“When you look at the dark side…”

“When you look at the dark side, careful you must be. For the dark side looks back.”


Ever since my Latin teacher introduced the closely related rhetorical devices the antimetabole and the chiasmus I’ve had them confused. Initially we were taught about Socrates’ “eat to live, not live to eat” and once you have seen one, you’ll see them everywhere (for the rhetoric enthusiasts that one is an antimetabole). Arguably the most famous antimetabole uttered appeared in a Presidential inaugural address, JFK’s memorable “ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country”. That other rhetorician president, Barack Obama used them too but not in either of his inaugural speeches. Imagine my delight when I spotted one in President Biden’s speech on Wednesday. And it was a cracker… “Let us not lead by the example of our power, but by the power of our example.” See, I told you it was a good one.

Whilst President Biden’s words at first gave me a degree of satisfaction (nothing better than a nice rhetorical flourish), upon reflection they have made me think carefully about my example (soul searching – less enjoyable). Related to this was another story in the news this week. Whilst it wasn’t as prominent as the inauguration, a report was published by academics from Oxford and Birmingham Universities regarding teenage moods. It seems that adolescent moods are contagious and bad moods appear to be more potent. Teenagers, in particular, see their moods become more like those they spend time with. Therefore, perhaps more than ever, we need to consider student well-being and take teenage sulks a little more seriously than we are sometimes wont to do. Bad moods can spread. I am not a teenager, but as an adult who has contact with young people, I do think I have something of a responsibility to set an example when it comes to addressing mental health. I’ve written before saying that we are fortunate in that we are not yet confining; our young people can still study and meet together. They can take exercise and enjoy some time out of doors. We should count our blessings but while looking on the bright side we should acknowledge that there is well founded anxiety too. So, I’ve decided to stop “doom scrolling”, the compulsion that I have to keep checking the infection figures and predicting new and ever more apocalyptic scenarios. If I’m going to lead by the power of my example, then I’ve got to treat the information rationally and carefully. When I am asked if we are going to lock down, I will say we may well be, but I know that my colleagues are ready to deliver remote school and ensure that we continue to learn, to see things with greater clarity and develop our skills despite the challenge. This isn’t blind optimism or empty words, it is knowledge based on hard evidence, a reason for us to feel confident and positive. That must be a mood lifter. As a community we have a responsibility to each other to remain positive and to look for the good in this situation. If we don’t, then we’ll all feel the worse for it. Scientists tell us it is true, so true it must be.

If you choose to use the antimetabole or its close relative the chiasmus it makes you sound just a little like Yoda, and he under-stood that we need to be careful when we choose to look negatively rather than positively.

Nicholas Hammond