Simon Uttley

What has happened to truth and tolerance in the social media age of ‘violent binaries’, and how do we help young people deal with  an often illiberal cultural landscape? These questions are addressed by Simon Uttley, headteacher of a Catholic secondary school and associate professor of the University of Notre Dame, London Global Gateway.

A while ago the press were asking ‘can you be a committed Christian and the leader of a party?’ following Tim Farron’s ‘difficulties’ with espousing his beliefs regarding gay sex. Of course, the real answer is yes – and no. Trivially, yes – one can espouse a belief, so long as it is ‘flexible’ enough not to ‘undermine’ manifesto commitments or fall foul of difficult questions from the press, whose questions are typically based on an artificially binary formula designed to catch the recipient off guard. ‘Is ‘x’ the case Minister, yes or no? It’s a simple question!’ (If it was simple the interviewer would not have posed it).
So in this reading, when Tim Farron, who, as a politician, as far as I can see fully defended the legal rights of self-expression among the LGBT community, was asked whether gay sex was a sin – which whether as an evangelical or, indeed, ‘traditionalist’ Christian of many (though not all) stripes, would still, frequently, elicit the answer ‘yes’ – had he answered in the affirmative this would have been a reasonable rendering of religious dogma. This has nothing to do with him wishing to ban this or that or engender hate. But, of course, he didn’t as he knew this would be political suicide. Instead he performed a U-turn on his personal belief and declared, with magisterial aplomb, that gay sex was not sinful and his fate was set. Then he performed another U-turn and said he regretted saying gay sex was not a sin. The basis? He had felt ‘isolated’ into saying something that was ‘frankly not right.’1

Sin, being, for want of a better word, a ‘technical’ term subsisting within the specific language play of Christianity (and most other religious traditions), reflects an action not approved of within the tradition, holy book or mainstream teaching. Many of us will have friends and colleagues inhabiting a ‘social or moral space’ at odds with the full ideals of a religious tradition – even our own tradition – and yet we enjoy their dinner parties, relish their company and heed their advice. They are not dis-entitled by the space they occupy (within the law) – just as we are not dis-entitled to wish certain things might be different.

This is grown up tolerance.
What was interesting, of course, was the reaction to Farron. He had failed, it would seem, to have demonstrated what can be seen as post-tolerant tolerance. He had failed to give his outright approval. He had failed to ‘Like’ gay sex, as it were. He can be disliked or even despised for this, but this does not represent intolerance in a grown up, mature rendering of the word. What this does, effectively, is to delete at a stroke that substantial hinterland where we can ‘agree to differ’ – even in the public square – and replace it with a ‘requirement to espouse’ where unless you espouse or condemn the thing in question – abortion, gay sex, nuclear arms, welfare cuts – you are deemed, respectively, to either ‘hate’ both it and those involved in it – or, conversely – ‘love’ and admire those involved in it. And if we are looking for evidence of how far a Catholic position has been ‘othered’ by our ‘liberal’ society one needs go no further than Jacob Rees-Mogg’s forced defence of his (Catholic) view regarding abortion, described by his opponents as ‘extreme’2.This, it seems to me, represents a disturbing extension-through-misunderstanding of ‘tolerance’ to include, as Elizabeth I said on her accession, the creation of ‘windows into men’s souls’.

Tolerance has absolutely nothing to do with ‘liking’ or with the warm fuzzy feeling of consensus, however bogus such a consensus is. Tolerance, from the late Middle English denoting pain and hardship, recognises that you can experience words and deeds from another, find them deeply uncomfortable (for example if they do not chime with one’s religious commitment) yet one remains morally correct in allowing that other person the space for these beliefs out of respect for their autonomy within the law. Referring to the Rees-Mogg example, when, for instance, did a ‘concern’ with the 1967 Abortion Act become ‘extreme’ or misogynistic? When did a concern with careful pastoral management of gender identity issues in the young (as against immediate celebratory affirmation) become ‘bigoted’? There has to be space for the unpalatable even if politeness remains both one of our nation’s greatest strengths and greatest weaknesses. Whether rightly or wrongly attributable to Voltaire, we have received through the Enlightenment the helpful bumper sticker of what tolerance is: ‘I disapprove of what you say but I will defend to the death your right to say it’.

The right to have a nuanced or even downright inconsistent viewpoint
Tolerance and integrity seem particularly important as we rightly mark the fifty years since the assassination of Dr Martin Luther King Jr and celebrate his iconic role in the civil rights movement. Just ten years prior to this, on the 21 December 1956, Rosa Parks boarded a Montgomery bus safe in the knowledge that her part in the now-legendary campaign to remove segregation from local buses meant that the driver could not stop the bus and have her arrested. If the driver concerned followed the new law begrudgingly, should he or she be castigated as a racist? Or as a decent law-abiding citizen? And if he only begrudgingly followed the law would he receive from us a ‘like’ or a ‘dislike’ if we had a window into his soul?

The point is that even considered, educated, opinion is a landscape, not a triangulation point. It requires thought and effort. It is undulating, messy and imprecise. Phony binary positions degrade truth by offering faux clarity and ‘bumper sticker’ answers. Changing metaphors, it offers not a banquet of ideas but a fast-food outlet offering momentary gratification, especially to the extent that it confirms our pre-existing prejudices and – even more insidious for the child in the playground – our ‘clan membership’ (left-right, religious-atheist... Do we belong?)

‘Signals’, ‘noise’ and sub-journalistic emotivism
In the mythical ‘good old days’ there were a small number of major journalistic organs – often newspapers – who managed the transmission of news across countries and worlds. Of course, these organs could be politicized, were normally commercially-driven and in a competitive market place, and yet, for the ‘good’ ones at least, they were staffed with journalists who had, perhaps, some sense of the difference between ‘signal’ and ‘noise’. ‘Signal’ is, broadly, the substantive news story, hopefully predicated on verifiable facts. The ‘noise’ is the heady mixture of rumour, unsubstantiated conjecture, traces of latent – or blatant – prejudice, and downright untruths. But not now – we have ‘moved on’ and we are ‘all broadcasters; all journalists’. Wonderful for ‘democratising’ news (whatever that means) but no surprise, then, that we are more than ever awash with ‘noise’. And who ‘teaches’ us to deal with this?

And what is the purpose of this ‘noise’? Often it has no purpose apart from venting ire. At worst it becomes trolling as we have seen in recent years, often directed towards women in the most odious of ways. Often it is to persuade, by any means, that one opinion is better than another, predicated on the specious notion that ‘everyone’s opinion is equally valid’ (!) apart from the person who roundly challenges you who is some kind of ‘…ist’ (fill in the blanks). The power of the message, and here I am borrowing from an old notion in moral philosophy, is emotivist. It is how it makes one ‘feel’. Therefore, with all this emotion in play little wonder that even reasoned opposition is seen as ‘cruel’ or unthinking, presumably as it is ‘hurtful’ to be disagreed with so effectively.

Enter, then the ‘like’ and similar functionality within social media, providing a one-click endorsement of what I am calling this violent binary, with the added ‘protection’ of distance from (and therefore little accountability to) the person whose politics, opinion, looks, attributes, gender and so on have been placed, with or without their approval, in the electronic public domain, and the hyper-normalisation of emotion-as-truth becomes possible.

Of course, adults have a choice whether to occupy this anarchic world. But how much ‘choice’ do we concede to infant and primary-aged children? Remember, in terms of UK children aged 12 to 15, 75% had social media profiles in 2017, up from 74 percent the year previous. 39% are between 5 and 15 years old; 1% are aged 3-4.3

Children yearn to belong and to receive reassurance. So many times in my day job I have said to a child who may have read something ‘unkind’ about them on social media that they can always switch the thing off. Invariably this is met with the sort of facial expression that indicates ‘what are you on, Sir?’ Little wonder that social media is as seductive as it is potentially harmful to them. And what is ‘out there’? Vosoughi et. al. (2018) looked at 126,000 stories on Twitter, classified as true or false using information from independent fact-checking agencies. They found that false news reaches more people than truth with the top 1% of false news diffused to between 1000 and 100,000 people, whereas truth rarely diffuses to more than 1000.4

Binaries and the degradation of truth
Post-truth was not the Oxford English Dictionary’s ‘word of the year’ in 2016 for nothing. In describing a state of affairs where ‘objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief’, it cashes out empirically in surveys such as the respected 2018 Edelman Trust Barometer5 where, we read, that media has become the least trusted global institution for the first time with ‘trust scores’ of over 50% in only six countries, five of which are in the developing world. People have retreated into ‘self-curated bubbles’ where they read only what they agree with, nearly two-thirds of respondents agreeing that the average person cannot distinguish good journalism from falsehoods. In the US, ‘informed’ public trust imploded by 23 Trust Index points to 45, ranking the US the lowest of the 28 countries surveyed. Globally, nearly seven in ten respondents among the general population worry about fake news or false information being weaponised. Nearly 6 in 10 ask where truth is to be found at all. 59% report that it is getting harder to tell if a piece of news was produced by a respected media organisation (Executive Summary, 8). There is a desperate search for the terra firma of stability and truth. The fourth wave of the truth tsunami, the rise of disinformation, is perhaps the most insidious because it undermines the very essence of rational discourse and decision-making. (3). The consequences of a loss of belief in reliable information are ‘volatility, societal polarization and an ebbing of faith in society’s governing structures… tempting leaders to make short-sighted policy choices.’ (3).

The young in the Catholic school
As the Head of a Catholic school I am sometimes dismayed at our ability to play our respective violins as Rome burns. This is not the place for a discussion on the specific characteristics of Catholic school identities, so often collapsing into questions as to how many (or few) Catholics we have, how many practice and what the RE specification should look like. Rather, it seems to me that the existential challenges facing our pupils and children exist precisely at the level of what we are discussing here: the degradation of truth, the collapse of trust, corrosive cynicism.

The starting point, however, is not a new ‘toolkit’ or ‘resource’. The starting point is, surely, to ensure that our schools are places where students question, find meaning and flourish. Where, as school leaders, we are not so focused on trying to keep our jobs that we stop doing our jobs.

This is particularly the case where we are often up against an educational apparatus which can so often seem to bend the knee to the state’s criteria of success privileging terminal examination outcomes as against doing the right thing by the God-given dignity of the children we serve. If you want an example of the degradation of truth in our schools – even our ‘Ofsted Outstanding schools’ – you need go no further than (the privileging of) ‘what do I need to know for the exam, Miss ?’ This is not enough in ecclesial spaces where, we claim, Christ is at the centre.

Children learn the possibility of truth through authentic relationships. Ideally, this is driven by their home life. Sadly, not always. In school it means, of course, great teachers but also an opportunity for real service to others; and an experience of love. Asking children what matters to them. Providing them with opportunities to help and make a difference. Daring to build a curriculum around the child’s flourishing.

As the famous educator-Saint John Bosco said, it is not enough that a child is loved; they must know it. And in knowing it, they have probably found the most important truth of all.

If tolerance becomes having to ‘like’ that which subsists in a space not falling squarely within a religious tradition, and failing to ‘like’ is deemed to be intolerant and illiberal, it is not just Tim Farron’s demise as Liberal Democrat leader that we need to mark. It is the demise of true liberalism itself.   

1     ‘Tim Farron says he regrets saying gay sex not a sin’ viewed 3.3.18
2     ‘Tory MP Jacob Rees-Mogg defends ‘extreme’ abortion views’ The Independent
9 September 2017
3 viewed 3.2.18
4     Vosoughi, S., Roy, D., Aral, S. ‘The spread of true and false news online’ Science (2018) Vol. 359, Issue 6380 pp. 1146-1151
5     Edelman Trust Barometer (2018) Barometer%20Executive%20Summary.pdf viewed 2.4.18