‘Understand ISIS’ former Archbishop Rowan Williams advises journalists

by - 18th November 2015

THE former Archbishop of Canterbury yesterday (17 November) criticised sections of the media for ‘dehumanising’ Islamic State.

Instead, journalists should ‘attempt to understand our enemies’, Dr Rowan Williams, now Master of Magdalene College Cambridge, said, giving the 2015 Orwell Lecture at University College London last night.

‘Somehow the obstinate attempt to make sense of those who are determined to make no sense of me is one of the things that divides civilisation from barbarism, faith from emptiness. You have to try.’

Dr Williams, head of the world’s 80 million Anglicans from 2002 to 2012 was responding to questions from Lapido after the lecture, just four days after 129 people were slaughtered in terrorist attacks across Paris in the name of religion.

After the lecture titled War, Words and Reason he said he was not advocating ‘sentimental illusions that all you had to do was be nice to people’.

But what characterised human imagining was the effort to ‘imagine the other’,he said.

‘I think the hardest thing we face at the moment is that:  how do we imagine the unimaginable mentality of somebody who thinks that God or justice or the future . . .  is honoured by slaughter and barbarity?’

If we gave up on it we would have ‘given up on something colossal about our humanity’, he said.

Mechanized

Dr Williams commended some media reaction to the recent killings in Paris and the ongoing Syrian crisis: ‘I’m interested that a number of media outlets have still wanted to hold back a little bit and say, “Hang on, we don’t just want to go down the route of saying there’s nothing to be said, there’s no imagining of the other to be done.’’ So it’s not all bad.’

He also said that it was still possible to go to war without ‘dehumanising the enemy’.

But the more mechanized and distant the war, the harder it was, he added.

‘Drones and distance warfare, modern warfare does pose a particular moral problem.’

In the lecture Dr Williams reflected on the works of George Orwell and the Catholic Trappist writer Thomas Merton who both argued that respectful‘civil disagreement’ was vital for a healthy, functioning society.

He noted the current mania for ‘othering’ people whose points of view were disagreeable.

‘Our current cultural panics about offence are, at their best and most generous, an acknowledgement that language can be code and enact power relations.’

At its worst it was a ‘patronising and infantilizing worry about protecting individuals from challenge,’ he said.

Dr Williams cautioned against vetoing points of view, and ‘no-platforming’ speakers.

‘ . . . the law is reasonably clear and helpful on this. There is “hate speech” which is defined as inciting hatred and inciting the actions that follow hate.’

Alarming

His remarks echoed the comments last month by Baroness Onora O’Neill at the Theos annual lecture who said that ‘no one has a right not to be offended.’

He said it was ‘alarming’ when people banned controversy when it was clearly not hate speech.

Referring to Germaine Greer’s cancelled lecture at Cardiff last week, he said: ‘I think she’s wrong, badly wrong on that transgender issue but a) she was not going to be speaking about that and b) isn’t there an argument to be had of it?’

Greer had pulled out of a lecture at Cardiff University after students circulated a petition calling for her talk to be cancelled, accusing her of ‘transphobia’.

Neurosis

Dr Williams reserved his most astringent remarks for what he called the ‘contemporary neurosis’. 

‘Debates about international issues like Israel and Palestine, or issues of personal and social morals - abortion, gender and sexuality, end-of-life questions - are regularly shadowed by anxiety, even panic about what must not be said in public, and also by sometimes startlingly coercive insistence on the rational and canonical status of one perspective only.’

The answer was education, he said.

‘Not in the silencing of disagreement but in the education of speech. How is unwelcome truth to be told in ways that don’t humiliate or disable?

‘The answer to that question is inseparable from learning to argue.’