Saturday, February 09, 2008

The hazards of saying what you mean

It’s true, the archbishop of Canterbury talking about sharia law doesn’t have much to do with science. Perhaps I’m partly just pissed off and depressed. But there is also a tenuous link insofar as this sorry affair raises the question of how much you must pander to public ignorance in talking about complex matters. Now, the archbishop does not have a way with words, it must be said. You’ve got to dig pretty deep to get at what he’s saying. One might argue that someone in his position should be a more adept communicator, although I’m not sure I or anyone else could name an archbishop who has ever wrapped his messages in gorgeous prose. But to what extent does a public figure have an obligation to explain that “when I say X, I don’t mean the common view of X based on prejudice and ignorance, but the actual meaning of X”?

You know which X I mean.

I simply don’t know whether what Rowan Williams suggests about the possibility of conferring legality on common cultural practices of decision-making that have no legal basis at present is a good one, or a practical one. I can see a good deal of logic in the proposal that, if these are already being widely used, that use might be made more effective, better supported and better regulated if such systems are given the status of more formal recognition. But it’s not clear that providing a choice between alternative systems of legal proceeding is a workable one, even if this need not exactly amount to multiple systems of law coexisting. My own prejudice is to worry that some such systems might have disparities traditional Western societies would feel uncomfortable about, and that making their adoption ‘voluntary’ does not necessarily mean that everyone involved will be free to exercise that choice free of coercion. But I call this a prejudice because I do not know the facts in any depth. It is certainly troubling that some Islamic leaders have suggested there is no real desire in their communities for the kind of structure Williams has proposed.

Yet when Ruth Gledhill in the Times shows us pictures and videos of Islamist extremists, we’re entitled to conclude that there is more to her stance than disagreements of this kind. Oh, don’t be mealy-mouthed, boy: she is simply whipping up anti-Muslim hysteria. The scenes she shows have nothing to do with what Rowan Williams spoke about – but hey, let’s not forget how nutty these people are.

Well, so far so predictable. Don’t even think of looking at the Sun here or the Daily Mail. I said don’t. What is most disheartening from the point of view of a communicator, however, is the craven, complicit response in some parts of the ‘liberal’ press. In the Guardian, Andrew Brown says “it is all very well for the archbishop to explain that he does not want the term ‘sharia’ to refer to criminal punishments, but for most people that’s what the word means: something atavistic, misogynistic, cruel and foreign.” Let me rephrase that: “it is all very well for the archbishop to explain precisely what he means, but most people would prefer to remain ignorant and bigoted.”

And again: “It’s no use being an elistist if you don’t understand the [media] constraints under which an elite must operate.” Or put another way: “It’s no use being a grown-up if you don’t understand that the media demands you be immature and populist.”

And again: “there are certain things which may very well be true, and urgent and important, but which no archbishop can possibly say.” Read that as: “there are certain things which may very well be true, and urgent and important, but which as a supposed moral figurehead in society you had better keep quiet about.”

And again: “Even within his church, there is an enormous reservoir of ill-will towards Islam today, as it was part of his job to know.” Or rather, “he should realise that it’s important not to say anything that smacks of tolerance for other faiths, because that will incite all the Christian bigots.” (And it has: what do you really think synod member Alison Ruoff means when she says of Williams that “he does not stand up for the church”?)

What a dismaying and cynical take on the possibility of subtle and nuanced debate in our culture, and on the possibility of saying what you mean rather than making sure you don’t say what foolish or manipulative people will want to believe or pretend you meant. Madeline Bunting’s article in the Guardian is, on the other hand, a sane and thoughtful analysis. But the general take on the matter in liberal circles seems to be that the archbishop needs a spin doctor. That’s what these bloody people have just spent ten years complaining about in government.

Listen, I’m an atheist, it makes no difference to me if the Church of England (created to save us from dastardly foreign meddling, you understand – Ruth Gledhill says so) wants to kick out the most humane and intelligent archie they’ve had for yonks. But if that happens because they capitulate to mass hysteria and an insistence that everyone now plays by the media’s rules, it’ll be an even sadder affair than it is already.


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