How do you sum up a year? Facebook does it with a personalised smorgasbord of photos and posts. Others have put up video compilations of famous deaths, key moments and funny stories from 2016. Alternatively, Oxford Dictionaries gave us their summary term of the year: “post-truth”.
Looking back is a useful exercise. It makes us think about the big issues, themes and problems of the past 12 months. It can help us see what God might be moving us to change. Effectively, it’s the past-focused version of a New Year’s resolution.
Normally, our New Year’s resolutions are personal goals. In them we aim to kick our bad habits or acquire some good ones. But through looking back, we could also come up with areas of improvement that are wider than us as individuals. How can our life together be better in the next year? What is society’s equivalent of losing ten pounds or joining a gym?
We could do worse than looking at how we disagree, especially in the light of the bad, ugly and (occasionally) good debates that dominated last year’s news. We’ve acquired some bad habits when it comes to dealing with controversial opinions.
We’re increasingly tempted to screen out the voices with which we disagree, particularly on issues close to our hearts. Or when we think those opposing voices are saying something harmful. More on this here.
Such disengagement with disagreement has always been tempting, but has never been so easy. In their own ways, social media, modern news sources and most comedy shows insulate us from dissent. Today, we are better equipped to avoid disagreement than educated and politically-engaged people have ever been.
I’d say this has made us rather thin-skinned. When we are forced to deal with controversy, it hurts. We feel like the person who never kept their exercise resolution and is forced to sprint for a bus. And so today there’s greater support for keeping controversial voices out of sight and out of mind. One sign of this is the development of a practice called ‘no-platforming.’
No-platforming started out in the 1970s as students refused to allow violent fascist organisations to operate like other political parties. Their leaders were not allowed to use common venues or participate in joint events. Other speakers refused to share an opportunity to speak (a ‘platform’) with barred figures.
The idea was to protect vulnerable minorities from groups inciting violence against them. But in 2016, ‘no-platforming’ has taken on a life of its own. This was seen in both corporate policies and in actions taken by individual leaders.
For example, last February, an NUS official refused to share a platform with LGBT rights activist Peter Tatchell accusing him of ‘transphobia’. Prominent feminists have also been barred from university events for the same reason.
The policy has often been deployed against the pro-life movement. Last November, the chairwoman organising the Northern Ireland Human Rights Festival resigned. She did so at the inclusion in the festival of an event by the pro-life Both Lives Matter campaign. Christian figures and groups have also been prevented from speaking, by policy or protest.
No one seems to know where to stop with no-platforming. But more and more people acknowledge that it hasn’t promoted good, respectful agreement.
However, others would argue that while the above examples are excessive, no-platforming still has a role. After all, we have to deal with some really horrible viewpoints, whose apologists deceive and dehumanise, but stop just short of demanding violence. Can’t we still block fascists, as was done in the past?
Here we come to a bigger problem. There’s no such thing as full no-platforming in the 21st century. The language is as outdated as walking into a Post Office and asking to send a telegram.
As is so often the case, it was the internet that killed no-platforming. In the UK 92.6 per cent of people have internet access and 66 per cent have access to a smartphone. What on earth does it mean to no-platform someone with a massive online profile? Censoring the internet is like trying to censor the weather.
On one level this is a tremendous opportunity. It provides so many opportunities for telling more people about Jesus and for spreading Christian teaching. However, the good has come at a cost. We can no longer deny anyone the ability to speak to a large audience.
In the past there was a genuine dilemma, which went like this: do we allow an unpleasant speaker to speak, but be challenged in a public debate? Or do we deny them a platform, but give them the allure of a persecuted resistance figure by banning them? If we do the latter, we are just pushing them online. They get their platform, and a persecution complex thrown in for free.
Like it or not, we live in an omni-platformed culture. And this requires a massive change in strategy. However horrible someone’s views may be, we can no longer take away their podium. Instead, we must focus on raising the game of the people sitting in front of it.
In other words, we need to put the tools of good disagreement into as many hands as possible. , there are certain tools which equip an audience to resist bad arguments. These include understanding logic and psychological manipulation, as well as the use and abuse of statistics. They also include greater digital and religious literacy.
As Christians we have nothing to fear and much to gain through such a renewed quest for truth.
We must train our muscles in disagreement, through much practice. Disagreement is a compound exercise. It involves many different muscle movements: restraining your emotional reactions, trying to understand someone’s reasons, responding with argument and not a cheap shot.
These principles are not new. However, getting them into everyone’s heads will require teachers and popularisers of a calibre not seen before. This will be much harder task than no-platforming ever was. But unlike no-platforming, this actually work.s
Wouldn’t it be amazing if Christians led the way in this pursuit of truth and disagreeing well in an omni-platformed world? Imagine if we were known for how we handled disagreement, and it started catching on in society. If it did, perhaps 2017’s word of the year would be something more encouraging than ‘no-platform’ ‘post-truth’ or ‘division’. How’s that as a resolution for the months ahead?