Column
Character
Comment
4 min read

How to react in an era of social media outrage

Media executions and the quality of mercy.

George is a visiting fellow at the London School of Economics and an Anglican priest.

A man in a suit stands on a gallery above a cavernous space in which are rows of desk
Huw Edwards stands above the BBC news room.
BBC.

The story of Huw Edwards presents challenges to anyone who wonders how to respond appropriately. The news anchor is back, on the news agenda rather than presenting it, having resigned from the BBC on “medical advice”. In news terms, it seems a long time ago – nearly a year – when stories emerged that he had paid a teenager for what are blushingly called “explicit images”. 

His departure, rather belatedly said to have been inevitable, follows disclosures that he has continued to draw a very handsome BBC salary during his suspension from duty – and one that the corporation would rather not still be paying when it publishes its annual review of figures shortly. 

The difficulties come when, putting aside prurience and distaste, one scrutinises why exactly the life and career of Edwards have been ruined. The police wasted little time last year in concluding that there was no evidence that a criminal offence had been committed. All that is left is a salacious whiff and the knowledge that Edwards has suffered a depressive breakdown of some sort 

But that’s more than enough to make a major story in the era of peak social-media faux outrage. Think Philip Schofield, life ruined by stupidly lying about a fling with a much younger colleague (of consenting age). Think Caroline Flack, a reality actor with demonstrable mental health issues, hounded to her suicide. Think even the internet-sleuthing landslide that threatens to cover and suffocate comic Richard Gadd’s “true story” Netflix movie, Baby Reindeer.

While forgiveness liberates the forgiver (rather than necessarily the one being forgiven), Christians need to be wary of using forgiveness as a get-out-of-jail-free card.

So how to respond to the Edwards resignation? The question supposes that we must indeed respond and that might contain the principal point. A senior news anchor with the BBC is a public figure. As such, he (or she) needs to be trusted by the public. Consequently, Edwards is called to a higher standard of behaviour than that of his invisible viewers. 

Serious people in serious jobs need to be taken seriously. And anyone caught with their pants down, literally or figuratively, cannot look serious.  

Yet that still doesn’t supply us with a response (beyond “don’t be an idiot”). Actually, it rather complicates matters. It’s easier if a crime has been committed, because we can take refuge in justice, reparation for the victim and punishment for the perpetrator. None of this seems to be available in Edwards’ case. 

Some will reach for forgiveness under these circumstances. But that’s insufficient, since for most of us Edwards has done nothing more than read the news off an autocue and speak for the nation during royal events.  

We risk disempowering a real victim if we forgive on their behalf, so it’s inadequate to talk only of forgiveness in this circumstance. While forgiveness liberates the forgiver (rather than necessarily the one being forgiven), Christians need to be wary of using forgiveness as a get-out-of-jail-free card. 

 

By contrast, “the quality of mercy is not strained” in this way through our mortal experience. It’s universal and unqualified. 

In any event, forgiveness is a quality of compassion, the latter being the virtue to which we might most usefully aspire in response to the circumstances in which Edwards suffers. The root meaning of compassion is “to suffer with”, as in to share and, in doing so, profoundly to understand the suffering of another. In popular parlance, it might be to walk a mile in their boots. 

To view the media execution of Edwards with compassion is to walk a mile in his boots and to accept, with humility, that we can be as fallible as him. Vitally, this is to show mercy rather than pity. The latter is filtered through human experience – Pieta is a Renaissance artistic meme, which invariably shows the Virgin Mary’s essential humanity at the deposition of her son from the cross. 

By contrast, “the quality of mercy is not strained” in this way through our mortal experience. It’s universal and unqualified. Shakespeare’s famous line is given to Portia in The Merchant of Venice. One of the things it tells us is that to pity is human, but to be merciful is divine.  

It’s from theological, cardinal virtues that mercy flows. But it’s born of compassion, which has its Christological source in the suffering (or Passion) of Christ, in which the human condition – sin, frailty, pain, death – is shared with the divine. 

That’s a worldview that holds Huw Edwards in its gaze. It’s a wholly loving gaze that seeks to share his despair and failure, which is the ultimate act of compassion. Edith Cavell, the nurse who was shot as a spy in Flanders in the First Word War, came very close to it when she said before her execution: “Patriotism is not enough. I must have no hatred or bitterness towards anyone.”  

Edwards doesn’t (literally) face a firing squad, so direct comparison is invidious. But our response might still be a compassionate one. We may not be able to walk a mile in his boots. But we can try. 

Essay
Belief
Comment
1 min read

Everyone comes from somewhere

Why young people need to understand the religious landscape.

Roger is a Baptist minister, author and Senior Research Fellow at Spurgeon’s College in London. 

A young person stands in front of railway station platfrorms and below a large informaton display.
Rostyslav Savchyn on Unsplash.

I had never been so self-conscious of being British. I had flown into Denver, Colorado and for the first time I realised that I had an accent. I had gone to study and a Canadian instantly knew I was a Brit. The locals were less clear. Some had me down as an Aussie, others guessed a South African.  

But it wasn’t only accents. I quickly learned the differences between us went much deeper. Private health care, guns and the separation of church and state were a whole new cultural landscape. They felt very strange to my British sensibilities that were accustomed to the welfare state, the absence of guns and an established church.  

My exposure to all things American began in the early 1990s. The sociologist James Davison Hunter had just published his prophetic commentary, Culture Wars: the struggle to define America. For those I was beginning to get to know, the campaigns to reverse Roe Vs Wade and ban abortion, along with active attempts to introduce prayer into the public school system highlighted the cultural differences between us. 

Likewise, they found it hard to comprehend that in England Religious Education (RE) in state-funded schools was mandated by Act of Parliament. That I considered this a bad thing mystified them. 

The world we are living in has changed. Issues around religion have become more critical than at any point in my lifetime.

Of course, RE itself had a chequered history. The 1902 Education Act provided state funding for denominational religious instruction, mostly benefiting the Church of England. Nonconformist churches were outraged at the thought of the established church indoctrinating their children. Methodists, Baptists and Congregationalists withheld their taxes and, by 1904, 37,000 summonses had been issued, thousands had their property seized and 80 had gone to prison in protest.   

Thankfully things have moved on. During the twentieth century denominational instruction evolved through several stages to the present world religions curriculum. 

Still, over the years I have consistently felt that our approach in the UK was in danger of proving ‘the inoculation hypothesis’ with regard to faith. That is, providing a small harmless dose of exposure to religion in childhood can effectively prevent the real thing developing in adults. 

Of course, faith-based schools and RE remain hot topics. Only this month the government launched a public consultation on removing ‘… the 50 per cent cap on faith admissions’. Warmly welcomed by providers like the Catholic Schools Service, it was condemned by Humanists UK and others advocating a fully secular provision.  

This line of contention has become a familiar one. On one side sit around a third of mainstream state schools that are church or faith-based, most affiliated with the Church of England. On the other are groups like the National Secular Society who correctly point out that the privileged position of church-sponsored education is not reflective of wider society. 

These positions have become entrenched over the years. Arguments are laced with rhetorical hyperbole and are often either ill-informed or merely raise strawmen arguments to symbolically knock down. We can no longer afford to be so self-indulgent.  

The world we are living in has changed. Issues around religion have become more critical than at any point in my lifetime. It is now more important than ever that we have a handle on it.  

And then there’s the frequent stereotyping of religion in the media. Off-the-peg religious reporting ‘templates’ are easy to use but are ‘lazy’ journalism. 

The invasion of Ukraine by Putin’s Russia is no mere materialist land-grab. To fail to take into account the theological dimension compromises any understanding of what is going on. The history of Eastern Orthodoxy and the Russian Orthodox Church help define the Russian identity that sits behind this conflict. 

In Israel, the bloody atrocity enacted on Israeli citizens by Hamas, and the brutal devastation wrought in Gaza by Netanyahu’s Israeli Defence Force are beyond words. But this conflict is theologically as well as politically fueled. Hamas embraces a militant interpretation of extremist Sunni Islam, while Netanyahu’s religious-nationalist coalition sees his Likud party kept in power by ultra-Orthodox parties and far-right religious factions.  

In India, the world’s biggest democracy, 970 million voters this year participate in an election stretching over six weeks. Yet this formally secular state has been travelling on a different trajectory. Yasmeen Serhan observed in The Atlantic that under Prime Minister Modi the ‘Hinduization of India is nearly complete’. 

And then there’s the frequent stereotyping of religion in the media. Off-the-peg religious reporting ‘templates’ are easy to use but are ‘lazy’ journalism.  

A leading newspaper recently carried instant opposition to the thought of Kate Forbes being a potential First Minister of Scotland because of her ‘traditionalist’ views. Somehow, her commitment in a BBC interview to defend the right to same-sex marriage even though it clashed with her personal views was insufficient. 

Across one of my social media feeds as I was writing this piece came a plea, ‘I’m proud to be British. I’m proud to be a Muslim. I am not a terrorist. Why don’t they get it?’ 

Maybe the American approach to religion goes a long way to explain something of their culture wars. 

But always there is America. And here’s where a penny unexpectedly dropped for me. If you keep religion out of schools, for many young people you deny them the tools, the ideas, and a framework with which to understand the religious dimension of life. This can have catastrophic implications.  

As G.K. Chesterton is reputed to have observed, ‘when people stop believing in God they don't believe in nothing; they believe in anything.’ 

Then, for those living within a practising religious home, the absence of religion in school heightens the possibility that their thinking is siloed purely in their own rarefied tradition. 

Maybe the American approach to religion goes a long way to explain something of their culture wars.  

If it's true that whatever happens in America inevitably makes its home in Britain, we need to sit up and take notice. More than ever, we need our young people to be adept at understanding the religious landscape. With the ubiquity of social media, the unseen influence of echo-chamber algorithms and the nefarious activities of those bent on radicalising the vulnerable, we need them to have the tools and skills to be aware, see and understand. 

This is what has caused me to think again and, surprisingly, change my mind. We need to draw a line in the sand on our historic arguments, disagreements and differences of conviction. The situation is more pressing. We need a reset.  

If democracy is not a zero-sum game where the majority gets to impose its will tyrannically on the rest, this has to be a way forward. 

The encouraging thing is that the groundwork for such a step change is already in place. In 2018 the Commission on Religious Education (CoRE) proposed a reconceiving of the subject as Religion and Worldviews. Their intention was to make it more appropriate and inclusive for the twenty-first century. For them, the ‘complex, diverse and plural’ landscapes of different religions and worldviews deserved both understanding and respect. Yet, students also needed to develop the ‘necessary critical facility to ask questions and challenge assumptions’. 

Such an approach embraces the insights and philosophical commitments of non-religious worldviews too. ‘Everyone has a worldview’, said the report. Nobody stands nowhere was the title of an excellent animated short film on YouTube produced by the Theos think tank. 

The truth is, ‘everyone comes from somewhere’. This is as true for secular humanists as it is for cradle-to-grave Anglicans, majority-world Pentecostalists and British-born Muslims. Helpfully CoRE defines a worldview as: 

… a person’s way of understanding, experiencing and responding to the world. 

The report maintained that it was vitally important that different worldviews were understood as ‘lived experience’. This was not just about abstract beliefs, doctrinal understandings and theoretical convictions. This was about real people, the lives they live and what is important and gives meaning to them. 

If living in a genuine democracy is about learning how to rub along together. If it is about understanding and respecting those who have a different take on life than we do, no matter how ‘odd’ it seems. If democracy is not a zero-sum game where the majority gets to impose its will tyrannically on the rest, this has to be a way forward.  

Given the challenges that face us, it seems to me that not to change our approach to RE would be negligent. Yet to remove all reference to religion from our schools risks our young people falling prey to manipulation, subversion and control by bad actors, misinformed activists and cranks. 

These would be the seeds of our very own culture wars.  

Personally speaking, I’d rather not go there.