IN DEFENCE OF THE PLATFORM
Honest, respectful debate is in short supply about the big issues of life; instead we hear the echo of our own sealed cave. It is not how our faith was born, how it grew or how it will thrive.
If reports are reliable, some strange things are happening on the university campus. Places devoted to critical enquiry, where views are shared openly in the pursuit of truth and learning, seem to contain people who would like to shut down debate. In recent months, attempts have been made to ‘no platform’ two feminists, Germaine Greer and Julie Bindel, for their views on transgender issues and Maryam Namazie, an Iranian human rights activist, for her anticipated criticism of Islam. The student union at University College London allegedly banned a Nietzsche reading group because it might breed far-right ideology.
The trend for ‘no platforming’ began in US universities, as did multiculturalism in the 1980s. Long periods of political power for the right led some on the left to find a new battleground in language which might mitigate some of the more exaggerated outcomes of the new capitalism. We can be thankful for aspects of this. Some of the language surrounding ethnicity and disability, for example, has changed greatly for the better. The difficulty with political crusades, however, is knowing when to stop.
John F Kennedy observed: ‘the student leaders of today are the student leaders of tomorrow’. We may laugh at this and the campus excesses joyfully served up for us by some young students and a cynical media waiting hungrily in the wings, but the track record of today’s adults is scarcely better. The whole point of conversation, as the etymology suggests, is for people to talk and listen to one another and open up a space where conversion may happen. Most of us have changed our views on issues as we listen to other people, but to do so we have to put ourselves in a vulnerable position where the encounter with another leads to a change of views and perhaps a new kind of life. People who are converted to Christ after listening to another person know implicitly what this means.
We are communicating with one another more than ever today, but this should be distinguished from conversation. The desire is to get our own view across before anyone can challenge it and digital media affords the perfect platform for this. We can speak our minds without having to listen and we can ensure lots of people hear us in the process. Meanwhile, companies like Google and Facebook filter the news we read to ensure it coheres with the kinds of things we are interested in; news which does not, will not reach our screens. Eli Pariser has dubbed this the ‘filter bubble’. The criticism of people who only read a certain kind of newspaper that serves up the values they hold is taken a step further online. Now we don’t even realise the sources we read are being tailored to our views and sometimes our prejudices.
The UK has created a category of hate crimes to deal with harmful speech which is designed to hurt others deeply and to put them at risk. While some might prefer the US approach of unlimited free speech, the value of protecting others is a noble one. However, this should not be translated into a right to take offence at the speech of others. At times Christians have been on the receiving end of this, when people lodge formal complaints at work for conversations around faith, but this is only one kind of objection. If we easily take offence at others, the chances are we will enact more laws to deal with what people say and how they say it, and we will shut down more areas for debate.
The Church itself does not benefit from this. It was born in the ferment of debate: the apostle Paul spent his converted life arguing in the synagogues, the market place, the debating hall, eager to put his faith to the test. The Church has its own filter bubble, too frequently concerned about internal issues, not connecting with the views of others lest we frighten or are frightened.
Good, honest, respectful debate is in short supply about the big issues of life; instead all we hear is the echo of our own sealed cave. It is not how our faith was born, how it grew or how it will thrive.
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