Saturday, February 16, 2008


After the hubbub and hysteria, a slightly more rational debate about civil and religious settlements in Britain has begun to emerge, albeit mostly underneath the news headline radar, and exhibiting some significant differences of perspective and approach. Well, that's good. Meanwhile, that section of the public who like to pontificate on a rapid series of 'controversial issues' without necessarily grasping them in any depth (the down-side of the 'democratization of knowledge' culture) are already off with a "can we move on, please?" - as a Guardian correspondent put it. Well, you can, dear sir or madam. But the issues are here to stay, I'm afraid. That is the price and joy of a plural society, rather than one where homogeneity rules with ease and viewpoints reducible to sound-bites take us forward.

So it is frankly no bad thing that some of the, um, "jerks with knees" on all sides soon turn their less-than-healing fire elsewhere. But the acrimony leaves a legacy, and it would be good if more substantial lessons could be stored for the future. These include the fact that tough questions need to be asked from within the BBC and elsewhere about how to retain care and perspective in the face of the demands of a competitive 24/7 news environment. For example, Matt Wardman, a thoughtful right-of-centre commentator, raises important and detailed issues about how the Rowan Williams row came into the public arena in the run-up to, and aftermath of, his BBC Radio 4 World at One interview. You do not have to agree with the Archbishop to see that issues of misrepresentation and unhelpful oversimplification are involved in this, even if he clearly expressed himself badly at a couple of key points, and overall attempted to cram in too many diverse issues in one discourse (as I think he clearly did).

Second, we need more substantial spaces for a better and more temperate civic debate about hot political, cultural, social, economic and (yes) religious issues. Some years ago a TV company tried the experiment of bringing a large number of specialists and non-specialists on a controversial subject (criminal sentencing policy, which many see as "too soft") into an extended and structured conversation in one venue over several days. People were voluntarily subjected to information and analysis from different viewpoints, and part of the proceedings was filmed. The outcome was that when those with strong but under-resourced opinions really did have to sit down and meet, face-to-face, people with whom they disagreed, or who brought a different story or account, a much better and more connected set of opinions emerged - with greater ability all round to deal with complexity and ambiguity as well as conviction.

We desperately need forums of that kind. I certainly don't think the world's problems can be sorted out just by discussion and education (that's a certain kind of liberal fallacy!) We need radical changes of heart both personally and politically in the direction of openness toward 'the other' - what I as a Christian would call metanoia, conversion, a change of direction away from self and toward a sense of shared community. But personal encounter and growth in knowledge are undoubtedly civilizing factors, in the non-orientalist or occidentalist sense of the term 'civilization': the development of civic virtues and character among people who come to see themselves as neither isolated individuals nor warring tribes, but relationally inter-connected. This is the opposite of the "feral new media" if you like, but it needs to be built on Web 2.0 and 3.0, too.

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