a crime that carries with it a great deal of stigma, even for the prison system. She is an expert on getting the reluctant to talk. She would normally pause here. Alice’s speech is punctuated with pauses, sometimes in the middle of sentences. But today she responds, unhesitatingly with the same calculated flippancy, “Well, I am still here aren’t I?”

I am not entirely sure how we ended up at my confession. I had asked to meet with her to talk about some strange dynamics between my Whitemoor students that I wasn’t sure how to manage. The conversation was typical of those that happen within Learning Together, meandering between various topics and our own lives. We had somehow talked about everything from philosophical pedagogy, power in prisons, to moral language and culpability. Alice tells me that the people who are involved in Learning Together fall roughly into two camps on the question of culpability. People who believe that once an offence has been committed and the punishment doled out, there was nothing more to be thought about it, morally speaking. Then there were those who looked at those convicted of crimes and thought, “There but for the grace of God”.

When Alice interviews me after the course is over, I will insist she turn the recorder back on so I can tell her that Learning Together gave me something that no amount of therapy, reflection, so-called self-acceptance and time could. I had learnt to make peace with the things I had done, by quietly taking my place amongst other people.

We fell out towards the end of the course. I had sent my apologies for the end-of-course celebration, a graduation of sorts, held at the end of April 2019. Alice responded by urging me to reconsider and I replied furiously to her email, baffled that anyone could think it was appropriate to attend a celebration when both the countries that I called “mine” had just been hit by the biggest terrorist attacks in their history.

Ruth Armstrong and Amy Ludlow at the end-of-course celebration in Whitemoor

*

The vigil marking Jack’s death is held at the Cambridge Guildhall on the Monday morning, following his death. What most of us will remember from that day were the sounds of agony his girlfriend would make periodically, her grief hitting her in waves.

Beth, the other coordinator for the course, will later refer to this as the wail of grief, instantly identifiable to anyone who has encountered loss. For me, this is the wail of suicide bombing. When I was a teenager, my parents did something very peculiar for immigrants – they went back. They abandoned New Zealand, their adopted country and returned to Sri Lanka. I have heard that particular cry multiple times. It is the noise that mothers make, falling to their knees, when their children have died in a bus bomb.

In the face of such very private, personal grief, I feel out of place. I barely knew Jack. I had spoken to him briefly, but for the most part, he was a person who sent me administrative emails and hovered at the edges of our sessions in Whitemoor. Everything I know of Saskia, whose vigil is happening on the other side of the city centre, I learnt from the news alongside the news of her death. I attended Jack’s vigil, numbly because I do not know what else to do. Even worse, I am here because I want to confirm with my own eyes that my friends are not hurt. The names of the injured have been suppressed, so I am reduced to crossing people’s names off in my head when I see them in the crowd. My eyes meet those of one of the Criminology receptionists, and she nods slightly. I realise I am not the only one silently crossing off names.

Ruth and Amy are dressed inappropriately for such a sombre occasion, which I find comforting. Amy is wearing a bright red coat and Ruth, in a textured hoodie and jeans, looks, as always, impossibly fashionable. As I hug them, they whisper “sorry” in a way that makes me think they are apologising, instead of comforting me for my loss. If Jack’s death has the sharp rebuke of a Greek tragedy, a reminder that you can never be too young or clever or beautiful to die, Ruth and Amy’s story seems no less tragic. A warning about the fragility of things, that even the most tenderly built life’s work can one day sit in pieces around your feet.

I clutch Ben’s coat during the moment of silence, as I clutch Alice when I finally find her in the crowd. I am convinced that they cannot die if I have them in my grip.

The mosque shootings in Christchurch followed by the Easter bombings in Sri Lanka were a one-two punch. They were similar, two sides of the same coin. Both targeted religious institutions and involved extremism; extremism of different stripes, but extremism nonetheless. One was said to be a response to the other; I am still not sure what to make of that. New Zealand, a country where nothing much ever happens, let alone anything bad, seemed to lose its innocence overnight. It became like anywhere else, a place that could harbour hatred. In Sri Lanka, which did not have much innocence to begin with, the attack harkened back to the civil war, though the country had not seen anything of this nature. Whilst the first destroyed me, the second struck me as the cruellest – to opportunistically take from those who had so little, not even innocence, to begin with. I felt as if someone had wrenched my childhood from my chest and viciously stomped on it. Ecclesiates no longer braced me and I turned to Job instead. I took a great number of sad baths over many months. I did not know how to reconcile myself to a world where people were killed as they prayed.

When we returned to prison for one last visit, having apologised for missing the end of term celebration, I find myself telling Gary about the Easter bombings. He describes them as “evil”, which shocks me. I cannot recall ever encountering this word in conversation, as an adjective available to anyone. Even now, this is a word whose contours I explore with my fingertips. By now, I have learnt that it matters who holds a position, who uses a word. In philosophy we pretend, on pain of fallacy, that this is not so. We act as if it is the argument that matters, not the one who espouses it. I have learnt otherwise from John, who I used to harangue every week. No matter what the topic was, John would refuse to hold any definite view on it, cheerfully exclaiming, “Ah well, live and let live, I say”. During a session on anger and justice, he tells us how angry he is at himself, for what he has done and the pain he has caused. It proved impossible to bring him back to the reading on moral emotions. Privately, he tells me that this is why he has no thoughts on any of these topics that I keep trying to bait him with. “Who am I to say how someone else should live?” he asks, and I am ashamed for believing his moral relativism to be glib, rather than hard won. And so when Gary uses the word “evil”, it means something to me. It means something to hear it spoken out loud, in this place, by a Muslim. By someone who knows something about the outer edges of human experience.

*

In the weeks following everything, I became obsessed with learning German vocabulary, something I was far too lazy to do when I was actively taking German classes. I start going to Quaker meetings. Ben is a Quaker, and I diligently try to honour his request by trying to hold him in my thoughts during the silent worship every Sunday. I sneak out immediately after, I cannot bear to talk to anyone over tea and cake. It is as if I do not know how to paste familiar words onto the world. I do not know how to respond with anything other than silence.

An old friend gets back in touch and after listening to the whole tale says casually, “And I suppose, you are angry about it all”. I realise to my surprise that I hold no anger towards Usman and never have. The question reminds me of something Alice tells me, when we meet again a few days after Jack’s memorial. When she was being barraged with questions about what happened, but unable to answer them as it was an ongoing investigation, she had been advised by Ruth and Amy to say only that three people had been killed. It takes me a moment to understand the significance of what she has said. For Ruth and Amy, all the tragedy of the situation was condensed into the fact that three young people lost their lives.

I am a person who obsesses over words. I do not know if it is a professional hazard, or the reason I ended up with this profession in the first place. In either case, I will wonder about the differences, if there are any, between these sentences, for some time:

A terrorist killed two people.

One person, who most likely, would have once shared tea and cake with the others, killed them.

One person killed two others.

Three people were killed.

Three people lost their lives.

I fear I will childishly keep trying to paste labels onto things. But if evil is an unfamiliar word, goodness, thankfully is not. And what else is this, the capacity to say “us” in the face of such tragedy, but human goodness? And what else is there to do in light of human goodness, except to lay your forehead on the floor, and weep?

About Sahanika Ratnayake

Sahanika Ratnayake is doing a PhD in Philosophy at the University of Cambridge. Her work has appeared in the likes of Aeon, 3AM Magazine and VICE.

Sahanika Ratnayake is doing a PhD in Philosophy at the University of Cambridge. Her work has appeared in the likes of Aeon, 3AM Magazine and VICE.

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