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Deputy Headmaster – Teaching and Learning Muster Address

Official party, special guests, staff and young men of this beautiful school,

My message today relates, I hope, to the language of reconciliation; of using words that unify rather than divide. It also relates to Mr Nolan’s ongoing message about personal branding; who are you, and how do you appear to the world? Of what, precisely, is your identity comprised?

This is a profound question, I believe, and it has a great deal of answers. In my life, I have found there are two factors that really drive one’s ‘brand,’ and I think they are linked. These two factors are the heroes we choose and the language we use.

Firstly, on heroes: I am convinced that who we worship says a lot about us. I do not mean any spiritual sort of worship here; I am referring to the celebrities we are obsessed with and try to emulate. They reflect back to us who we wish to be, especially when it comes to our masculine identity. The Philosopher Scott LaBarge puts it well when he says that “our heroes are symbols of all the qualities we would like to possess and all the ambitions we would like to satisfy.”

So, I have a few questions for you to consider: who has the qualities you would like to possess? Who embodies the ambitions you would like to satisfy? Who defines you? Who do you follow on your social media? Who is in your feed? Most importantly, how comfortable are you with these choices defining you?

When I was a teenager, I hero-worshipped a few celebrities; I consumed everything I could find about them and remember having their posters on my wall. One hero was the Pakistani fast bowler Wasim Akram, who could move the cricket ball in ways that seemed magical to me. Another one was an outlaw journalist called Hunter S Thompson who embedded himself in the Hells Angels in the 1960s and wrote about the experience, which I thought sounded terribly dangerous and manly.

There are risks with this sort of hero worship, though: I recall one of my closest friends becoming obsessed with an American slasher film and its main character. The main character was a depraved murderer but, for various reasons, he seemed to my friend to embody a range of heroic masculine traits; he did whatever he wanted, he was rich and successful and women found him irresistible no matter how he treated them. I remember my friend trying to shock people at parties by quoting lines from the film.

I also remember my friend feeling very small when he read the novel the movie was based on and realised the author had actually created this character to poke fun at macho, self-obsessed men, not to heroicise them; the protagonist was really a hateful, nightmare version of the author’s absent father.

Interestingly, this same film character is the one who features in the ‘sigma face’ meme, if you have heard of that. You may have encountered this sort of language online, where men are described as sigma or alpha males as a way of defining and bolstering their masculinity. You might recognise this language as connected to a range of sad online cultures and communities – places where lonely keyboard warriors tell each other how macho they are from their dark bedrooms. It is also parroted by certain online influencers that you may have heard of – men who try to make money off teenage males’ social anxieties by saying awful things about women that – I presume – an SPSC student would be embarrassed to say to anyone’s face.

Something I find really interesting about this sort of elevated macho language – the language of ‘alpha males’, ‘sigma males’ and ‘lone wolves’ – is that the vocabulary as we currently understand it came primarily out of a late 1940s study conducted by a scientist called Rudolph Schenkel, who was observing how wolves interact. Some men picked up on this much later, thinking “Yes, I see myself as a bit of a wolf. Wolves are strong, dangerous and enigmatic. Perhaps I’m an alpha – the leader of a pack! Or I could be a sigma wolf – I don’t play by anybody’s rules, but I take what I want and the girl wolves can’t resist me!” This approach was problematised in the late 1990s, however, when the Scientific community realised that Shenkel had only been observing wolves in zoos – not in their natural habitats. This means that all our hyper-macho language about ‘alphas’ and ‘sigmas’ actually describes the behaviour of animals trapped in a cage. Which is a fascinating way to think about some of these influencer heroes, and perhaps an interesting way to think about some boys’ experience of adolescence.

I said earlier that most people would be too embarrassed to repeat the kind of things they hear from these sorts of online ‘heroes,’ but there are some boys, even in our community, who do parrot this fake macho language. I presume, by the way, we know what the difference is between fake masculinity and real masculinity; if not, I can direct you to the line in our school prayer about being “strong” and “lovely.” If you hear your friends speaking like this, though, I think it is important not only to pity them, which is understandable, but also to redirect them and remind them that, to the outside world, they reveal a great deal about themselves by who they follow online, and the language they use when they imitate these sorts of online heroes is more than just a playful, harmless wink at internet culture. Language, used the wrong way, can be as powerful and deadly as a bullet; it can be just as destructive, and it does not float away on the wind because it is made of sound. Language does not just provoke action; it is actually a kind of action that you cannot take back. Your language impacts others and it defines you. As Ms Spencer told us today, once you hear something, you cannot unhear it.

So, to my original question, how do you wish to be defined, given that your language defines you and the heroes you mimic define you? When you speak to your peers, your teachers and your sisters, what does that make you? Most importantly, how do you bring humans together with your language rather than dividing and isolating them? That is my question and challenge for the day.

Nick Carter 
Deputy Headmaster – Teaching and Learning