Wednesday, 29 March 2017

Anonymous Blogging

Over recent years there's been an increase in the number of blogs that form little anonymous communities of comment on various issues. Some bloggers go to great lengths to conceal their own identity. Others (not necessarily themselves operating under the cloak of anonymity) promote anonymous and therefore unaccountable comment on their site. Some do both. As we all know, many of these sites give rise to the propagation of factual untruth, defamatory comment, and bullying. It's really rather vicious for a whole body of people to comment on named individuals or publicly identified situations without clearly declaring their own identity with all it reveals about their motivation and ability to be in possession of facts. Such comments are often then spread out across the internet as other bloggers, Facebook, Twitter and journalists pick them up. Endless links are formed and these may contain lies, 'alternative facts' and defamation. It's a kind of sport where pleasure is taken in adding weight to unsubstantiated, unowned opinions of like-minded commentators at the expense of people or situations who are entirely unable to defend themselves or put their own side of the matter.   

There's no defence for anonymous blogging in a society where freedom of speech exists. It is simply unnecessary. In a society like ours which enjoys free expression, whatever we say publicly whether on the internet, in writing or in speeches and broadcasts should be said in a spirit of openness and with complete willingness to take full responsibility for the consequences of what we say. Where the words and photographs of others are used to support opinions, sources should be clearly cited. Anonymity and misappropriation of others' material immediately call into question the motives of the person blogging or commenting. If someone is not prepared to put their name to what they write, is this because there is no solid evidence to back up what they are saying? Or is it perhaps because they know that their words will harm a person or a cause but they do not wish to accept the consequences of the harm they do? To say what they say may get them into trouble or lead to public outcry and criticism but that does not get them off the hook. The fundamental basis of debate in a democratic society is that of honest persuasion by identifiable agents. Yes, sometimes it's costly, particularly if you belong to an excluded or oppressed minority or if you yourself are subject to attempts at bullying or silencing. However, to retreat into anonymity only exacerbates the problem - the anonymous author often becomes part of the bullying and oppression.

In a free society where human rights are protected by law, anonymous blogging and commenting is a form of literary and moral cowardice. It undermines and does huge damage to those who are trying to work in a transparent, accountable manner (sometimes even toward similar ends to the bloggers and commentators). Journalists are not averse to reading these blogs and being influenced by what they glean from people who are not willing to put their names to what they say. An analogy with hunting is not inappropriate here as victims of comment are sought out, publicly identified and pursued for a headline-generating story (which of course will not be reported under the protection of anonymity.)

Please think twice before you write or comment anonymously. Why do you need to do it anonymously? What are you afraid or ashamed of? Why are you hiding? Who might you be harming? 

'And Jesus said to Pilate, "Sayest thou this thing of thyself or did others tell it thee of me?"'
John 18.34

Responses to the Westminster Terrorist

A picture of the Archbishop of Canterbury on Facebook with the superimposed question, 'What kind of person treats a terrorist?' caught my eye. I don't think it was the Archbishop's question. However, the fact that anyone might be asking it gave me pause for thought. To a medic it's a non-question. Health care professionals are committed by their codes of professional conduct to treat everyone. They give life-saving, pain-easing treatment to whoever needs it, usually in an order of priority that's dictated by the medical need of the people suffering. There's no moral judgement attached and no consideration of their own perspective on who the person might be or what he or she might have done. In war, medics and nurses treat the enemy if circumstances require it, in peacetime they treat victims of abuse and those who abuse alike. The moral basis of life-saving healthcare is that those giving it do not make judgements about the moral state of those who receive it.

There is a sort of jingoistic response to terrorism that places it into a 'beyond-the-reach-of-the-normal-rules-that-govern-society' category. This is surely misguided and dangerous. It plays right into the hands of terrorists. Their aim is precisely to disrupt the values which hold society together. It's the kind of response that walks the path of allowing torture as a part of interrogation and the suspension of civil liberties in the service of security. These are sharp ethical dilemmas but ultimately I come down very firmly on the side that honours the requirement to do everything possible to save life, eschew torture and uphold freedom despite the inherent risks.

The other picture which has been doing the rounds is one of the Dalai Lama with the quotation (his words), 'Buddhist terrorist, Muslim terrorist. That wording is wrong. Any person who wants to indulge in violence is no longer a genuine Buddhist or genuine Muslim.' This reminded me of Lily Allen's song, 'Him' in which she muses on how God feels about the atrocities that are committed in God's name. The song's deep message is one of despair that throughout the ages people have been killed in God's name.

We don't know the reasons for the attack on Parliament last week but whatever was in the mind of the terrorist, we should not abandon the quest to live peaceably according to our most honest understanding of our own faith (Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, humanist...) and neither should we depart from the best ideals of a free, democratic, humanitarian society.   

Photo The Women's March on London

Friday, 3 March 2017

Character and the New Politics

One reason I have written so little on this blog recently is the speed at which things are changing. Scarcely, it seems, have I half-formed an opinion before it needs to be revised in the wake of new information. This has been true of the political arena and also in the world of the churches and how they are dealing with issues of gender, inclusion, abuse, authority and leadership. It's been difficult to see how to comment in ways that don't either state the obvious or add to the general air of division.

One thing that interests me is the way in which the new 'new' is very quickly normalised and how those with the lion's share of power move to organise a dumbing down of protest or dissent. In the case of the US presidency, the battle lines are really just being drawn up. For us in the West, it's a wake up call to find organisations being excluded from press conferences and journalistic practices under fire from the President himself. The first amendment of the US Constitution states that the Congress will make no law 'abridging the freedom of speech or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.' It is unusual if not unique in the history of the American presidency for the incumbent to issue direct adverse comment on the practices of specific journalists and media corporations and to attempt to exclude some from press conferences. We do not yet know where this is leading but we now have the unfortunate coincidence of a press which, over recent years, has lost some of the trust and confidence of the public it once enjoyed and a President who actively manipulates not only the media but, apparently, the facts of stories. Politicians have always sought to put a particular spin on facts to suit their own purposes and to influence which facts appear and which get buried, but we are not used to the pervasive culture of 'alternative facts' and self-contradiction that has emerged during the campaign for this presidency.

On the whole, despite the mass protest marches that took place on every continent following Trump's inauguration, the appearance of things is that we're all beginning to settle down under the new regime and look for ways to understand rather than challenge. There's a very identifiable process in play: statements are made and actions taken that sound and indeed are very negative toward particular groups of people (Muslims, immigrants, women championing maternity rights in the workplace or looking for healthcare from agencies that offer abortion) but these are quickly followed by statements that suggest members of these groups are 'welcome' or that their voice is heard and their concerns will be swept up into the supposed 'greatness' of the newly emerging America. Not many specifics are offered. And there are now regular public setbacks for the administration - isn't health care just so peskily complicated?

So, we have a process of change, normalisation of new values and a particular style of communication that challenges previous assumptions about what can and can't be believed. I'd like to suggest that a discipline known as Narrative Theology comes into its own at such a time. Philosophers, theologians and writers like Alasdair McIntyre, Stanley Hauerwas, Iris Murdoch have long pointed us to the (dare I say) fact that human endeavour is essentially played out and understood in narrative terms. To understand a situation we don't simply ask, 'what are the facts?' or 'what happened?' or 'who did what to whom?' We need to take account of the character of the person, clan or institution acting in a particular way. We need to look for insight into their habitual ways of interacting, the values which have shaped them and their intentions. 'What does this mean if these kinds of people express it like this or that?' In societies that depend heavily on adversarial politics, rational analysis and dialectical thinking this ability to assess character and the part it plays in moulding what is or isn't possible doesn't come naturally. Even journalists who are in a position to appreciate the power of a good story find it hard to read character and to report in such a way that character is revealed. But it is important to factor in character and, under newly emerging regimes, ever more so.

Interestingly, in the UK the current gender tussles in the Church of England over the inclusion of women clergy and LGBTI couples display similar dynamics. Here we see in the Synod and House of Bishops institutions that contradict themselves and make statements of welcome while acting in ways that exclude or constrain certain groups for the 'greater good' or 'unity' of the church. Although there's a loose internal coherence of approach, it's so obscure that most people can't grasp the principles on which it's based. It involves embracing contradictory things ('two integrities', women can and can't be ordained, lesbian and gay couples are fully welcome but cannot have their unions sacramentally recognised) and then finding pragmatic ways to allow these conflicting beliefs to be played out. Members of the church on the ground find that few specifics have been worked out as new territory is charted. Processes are obscure and facts disputed, laying the church open to accusations of injustice even where perhaps none has occurred.

A number of these features were also at play in the Brexit campaign and are now present in the the process to trigger Article 50. In the case of Brexit, the focus has been very much around the use of 'alternative facts' - a blatant tendency to state as fact things that have later been discovered simply not to be true - and the complicity of the press in reporting them. (What motivates editors? The clue lies in character.) As with Trump and the church, there is also a sense of pressure being brought to bear to silence dissenting voices and normalise the new in the service of 'the greater good of the country'. There is a similar lack of internal coherence accompanied by a degree of self-contradiction among those leading the process. This is heightened, in the case of Brexit, because it's not at all clear who's leading the process so, whereas Trump and the church display particular kinds of medium-to-long-term leadership and authority, Brexit appears as a case of 'authority emerging in a vacuum'. Brexit is, par excellence, an example of a process that's being worked out pragmatically with few specifics derivable from its driving principles. Again, we have the exclusion of certain groups alongside a mantra that claims that 'within parameters' these people are welcome. (I've just spent an interesting day talking to medics and nurses from the European Union whose personal lives and futures have been thrown into confusion by the conflicting messages that assault them from day to day.)

In such a brave new world, a narrative approach seems pertinent in helping us to find ways to keep searching for truth and to make effective protest. A common theme of many political and church movements at the present time is exclusion - exclusion that is experienced by many in confusing and less-than-straightforwardly-honest ways and that does not want to face up to the cost or consequence of its own actions. Protests can only be effective where the nub of a matter is identified and addressed and I would suggest that working to understand the character of the people and institutions involved is part of the answer to well targeted and productive protest. McIntyre's use of the concept of character is not to be equated with personality. Character is a conglomeration of traits, habits, values, internalised societal customs and prevailing ideologies that build into virtues inherent in the way individuals and institutions interact. The questions to ask are, 'what are the prevailing narratives?,' and 'what is motivating the behaviour of the leading characters?' 

In the case of the Trump presidency, from what we have seen so far, motivation would seem to be a desire to rebalance power and entitlement that is perceived as having been eroded from a predominantly white, complementarian (male and female have different roles), non-Political, republican sector, along with a fear of otherness in the face of increasing globalisation that has focused on supposed versions of Islam and South American immigration. The deeper reasons for this lie in US economics and foreign policy and in Mr Trump's personal history. Untargeted mass protest looks set to further re-inforce that deep seated sense of unsettled entitlement. Despite his own endorsement of 'alternative facts' Mr Trump's administration needs to be engaged with purposefully over carefully identified issues using a combination of well marshalled information and emotionally intelligent persuasion - 'attention hooks' and bargaining chips. This is not an administration that will crumble in the face of civil protest or unrest - it will harden. The challenge for campaigners and dissidents is to field the right people and use the appropriate method in a bewildering range of pathways - legislature and judiciary, unions, scientific community, corporations, digital community and media, campaign groups, NGO's, diplomatic community, UN, world leaders. The difficulty for those who would either influence or oppose Trump is to be sufficiently focused and sufficiently well-informed themselves.     

In the case of the bishops and the church, motivation seems to be fear of facing up to the truth about exclusion resulting in a 'have your cake and eat it' desire to keep everybody on board. This is often expressed in language about unity and the most Christlike approach. Ultimately this does weird things to truth; to say that the church is inclusive because it includes those who wish to exclude or constrict others (women, sexually active gay clergy, married gay clergy) is, to my mind, an 'alternative fact'. It perverts the word inclusion and gives it a meaning that is the opposite of its original meaning. It's honest to say 'we do currently exclude or constrict these people.' The deep-seated roots of the fact that the church demonstrably does exclude on grounds of gender lie in psychologically and theologically driven instincts about sexuality. So the answer here is less about finding pragmatic 'solutions' and more about addressing a lack of self-knowledge and some very deep seated unhealthiness about how authority, sexuality and abuse are played out in parts of the Christian tradition. 'Two integrities' are not sustainable - I think a psychiatrist might diagnose mental illness! So the approach here has to include a continual pressing for greater honesty about how the Christian Anglican tradition has impacted on sexuality.

In the case of Brexit, motivation is diffuse and complex to identify principally because those now charged with implementing the exit from Europe were largely recorded as being against it or only tepidly in favour. Others appear to have been in the position of scarcely believing that the vote would go the way it did and possibly using that as a cover for private agendas. Of the three scenarios examined here, I find Brexit is the most difficult to assess. What was, what is and what should be the motivation of those who are pushing for it? Again, character suggests an approach. There is something very deep seated in the British character that doesn't plan but seizes opportunity, that is pragmatic and 'makes things work, come what may' and that allows the disenfranchised from time to time to say, 'enough is enough' without reaching the point of revolution. 

We are also perhaps seeing a revisiting of untended or only partially tended wounds. As an island nation with former colonies, the UK has a complicated and largely opportunistic relationship with immigration. This involves degrees of both suspicion (don't welcome too many) and unacknowledged shame (it's a sort of atonement for the colonial past.) From George V and the Romanovs to the pre-war era and the Holocaust, the UK does not have a track record of welcoming huge numbers of refugees. Once citizens of previous colonies were allowed to move to the UK, in the popular imagination, the borders were opened up too much. In practice, during the 50's, 60's and 70's most people continued to regard immigration as being 'at our invitation' and therefore, by implication at least, under some sort of control. The recent European refugee crisis has therefore played into a deep ambiguity about welcome and this has shown itself in the bitter battle between liberals and more nationalistic (England, not Scotland and Wales) thinkers. So from the point of view of character, we might say that Britain and especially England wants to think of itself as welcoming and tolerant but in reality is suspicious and fearful of being overwhelmed both in numbers and by other languages than English (this is a deep psychological factor in a society where most people are monoglot.) The way forward here seems to be around re-education. To address this fear, people want to see greater economic parity across Europe and within the UK - a fair living wage in each country would be a start. An assessment of the areas of economic activity that cannot be supported without the contribution of other nationals is long overdue. And there needs to be a pan-European forum for addressing the changing nature of immigration. It is certain that, in the future, there will be more populations migrating away from areas where water and food are scarce and where there is political turmoil. We have only seen the tip of the iceberg in the current crisis.

Politics has long been practiced in ways that give little space to emotional intelligence. Lately we have seen this demonstrated in the Brexit result, in the tensions in the Church of England and in the over-throw of the previous political elite in the USA. The huge women's marches in protest at Trump's election indicated a deep but unfocused recognition of this and alerted the world to the degree to which a large percentage of people feel that the values that drive their lives are not well represented in Western political and religious life.