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Transatlantic Hate Speech

This is the final weekly commentary I wrote for the News and Religion class I took this fall:

This week in the News and Religion class I’m taking, we explored Hate Speech. The Ethical Journalism Network has a A 5-Point Test for Hate Speech for Journalists. We’ve been asked to write about “one country in which the media have reported on religion and hate speech and discuss the issue.” The problem is that hate speech cross professional and political boundaries.

President Trump provided an opportunity to explore this recently when he retweeted Jayda Fransen, Deputy Leader of Britain First. Fransen had posted VIDEO: Muslim migrant beats up Dutch boy on crutches!. This immediately became a large news story with articles like FactCheck’s Trump Spreads False Anti-Muslim Tweet, Anne Applebuam’s opinion piece in the Washington Post, President Trump is now a troll, the NewStatesman’s article, What Donald Trump retweeting Britain First reveals about the UK’s far right.

The Guardian reported British Prime Minister Theresa May condemns Trump's retweets of UK far-right leader’s anti-Muslim videos. The article went on to list other dignitaries including the archbishop of Canterbury who said, “It is deeply disturbing that the President of the United States has chosen to amplify the voice of far-right extremists”.

There is an old saying online, to the extent that anything online can be referred to as old; “Don’t feed the trolls”. This is easier to do when the troll is your crazy uncle whom you can ignore or even block online or a mostly unknown pastor in Florida. It is a much greater challenge for journalists when the troll is the President of the United States.

How should journalists cover this issue?

The five point test from the Ethical Journalism Network provides some guidance. The first point is to examine the status or position of the speaker.

When people who are not public figures engage in hate-speech, it might be wise to ignore them entirely. A good example is Terry Jones the Koran-burning pastor in Florida who was an unknown person with marginal influence even in his rural backwater but who became an overnight global media sensation. On reflection most ethical journalists might say he was entitled to no publicity for his provocative threats.

The same could perhaps have been said about Jayda Fransen. The NewStatesmen puts it this way:

Jayda Fransen, whose content was picked up by the US President on Wednesday, has been arrested numerous times, and was convicted of religiously aggravated harassment towards a Muslim woman in a hijab last year.

Her tweets, now retweeted to Trump’s 43.6 million followers, contain misleading and unsourced video clips.

The Guardian describers her this way:

Fransen, 31, is deputy leader of Britain First, a minor anti-Islam party with an estimated 1,000 followers that has had no electoral success. Fransen lost her deposit when she stood for parliament in a 2014 byelection, receiving just 56 votes.

She has been charged with using threatening or abusive language following an appearance at a far-right rally in Belfast this summer. She is due to appear at a Belfast court next month.

The Ethical Journalism Network sums things up with:

Even when people are public figures media have to make sure they do not draw undue attention to politicians and other influential people whose only aim is to create a negative climate towards people whose rights should be respected, particularly those from vulnerable and marginalised groups.

The Ethical Journalism Network’s second point is to explore the reach of the speech. They talk about the impact of speech distributed via the internet. The NewStatesmen addresses speaks about with the tagline to their article, “With the decline of ‘traditional’ street fascism, white nationalist groups gain traction online.”

The third point is to explore the objectives of the speech.

Normally, ethical journalists and well-informed editors will be able to quickly identify whether the speech is deliberately intended to attack or diminish the human rights of individuals and groups

Prime Minister Theresa May’s spokesman put it this way: “Britain First seeks to divide communities by their use of hateful narratives that peddle lies and stoke tensions.”

Point four examines the content and form of speech.

Journalists ask themselves: is this speech or expression dangerous? Could it lead to prosecution under the law? Will it incite violence or promote an intensification of hatred towards others?

The article in The Guardian provides some pretty clear answers on this.

[Fransen] has been charged with using threatening or abusive language following an appearance at a far-right rally in Belfast this summer. She is due to appear at a Belfast court next month.

The final point of the five point test for hate speech explores the “economic, social and political climate”.

Speech that is dangerous or controversial arises particularly when times are hard, social tensions are acute and politicians are at war with one another.

By the standards of the Ethical Journalism Network, it sure appears that the videos posted by Jayda Fransen constitute hate speech and that President Trump acted unethically by retweeting them. While we may not be able to undo the damage of his actions, having serious discussions around the ethics of reporting on hate speech may provide a silver lining of getting people to think more seriously about when speech is helpful and when speech is harmful.

Safety Pins and Favorite Verses from the Quran

Another commentary that I wrote for my News and Religion course:

Shortly after the 2016 U.S. Presidential election, I started wearing a safety pin to show my desire to provide safe spaces for people around me, especially people who might be targeted by rising anti-Muslim sentiment. Some of my friends got together a group to provide safe spaces like this online.

A few months earlier, the Council on American–Islamic Relations (CAIR) released a report, Confronting Fear: Islamophobia and its Impact in the United States. Among other things, the report found:

In 2015, there were 78 recorded incidents in which mosques were targeted; more incidents than ever reported in a single year since we began tracking these reports in 2009. Incidents in 2015 have more
than tripled compared to the past two years in which there were only 22 mosque incidents reported in 2013 and 20 incidents in 2014.

This August, CNN provided an update:

We mapped 63 publicly reported incidents from January to July 2017, where mosques were targets of threats, vandalism or arson. On average, that comes down to nine every month and at least two a week.

It is a disturbing trend that raises a very important question. How do we address Islamophobia in the United States? Some might look to the news media as a possible solution.

The CAIR report presents a “Vision Regarding Islamophobia in America” which includes this goal:

Islam has a 75% or higher favorability rating among the general public. In July 2014, the Pew Research Center reported that Americans rated Muslims at a mean of 40 on a scale of 0—100. Zero was the groups respondents felt “coldest” toward while 100 was “warmest.” Muslims generated the coldest feeling of all the religious groups.

One approach might be more positive articles about Islam.

In 2011, 31.3% of mainstream religion news coverage was devoted to Islam according to The Pew Research Center on Religion and Public Life’s analysis, Religion in the News: Islam and Politics Dominate Religion Coverage in 2011. Yet Muslims only make up 1% of the U.S. population.

In contrast the article Getting Beyond Stereotypes on Israeli TV News reports:

Arabs with Israeli citizenship account for roughly 20 percent of Israel’s population, but comprise just 3 percent of interviewees on leading news shows. Several Israeli non-profits are trying to change that

While it is important to understand that not all Arabs are Muslim and not all Muslims are Arabic, the difference in coverage is still striking. The underlying issue fear and lack of information about Muslims remains.

Perhaps more explainer articles and less fear-mongering articles are what is called for. Yet fear-mongering sells newspapers and given the issues of confirmation bias, especially in the United States today, we may need to look at different avenues.

Carla Powers’ article, Reporting on Islam provides a helpful example. She talks about a six minute video, “The Use and Misuse of ‘Allahu Akbar’ to get people to better understand the phrase.

It seems as if addressing the perception of Muslims in the news media just scratches the surface. We also need to address the perception of Muslims in our popular culture. Christianity is so intertwined that many of us make reference to it often without even knowing it. If you make a reference to St. Paul or the Beatitudes, many people will know what you are referring to. However, if you make reference to Al Ghazali, few will know what you are talking about.

This led me to a little experiment in social media. On Facebook, I asked the question, “What is your favorite verse from the Quran?” At last count, it had received twenty-six direct comments and many of these comments led off into long discussions.

I have many Muslim friends on Facebook, and my highest hopes for my post was that many of them would post their favorite verses from the Quran; verses illustrating Allah's compassion and mercy. I hoped that people would explain that the word “Allah” is simply the Arabic translation for the word “God”; that the God of Abraham, Hagar, and Sarah is the God of all of us.

Yet much of the discussion ended up being around comments from two Islamophobes. I was gratified to see many of my friends speak up eloquently against Islamophobia and all in all, while I didn’t get to hear as many great quotes from the Quran as I would have liked, I did get a chance to see a wonderful response against Islamophobia by many of my friends.

While the lack of understanding of Islam is a major issue that news organizations must face in reporting on Islam today, the lack of a common cultural context, and the downright fear and hatred of Muslims by a growing percentage of the population further complicates the matter.

Perhaps we must all wear our safety pins, but physically and virtually and make it safer and more acceptable to bring more elements of Islam into the American cultural mainstream.

The Unexpected Santa: An Advent Reflections of an Ontological Priest

St. Nicholas Day, 2017. 7:20 PM. The GPS announced, “In a quarter of a mile take a left on to Airport Road.” It was guiding me home from an unexpected engagement as Santa at the Community Health Center in Hartford, CT. For the past few years, I’ve been Santa at our Middletown site, and again I’ve grown out a fairly respectable Santa beard. I had the outfit ready, so when I got the message, “x-mas emergency. We lost our Santa. Can you come?” I quickly rearranged my schedule.

I called my wife to let her know the change of plans. My youngest daughter answered the phone. She was not doing well. She handed to phone over to her mother who informed me the two of them were headed back to the emergency room. We had been there just a couple days earlier, trying to get my daughter’s migraine, flu, and whatever else is going on, under control. My wife told me things would be okay and I should go ahead with being Santa.

They say that priests really only have three different messages and everyone sermon they deliver is one of those three messages. I’m not sure what the other two are for me, but the one I am most aware of is that God loves you, the way you are, right now, not as some nice concept or a phrase you tell someone to cheer them up or when you pass the peace. God’s love is real. It is palpable. It is right now, if we can only stop for a moment to hear it.

It is a message I try to deliver any chance I get, in any form I can. When I serve as Santa at the health center, I know that some of the kids I am hugging have not felt that love enough recently. Life is hard when ends don’t meet, for kids, for parents, for all of us. The gifts that some of the kids receive when they visit Santa, may be the only gift they receive all year. They need to hear the message of love in their language and setting.

There is a YouTube video I like to watch every year before I am Santa for these kids and their parents, Validation. It is about a parking attendant that validates more than parking tickets as he sets out on his own journey towards validation.

Those same people that say that priests really only have three different messages also say that they are messages that the priest needs to hear themselves. I am on my own journey towards more fully being aware of the love God has for me. It hasn’t been an easy journey, and I don’t expect it to get any easier any time soon.

As I drove up to Hartford, I prayed that just a little bit of God’s love would come through me on this very distracted day. Not only do I have my youngest daughter to worry about. I have a week left in my first term in seminary. I’ve got a couple big papers I need to finish up, and with each unexpected event, the time to work on my papers slips perilously away. I thought of the real St. Nicholas and I asked him to pray for me as well.

7:22 I hugged a lot of kids today and thought about my youngest daughter who needs extra hugs today as well. As soon as I get on the Interstate, I will call my wife for an update. The Bluetooth display in the car flashed. “Incoming call. Unknown Caller”. Typically in the mornings or evenings when I am on my way to work, or on my way home, when I get a message like that, it means that my eldest daughter is calling me via Skype from Japan.

She is just finishing up her master’s degree in Gender Studies and has applied for a fellowship to work on her doctorate there. We had hoped she would be coming home for Christmas. It has been too long since we saw her face to face. She had bought tickets to come home, but my wife lost her job and money and time is tight for all of us. So, when the airlines screwed up her flight, we all agreed that it was probably best for her to stay in Japan.

Tomorrow, she has the big interview for the fellowship; a four minute presentation followed by six minutes of questions. She gave me the four minute presentation, translated on the fly from Japanese. I’m not sure if there is an official title of her presentation, or if there is, what its translation to English would be. If I were writing a title for it, it would be something like, “Historical Research as Activism: Studying the Amateur Historical Research of Women’s Peace Groups in Japan in the 1980s”

We’ve been talking through her research ever since she headed off to Japan, so I had a pretty good idea of what the presentation was, even before she started. Last year, when I was Santa at the health center, I took a picture of me reading The Guattari Reader. Her classmates have been fascinated by the story of their American classmate’s father who dresses up as Santa and reads Deleuze and Guattari and has long discussions about Foucault and Fanon.

I was almost home when the discussion was interrupted by another phone call. My wife was calling to say that she and our youngest daughter were leaving the hospital and on their way home. There were no substantial changes and the various tests proved inconclusive.

I got home, ate a little bit, and went to bed. I’ve got about a week to go in the semester. I have various family concerns to address. I have another gig as Santa coming up. It is Advent. A time of waiting. In many ways, I’ve felt like I’ve been living in Advent for the past three years.

As I wait, as we all wait, I want to remind you that God does love you in a real, palpable way. I want to remind you, in the words of St. Teresa of Avila, “Patience wins all it seeks. Whoever has God lacks nothing: God alone is enough.” Likewise, as Julian of Norwich says, “All shall be well, and all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well.”

Happy Advent, everyone.

Rabbit, Rabbit, Rabbit - December

Rabbit, Rabbit, Rabbit. November went by without me writing a novel, or for that matter, much for the blog. I did write a lot for my classes and put some of those writings on my blog. This month, I have a few weeks of classes left and a couple big assignments to wrap up for them. One of the papers will also feed into my larger journey and I’ll hope to prepare my next ember letter. There are various holiday parties I should attend. When these things get wrapped up, I hope to belatedly start some advent reflections. It feels like I’m managing to all keep things together, barely. All will be well.

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