Pulling Together


False Starts

The Solstice is past and 2022 draws near to its close. As I write this I experience one of the first colds I’ve had since I moved house just over two years ago. Christmas is just a few days away and then we enter that final week when most people avoid work and serious thought and nothing much happens on the public stage. It is, perhaps, a time for reflection.

The last twenty years for me have been full of false starts, all of which seemed vitally important at the time. In 2001 my passion for visible Christian unity led me to found my first campaigning website, EvenAs.org in which I began arguing for churches to recognise the fundamental unity I was certain all must really share. I became involved in ecumenical theological discussions and waited for others to comment on the articles I wrote. There was some interest from a few people in Australia, but that soon fizzled out. The high point came in 2006 when, in rapid succession, I had one of my articles re-published in Ecumenical Trends, attended the Churches Together in England forum, and took two weeks of an introductory course run by the Centro Pro Unione in Rome. I even received fairly positive feedback from a distinguished German theologian, Wolfhart Pannenburg. That was surely my future life’s work, but no. After 2006 everything came to an abrupt stop. The local Churches Together group became largely non-functioning and I lost most of my contacts. I became busy reorganising the website of a national kidney charity (NKF), and the ecumenical opportunities, though still a passion, went out of reach. They have never come back.

In 2012 my work for the NKF came to an end and around that time I had become concerned about the rise of censorship and its threat to being able to make a firm moral stand on unfashionable views. I had long realised public belief in “diversity” had resulted in a perverse monoculture, where diversity had a single definition and other views of what it might mean suffered quiet discrimination. One effect of that was that a community organisation could only receive public funding if it were multicultural in aim. If it reflected the needs of a particular community it would not be considered diverse. This meant only organisations reflecting the Council’s own viewpoint could receive funding and those representing one aspect of diversity could not. Far from being diverse, I saw that as more of the same — public bodies supporting only those who shared their viewpoint. The Equality Act 2010 and the Marriage (Same-sex couples) Act 2013 both committed certain definitions on controversial topics to law, such that raising questions would be challenging public authority in what was apparently already decided. I saw both as missed opportunities to grapple with social issues and bring understanding in what was already a divisive public space.

And so it was, in 2013, I began work on a new campaigning website, The Diverse Diversity Campaign. I originally envisaged that as a membership organisation with a constitution and a structure to prevent it being subverted from its core purpose. In fact, it would be easier to dissolve it than change its beliefs about freedom and a truly inclusive diversity, tolerating all opinions subject to those holding them being able to justify their position through sound argument. Trying to design a website which would largely automate its democratic structure to avoid administrative expense took another four years before I realised time was running away and the beliefs I sought to query were growing evermore entrenched. In 2017 I abandoned the idea of an organisation, and recognised that if truth mattered, it did not need a large-scale organisation to support it. Facts stand on their own merits, not the size of a membership base or a democratic mandate. Indeed, the latter could be dangerous for truth, for truth does not depend on the number of believers, but on objective reality. It only took one boy to point out the emperor’s state of undress, even though the whole nation had failed to admit it.

Neither of these websites seems to have made any impact, and I suspect the number of people reading this is also minuscule. Websites are like documents in a library. Without knowledge of their existence they will remain unread. Someone has to discover them and recommend them.

How, then, do ideas spread so freely on line? The answer is in what is meant by on line. These days, that does not mean websites, but Social Media. Now, I would question the term Social, for there seems something inherently antisocial in the parasitic behaviour of Social Media companies, harvesting data on people’s tastes and interests in order to serve them relevant advertisements. Many of these companies are set up in such a way that they effectively spy on the vast majority of Internet activity by providing free services to assist site owners to understand how their sites are used. My sites are among the few which do not use such services. Accesses are logged on my own server, and I could write myself software to analyse usage, but I have not troubled to do so as it would be time-consuming and of limited use for the effort. It would be far easier to sign up with a free service, but then I'd be delivering my visitors up to multinational companies who could correlate their data with information collected elsewhere and thus infringe my users’ privacy. I will not do that.

In the same way, I have shunned Social Media so far, because I do not see it as a social good in itself, but keeping myself off Social Media has also kept what I want to say quieter than if I had engaged with the major platforms for informing others of my work. Have I taken the principle too far, I wonder? I have been pondering for some time whether without opening a personal Social Media account I should explore doing so for my campaigns.

Then again, Social Media has been blamed for much of the state of modern democracy. According to the argument, its narcissistic serving of content reflecting users’ existing prejudices prevents people learning from contrary opinions, thus entrenching narrow beliefs and encouraging a malicious attitude toward difference. Be that the case it would only enable me to reach those who already think as I do. Useful, though that might be in making me feel less alone, it would do little to make progress. I’m already conscious the platforms used by others who think as I do simply repeat the same content ad-nauseum, as if repetition of the follies of those who are not reading will somehow advance anything. What we need is something to reach everyone and encourage them to encounter issues from multiple perspectives, so we can reach some sort of consensus.

I wonder whether that’s the whole story, however. From what I see of activists on both sides of the “Culture Wars” there is a belligerence which seems to need no amplification. Both Wokeists and (usually right-wing) Free-Speech commentators seem intent on emphasising the danger of their opponents and seem to lack any irenic attempt to facilitate genuine dialogue. Are they the product or the authors of Social Media campaigns? What gets lost then is the middle ground of those who genuinely believe in responsible Free Speech. My test would be: are those protesting about the others’ actions seeking to start an open debate or to silence the dangerous ideas of the other side? If the latter, they aren’t really for Free speech. Then again, neither am I, not if Free speech means freedom to malign or intentionally frighten others. Speech should be Free. It should also be respectful.

So the political question I shall continue to ponder this season of Peace and Goodwill is how to make a difference. How can I step out of the echo chamber and be heard by those outside who need to engage? How can I engage with them?

Then there is the domestic side. That too is has been marked by false starts. It is now a year and a quarter since I last saw a child with whom I’d spent most of my time for nearly a year. I think of him every day. I have no news of him. I am entitled to none. Still, I miss him. I bought my current house for him to live in, and now I am alone. I think I understood him. I worry others do not, for I found in him more common sense and perception than others saw. Given good information he chose well most of the time, something others around him dared not risk or recognise. I hope he is well, but can do no more than that. Maybe one day he will read this and realise he was not forgotten. I hope so, because I dare to hope he will want to learn to read and will ask his teachers to show him one day. He is bright and curious enough, even though he was taking his time to talk. I know how much he understands in the world around him and at some time he will want, I feel sure, to be able to do what he sees others do without apparent effort. For that to happen, though, he needs an encouraging environment, one where he is allowed to grow in confidence and not pushed into a corner by himself. It is being cowed by those around him wanting to keep him controllable I fear for him most. If he is afraid to ask he could lose the most precious opportunities and that would be tragic.

That particular false beginning started with so much hope, so much joy, but it was unreal, as the world had become unreal at the time. It remains unreal now, with war in Ukraine, people thinking truth should follow their imagination or desires, private matters being the stuff of public policy, while serious issues are ignored or eclipsed, assuming people could even agree about which issues are serious. This is not a good place for humanity to be. If we don’t wake up soon it could get very bad indeed.

At the turn of the year people are expected to look forward in hope. The trouble is, last year didn’t look good, and next year doesn’t look much better, so it’s difficult to be hopeful. We should hope society will realise what really matters and deal with it. We must hope that if we are not to lose hope completely. However, we can only dare to hope if we’re prepared to do something about it.

So hope, and prepare to make hope work. It’s all we can do now.

About the Author

K J Petrie has a Full Technological Certificate in Radio, TV and Electronics, an HNC in Digital Electronics and a BA(Hons) in Theological Studies.

His interests include Christian and societal unity, Diverse Diversity, and freedoms from want, from fear, of speech, and of association. He is a member of the Social Democratic Party.

The views expressed here are entirely personal and unconnected with any body to which he belongs.

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