Saturday, August 11, 2018

God, Boris and the Truth

It is a while since that New York Mayor, Mario Cuomo, quoted by Leo McGarry in The West Wing, said 'We campaign in poetry; we govern in prose.' 1985 in fact. And I guess we were all fine with that as long as we understood that it meant that big picture vision statements were the stuff of rallies and nitty-gritty detail the stuff of day-to-day running of a city or country. We got that.

But I don't think that's how it's interpreted anymore. We accelerated very rapidly through 'We campaign in hyperbole...' and are delivered to where we are today, campaigning in lies. Whopping great porkies painted on buses, printed on leaflets and photo-shopped on social media.

I was at an interesting panel discussion on fake news recently when the American grass-roots Republican position was summarised as 'Trump's a liar; but he's our liar'.

Hold that idea; here's another one. It's to do with our brains. I am not a neurologist.

When someone puts you in danger or stress the amygdala sends a signal to the hypothalamus that leads to a flight or fight response. We can have a false response when stressed at work because constant low-level irritation of the system overworks it and leads to other health problems. Find the medical stuff explained here.

It has recently been discovered that the same signals are triggered when someone opposes your long-held views. It takes experience and training not to shout at, or even punch, someone if they suggest you have voted wrong all your life or been a racist without realising.

This places us in difficulty. If you can't counter a lie with the truth without starting a fight, and can't disabuse someone of a falsehood  because they assume everyone is dealing in falsehood, where do you turn?

Well let's turn to Boris Johnson for a while since I put him in the title. As I write he has not apologised for his reported observation that a burka-wearing woman reminded him of a bank robber, or a letter box. If you are in doubt about the precise difference between a hijab and a burka then BBC Newsround have a useful guide. But the cat's out of the bag. Any apology will be for political effect. I doubt he will mean it or have seen the error of his ways. It was the sort of joke/comment that I would have heard at my parents' dinner parties in the 1960s and 1970s. I imagine BoJo's parents had more dinner parties than my family so a wider selection of racist friends were available. Those of us who enjoyed a liberal education learnt soon after that such 'jokes' were inappropriate and in the 1980s political correctness, for all its negative press, was a  desire to make sure a minority group had not been overlooked or accidentally oppressed. As the late Miles Kington wisely pointed out once, the over-reaction was when people treated the disadvantaged as if the disadvantage itself conferred dignity. It is perfectly possible to be a wheelchair user and an arseshole. And US wheelchair users can be assholes.

We turn to free speech. This is one of the great values of liberal democracy. People are allowed to say stupid things. People are allowed to be rude. They can make bad jokes. If they write lies then the civil courts offer the chance of an action for libel (although few of us could afford that route). We try to put as few limits as possible on the right of free speech. But in the UK we decided that incitement to racial or religious hatred should be a crime and this was enshrined in law in 2006. And, of course, employers will want to police the language of their employees. If your position at work makes you 'known' then you forfeit some of the rights to private views if they contradict those of your employer.

The question we may never know the answer to, this side of eternity, is whether Boris is a devious and manipulative tester of the rights of free speech - or an arsehole. Does he actually realise that some horrid people will take his words and see them as authoritative on a nastier scale? Does Boris' position require of him a higher standard than that required of others? Does his stepping back from one of the great offices of state have a bearing on this?

His recent Telegraph article, which I have read in full, has had a bit ripped out of context. He was chastising the usually-liberal Danes for banning the niqab and burka. He did include a small observation that he thought such face covering looked daft and, yes, he did say it reminded him of a post box. The bank robber comment was slightly more ambiguous:

'If a constituent came to my MP’s surgery with her face obscured, I should feel fully entitled – like Jack Straw – to ask her to remove it so that I could talk to her properly. If a female student turned up at school or at a university lecture looking like a bank robber then ditto: those in authority should be allowed to converse openly with those that they are being asked to instruct.'

You may recall the expression, 'I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.' (S.G.Tallentyre 1906)

Boris disapproves of the burka but supports the right of people to wear it. We ought to support the right of Boris to say what he thinks even though we disapprove, unless, unless, unless...

Unless it is incitement. Unless it is part of a state of the art divide and rule policy. Boris has form when it comes to allying himself with the 51%. And unless it is not the position of the governing party to which he belongs - then he should rightly be disciplined.

I also brought God into the title. This is awkward for readers who now have to disagree with everything I've said so far because I belong to the faith community and they don't. That said, the Bible has very much higher standards for the use of language than incitement legislation or the libel laws.

Ephesians 4:29 'Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.'

James 1:19 'My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry.'

The presence of these two correctives to the behaviour of mainly Christian hearers or readers tells us that the early church was far from perfect. People were becoming followers of Jesus before realising that it had some implications for their behaviour.

Which may be why John, writing his Gospel later than many of the New Testament letters, put the words 'I am the truth' on Jesus' lips. It is easier to have a person to follow and trust than a manual to try and understand.

Turning to Christ is more of an answer than turning to legislation. If you do, you will want to try to be people of the truth, seeking forgiveness in genuine humility when you fail.

This has been a long-winded way of saying 'play nicely'. And I'm still not much further forward in understanding how to debate with people who have a trigger-happy amygdala. But I'm going to hang in there, slow to anger, and look for the good, even in Boris.

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