This was the text of a bumper sticker a friend of mine saw some years back in the United States and it caused us, weak minded liberals that we are, some amusement. Yet such a statement is indicative of much of what is going wrong in the discussion of ideas. It should not be taken seriously.
Claims of truth, being woke—once a term of approval which has morphed into the pejorative—no platforming, accusations of censorship, freedom of speech: all have a painful interconnectedness that too often goes unchallenged. It does so because it takes patience, rigour and intelligence. And yes, even weak minded liberals can run short of these three elements.
I used to travel to away football games with a group of friends. It was a pleasant way of spending the hours on the road or train, talking, stopping for (or bringing with us) a few beers and a bite before the highs and lows of watching the team we support.
These trips became somewhat uncomfortable as one of our number started voicing opinions which, when countered, were responded to with an increase in volume. Given his innate gift for projection, usually in outrage at some event on the field of play, he would quash opposition. No arguments would be offered. Simply a louder restatement of what he had said earlier.
His views were and are outrageous: humanity is descended from aliens, the moon landing was faked, there is a conspiracy to deny white people access to public housing and jobs. Yes, the usual suspects.
In recent years the public square has seen a diminution of trust which, it may be argued, was never that high. A privileged out of touch cadre of politicos schooled in their own ways in cloistered environments to live in a luxury of subsidy and isolation from those who both fund and vote for them. There are all sorts of reasons for this: the rise of populism, the control of messaging information, the lure of unchallenged power.
A spin of the globe, a touch of the finger and you are never too far from this enmeshed web of difficulty in discerning not only what is going on, but how it is being related.
Writers are told to stick with what they know, so I will confine myself to Britain and the United States. There can be little doubt that the current front bench of the Conservative government is one of the most lacklustre to have been drawn from its ranks. Built on a rabid belief in Brexit, which was and is being sustained on a tissue of lies and fabrications, the culture of dishonesty, ineptitude and corruption is jaw-droppingly astounding.
How do they get away with it? Well, simply they have a massive majority that shows that those who bothered to vote in an electoral system that, surprise, surprise, benefits those elected were, by an large, in favour of leaving the European Union. The legacy of the referendum, needlessly called by a schoolfellow of his predecessor but one, was aimed at sorting out differences within the party. And it has managed to split the nation.
This is not just political parties. This view has been supported by the majority of British papers, notably the Daily Mail and Express, which are part of the network of connections of the rich and privileged that seek to govern the country. Rupert Murdoch has abandoned any pretence of objectivity in his media outlets. He is regularly feted by would-be leaders of countries in the hope he will throw his ‘empire’s’ weight behind them.
It is perhaps not without irony that the current administration in Westminster is heavily weighted with people who are or were journalists. The Prime Minister is one, was paid a bomb for very ordinary articles by the Daily Telegraph, was sacked for fabrication when working for The Times. His current wife, number three in a series of wronged women who have borne the philanderer children, is one. His staff of special advisors have a few and only one, Allegra Sutton, has been offered up as a sacrificial lamb. The public view of politicians and journalists has always been questionable, but the UK government’s mix of the two is perhaps no accident.
When I worked as a journalist there was a pride in seeking to be as clear and correct as possible. Sure, every organisation had a line but it sought, not always with success, to separate news from opinion. In over 20 years in the game, I rarely read a leader column. They were all too predictable.
The union of which I was an active member had a Code of Ethics, which sought to inculcate some kind of structure of standards and reliability in going about newsgathering, interviewing and representation of views.
Increasingly, because of changes in how we access information, the fourth estate has become increasingly marginalised. In an effort to get where people want to source their opinions they have gone online, into social media and created what is derided as clickbait culture. In this people choose the rabbit hole they jump down. This has, to a certain extent, always been the case. Choice of news outlets is often indicative of one’s leanings.
A research project into two samples of young Muslims and Black Pentecostal Christians in London by the academic Daniel Nilsson deHanas is illustrative of both identity and what influences people in choosing sources of ‘news’ on which to base their opinions.
The research looked at how members of the two profiled groups classified themselves by race, religion and place in British society. It also highlighted a similarity on how they sourced information from which they made decisions about life, lifestyle and politics. It should come as no surprise that they relied substantially on other people they knew, ostensibly from their identified associative groups, to base decisions on what they bought, who they might affiliate with and, if they could be bothered, who they voted for. This is based on whether their networks had agreed (by which processes?) the sources were reliable.
The project shows the way our worlds can shrink. Lest anyone want to gloat over a generational divide, it is worth looking at one’s own contacts and friends and analysis is likely to come up with similar results. And, to return to the cadre currently in the government benches in Britain, we should be rightly alarmed at how small these circles are.
Gaby Hinsliff, in a review of Sasha Swire's scandalously revealing diaries, writes and quotes from the book: ‘Swire is at least vaguely aware of how insufferable it can seem; glancing around the Camerons’ Downing Street Christmas party in 2011, she realises “we all holiday together, stay in each other’s grace and favour homes, our children play together, we text each other bypassing the civil servants … this is a very particular, narrow tribe of Britain and their hangers on.” By 2015 she is fretting that Ed Miliband is clearly “on to something” in pledging to abolish non-dom status and that the Tories have become too harsh towards the poor, “unforgiving of personal circumstances, relentless in telling people to stop whingeing and make a go of it”.’
In a plethora of stories about the misuse of power and betrayal of trust levelled at the Johnson government, one example suffices. The ‘Waiting For Sue Gray’ as an ‘independent’ inquirer into the culture of parties at Number 10 Downing Street is dubious from the outset. A civil servant is investigating the behaviour of residents and staff of Number 10, will make a report to the Prime Minister, who is in charge of the ministerial code and is himself one of those who actions are up to question. ‘How insufferable it can seem’.
Conspiracy theorists, limited thinkers, exclusionists all use such networks, personal and communicational, to learn, take on board and spread the ideas. These notions range from the mildly amusing to the delusional and dangerous. ‘Facts’ are often no more than hearsay. I watched an horrendous video where someone who had breached the confines of an ICU where a family member was being ventilated following the contracting of Covid-19 seek to justify the ‘myth’ (i.e. falsity) of the disease because someone somewhere had written something. This was considered substantive proof of this piece of ongoing chicanery and the family members repeatedly asked for the discharge of the patient. .
It is no surprise that a rich, powerful man who challenged and succeeded in being elected to high office used terms as 'fake news', his spokesperson talked of ‘alternative facts’ maintains the fiction that his loss in an election was about it being robbed from him. His followers lap this stuff up and the result was the storming of the Capitol building in Washington in January 2020.
One of the most alarming images for me was the erection of a cross as part of the demonstrations. It linked faith in Christ, however that was understood, with the madness of opinion replacing belief based on evidence and fact. Facts, no matter what we think, remain facts.
For my sins, I am a Christian. I would love to say that my faith is based on more than parroting some kind of arcane formulae but the communion of which I am a member has a tradition of, and a problem with, tolerating contrary opinions, some of which, to be frank, do not and can not hold together. And I know from my studies in the Philosophy of Religion that it is easier to disprove the existence of God than it ever will be to show the contrary.
Mind games have rules, a consistency and once you accept the premises, argument must run on the tracks laid down. Religion, for all those who try to do so, is not going to be proven by argument. It is about how we engage with our texts, traditions, heritage and the world around us.
Even the Church of England, with its much vaunted breadth and dying tolerance, embraces such madness as fundamentalism, though it is usually attired in more respectable clothes. Churches claim to be Bible Believing but all churches should be able to use such a phrase. It has of late been changed to Bible centred, but it is the same problem.
Just claiming scripture is God’s word, irrerant, factual and reliable is not enough. Repeating assertions as to what God said as authority is open to question. A check of online websites devoted to this cult of belief is instructive. This one shows the circularity of the argument.
And this is perhaps the danger of what we face. We decide how we act on what we think we know and the sources of this knowledge. Barack Obama said the world faces ‘an epistemological crisis’.
Christianity can contain a strong strain of refusal to engage in debate. Untested assertion is merely opinion, unreliable until tested. Fundamentalists, in my view, seek to close down any attempt to speak about source material, using critical tools and even question methods of interpretation. This intellectual intolerance has shrunk trust in the public square and is worked out in conspiracy theories.
What I believe does not constitute fact. I need to question at all times information, its sources, and decisions built upon it. ‘God said it. I believe it. That settles it.’ As the audience cries out in a British pantomime, ‘Oh no, it doesn’t!'