Internet attacks on church belie need for open secularity online

 

People cluster in like-minded huddles on the web, sparking the spread of inaccurate perceptions, wrties BREDA O'BRIEN

THIS WEEK, Google threatened to pull out of China, after discovering attempts to hack into the gmail accounts of human rights activists. It’s an interesting development, given it had previously agreed supinely to censor search results that the Chinese government deemed objectionable.

This prompted the Guardian’s Rebecca McKinnon to ask if Google would “stand up” to other countries, like Italy, Australia, and India, that are attempting to control internet content. She says it is ironic that Google, at the same time as it refuses to censor in China, is facing criminal charges in Italy. The charges arose because YouTube failed to act quickly enough to remove a video clip of an autistic child being bullied by classmates.

Her point seems to be that any form of internet censorship by democracies panders to authoritarian regimes who wish to crush free speech, and damages the valuable role played by “internet-organised grassroots citizens’ movements”.

However, she does not address whether the alternative, that is, freely showing any kind of horrible content, is much better.

I, too, instinctively dislike the idea of censorship. Nor can I imagine life without the internet, even though I often feel it is just another instance of technology racing ahead without equivalent development in ethical thinking to deal with the issues it raises.

Take a relatively minor case of what happens regularly on the internet. Recently, the pope made two important speeches about care for creation, and the need to end the nuclear arms race and to protect the poor.

He denounced the failures of the Copenhagen summit. He believes that the “self-centred and materialistic” way of thinking that sparked the worldwide recession is also threatening the future of the planet. He contends that we need profound lifestyle changes, and to acknowledge that the central problem is a moral one.

What angle did the Reuters news agency decide to run with? “Pope says gay marriage threat to creation.” However the pope did not mention either homosexuality or marriage in his speeches. He makes one reference in passing to “laws or proposals” that “strike at the biological basis of the difference between the sexes”. It consists of fewer than 40 words in a 3,000-word address.

In contrast, the AP agency headlined with “Pope condemns climate deal failure”. If you google the Reuters headline, you get 55,000 search results. The AP headline gets less than 11,000.

It is not difficult to guess which headline will influence conventional wisdom. After all, the Catholic Church is obsessed with sex and homophobic to boot, so the pope could not possibly just have linked the quest for peace and justice with care for creation.

These kinds of examples multiply across the internet. It may well be a boon to “citizens’ movements”, but it also means people cluster in like-minded huddles on the internet. As a result, inaccurate perceptions spread like wildfire, and quickly become impervious to challenge.

And yet, in fairness, in two clicks I was able to establish what the pope actually said, on the Vatican’s own website.

The Vatican, however, has a lot to learn. For example, it did not google Richard Williamson and his Holocaust-denying views before it reinstated the former Lefebvrist bishop as a Catholic bishop in good standing.

Neither does it seem to realise the most contentious statements will be lifted from documents and spun, nor does it make a serious attempt to brief journalists before major addresses.

The anonymity of the internet brings out the worst in people. A very strange double standard operates. It is still unacceptable to attack a person rather than a person’s views in conversation, yet totally acceptable to “play the man” or woman online.

There is a very odd situation in newspaper websites, where statements that would never be published on the letters page are published as online commentary on articles and blogs.

What can be found on other websites is even cruder.

Atheist Ireland provides an interesting example. It is running a campaign against the blasphemy law. It could have been an opportunity to create a coalition of believers, atheists and agnostics, who were in favour of repealing the law. Instead, it was decided to post allegedly blasphemous comments in order to test the law.

The 25 statements chosen by the group as a challenge are not really the problem. But over 1,000 comments follow, and the vast majority of them attack not the laws, but religious belief, using very offensive terms.

Most of them could not be reproduced in a newspaper, but here’s one of the milder ones. “The Catholic religion is b******s, run by a bunch of grubby old pederasts who have no clue about the real world. They would be better off wiped from the face of the earth, along with their gold, their monuments, and their ridiculous, shameful, medieval dogma.”

There is an irony deficit here: a site allegedly dedicated to freedom of speech is colonised by people who think it is appropriate to “wipe off the face of the earth” those who have different beliefs.

These comments neatly illustrate another of Benedict’s points. “Sadly, in certain countries, mainly in the West, one increasingly encounters in political and cultural circles, as well in the media, scarce respect and at times hostility, if not scorn, directed towards religion and towards Christianity in particular . . . There is thus an urgent need to delineate a positive and open secularity . . .”

In a recent conversation with Michael Nugent of Atheist Ireland, it became clearer than ever to me that a “positive and open secularity” is in everyone’s interests. It is up to those of us who have fundamental differences in our viewpoints to make it a reality, even in the murky waters of the internet.


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