Does social media stifle debate?

Social MediaHas it really come to this in our society? Has it really come to the point where we seem utterly unable to believe that someone can hold another opinion on a difficult issue without believing that they are a moral monster?

It started out two or three years ago with same-sex marriage. The media loved to portray everyone who disagreed with the redefinition of marriage as a bigot, pure and simple. Real debate was stifled, because any argument for traditional marriage had to be ruled out a priori – because, you know, it’s bigoted.

Then, more recently, a debate on abortion at Oxford University was shut down because a rather militant group of people (via Facebook) decided that they were going to cause trouble if the debate went ahead.

And then we came to the general election. One of the things which has really got to me over the last few weeks is the way that the Tories have been constantly vilified and accused of more or less being morally bankrupt. Not just that, but if you believe most of what is put on Twitter, the only person who would vote for the Tories is someone who cares nothing for the poor, someone who essentially has no moral compass and deserves nothing but contempt by any right thinking person.

Many people have spilled ink writing about the rights and wrongs of this – for example this article – so I will try not to rehash old ground.

Instead, I think it is worth reflecting on just what it is that is making our society so hostile to opposing views. How has it suddenly become normal in our society, a society which prides itself on free speech, to demonise whole sections of people and even make them scared of speaking out? (Witness the phenomenon of the ‘shy Tory’). Over the past few weeks I’ve been thinking a lot about politics, and as I’ve been considering I’ve been coming more and more round to the conservative way of thinking (material for a future blog post, perhaps). The thing is, I would actually genuinely hesitate before expressing that particular view on Twitter or Facebook, mainly because of the amount of hatred and bile spewed at the conservative party by what seems like the vast majority of Twitter (certainly I don’t recall seeing many pro-Tory posts – although perhaps that’s to do with the people I follow).

It seems to me that social media, rather than encouraging debate, is actually stifling it. I’m not sure as to why that is, but I think there might be a few reasons:

  • I think Twitter and Facebook enable ‘herd mentality’ to kick in. It’s very hard to express a dissenting opinion when everyone around you is expressing a particular view. Especially when that view is portrayed as being crazy, immoral, ridiculous, and so on.
  • Twitter and (to a lesser extent) Facebook also make it very easy to find like minded people. The problem is, what you end up with is basically conversing with people who agree with you. You don’t have to converse with anyone you disagree with apart from the purposes of shouting abuse at them. OK, this is a caricature, but is it that far removed from the truth? I don’t really see much actual engagement on Twitter between those of different political persuasions, it’s simply people who already agree with each other slapping each other on the back. Rather than trying to understand where the ‘other side’ are coming from, it is simply assumed that they are wrong and acting out of selfish / immoral / absurd motives (etc). This is quite probably because of the following point.
  • The 140 character limit of Twitter makes it very hard to express much more than a soundbite. This is very unfortunate, because it seems that what spreads well in soundbites is usually a watered down version of the truth (i.e. one side of an argument) without any nuance or a chance for qualification.
  • Following on from this – I think misinformation spreads very quickly on Twitter. Over the past few months, I’ve seen graphs and statistics that say all sorts of different things about our country and economy. Some of them say that things have improved,  some of them say that things haven’t. Some of them portray the Tories in a positive light, some of them  don’t. I think a big part of the problem is the way you cut the data – the way you interpret it. (The old adage about lies, damned lies and statistics comes to mind). But what I think tends to happen is that the statistics / graphs which support the prevailing notion (i.e. that the Tories are evil) tend to get retweeted a lot, whereas the statistics and graphs which might show something different don’t get shared as much.

A few months  ago I thought about the dark side of social media when it came to the Top Gear Patagonia Special. And the longer time goes on, I see more of this kind of thing going on. I’m wondering whether social media might actually be having a detrimental effect on our society in general.

I don’t think that social media itself is a bad thing, but I do feel that the way it is set up – especially Twitter – makes it very easy to ignore other opinions and simply to convince oneself that one’s opinion is correct with all the accompanying self-righteousness. Although all this was and is possible without the help of social media, it simply exacerbates the issue.

So if this is a problem, how do we solve it? I think one of the biggest problems with the stifling of debate is the lack of understanding and empathy for opposing views. It seems to me that social media would be a lot better if people took some time to seriously understand the view they were criticising before criticising it. If it could be understood that on some issues different views can be held with complete integrity, and those should be respected. Perhaps this is a simply unrealistic dream in this day and age – but I think as we see the effects of this stifling of debate play out more and more in society, perhaps people will realise that actually we need understanding rather than polarisation and demonisation.


The Church is wiser than our secular society

A BibleOne of the articles that seems to have been doing the rounds on Twitter lately is “Our secular society is wiser than the Church” by Oliver Kamm (most recently I saw it tweeted by my friend @pandammonium). I often read articles online without responding to them, but sometimes one annoys me sufficiently that I feel the need to write something about it here.

The article itself is pretty short, it won’t take a minute of your time to read, but the argument is basically that the church always lags behind societal attitudes. Frankly I find the thinking in the article so muddled I don’t quite know where to begin, but I’ll quote a few sentences and try to explain:

Gay marriage will become established and there will come a time when few of its current opponents (including Archbishop Welby) will be exercised by the issue.

This is unbelievably patronising. Kamm is basically saying, “There, there, dear – your petty and ridiculous objections to same-sex marriage will be forgotten in a few years when you’ve finally caught up with society – and you will.” In other words, “you’ll come round, just give it time”. It doesn’t deal with any of the objections to same-sex marriage (hereafter known as SSM); it just assumes that SSM is correct and that any objectors are purely irrational hatemongers who will come round.

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The Mystery of the £1.09 Christmas Card

Royal Mail card unpaid postageI’ll be honest with you: I like the Royal Mail. Despite its flaws – and they are manifold – I think it’s one of the services left in the UK which is actually pretty good. Whenever I order a parcel, I’m always pleased if I find that it’s being delivered by the Royal Mail (unlike some of the other delivery networks out there…) A few years ago, Top Gear did a race to see what would get from Lands End to John O’Groats the fastest – a fast car, or a first-class letter. Surprisingly, the letter actually won! It was pretty impressive to see how the Royal Mail operation actually works, and I think as a general rule it works pretty well.

That said, you do get some … odd decisions made. On Saturday we had a card through our letterbox saying ‘We couldn’t deliver a letter because… it doesn’t have enough postage.’ Or something like that. We were apparently owing £1.09 in postage. We went down to the collection office on Saturday afternoon, only to find out that they close at 1PM (our fault, we should have checked the card; just assumed they were open on Saturday afternoons!)

So, this evening, I decided to pop down to the collection office to fetch it. I honestly thought it was a parcel someone had sent us recently (we are due one). It turned out to be a Christmas card. You can see the picture above – I’ve edited out the address, but apart from that it’s as it was when we received it.

Apparently the letter was less 9p in postage (that’s right, £0.09) – and we had a £1.00 “handling charge”. That’s right, they charged us a whole pound for the privilege of holding the letter back for us to recoup their 9p. Now, I know that rules are rules, but… 9p? Really? And a whole £1 ‘handling charge’ for that much? Crazy.

But it’s not just that: there appears to be a valid, first-class stamp attached to the letter. The only thing which could possibly have put the card over was that the card was slightly folded over inside, i.e. it was a tiny bit wider than your average card. But not by much, and not in a parcel kind of way.

I simply can’t understand what could possibly have made the Royal Mail charge us extra in this way! Not good, Royal Mail, not good. (Even if there’s a perfectly good explanation for why the postage was 9p under, charging £1.09 and the inconvenience of picking it up is not good).

Toynbee Strikes Again

I don’t usually write about such things on this blog, but this article by Polly Toynbee has got me quite annoyed. Her article is full of misinformation and slightly odd logic (something she’s been guilty of before, but we’ll leave that for the time being). It baffles me how someone who is so vitriolic can get a regular hearing in a national newspaper – but then, I guess Richard Dawkins has written articles before, so…

Seeing as I don’t have much to do this afternoon, let’s take a quick look at some of the claims and arguments she makes:

Rows over gay marriage and women bishops bewilder most people. With overwhelming popular support for both, how can abstruse theology and unpleasant prejudice cause such agitation at Westminster and in the rightwing press? Politics looks even more out of touch when obscure doctrine holds a disproportionate place in national life.

It’s true that most people are probably in favour of women bishops – although that was more of an internal Church of England thing. Parliament haven’t really had to get involved in that; it wasn’t a political issue in the governmental sense. As for gay marriage, I’d hardly say there was “overwhelming public support” for it: according to the statistics from this article, just over 50% of the responses to the government’s proposals were in favour. This is ignoring the number of responses on both the “Coalition for Marriage” and “Coalition for Equal Marriage” petitions (c. 500,000 vs c. 60,000). Clearly, the world which Polly Toynbee lives in is one where even the government’s own official statistics are only just barely in favour of gay marriage is equal to ‘overwhelming public support’.

With a third of state schools religious in this most secular country, Michael Gove not only swells their number but lets them discriminate as they please in admissions. As he is sending a bible to every English school, the BHA is fundraising to send out its own Young Atheist’s Handbook to school libraries. Government departments are outsourcing more services to faith groups in health, hospice, community and social care.

Not entirely sure what the point of this paragraph is. So… religious schools are increasing in number. They do a good job; they’re usually popular. And each school has to be somewhat discriminatory in its admissions policy. What’s the problem? [See also this on the Church Mouse blog] And the government are ‘outsourcing’ services to faith groups. Because Christian faith groups tend to have a good track record in health, hospice, community and social care work. What’s the atheist record like in those areas? Oh.

But of all the battles Jim Al-Khalili confronts, the most urgent is the right to die. Powerful religious forces block attempts to let the dying end their lives when they choose … The public supports the right to die, but many more will drag themselves off to a bleak Swiss clinic before the religions let us die in peace.

Oh dear oh dear. So the only reason anyone would ever oppose euthanasia is because of religious ideas? Once again, I don’t think this is supported by the evidence. It’s not just the religious who have issues with assisted dying: see, for example, this piece (and, related, this one about the Lords which Toynbee mentioned in the article) – particularly the link through to the Scope website in the quote at the end. It seems that what Toynbee says is just propaganda; the BHA have set out their stall here and I don’t think they’ve considered all the implications.

Sensing the ebbing tide of faith since the last census, the blowback against unbelievers has been remarkably violently expressed. Puzzlingly, we are routinely referred to as “aggressive atheists” as if non-belief itself were an affront. But we are with Voltaire, defending to the death people’s right to believe whatever they choose, but fighting to prevent them imposing their creeds on others.

What Toynbee doesn’t seem to get is that governments, pretty much by definition, have to impose a view or creed on others. The government has to take a position on assisted dying. The government has to take a position on gay marriage. Her beef seems to be that the government don’t take her particular view, or that of the BHA. As I said before, atheistic secularism is NOT neutral ground.

For instance, he might take offence at the charge that without God, unbelievers have no moral compass. Hitler and Stalin were atheists, that’s where it leads. We can ripost with religious atrocities, Godly genocides or the Inquisition, but that’s futile. Wise atheists make no moral claims, seeing good and bad randomly spread among humanity regardless of faith. Humans do have a hardwired moral sense, every child born with an instinct for justice that makes us by nature social animals, not needing revelations from ancient texts. The idea that morality can only be frightened into us artificially, by divine edict, is degrading.

‘Seeing good and bad randomly spread among humanity’ – that’s interesting. Why is ‘good and bad’ randomly spread among humanity? What’s the ‘bad’ doing there? If everyone truly has a hardwired instinct for justice, why is there bad? And what can the BHA do about it? I’m asking a genuine question here. If humans are so brilliant, why is the world in such a mess – especially when much of the world’s current mess is caused by the least-religious West? (i.e., it wasn’t ‘religion’ that caused the problems.)

And the statement about morality being ‘frightened into us artificially, by divine edict’, is ignorant if nothing else.

The new president will confront another common insult: atheists are desiccated rationalists with nothing spiritual in their lives, poor shrivelled souls lacking transcendental joy and wonder. But in awe of the natural world of physics, he’ll have no trouble with that. Earthbound, there is enough wonder in the magical realms of human imagination, thought, dream, memory and fantasy where most people reside for much of their waking lives. There is no emotional or spiritual deficiency in rejecting creeds that stunt and infantalise the imagination.

‘Creeds that stunt and infantalise the imagination’ – all I will say is, [citation needed]. I mean, seriously? Given how much incredible art, music, architecture etc. that religion has inspired? Sounds like the words of someone with a massive chip on their shoulder.

Still, if all members of the BHA are as bitter as Polly Toynbee, with such a massive chip on their shoulders, I can’t see them ever being that popular. Self-worship is never particularly inspiring; and I think essentially that’s what is happening with humanism: we have a ‘can-do’ attitude, we can solve all our own problems. “Hey, look at us! We’re brilliant!” This ties in with something else I’ve been thinking about recently, about atheism being the ultimate form of idolatry, but we’ll leave that particular theological discussion to another day…

QI and Quirinius’ Census

I was watching QI XL last night, and the topic of the Bible came up (you can still see it on the iPlayer at the time of writing – at 20 minutes in). Now, it should be pointed out before we start that Stephen Fry has been known to be wrong before – he is not infallible! And on this particular occasion, I think he was wrong.

Stephen Fry and the panel made a few points about the census described in Luke 2:1-3.

The points were, broadly speaking:

  1. There was never a census of the entire Roman world;
  2. People didn’t have to return to their home towns in a census.

So the Lukan account of the census was put in only to account for the Bethlehem prophecy (i.e. Luke made up the gospel in order to account for all the prophecies). He (Stephen Fry) then went on to say “We’ve been cheated of books which should have been in the Bible”, and read an account from an infancy narrative of Jesus which happened to include dragons.

I have to say, I find this disappointing: QI prides itself on getting its facts right. It’s a shame that such a programme would broadcast what is essentially misinformation. On the two points above, there are plenty of sources (that last one looking particularly at the Greek text and the dating of the census, and – if you read on – coming up with what I believe to be an interesting resolution). In short, what QI said is simply not true.

This untruthfulness comes across again when they say it was basically a free-for-all when it came to which books were included in the Bible and which ones weren’t. Now this is such an incredible argument to make because it is totally false: It was used in the Da Vinci Code, for goodness’ sake, and we know how accurate that was! There is an article in my ESV Study Bible on the Canon of Scripture  (it’s available online but you have to have an account) which gives an interesting overview of the history of the canon of what we call the Bible. Essentially, the early church didn’t decide what went in and what didn’t in terms of their own agenda, and it wasn’t decided many years after the fact.

The books of the NT were “self-selecting”, as it were; the books that were ‘chosen’ was simply a ratification of the books that already were in use by the majority of churches as authoritative.

Anyway, it’s disappointing to see ‘research’ like this make its way onto our screens, especially on a programme which is watched by millions of people. It’s just sloppy. QI, you have gone down a little in my estimation.