European Parliament Elections – Free For All

A free ramble touching on elections, patriotism, true love, media cowardice, and referencing such diverse characters as Patrick McGoohan, Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, James O’Brien, Nigel Farage, and Theresa May. Also reprising quotes on the problem of false balance.

“Free For All” was the title of an episode of The Prisoner which first aired in 1967. The title is sardonic because residents of The Village were not free. Elections weren’t free either, but they did descend into a free-for-all:

I always think of this Prisoner episode around election time, especially as politics grows more and more surreal, and what is odd or intolerable is “normalized” (to use a word which was absent from political discourse in 1967).

The Prisoner is (in part) about people living in a totalitarian technocracy; and what especially irks the main character (played by Patrick McGoohan) is that they have normalized the intolerable conditions under which they live. They enjoy electioneering as a community activity in spite of knowing it’s a complete sham; but perhaps “enjoy” is not quite the right word. They take perverse pleasure in playing out a role assigned to them with exaggerated gusto. So, these cheering crowds have a sinister quality, like those cheering for Mussolini in Fellini’s Amarcord.

It would be tempting to claim that I see the same sinister quality at Trump rallies or Brexit Party rallies, but in truth that is not the case. Those real world political rallies tend to be boring and insipid, because they’re attended primarily by people who don’t see very deeply into the nature of reality, or the character and motivations of the politicians they’re supporting. Most attendees are not downright evil or sinister, just frightfully dim, and prone to the character flaws which lack of insight can give rise to.

A theme which has emerged in some of my posts is: What is a genuine emotion? Since politicians and other salespeople are constantly pushing our emotional hot buttons in order to manipulate us, how can we be more discriminating in our responses to their stimuli, to propaganda? Can we learn to distinguish between emotions which are cheap and easy to produce (even through lying) and emotions which come from the core of our being and seem to radiate truth, or connect us with something truly eternal and greater than ourselves?

Patriotism is one of those emotions it’s difficult to question. Maybe people who attend Trump or Brexit Party rallies are genuinely patriotic. Or maybe like love (or what sometimes passes for love), patriotism can exist at a multitude of levels — some shallow, some more profound.

On her 1968 double album Any Day Now, Joan Baez sang nothing but Bob Dylan songs, including two which show how love can be viewed both cynically and idealistically. These are “Love Is Just a Four-Letter Word” and “Love Minus Zero/No Limit”:

Seems like only yesterday
I left my mind behind
Down in the Gypsy Cafe
With a friend of a friend of mine
Who sat his baby heavy on her knee
Yet spoke of life most free from slavery
With eyes that showed no trace of misery
The phrase in connection first with she occurred
That love is just a four-letter word

Outside a rattling storefront window
Cats meowed till the break of day
Me, I kept my mouth shut to you
I had no words to say
My experience was limited and underfed
You were talking while I hid
To the one who was the father of your kid
You probably didn’t think I did, but I heard
You say that love is just a four-letter word

I said goodbye unnoticed
Pushed forth into my own games
Drifting in and out of lifetimes
Unmentionable by name
Searching for my double, looking for
Complete evaporation to the core
Though I tried and failed at finding any door
I must have thought that there was nothing more absurd
Than that love is just a four-letter word

Though I never knew just what you meant
When you were speaking to your man
I can only think in terms of me
And now I understand
After waking enough times to think I see
The Holy Kiss that’s supposed to last eternity
Blow up in smoke, its destiny
Falls on strangers, travels free
Yes, I know now, traps are only set by me
And I do not really need to be assured
That love is just a four-letter word

Strange it is to be beside you
Many years, the tables turned
You’d probably not believe me
If I told you all I’ve learned
And it is very, very weird indeed
To hear words like forever, fleets of
Ships run through my mind, I cannot cheat
It’s like looking in a teacher’s face complete
I can say nothing to you but repeat what I heard
That love is just a four-letter word

My love, she speaks like silence
Without ideals or violence
She doesn’t have to say she’s faithful
Yet she’s true like ice, like fire

People carry roses
And make promises by the hour
My love she laughs like the flowers
Valentines can’t buy her

In the dime stores and bus stations
People talk of situations
Read books, repeat quotations
Draw conclusions on the wall

Some speak of the future
My love, she speaks softly
She knows there’s no success like failure
And that failure’s no success at all

The cloak and dagger dangles
Madams light the candles
In ceremonies of the horsemen
Even the pawn must hold a grudge

Statues made of matchsticks
Crumble into one another
My love winks, she does not bother
She knows too much to argue or to judge

The bridge at midnight trembles
The country doctor rambles
Bankers’ nieces seek perfection
Expecting all the gifts that wise men bring

The wind howls like a hammer
The night wind blows cold and rainy
My love, she’s like some raven
At my window with a broken wing

Love falls on strangers, travels free, and love (or what passes for love) sometimes results in loveless marriages and unwanted, unloved children; but love can also be true and constant, like ice, like fire.

Truth and constancy are wanting in our politicians, and in advertisers who flog us their products; and we have normalized the phenomenon of being lied to. These are, if not causes, at least symptoms of what ails us in modern life.

This allows me to segue into a recent interview with James O’Brien — a British journalist, radio talk show host, and author:

One of O’Brien’s points is that the media are not being honest or scrupulous in their treatment of our would-be leaders — not practicing good journalism. Their simplistic formula for a news segment is to get two people who hold opposing views to slug it out for a few minutes (or a few paragraphs). Lacking any reference point or North Star pointing towards truth, the outcome is decided more or less on force of personality, or who can most effectively appeal to base sentiments. A bounder like Nigel Farage rises to power because practically no one in the UK media is truth-squading him.

These problems are not new, nor is this analysis. A number of media outlets have, at one time or another, called attention to the problem of false balance and pledged to try and rectify or overcome it; yet we are still where we are. The BBC (which is, after all, a governmental institution) continues to believe — or act as if they believed — that pointing out when a politician is lying outright or contradicting his/her own prior statements would somehow be a “biased” thing to do. That culture in which truth and lies are treated as if coequal needs to change.

In a 2016 post, “Better Reporting on Religious and Ethnic Minorities,” I discussed the problem of false balance, and compiled some potent quotes which I reprise here. Rem Rieder writes:

No matter what the news media’s many critics believe, most journalists endeavor to be fair, to give both sides rather than choose sides. In that effort, there’s a tendency to print what someone says, print what the other side says and call it a day.

The trouble is, there isn’t always equal merit on both sides. So, in instances where one side is largely fact-based, and the other is spouting obvious nonsense, treating both sides equally isn’t balanced. It’s misleading.

Often journalists are reluctant to state the conclusions that stem from their reporting, out of the concern that they will appear partisan or biased. But just laying out both positions without going further in an effort to establish the truth can create [false balance]. And that doesn’t do much good for the readers and the viewers.

Journalism isn’t stenography. It’s not treating everything the same when it’s not the same. It’s about giving citizens information about public affairs that is as accurate as possible.

— Rem Rieder, “The danger of false balance in journalism,” USA Today

Katrina vanden Heuvel writes:

False equivalence in the media — giving equal weight to unsupported or even discredited claims for the sake of appearing impartial — is not unusual. … There are many sides to almost every story, but that doesn’t mean they are automatically equal. Unfortunately, too much of the media has become increasingly fixated on finding “balance,” even if it means presenting fiction on par with fact.

Ultimately, forcing balance where there is none is not journalistically ethical. It’s not part of the proud and essential tradition of truth telling and evaluation, either. At best, it’s lazy. At worst, it’s an abdication of the media’s responsibility.

— Katrina vanden Heuvel, “The distorting reality of ‘false balance’ in the media,” The Washington Post

According to The Economist:

Balance is easy and cheap. In political journalism, a vitriolic quote from each side and a punchy headline is all that is needed to feed the news machine. Who cares if substance and analysis are thrown to the wind? Journalism is a commodity. There is always a need for more “inventory” on which to place ads. Journalism, real journalism — the pursuit of truth — also creates inventory, but not as much, and it is difficult, costly and time-consuming. Far easier to bolt together a few pieces of trivial comment from political pundits and move on.

— “The balance trap,” The Economist

Maragaret Sullivan, [former] Public Editor at The New York Times, writes:

Hardly anything sends Times readers for their boxing gloves as quickly as does the practice of “he said/she said” reporting. (Here’s an extreme and made-up example just for the sake of illustration: “Some sources believe that the earth is flat; others insist that it is round.”) … In general, The Times tries to avoid letting two sides of a debate get equal time when one of them represents an established truth[.]

— Margaret Sullivan, “Another Outbreak of ‘False Balance’?” The New York Times

Ms. Sullivan also writes:

Simply put, false balance is the journalistic practice of giving equal weight to both sides of a story, regardless of an established truth on one side. And many people are fed up with it. They don’t want to hear lies or half-truths given credence on one side, and shot down on the other. They want some real answers.

“Recently, there’s been pressure to be more aggressive on fact-checking and truth-squading,” said Richard Stevenson, The Times’s political editor. “It’s one of the most positive trends in journalism that I can remember.”

You’re entitled to your own opinion but not to your own facts, goes the line from [late Senator] Daniel Patrick Moynihan[.] … The trick, of course, is to determine those facts, to identify the established truth.

The associate managing editor for standards, Philip B. Corbett, puts it this way: “I think editors and reporters are more willing now than in the past to drill down into claims and assertions, in politics and other areas, and really try to help readers sort out conflicting claims.”

Journalists need to make every effort to get beyond the spin and help readers know what to believe, to help them make their way through complicated and contentious subjects. The more news organizations can state established truths and stand by them, the better off the readership — and the democracy — will be.

— Margaret Sullivan, “He Said, She Said, and the Truth,” The New York Times

In endorsing a policy adopted by National Public Radio, James Fallows writes:

With these words, NPR commits itself as an organization to avoid the worst excesses of “he said, she said” journalism. It says to itself that a report characterized by false balance is a false report. It introduces a new and potentially powerful concept of fairness: being “fair to the truth,” which as we know is not always evenly distributed among the sides in a public dispute.

— James Fallows, “NPR Tackles ‘False Equivalence,’” The Atlantic

False balance can occur when journalists don’t distinguish between reliable and unreliable sources, or between scholarly research and popular prejudice. They fail to locate the “established truth.”

Not that truth-squading is a universal panacea. Some people simply prefer lies. As the Fleetwood Mac song goes, “Tell me lies, tell me lies, tell me sweet little lies.” (Or as is the case with some political or anti-religious propaganda: “Tell me ugly, hateful lies that just happen to coincide with my biased world view.”)

How do you fight feelings with facts? Some people claim it isn’t possible. But as I discuss elsewhere:

Offering a positive vision is helpful. Facts are also helpful to people who are halfway reasonable. A few people do change their minds in response to higher quality information flowing in… Insight is needed, but insight cannot be bought as cheaply as propaganda. Insight can come from many sources, including meditation, spiritual readings, and self-reflection.

Insight can also come from better education in civics. Civics courses need to be updated so that people emerge from the educational system better-armed to deal with propaganda, including propaganda which may target them via social media.

Insight and education are tools that can be used to lessen religious hatred. A high school and college textbook like Mary Pat Fisher’s excellent Living Religions  can help people gain insight into the world’s religions. Where there is insight and understanding, it is difficult for intolerance to take root. The feeling vs. fact dichotomy is not insoluble. Where people are exposed to an environment which stresses tolerance, this can have a mediating effect. Understanding which encompasses both head and heart may ensue.

Returning to the subject of James O’Brien: He can be a bit dark and cynical because he sees through much of what is false in British politics. Maybe his insights would find more converts if he could sprinkle in a few dashes of hope. For, yes there is hope — if not in politics, at least in music, art, and poetry, and (of course) spirituality. There are realms untouched and untrammelled by the lies of politicians or advertisers — realms of peace, bliss, and beauty.

As for the problems of this world… Another issue with the media is that they accept things at face value when they ought to be questioning what they’re being handed. A thing is often not what it says on the tin!

Theresa May says she has a brand spanking new deal for Parliament to approve regarding Brexit. So the mimeo-mad press writes headlines like “THERESA MAY’S NEW DEAL” or “THERESA MAY OFFERS 2ND REFERENDUM.” What nonsense! Has Theresa May gone back to Brussels and negotiated a new deal with the EU? No! It’s the same old deal for the umpteenth time, tarted up a bit to tempt those on the cusp. Does she now support a second referendum? No! She’s offering to vote on having a vote, but only after the House of Commons approves her deal. Then she’ll whip her party to vote as a bloc against a second referendum. It’s all smoke and mirrors; Labour is right to have no part of it. Any promises she makes on her way out the door can easily be reneged on by the next administration.

“You don’t like my anchovy-and-marmalade sandwich? Here, I’ll wrap it in some seaweed and put some lipstick on it. Now it’s a new sandwich! Isn’t it appealing?” “Oh yes, Auntie May,” reply the press. “Please give us more so we can write headlines about it!”

In spite of these discouraging signs, and the potential for Nigel Farage to win big in today’s European Parliament elections, I do remain hopeful. Truth does win out in the end, but it can take a very long time. One should not lose hope! It is better to be in the minority that sees clearly and speaks rightly than to condition oneself to enjoy anchovy-and-marmalade sandwiches and regard them as manna from Heaven!

Michael Howard

The views expressed are my own, and do not represent any other person or organization.

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Joan Baez – All My Trials – Tree of Life

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See Also

Trump’s America: Teachers With Guns
Why we need gun control – an alternative spiritual view
Joan Baez: The Cherry Tree Carol

A Shibboleth Is Not A Speech Impediment, Part 1

Answering such crucial questions as “Which Madonna does Googlebot like best?”

Here I try to tie together some ideas drawn from both Christianity and Eastern spirituality, as well as the cyber civil rights movement. It’s not all cerebral stuff. For your trouble you will be rewarded with a video clip of Count Floyd (of Monster Chiller Horror Theatre fame), and Joan Baez will serenade you with “The Cherry Tree Carol.” There’s also a Madonna tie-in.

I do start out by using some old-fashioned words like “shibboleth” and “Crucifixion,” but I’m not a priest and this isn’t a sermon. As followers surely know, I’m an arts geek not a fundie. My spiritual beliefs are really closer to Neo-Vedanta philosophy.

As I ponder the turns taken by my own wandering mind, I see in retrospect that I’m trying to explain, justify, and work up some enthusiasm for topics which may prove vexing. In plain English, I’m tired of seeing Eastern spiritual teachers harassed, particularly on the Internet. Many people choose a minority faith or spiritual practice in good conscience. This is something beneficial and is allowed behaviour in a (mostly) free society. Yet, both the teachers and students of Eastern spiritual studies are often harassed mercilessly for making what are essentially non-conformist and non-materialist choices.

Some of the worst harassers are people who were once themselves interested in Eastern spirituality, but whose nature rebelled against the difficulty of changing their lives. They become fanatical apostates, obsessed with discrediting the movements whose beliefs and practices they formerly espoused. Their personal need for self-justification thus takes on social dimensions. (For more on this, see the late Dr. Brian R. Wilson, The Social Dimensions of Sectarianism.)

In contemplating these matters, I was energized by quotes from The West Wing and On The Waterfront. “Faith is the true shibboleth” is one quote. “Some people think the Crucifixion only took place on Calvary” is another. (What sorts of crucifixions take place in an information age on the Internet? Stay tuned…)

Mary Anne Franks: An important writer on cyberspace freedom

On deep background I was influenced by Mary Anne Franks, who discusses how oppressed groups often turn to the Internet in hope of discovering “a utopian realm of the mind where all can participate equally, free from social, historical, and physical restraints.” Yet, cyberspace reality has its dark side, often unacknowledged. She writes:

Cyberspace idealism drastically downplays the Internet’s power to activate discriminatory stereotypes and social scripts. This Article focuses on the particular discriminatory phenomenon of the unwilling avatar. In stark contrast to the way users exert control over their online identities, the creation of unwilling avatars involves invoking individuals’ real bodies for the purposes of threatening, defaming, or sexualizing them without consent. Sometimes the creation of unwilling avatars takes a very literal form: for example, hacking into the account of a gamer and using her avatar as though it were your own, or creating a false profile of a real person on a social networking site. Other examples of unwilling avatars are more figurative. For example, women have been targeted for ‘revenge porn,’ a practice where ex-boyfriends and husbands post to the web sexually explicit photographs and videos of them without their consent. … Female law school students also become unwilling avatars when they are targeted by graphic and violent sexual threads at message boards such as AutoAdmit.com. In most cases of cyberspace harassment, the perpetrators use pseudonyms while identifying their targets not only by name but often also with private information such as home addresses and social security numbers. This informational asymmetry further aggravates the inequality resulting from cyberspace harassment.

— Mary Anne Franks, “Unwilling Avatars: Idealism And Discrimination In Cyberspace”

I would hasten to add that men are also targeted, though not with the same frequency as women. And not all revenge porn is photographic or videographic. A sub-genre is the use of fictional narratives, storytelling, or negative “testimonials” by hate groups to portray real persons as committing sexual acts which they have never committed in real life. This is a way of “sexualizing them without consent” — fake revenge porn using words instead of pictures.

There’s also the problem of reputational asymmetry. Not all cyber harassment is done pseudonymously. In some cases, it’s done by people who self-identify as being for motherhood, apple pie, and mainstream secular values which (in a populist and conformist society) no one could possibly disagree with (or so it is claimed). The targeting of minority adherents for hatred, discrimination, and forced conversion to normative values is sometimes advocated by attorneys and psychologists under their own names, in connection with anti-cult groups like the American Family Foundation a.k.a. International Cultic Studies Association. ICSA-affiliated speakers often circulate false atrocity stories about spiritual groups for reasons both economic and ideological.

By contrast, there are non-ICSA attorneys and psychologists who have stood up for the rights of religious minorities, or have been influenced by the high ethical and spiritual values which such minorities often champion and exemplify. See, for example, John E. LeMoult, “Deprogramming Members of Religious Sects,” which appeared in the Fordham Law Review in 1978 and was instrumental in crystallizing opinion against the abusive practice of deprogramming. LeMoult notes that the people who aggressively endeavour to extract converts from minority faith groups typically lack understanding of those faith groups, and also lack any clear-cut moral superiority which would allow them to pass judgement.

Because attorneys and psychologists have come to exert a disproportionate influence on the de facto rules of society — what is considered legal, normal, and acceptable behaviour — there’s often a reputational asymmetry between such professionals (even when embracing crackpot ideas like deprogramming) and the minority spiritual groups they may target for harassment. Hardline anti-cultists tend to believe that the secularist, materialist, and ultra-rationalist world view is simply right, and that people who don’t see this are suffering from some mysterious “cult illness” which demands “remedial treatment” (for purely compassionate reasons, of course). It is, in the immortal words of Count Floyd, scary.

What do Count Floyd and the anti-cult movement have in common?

For decades, much of the modus operandi of the anti-cult movement has been to “scare the daylights” out of the general public regarding non-conventional religious choices. The inability of Count Floyd to actually deliver on his promise of scary blood-sucking monkeys who burrow deep inside people’s bellies and lead to the demise of Pittsburgh is comical in the skit, but less so as it applies to the real world machinations of anti-cult groups. Informational asymmetry and reputational asymmetry means that anti-cultists can simply invent horror stories about faith groups they oppose. If the stories conform to existing “discriminatory stereotypes and social scripts,” they may gain currency despite being invented narratives or borrowed scenarios, or originating from dubious sources. As in the lead-up to the Iraq war, truth and accuracy are considered expendable in relation to the broader political objective. A bubble world of fake “intelligence” is constructed to drum up popular support for actions targeting a subjectively defined enemy.

Which Madonna does Googlebot like best?

Because the power imbalances which affect the real world are also instantiated (and even exaggerated) in cyberspace, minority spiritual figures are easily harassed, and false information (if it appeals to “discriminatory stereotypes and social scripts”) can gain hegemony over true accounts. Big money publications often pander to populist stereotypes about spiritual minorities, and the Googlebot is colour blind with respect to truth and accuracy. It cares mostly for popularity and commerciality. It is (for example) foolishly convinced that the word “Madonna” does not primarily signify the mother of Jesus, nor the Madonna-like voice of folk icon Joan Baez. The Googlebot thinks that anyone who types in “Madonna” must want the blond, brassy, pop idol. The people have spoken! (“Not this man, but Barabbas…”)

The Madonna as portrayed by Correggio.

The Madonna as portrayed by Correggio.

Joan Baez, who was often known by the nickname “Madonna” during her early career.

The Madonna that Googlebot likes best. This pic advertises her "Truth or Dare" line of accessories.

The Madonna that Googlebot likes best. This pic advertises her “Truth or Dare” line of accessories.

There is a sense in which a name functions like an avatar. Creating an “inverted avatar” which steals the name of the original but has opposite qualities is a way of degrading the original while still profiting from its popularity. In the pop idol pic, note the inclusion of a crucifix as a fashion accoutrement rather than a religious symbol.

Socrates was not a material girl…

I’ve been influenced by reading about Socrates. (You know, Socrates, that stone-faced guy who appears at the top left of every post…) In the rule of nations, democracy and popularism are, by and large, to be preferred over autocracy and elitism. Yet, truth itself cannot be determined by a vote, and the deep spiritual truths uncovered by the Buddha, the Christ, and many other spiritual figures are not as popular as the materialist view. Materialism tends to gain hegemonic power in a society obsessed with mindless production and consumption. That which appeals to the most selfish aspects of human nature is often more popular than that which appeals to higher ideals of selflessness.

To even imply (by creating spiritual alternatives) that there may be something lacking in worldly life, city planning, political leadership, etc. is to commit a kind of sacrilege against the dominant ethic, and may court punishment or forced re-education. This is what happened to Socrates.

Ancient Greek society was both democratic and populist in nature. Socrates was a great believer in the soul, but not a great believer in performing sacrifices to appease all the petty, minor, conflictual Greek gods. He was found guilty of impiety and forced to drink hemlock. His spiritual beliefs and practices were actually more rigorous and pious than those of his contemporaries, which is why he was put to death — he was showing them up!

The jurors who passed judgement on Socrates did not know much about him except what they had gotten from a play by Aristophanes in which Socrates was portrayed negatively as a sophist. The jurors were, in a sense, passing judgement on someone else’s avatar of Socrates rather than the real person. There may also have been political factors at work.

Andrew Irvine, who in 2008 wrote a play called Socrates on Trial, says this: “During a time of war and great social and intellectual upheaval, Socrates felt compelled to express his views openly, regardless of the consequences. As a result, he is remembered today, not only for his sharp wit and high ethical standards, but also for his loyalty to the view that in a democracy the best way for a man to serve himself, his friends, and his city — even during times of war — is by being loyal to, and by speaking publicly about, the truth.”

Socrates’ persecution was both popular and arrived at democratically, but seems shockingly unethical in retrospect. This alerts us to the need for democracy and populism to be tempered by very strong laws protecting the rights of individuals to believe and practice something different than the majority. This dovetails with the views put forth by advocates for cyber civil rights, such as law professors Danielle Keats Citron and Mary Anne Franks.

Franks is concerned with “discrimination as an interference with liberty and equality.” She advocates for “an expansive notion of liberty, one that includes the freedom to think and act and develop one’s life as one wishes, without political or social restraints, except where that liberty would harm others.” Although much of what she writes is framed in terms of gender discrimination, it applies equally to discrimination against spiritual minorities.

Daniel G. Hill, who conducted a major study of religious sects as Attorney General of Ontario, wrote: “Within the reasonable constraints of criminal and civil law, each person must be allowed the maximum in personal freedom to decide whether and what he will believe, whether or how to worship, as well as how or with whom to associate. Within those same constraints, he must be free to pursue any matter that intrigues him and even to fall victim to his own folly.”

Back to Mary Anne Franks: “The virtual world has not only reproduced the various forms of discrimination that exist in the physical world, but has allowed them to flourish in ways that would not be possible in the physical world. … [Cyberspace is in] a state of license in which certain groups with power oppress, threaten and harass groups with less power.” The targeted groups clearly include spiritual minorities.

Inverted narratives as a means of harassment

One of the ways that various groups are harassed on the Internet is by locating the narrative that would normally describe them and inverting it in cruel and offensive ways. So, in the case of young women attending Yale Law School, we would normally think of them as bright and capable. But in the scandal involving AutoAdmit.com (see this Washington Post article for starters), they were misportrayed as brainless, sexually promiscuous, and only getting into Yale by performing sexual favours for female admissions officers. Pick a minority and there are ready-made inversions available. In the case of minority spiritual groups, if they lead a pure lifestyle and are devoted to some saintly figure, they may be misportrayed as leading a depraved, immodest lifestyle, and as enslaved to a dangerous “cult leader” who is caricaturized as both a fiend and a charlatan.

The difficulty of escaping such inversions and caricatures for minority spiritual groups is that there’s typically no one in society looking out for their interests. College-educated segments of the population who’ve been exposed to a broad range of views may easily recognize and reject sexist or racist depictions, but may never have had a course in comparative religion, and may tacitly accept hateful stereotypes of religious minorities when fed them, not having learned to do otherwise. This is why it’s important to teach tolerance as a universal principle, rather than working from a short list of approved minorities.

As the AutoAdmit scandal suggests, when there are people sitting around trying to game Google so that the top search results for a particular person point to hateful and obscene material, unmasking the harassers and giving them some “Google love” may be part of the solution.

I had earlier framed a question about what sorts of crucifixions take place on the Internet. Neither Danielle Citron nor Mary Anne Franks are theological writers, but they do yield insights about how spiritual figures may be treated in an information age where significant portions of people’s lives are led online. It’s illegal to physically crucify someone, but there’s no actual law against crucifying their reputation, or replacing the real person with a falsely constructed avatar to be held up to public hatred and ridicule, virtually clothed in a purple robe. I’ve witnessed such online crucifixions, and feel the need to protest and speak up vociferously, identifying the guilty parties in hope of putting an end to the practice. Such protest is in keeping with the theme of cyber civil rights.

Victoria Coren Mitchell quotes Miranda Hart

It’s scary that people of faith often feel intimidated under present societal conditions. In a fun post, I acquainted readers with an hilarious video of Miranda Hart singing agnostic hymns; but there’s also a serious side brought out by Victoria Coren Mitchell in The Guardian. She writes:

There is a new, false distinction between “believers” and “rationalists.” The trickle-down [Richard] Dawkins effect has got millions of people thinking that faith is ignorant and childish, with atheism the smart and logical position.

I interviewed the comedian Miranda Hart recently. She told me she believes in God but was nervous of being quoted on it.

“It’s scary to say you’re pro-God,” she said. “Those clever atheists are terrifying.”

“Oh, nonsense,” I said. “Let them tell you it’s stupid to believe in something you can’t explain. Then ask them how an iPad works.”

Faith is the true shibboleth. It need not be justified. And no, the Crucifixion didn’t only happen on Calvary.

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In Part 1 of “A Shibboleth Is Not A Speech Impediment,” I’ve tried to lay the groundwork for topics I’ll discuss in Part 2 and beyond. Think of Part 1 as a longish introduction, and Part 2 as getting to more of the substance (we hope).

See also “A Study In Contrasts,” where I talk more about Socrates and offer a music clip from Erik Satie’s The Death of Socrates (worth hearing if you enjoy classical music).