The Emperor’s Clothing and Snake Oil

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Photo : Twitter – Chris Kubecka

Does social media democratize news and opinion? How can we respond?

The question, as sometimes put, is whether the development of new social media platforms has democratized news and comment in a way that was once the sole prerogative of daily newspapers or whether it has unleashed new outlets for banal, dangerous and vilifying commentary of the most extreme kinds.

The difficulty with posing the question is this way is that a binary choice offers a misleading sort of answer. ‘Both and’ sounds itself a banal response to the question even if more likely to be true than not.

Recent societal challenges have both exposed fractures and tensions which, played out in society whether via tabloid papers or most of the usual social media outlets, have both fuelled as well as exposed the way discussion, opinion, engagement and disagreement has taken a turn for the worse. There have been few occasions when the level of misogyny, fear, disparagement, hatred and weapons grade scorn have been more prevalent in the public square. We have discovered new ways to insult and abuse as never before (‘Snowflakes’, ‘Remoaners’ to name but two) and normalized the language of hate not only to demonize others but as a weapon with which to shame, silence and exile others from discourse.

Issues surrounding the freedom of speech in our universities continues to be problematic most recently seen in the debate surrounding trans people and some sectors of the feminist lobby which have shown that engagement is a challenging and complex matter in the way it allows perspectives to interact without requiring any effort from (at least initially) to listen, respect, understand or shift in their perspectives.

Added to this are moral considerations as well as legal and political ones. Put simply just because we can say something doesn’t mean we ought. The wise constraint of 1 Corinthians 6:12f seems worth mentioning alongside the more dramatic and sharp injunctions in Matthew 5 (vs 29-30).

Alongside the degrading of discourse there is a further threat to acknowledge. When Jesus said let your yes be yes and no be no, he must have assumed a basic core of identifiable truth was possible (Matthew 5:37). It is impossible to give any assent to something if that something is either so fluid to be beyond definition or so open to differentiation and opinion that it is entirely relativized and becomes little more than a matter of opinion.

And this of course is where that delicious and perfidious term ‘fake news’ steps in. As a tool in political discourse it was used before, during and after the last presidential elections in the USA but has found its way to these shores too. Like the sale of snake oil in another period when facts can be consistently ignored, it is not only the distorting and exchange of one category of meaning for another, it is the noxious and destructive effect on a society.

James O’Brien in ‘How to be right in a world gone wrong’ exposes how widespread misperceptions and idiocies abound even when challenged. The psychology of this is as fascinating as it is disturbing. The occasions when callers, faced with the vacuity of their own positions and statements actually change and admit to new perspective, is fewer than we might like to hope. In truth, it suggests the issue is not an inability to shift in thinking but unwillingness. It could be of course that beyond the gladiatorial environments of a call-in show against one of the sharpest minds in broadcasting, that quieter reflection takes place. It would be step of faith to believe this.

So how (to take O’Brien’s book title) should we do right in a world gone wrong? The first port of call is to know your stuff. The Emperor duped into nakedness was utterly content until unmasked and the truth of his precarious situation pointed out to him. The conspiracy of those who aided and abetted the lie nicely adds to the dynamic: someone needs to know whether the claim to Calvin Klein is an illusion or really is a nice piece of kit.

Secondly, there is a treasured Christian tradition of what is now called ‘calling out’. It means naming the truth. The religious take is found in the prophetic traditions and wisdom sayings where lies and are uncovered and what is hidden is made visible. Jesus was particularly good at exposing what was motivating and driving engagement opposed to the stated reasons.

Thirdly, there is the call to act. The mysterious poster bandit who replaced a racist poster with a poster of a cat is a neat example of slightly mocking and exposing the racism as well as removing it. Holy alternatives or acts of deletion can be more powerful expressions of protest and Kingdom grace than words alone.

Fourth, cultivate the art of listening well. Presenting issues and engagement are not always the most motivating of all. Getting behind the words is hard through social media platforms but an admitted and acknowledged honesty can at least allow the ante to drop a few levels.

Fifth, learn to offer alternative narratives. The Christian take on life is that change is possible with God. Countering the hatred and despoiling commentary is only as good as an alternative which offers something of Christ and goodness.

Social science has suggested that as technology increases, we can lose the capacity to manage and operate well within a new and rapidly shifting environment. The ability to develop and progress knowledge is outstripping a capacity to handle it well. In turn, crafting a deep wisdom fit for the ages seems more important than ever.

+Andrew Bangor

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