News that the Church of England has published social media guidelines promoting ‘truth, kindness, welcome, inspiration and togetherness’ sounds welcome. Surely we all want to live in a world which live and let lives, where kindness and tolerance are key, and everybody has the same human rights, regardless of gender, race, colour, sexuality, nationality, or religion?
Well yes, but hold on. These values are only meaningful if everyone adheres to them. Often the acrimony on social media stems from fighting about very real social ills: anti-Semitism in the Labour party and the Islamic world; racism; sexism; homophobia; the allowing of violent psychopaths access to their victims, whether they're male rapists in a women's prison or dictators starving and killing innocent citizens. Surely opposition to injustices like these should be vigorous and fearless? If we are all cowed into beatific ‘tolerance’, none of the evils in the world would be challenged, fought, or overcome.
The Church of England has form in cowed deference and wishy-washy cowardice. In 2008, Rowan Williams advocated Sharia Law for the UK’s Muslims, to make them feel at home. Some Muslims didn’t ‘relate to the British legal system’, he wheedled. But of course: we must immediately capitulate to those who stamp their little feet in frustration at British law. Never mind throwing women, gays, atheists and agnostics to the proverbial lions.
The internet is a place of robust exchange of ideas and debate. To dilute it into a primary school playground would be to deprive it of its energy and clout. Yes, of course people should be honest and should not plagiarise, two other pieces of advice from the CoE guidelines. But this is common sense and is already legislated for in law.
The guidelines also request that people report social media users who post ‘inappropriate, unsuitable or offensive’ material. They say that they will delete, block, or report these comments as necessary. But who is the arbiter of what is inappropriate, unsuitable, or offensive? If an Imam reports that he finds photos of gays carousing at Pride ‘offensive’, will they be removed? What about photos of unveiled women? What if Ken Livingstone takes umbrage at someone stating he was wrong to say Hitler was a ‘supporter of Zionism’? What if Putin's cronies demand people retract comments pointing the finger at Russia for the deaths of Alexander Litvinenko, or the Salisbury poisonings? Or if a pal of Kim Jong-un's bleats that it’s unfair to suggest that Otto Warmbier’s coma was the fault of North Korea.
Turning the internet into a nursery with a naughty corner is not only infantile, it is dangerous. Deleting written commentary that does not breach any laws is censorship.
Offence-taking has reached such epic proportions that students at Bowdoin College in Maine were reportedly offered counselling by their university after classmates wore sombrero hats to a tequila party. The college administrators sent out a flurry of e mails declaring they would investigate ‘an act of ethnic stereotyping.’ Meanwhile, students at Oberlin College in the US simultaneously demanded cultural diversity in their canteen food, and accused staff in their canteen of cultural appropriation when they attempted to meet these demands by serving up an attempt at Vietnamese food. If 'offensive' posts are removed, in this current climate of highly-strung individuals waiting to break down over imagined crimes, debate will be completely stifled.
The Church of England has enough of its own problems to sort out, and should concentrate on these rather than trying to be the touchy-feely policeman of the internet. These include the alleged covering-up of sexual abuse allegations for decades, and an intolerance of gay evangelicals.
Kindness is always welcome, but I don’t wish to ‘welcome’ or be ‘together’ with those who don’t respect the right of every individual to live with equal human rights. Turning the other cheek to intolerance is appeasing it. As Karl Popper said: if we extend unlimited tolerance even to those who are intolerant, then the tolerant will be destroyed, and tolerance with them.