Religious Belief & Pink Unicorns

There are, in what passes for discussion on the internet, a significant group of atheists who rail against Christianity in principle but display a remarkable degree of ignorance about it in detail. Faced with the suggestion that they learn more about the subject which they spend so much time talking about their response is usually along these lines-

Some people believe, without proof, in the Christian God and some people believe, without proof, in pink unicorns. Why should I waste my time investigating one absurd belief more than another?” Which is rather like saying that since some people say that Shakespeare is the greatest writer in the English language and others give that honour to Jeffrey Archer we must assume that there is no superlative writer in English.

In this case, though, we can see that one position is advocated by highly educated, highly intelligent specialists in language and literary criticism whereas the other comes from an unverified purchaser on Amazon reviews. That being so pairing the two claims as if they were of equivalent force, value and merit is a mere superficial playing with words. The reason to consider one claim more than another rests not simply in the claim itself but in the sheer weight of expertise and knowledge which can be found among the claimants.

The matter, of course, is not capable of being proved in a scientific sense but it can be demonstrated within the terms of its own category whether one proposition is more likely to be true than another. When deciding which claims to investigate it makes no real sense to refuse to examine any on the grounds that there is more than one such claim. Some claimants simply possess more authority than others and while this doesn’t in any way prove their propositions it should at least render them worthy of intelligent consideration.

Returning to the subject of Christianity. The advocates of Christian belief, past and present, include some of the greatest intellects in the whole history of Western thought such as Augustine, Aquinas, Erasmus and numerous others. The case made in favour of pink unicorns lacks such intellectual heft. To compare the two beliefs as being of equal value and thus equally to be ignored simply because they exist side by side is a logical fallacy.

At this point an atheist might argue that I have fallen into the trap of argumentum ad populum, suggesting that something must be true because many people believe it to be so. That is not, however, the case. I am appealing to the consensus sapientium, the consensus of the wise, where what is crucial is not quantity but quality. It is not an argument from numbers, nor is it for that matter an argument from authority, it is simply a suggestion that if many of the wise think that a proposition has great merit then that proposition is probably worth investigating independently.

What, I think, lies behind the internet atheists refusal to investigate is an a priori assumption that no spiritual belief can be true because no spiritual belief can be proved scientifically. It is worth noting that the statement ‘no spiritual belief can be true’ is itself not capable of being proved scientifically; it is at best an hypothesis. If a person’s basic first principle is an unprovable hypothesis then they do well not to act upon it as if it were an eternally true dogma.

The real problem lies in a confusion of categories. The scientific method is the gold standard for investigating the material universe and the objects which it contains. If a claim about this subject cannot be proved or at least studied scientifically then it is reasonable to doubt it. But the universe inhabited by humans is more than material. Even leaving aside claims about Spirit people live and move and have their being in the worlds of ideas, poetry, music, art, literature, philosophy, political economy and so on. Certainly each of these manifest themselves in the material realm but they take their origin in the abstract activity of Mind. Science cannot demonstrate what is beautiful in art or true in politics and scientists give or withhold their approbation in such matters in the same way that humans did in the pre-scientific age; by using category-appropriate criteria.

Where the internet atheist errs is in extending tools useful to investigating material objects into fields where they are simply not applicable often then assuming that anyone who disagrees with their arbitrary re-categorisation is an intellectual inferior. The simple fact is, though, that every one of us gives our intellectual consent all the time to scientifically unprovable propositions because if we didn’t human societies would cease to function. We do not refuse, for example, at an election to consider any claims by a political party on the grounds that there is more than one such organisation. Instead we, most of us anyway, look at the ideas of the more credible parties and leave the fringe ones to their own devices.

I would suggest the same approach applies to the matter of religious belief. Yes, some people believe in pink unicorns and yes some people believe in the divinity of Jesus Christ but they are not equivalent belief systems and if you disagree with the more credible of them then you have some responsibility to investigate it more closely before you become a public advocate for its destruction.

@calmlyobserving

(An Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent by John Henry Newman looks at some of the philosophical issues outlined above, well worth a read)

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The painting is a watercolour pink unicorn poster from zazzle.com 

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Good Friday, The Longest Day

In the 1962 film The Longest Day about the Normandy Landings there is an, for the era, harrowing scene showing the disastrous airborne assault on Sainte-Mère Église. American paratroopers were killed in large numbers by well prepared German defenders. Later in the picture John Wayne, playing a commanding officer, arrives in the village which has become the scene of a fierce firefight. He sees dozens of bodies still attached to their parachute harnesses dangling from trees and buildings. They have not been cut down because the fighting troops had other priorities on their minds. Wayne peremptorily orders that the dead soldiers be immediately got down and decently disposed off.

There are no doubt sound military reasons for this, it would be bad for morale to have the casualties on such undignified display. However, the emotion conveyed by Wayne was something more visceral. The dead heroes merited to be treated with respect and no price was too high to ensure that this was done. Some 2400 years previously a similar idea preoccupied the Greek writer Sophocles when he wrote his tragic play Antigone. The central theme is the determination of the eponymous heroine to give her brother Polyneices a decent burial and the equal determination of the State to deny him such a privilege. Since this was Classical Greece not Hollywood everything ended unhappily with all round weeping, wailing and gnashing of teeth.

That a common theme can be observed across such a big arc of human history suggests that there is something fundamental to our nature as a species contained within it. The desire to show respect and honour to the mortal remains of those whom we love or value is deeply rooted. Since humans are such perverse creatures the opposite also holds, that we wish to disrespect and dishonour the bodies of our enemies and those whom we despise; which is why Polyneices was left to rot in the first place.

Both of these elements can be discerned in one of the stories which has been central to Western civilisation for 2000 years, the crucifixion of Jesus. The central character in this subplot is Joseph of Arimathea described by the Evangelist St John as “a disciple of Jesus, but secretly for fear of the Jews” (John 19:38) Yet St Mark can say of him that he “went in boldly to Pilate, and begged the body of Jesus.” (Mark 15:43) That is, the Arimathean was willing to take more risks for Jesus dead than he had been when Jesus was alive. Why was this?

From the point of view of funerary rites a crisis point arrived with the death of Christ on the Cross. The authorities would have disposed of the corpse with the contempt reserved for criminals unless a figure of the stature of Joseph, who had political and financial clout in Jerusalem, came forward to claim it. Faced with the dilemma of, on the one hand, public exposure as a sympathiser of the executed subversive or, on the other, the undignified disposal of a teacher whom he revered the Arimathean opted for the risk of making himself personally vulnerable in order to give respect to the bones of his master.

There was nothing uniquely Jewish or Christian about this response but it is very characteristically human. Given the near universal phenomenon of our attachment to the physical remains of the beloved dead it is worth asking how well the currently dominant Western worldview, secular liberal humanism (SLH), addresses this need. I have some personal experience here as both my parents had humanist funerals although I cannot pretend to have been a calm dispassionate observer in either case.

The format of the ceremony, readings, music, eulogies was strictly derivative of Christian rituals (or at least Protestant ones anyway.) What was different was that the focus was entirely upon the life of the recently deceased and their legacy. Most people were perfectly comfortable with the absence of references to resurrection or eternal life since they didn’t really believe in such things anyway. The approach, then, works well in the intimate setting of a single funeral. Its imitative nature does lead one to think that it is a case of supply meeting demand and that from within its own inherent logic SLH would not have evolved a supply in order to create a demand.

Be that as it may death is not always an exclusively private, individual matter. Societies need to provide for collective grieving over the consequences of war, terrorism or disaster. And, indeed, the remembrance of those of our nation, tribe or clan who have died over the years and whom we come together to recall. SLH is above all an outlook which prioritises individualism which is why it can adapt so easily to cater for the death of a single person but how can it adapt to many deaths?

Traditional approaches look to continuities that link the present of a community to its past, to its future and to eternity. Religious and spiritual beliefs have a certain built in advantage here but nationalisms and messianic ideologies like communism can also provide such linkages in emotionally powerful and satisfying ways. SLH, by contrast, is fairly anaemic in its ability to respond. The only strategies it can offer are to highlight individual stories as being somehow representative and/or stressing the continuity of The Idea over time.

The first approach is weak because no individual is truly representative and anyway SLH will automatically choose figures who are precisely not representative, ethnic minorities, migrants, gays, in order to further their philosophical purposes. However worthy and heroic such figures as Polish Battle of Britain pilots might be the descendants of  20 generations of English yeoman stock will not see them as being authentically representational of the glorious dead 1939-1945.

Advancing the notion that The Idea has been a continuous thread in our particular collective group history is simply not true. Historians tie themselves in knots trying to pretend that figures as diverse as Socrates, Julian of Norwich and Martin Luther were proto liberal democrats. The melange that is SLH is of recent origin and people will not be fooled into thinking that their forebears died on the beaches of Normandy in defence of the policies that lost Hillary Clinton the last US presidential election.

Collective acts of remembrance have to be inclusive in the sense that they include, without judging or condemning, the past as well as the present. Included too must be a hope for the future that all those engaged in grieving and remembering will see the lives of those they have left behind reflected positively in the lives of those yet to come. SLH with its habit of condemning the past in toto (excepting those supposed proto liberal democrats which it mythologises) and its project to socially engineer the future is not in a good position to meet these human needs.

If a worldview cannot find a way of meeting the deepest longings of its John Wayne’s, its Antigone’s and its Joseph’s of Arimathea then its foundations are desperately shallow and it may find that it is not as long for this world as it supposes.

@calmlyobserving

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Beware of Darkness

George Harrison

Beware of darkness
Watch out now, take care
Beware of the thoughts that linger
Winding up inside your head

(George Harrison)

There is a line in the Gospel which I’ve always found somewhat enigmatic “The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light; but if your eye is unhealthy, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness!” (Matt 6:22-23) I guess that it points towards the same idea that Gautama Buddha gives as “All that we are is the result of what we have thought: it is founded on our thoughts, it is made up of our thoughts. If a man speaks or acts with an evil thought, pain follows him, as the wheel follows the foot of the ox that draws the carriage” (Twin Verses 1)

It is, I suppose, characteristic of the differences between Christianity and Buddhism that where Jesus begins from the external world and works inwards Buddha begins from the internal realm and works outward. Whatever the initial mechanism might be in any event the suggestion is that the thing upon which we most focus becomes fused with ourselves to such an extent that we cease to be in any way independent from it (like Gollum and the One Ring.) In times of great societal stress like that experienced in the time and at the place where I am now writing (the United Kingdom, March 2017) the temptation to obsess about world-changing events is huge.

Much of what I see on social media appears to be produced by people who have developed a Gollum Syndrome. Almost everything they observe, think over and comment upon is filtered through what they feel about their particular Precious. I use the word feel advisedly since it goes beyond mere intellectual analysis. They have become so invested in what, perhaps, in the beginning was simply a reasoned opinion that reason, thought and intellect have become junior partners in the coalition between mind and emotion.

One consequence of this is that highly intelligent, extremely well educated and normally empathetic people will believe (and retweet) the most egregious nonsense without any evidence whatsoever provided it weakens the other side in some way. Normally sharp critical faculties and analytical tools which are still used effectively in other contexts get abandoned in such cases as the powerful feeling that this thing must be right becomes an all sufficient proof that it is right.

The parallel with the One Ring is not precise because humans possess the capacity to transform that which is light in itself into darkness within the person who looks at it. That is, an object may be good in itself, a peaceful Europe, a socially just America, but once it has been processed by a passion-distorted consciousness it becomes something else; a bludgeon aimed at enemies rather than a philosophy intended to effect social and political improvements.

The only remedy for those afflicted with Gollum Syndrome is, I think, detachment. There is nothing wrong with passionate commitment to a cause, emotion gives an energy which desiccated intellect on its own would lack. Yet these things, thought and feeling, should always be held in a good working balance. If you suspect that your superior centres of reason are being overwhelmed by waves of passion then remedial action becomes an urgent necessity.

Detachment does not mean distraction, taking your mind of the issue for a few hours by listening to music, going for a run or doing some gardening. Nor does it necessarily mean abandonment, giving up your cause altogether. What it does mean is immersing yourself, your whole self, in some activity which transcends the limitations of any one political or social struggle, however important it may be, and doing this for an hour or two every single day, preferably at the start of the day. As a Catholic when I say this what I mean, of course, is prayer and meditation but other options are available. However that may be once you have done so you can return to your cause of choice anew with a different and more dispassionate perspective upon it. This will enable you to use to the full the analytical and critical skills which you have been holding in abeyance. Thus detachment not frenzy provides your greatest chance of success.

George Harrison knew what he was about when he used words like linger and winding, the process he describes is insidious and pervasive. It can creep up on us without us noticing it. When we do realise, though, it is important not to justify ourselves by reference to the supreme importance of the issues. Defective tools will perform defective work doing more harm than good. We will best serve the thing we love by detaching ourselves from it in order to re-form our Self.

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The picture is George Harrison taken by Barry Feinstein

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2016: The Beginning of the End?

trump-and-obama

This year and its predecessor have witnessed a disturbing number of actual earthquakes with consequent loss of life and destruction of property. What, if anything, this tells us about future disasters I could not say. In politics tectonic plates have been shifting also. Anti-system political movements have been making great advances and have scored unforeseen victories in many places. While this phenomenon has been global, with ripples being seen in countries as diverse as Colombia and the Philippines, it is in the West (broadly defined) that the contours of the political changes are most clearly outlined. Numerous theories have emerged to account for this incipient revolution but I think the most likely explanation is either the Supernova hypothesis or the End of Progress hypothesis.

A star is at its brightest just before it disappears forever. This brilliant light is the product of a catastrophic explosion. Thus we have a supernova. In the contemporary West the long settled mostly white populations are facing existential challenges produced by globalisation and social liberalism. On the one hand their numbers are in steep decline because of contraception and abortion. On the other hand globalisation, requiring as it does readily available cheap labour, facilitates the importing of suitably low cost and/or suitably skilled new populations or the exporting of jobs outside of its traditional metropolitan homelands. The cumulative effect of this over decades, combined with the 2008 economic crash, has been to awaken the settled population both to its misery (living standards for most have been stagnant or falling since at least 2007) and to its imminent transformation into an excluded minority group on its own native soil.

The response to this has been, not unreasonably perhaps, a rise of economic and cultural nationalism. When la patrie en danger the instinct to come to its defence against challenges from outside, whether that be the exporting of jobs or the importing of people, is a natural one. It explains to some extent the twin triumphs of Brexit and Donald J Trump. However, if the economic and social changes are inexorable, inevitable and irreversible then we are witnessing essentially the supernova of the European peoples. After some destructive thrashing about the tides of history will roll unstoppably over them (as the Europeans rolled over the Aztecs and others) and the future will belong to those who are better adapted to its needs.

An alternative explanation which fits the facts begins with the assumption that there is no inevitability about the future. For more than a century the dominant Western narrative has been that something called ‘progress’ exists. That is, for some unspecified reason humanity is destined to become ever more perfect, rising from ‘lower’ forms of civilization to ‘higher’ ones. Comfortingly the highest imaginable type of society is like the one we in the West have created only more so. The motors for this transformation are science, technology, capitalism, materialism and individualism. Once these things have defeated the holdovers from the past, ignorance and superstition (referred to in shorthand as Christianity,) then we will soar off into ever better regions of earthly happiness in a garden of earthly delights.

The flaw in that narrative is that there exists no good reason to suppose that it is true. Why should human civilization inevitably take any particular form? The notion that it should ‘evolve’ from bad to better is simply an attempt to translate Darwin’s theory into the realm of political economy but these are incommensurable terms. That being so the changes brought about in modern history do not represent a pattern pointing to a particular future merely a combination of events bringing us to our much troubled present. The future is undetermined and in our hands. More than that ‘progressive’ policy and social engineering are precisely the effective cause of our current troubles. These problems are not, as is supposed, the product of the reactionary remnants of the old ways. Therefore, it is plausible that the policies which will bring about an end to those troubles involve annulling ‘progress’ and following an alternative path. There is no iron law of history to prevent this happening.

How have progressive policies led us into this strait? The combination of elements contained within the project tends towards the dissolution of organic communities and of the family. A totally mobile workforce at the service of the economy, specifically of the shareholders of large corporations, and/or the State, requires such a dissolution. Humans, by contrast, if they are to survive and thrive, require strong families, communities and roots in a geographical entity and its associated culture. Economics and politics exist as servants to Man not as masters and since they have assumed the mastership role for too long Man is beginning to react to them, to cut them down to size and to remould them into more human-friendly shapes. Since, however, the anti-system movements have been goaded into this response in a mood of sullen anger and smouldering rage it is probable that in the first instance they will destroy blindly before they think of creating with vision.

I think either the Supernova or the End of Progress hypotheses may be true but neither promise a happy 2017. One institution which has survived the end of the Classical era, the Middle Ages, the Renaissance and everything since is the Catholic Church. Whatever the future may hold it possesses the potential to soothe the savage beast and to humanise the forces which are now being unleashed. It is global in its reach and unconquerable in its determination to tend the sick, house the homeless, clothe the naked and sustain the refugee. The time may come when the ‘progressives’ who have spent so long in attempting to destroy it may be glad that they have failed as it shields them within its protecting mantle.

@calmlyobserving

 

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3. The Activist

Carlos McKnight, Katherine Nicole Struck

(AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

In his younger days Pierre’s Tintinesque quiff had been quite famous. Now that his hair was markedly thinner it stood less proudly than it had done in its pomp. Nonetheless such as it was it was his and he was very fond of it. After making a few necessary adjustments to the cherished thing in the mirror he moved across the room and sat down opposite Étienne.

“Its very good of you to see me,” said the latter.

“Not at all,” said Pierre in his superficially jovial way “I’m always pleased to help research and, besides, I’m a big fan of Marianne and anyone recommended by her is welcome.”

“To begin then,” Étienne said “would it be fair to summarise your core mission as being ‘for equality, against discrimination’?”

Pierre had begun his career as a gay rights activist in those far off days when it was still possible to campaign for one sexuality at a time. He had nearly won an election to the legislature, he had spent a decade or so tormenting hapless Episcopalians and had finally morphed into what the media referred to as a ‘human rights campaigner.’ In this latter capacity he had shown some courage braving the wrath of dictators and their bodyguards at home and abroad.

“Yes. Thats rather good in fact. I might steal it for myself.”

“Feel free, I never claim copyright on my words. Mostly,” continued Étienne with a slightly rueful air “I admit, because no one has ever wanted to pay me for them. Anyway, be that as it may do you think that ‘for equality, against discrimination’ is the apple pie and motherhood of the current zeitgeist? No one who wants to be taken seriously can oppose these four words so even if they are resisting something which activists advocate they are forced to frame their arguments within the equality discourse.”

“Certainly its the common sense of our time. Nobody wants to be on the wrong side of history and the direction which progress is taking is pretty obvious. Although in many backward parts of the world this has yet to be realised so there is no ‘equality discourse’.”

“Let’s confine our attention to the West,” proposed Étienne “What scope do you see for individual conscience in, say, a country like ours where values and laws have changed dramatically since the 1960’s?”

“If by that you mean should bigots be allowed to discriminate on the basis of old fashioned religious beliefs then I see no scope at all. The law must be the same for all.”

“So, in the last analysis in a liberal democracy the State is the ultimate arbiter of right and wrong, good and evil?”

Pierre began to look annoyed.

“I would prefer to say that the will of the majority of enlightened people is the final authority.”

“In a number of places,” Étienne countered “referenda or elections have resulted in decisions against equality and for discrimination. Do you oppose using the courts to overturn such expressions of popular will?”

“No, of course not. Discrimination should never be permitted.”

“Which brings us back to the State as the ultimate arbiter. If not the legislature then the executive if not the executive then the courts. But what if all three fail by your terms? Say that the law mandated a daily act of religious worship in schools, would you support the prosecution of teachers who refused to comply? Logically that is what ‘the law must be the same for all’ implies.”

“Certainly not, such a law would be an historical anachronism. It would be just a matter of time before it was overturned so prosecuting anyone under it could only be a malicious act by religious diehards.”

“It follows, then, that the judgements of history are superior to those of the State which in turn are superior to those of the individual. The supreme arbiters of right and wrong become those who understand the direction of the historical tide. To which high priesthood you so fortunately happen to belong.”

Pierre’s face darkened as it suffused with blood.

“You are simply being facetious,” he snarled.

“A little, perhaps, just a little. Anyhow, moving swiftly on. You used the word ‘progress’ a little earlier. To say that the world of humans has changed greatly is to state the obvious. To call this ‘progress’ contains an implication of direction and purpose. That is, change has been from bad to good, from good to better and ultimately it shall be from better to best. Is that a fair assessment?”

Slightly calmer Pierre nodded.

“I wouldn’t say purpose because that suggests a god of some sort but certainly we have progressed from less civilised to more civilised with the prospect of continued improvement ahead of us.”

“Leaving aside the question of what standard we use to measure ‘less’ or ‘more’ in relation to civilisation and how we happened to acquire that standard I would ask why, in the absence of a divinity, have we made this progress and not remained static or gone backwards?”

“Undoubtedly the growth in education and advances in science have made these gains possible,” Pierre seemed more assured now as if on familiar territory.

“What precisely is the necessary connection between increased knowledge about the structure of the atom, the ability to manufacture more consumer goods more quickly than ever before and a growth in equality?”

Pierre was about to scratch his head but, remembering his fragile quiff, desisted at the last possible moment.

“The more knowledge is spread the more people can see the absurdity of these outdated notions of inequality.”

“Hmm, I don’t see it myself. A lifetime spent in gaining knowledge about particle physics or in advertising techniques doesn’t automatically equip you to understand the inherent qualities of people whom you have never met. That requires empathy rather than knowledge surely. It seems to me more probable that the need of advanced capitalist economies to produce ever more goods and services and to have ever more consumers requires that previously excluded groups enter the market place in ever larger numbers in order to produce and to consume. Corporate capitalism needs equality so equality becomes what we get. But this is not of the kind which you activists expect or want but simply the equality of the drones.”

“As for your last point there may be something in that, but it is up to us to make a more humane world than the 1% want to create. When it comes to empathy that’s outside my sphere. You would need to talk to a spiritual leader like Pavel Colenso who is building up networks of kindness and gentleness in the world.”

“Yes, certainly the rise of spirituality without religion is an important aspect of the way our world is changing. I would very much like to be able to speak to Pavel Colenso.”

“Nothing easier,” said Pierre sensing an opportunity to get rid of this troublesome interviewer. “I know him well and can give you an introduction. I’m sure he would be delighted to see you.”

“Thank you,” smiled Étienne “I’ll take you up on that”

@calmlyobserving

To Be Continued…

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2. The Newsreader

simpsons-watching-tv

Marianne ran her fingers through the tightly curled black hair that surrounded the perfect oval face she presented to the world and crossed one elegant leg over another. Like all newsreaders she was employed because of her intelligence, education, articulacy and talent. Aesthetics, however, thought Étienne were always an unspoken factor in such appointments.

“Thank you for agreeing to see me,” he said.

“Not at all,” she answered “I’m always pleased to help research. Besides I’m a big fan of your brother’s work.”

Having a famous relative, Étienne had found, was something of a mixed blessing but it certainly could be worked to his advantage on occasion. He decided to open diplomatically.

“Do you see your work as having a purpose other than the mere reporting of facts?” he began “What I mean is that you are a citizen as well as a journalist and so you have a certain amount of obligation towards society at large in both capacities.”

“What a good question!” responded the newsreader without consciously intending to be patronising. “Yes, the maintenance of good order and the building up of a just and fair society are part of my responsibilities as a human being in this society at this time.”

“And how is that reflected in the way you report the news?”

“We don’t avoid  reporting things which may damage the fabric of society but we ensure that reports are sensitively worded and that constructive voices are always heard clearly while destructive ones are questioned closely.”

“That involves you having a positive vision of what society should be like going forward as well as what it actually is like at the moment doesn’t it? I mean, for example, that when interviewing or showing images of scientists, judges or soldiers you might show a disproportionately high percentage of women to act as role models and signposts to the future you would like to see,”

Marianne toyed with one of her earrings for a moment.

“Yes, I suppose that is so,” she replied “Equality is the direction of travel of our society. We are not reshaping it through journalism but we are at its cutting edge and that is reflected in the way we choose our subjects for interviews and discussion panels and so on. Not just women of course; in our multicultural, multiethnic world we need to show all the diversity which exists and which will increasingly replace the old stale monocultural and male dominated world of the past.”

“You think that equality of opportunity necessarily leads to equality of outcome?”

“If the playing field is level yes. Why wouldn’t it?”

Étienne rubbed his nose with the palm of his hand. It seemed to him that the time to edge away from diplomacy had arrived.

“The playing field is never going to be level,” he said didactically “The barriers to success in this country are not necessarily those put up consciously or unconsciously by the country itself. They may have a prior existence in the minds and desires of individuals or communities who have no wish or intention to succeed in the terms which society ordains for them to aspire to. Some sub-cultures may put a premium on family or collective advance over individual achievement for example. And/or many women might put a higher priority on parenthood than on career because their experience of becoming and being a parent has a radically different root from that of men. What I mean is that equality of outcome requires not only a level playing field but also a uniform understanding of what constitutes success or failure. You can have diversity or you can have uniformity but you can’t have both.”

Marianne gave her hair another pummelling.

“I see what you mean,” she said hesitatingly “but I’m not clear what you would like me to do about it?”

“Neither am I really,” Étienne was nothing if not candid “I do think though that you need to bear in mind that being on the cutting edge doesn’t guarantee that you are slicing away in the right direction. In fact, if you are headed in one direction and society beyond the confines of its leaders and teachers is heading in another you may not only fail to accurately report it but actively antagonise it and set up the conflicts which you are seeking to avoid.”

Marianne felt she was on firmer ground now

“Essentially, you are accusing the mainstream media of liberal bias, isn’t that so? The only people that criticise us more heavily than the Right is the Left so I think we must be doing our jobs well.”

Étienne frowned.

“It’s not really that straightforward. There is no doubt that most broadcast journalists in your position go out of their way to be scrupulously fair. The problem is that the concept of ‘fair’ is not in itself unproblematic. It possesses itself of all sorts of assumptions not all of which are necessarily accurate or uncontested. Take for example your coverage of attacks by jihadis which is the thing which prompted my interviewing you today.”

Marianne bridled, ready to take offence at the drop of a hat

“What about our coverage?” she said defensively

“As I see it,” Étienne began “A conscious decision is made by your organisation when an atrocity is committed by someone pledged to Islamic State and shouting Allahu Akbar. In order to be fair to the vast majority of Muslims in the West who are peaceful and law abiding you decide to put a wedge between them and the terrorist. To do this you begin by not reporting anything which cannot be verified and locked down as certain fact. Which means that, for example, you say that the motivation for the attack is ‘unclear’ or ‘unknown.'”

“Now, it is perfectly possible to justify this approach on purely journalistic grounds, only reporting facts not speculation. However, what your viewers know and what you know is that you do not adhere to this policy on every single story. Where violence involving sports fans or vandalism at an abortion clinic are the matters in hand then you are much less rigorous, allowing a narrative to emerge from the testimony of witnesses and interested parties at an early stage in your reporting. By contrast the narrative of an Islamist atrocity only filters out days or weeks later when government or police sources make official statements.”

“Clearly an editorial decision is being made that fairness to innocent Muslim citizens and social cohesion are high priorities whereas that does not apply to, say, sports fans. Now it is perfectly possible to justify such an approach. It may even, for all I know, be the best possible thing to do. What is more difficult to justify is concealing or denying that this is what you are doing as a deliberate choice based on your assessment of the needs of society as a whole rather than simply upon the news value of a particular story as it presents itself to you.”

Marianne leaned forward and spoke earnestly

“So, what you’re saying is that our editorial policy needs to be more transparent. That with some reports we should flag up our reasons for reporting it in a particular way. In theory, it’s not a terrible idea but in practice we need to keep things as simple as possible. There is only so much complexity our general audience can handle. If we go into too much detail about our process they might tune out and miss the actual news itself.”

Étienne looked sceptical.

“What you are really saying is that in order to protect Muslims you have to protect the image of Islam because it is too complex for your viewers to differentiate the two things. Therefore you distance Islamic State killers shouting Islamic slogans and quoting from the Quran from Islam itself by saying that their motivation is not known. A while later when all the shock, horror and outrage has died down you can admit that Islam is a factor but only when you have captured enough images and quotes of condemnation from Muslim leaders and members of the public to balance the news.”

“In The Republic Plato suggests that the Guardians of society should tell a Noble Lie which will have the effect of leading the public to behave in more moral and virtuous ways than would be the case otherwise. You, the media, are in effect acting as Guardians today. Unfortunately for your strategy however the public now simply disbelieves your Noble Lie. When an incident happens they not only assume that Muslims are behind it they further assume that the authorities are engaged in the business of covering up for them. This does not lead to a lessening of community tensions but a sharp upward spike in them. Worse than that is the associated belief that if you are covering up for one minority you are likely to be covering up for others so visible minorities of all kinds get viewed less favourably.”

“In seeking to make things better you run the risk of making them worse. The people do not understand what is really happening, because you do not report it, neither do they believe the Noble Lie any more because multiple experiences contradict it. What you create is a population who are alienated from the authorities who lie to them, angry at being deceived and suspicious of minority groups whom they perceive as being unjustly favoured.”

Marianne looked a little shell shocked.

“There may be something in what you say. We can’t control how people interpret the news we broadcast. It is right for us to apply the highest standards to the most sensitive issues and, yes, we do have to make a judgement about what is or is not highly sensitive. What you overlook though is that the society to whom we report is not itself a static thing. The prejudice and Islamophobia which allows people to misinterpret things in the way which you suggest is being challenged all the time not by the media as such, it is outside our remit, but by social activists like Pierre Lethatch. They change the climate of the public opinion and can correct the errors of those still trapped in the bigotries of the past.”

“Yes, activists do play a crucial role in how this society is changing under the challenges it faces,” conceded Étienne “I would like to speak to Mr Lethatch if I could”

“Nothing easier,” said Marianne sensing an opportunity to get rid of this troublesome interviewer “I know him well and can give you an introduction. I’m sure he would be delighted to speak with you.”

“Thank you” smiled Étienne, I’ll take you up on that.

@clamlyobserving

To be continued…

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1. The Journey Begins

jacques-hamel-priest-martyr

A priest had been murdered. The killers shouted Allahu Akbar before cutting the old man’s throat as he knelt by his altar.

The motive for the attack,” intoned the newsreader with apparent sincerity “is not yet known.

Étienne rubbed the tip of his nose with the palm of his hand, a characteristic gesture when he was perplexed. Was a refusal to name truth when it danced naked in front of your eyes the sign of an irredeemably decayed society he wondered. Restlessly he walked to the window and looked out at the Gurdwara and Polish owned shop across the road. They were fixed points in his ever changing neighbourhood and he rather liked them. The Sikhs gave out free hot meals to those who were hungry and Étienne was glad that they were there just in case he might one day be in need himself.

This refusal to say on Day One what even a particularly dull six year old knew had to be admitted by Day Three or Four did not spare Muslims from one jot or tittle of suspicion or fear. What it did was add to it a belief that the powers-that-be conspired against the public to cover up crimes committed by minorities, a belief which was ultimately as harmful to Sikhs, Poles and others like them as it was to Muslims. It was a wholly futile exercise.

Besides, he remembered the day when planes had fallen out of American skies killing thousands, and other days when Australian tourists, British commuters, French journalists and Parisian Jews had died by bomb or bullet. Had these events led to rioting mobs committing pogroms and exacting a vicious ‘revenge’ from innocent Muslims for the crimes of their guilty brothers? No of course not, but the authorities continued to give the impression, rightly or wrongly, that they were more concerned to prevent hypothetical backlashes than actual murders.

Murder. Étienne’s mind circled back to the image of the old priest kneeling in peaceful adoration before his God as his throat was slashed open by men invoking their deity. He knew that the shock and horror he felt would be echoed in Temple and Mosque, Synagogue and Church, winebar and lecture room. The revulsion would be at least as widespread as it had been for all the other atrocities and still they kept happening. Was Western society so denuded of intelligence that it could not find a way both to defeat this horrible conspiracy of wickedness and cherish the heterogeneous societies that the modern world inevitably created? Did ineffectual efforts to pretend that ‘the motive is not yet known‘ in incident after incident really represent the peak intellectual response of a tired civilization devoid of the energy to even name a truth yet alone by opposing so end it?

Rubbing his nose more vigorously than ever it occurred to him that he was mirroring his societies failures within himself. Asking questions which never got answered, half-glimpsing truths but declining to think them through. More was required if the needs of the times were to be addressed. But what did this ‘more’ consist of? Either someone somewhere already knew the answers or else Étienne would have to work them out for himself. Perhaps there were none and simply drifting along until the wyrd of the epoch had worked itself out was all that could be done.

No, his human urge for teleology was too great. There just had to be a comprehensible direction of travel. And what could be understood in human affairs could be changed. Étienne came to a decision. He would understand and then he would speak. No doubt he would be ignored but his mission, it seemed to him now, was simply to warn. If the wicked world refused to turn from its wickedness and be saved then the fault lay with the warned not the warner.

Where to begin? ‘The motive for the attack is not yet known.’ The palpable nonsense which had set of this train of thought echoed once more through his head. The newsreader’s air of conviction when delivering this absurdity could not have sprung from a belief in its truth. Perhaps she sincerely believed in the Noble Lie which underlay it. Étienne knew that it must be such a lie but what its full purpose was he could only partly guess. That, he decided, was where to begin. He would meet the newsreader, Marianne Lafranc, and ask her to tell him what it was she thought.

@calmlyobserving

To be continued….

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The picture is of Father Jacques Hamel painted by Moubine a believing Muslim.

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