Various writings from my experiences in Seminary

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.

Two Psalms for the Modern World

This week, for my Old Testament class, I wrote two psalms for the modern world, attempting to mirror the content and poetic style as closely as possible, while writing about modern issues.

The first psalm, from the genre of personal laments, is based on Psalm 51. I wondered what it would be like if your leaders, particularly those recently accused of sexual abuse would respond more like David in this psalm.

Psalm 51
A Poem of Donald, when the investigator Robert (Mueller) came to him after he had fired Comey.

1 Help me reinvent myself,
with all the self-help guidance in the world;
with all the ability to make personal changes,
do away with my faults.
2 Change all my error-filled ways
and clear my mind of all its troubles.

3 I know all too well what I’ve done wrong,
and the media won’t let me forget.
4 My misdoings are an affront to all that is good
and I’ve caused more harm than imaginable.
The low approval ratings make perfect sense;
the voters can see all my faults.
5 Really, I’ve always been like this,
taking advantage of my privilege since before I was born.

6 You want to really know what’s going on inside?
help me explore my sub conscience.
7 Show me my implicit biases,
that I might truly be ‘woke’.
8 Let us hear the rejoicing
that true racial equity brings.
9 Help me get past my own microaggressions
and all the ways I contribute to racism.

10 Help me make real, lasting changes,
and not just revert to the jerk I have always been.
11 Do not let me be ostracized,
or be isolated and alone.
12 Help me appreciate what really makes America Great,
and keep me focused on loving all people.

13 Then I can finally work with others,
and activists will show compassion as well.
14 Help me curb the violence in our country,
that people may feel safe again gathering in public.

15 Help me find the right words
to talk about what really matters.
16 For the empty political rhetoric
and failure to take action pisses you off.
17 What really matters is recognizing our own faults;
the desire to fix what we’ve broken is always needed.

18 God bless America, the way God wants it blessed;
help us feel safe and loved again.
19 Then we will say things that make you happy
and do good deeds to all people;
truly making American Great again.

The second psalm, from the genre of Torah psalms, is based on Psalm 1. It focuses on the way people interact online.

Psalm 1

1 The best online experiences
don’t come from being like everyone else,
from posting about self-serving exploits
or re-sharing outrage at others;
2 instead share gratitudes and things that are joyful
and constantly reflect on how to be kind.
3 These are the experiences
that bring many great responses
sometimes long afterwards;
they frequently comeback as good memories.
These are the posts that bring the most benefit.

4 That is not how it is for trolls;
they are rapidly unfriended.
5 Their complaints get ignored
and they get shut out of larger discussions.
6 For goodness stays with those showing kindness
but the trolls are soon forgotten.

Towards an Evolving Understanding of Media

This is another commentary that I wrote for my News and Religion course:

I remember those early days of blogging when we thought we would change the world. We compared the Internet to Gutenberg’s printing press and wondered what it would do to literature, politics, religion, and society. What would it be like to live in a truly egalitarian society where everyone owned their own printing press?

We were mostly optimistic, although even then there were some concerns. How would you determine truth and authority? What economic models would support news gathering and investigative reporting?

In 2004, Robin Sloan and Matt Thompson released EPIC, an eight minute video that explored the impact of digital technology on the news media. It was based on a presentation they had done for the Poynter Institute, and while the specific events it described did not end up happening, the conclusion seems frightening prescient.

EPIC allows us to mix and match their choices however we like. At its best, edited for the savviest readers, EPIC is a summary of the world - deeper, broader and more nuanced than anything ever available before, but at its worst and for too many EPIC is merely a collection of trivia, much of it untrue, all of it narrow, shallow, and sensational, but EPIC is what we wanted.

Too many of us failed to consider the importance of the audience developing media literacy that kept pace with changes in media.

We did struggle with other issues. If everyone had their own blog, was their own publisher, what did this say about professionalism in the emerging media? Many of us would not be professional in the sense that it was our primary source of income. What standards and ethics would or should apply to bloggers?

2014 did not see the New York Times go offline as Sloan warned could happen, but it did see a court decision protecting bloggers against libel suits. In a commentary by Ken Paulson of the First Amendment Center, he writes

“The protections of the First Amendment do not turn on whether the defendant was a trained journalist,” Judge Andrew Hurwitz wrote.

While the Supreme Court has previously observed that the lines between traditional news media and native web content have become blurred, this makes the first time that federal appellate court has essentially said that journalists and bloggers are one and the same when it comes to the First Amendment.

Again, we see our understanding of media evolve, and the audience needs to keep up.

The issues that this ‘new media’, as many of us called it a decade ago, and as some still refer to it today, also includes the financial aspects. We see this in the news today as a Billionaire Owner Shuts Down DNAinfo, Gothamist Sites A Week After Workers Unionize. This goes one step beyond what is happening at Digital First Media, whom The Street describes as “the biggest cost cutter in the newspaper industry” when their CEO stepped down recently.

Beyond the legal and financial issues, we have the issue of “truthiness” as Stephen Colbert described it, or an epistemic crisis, as David Roberts writes in Vox.

The US is experiencing a deep epistemic breach, a split not just in what we value or want, but in who we trust, how we come to know things, and what we believe we know — what we believe exists, is true, has happened and is happening.

It is worth noting that conservatives on Facebook were quick to assert that this epistemic breach is fueled as much by news organizations they consider liberal as it is by very conservative news organizations they embrace, despite the research from Harvard. To further the epistemic breach, they go on to dismiss the research coming out of Harvard as not being trustworthy because it comes from a liberal university. This only serves to further illustrate the issues of the epistemic breach.

Perhaps more than issues of the legal rights of bloggers or the financial structures to support news gathering and investigative reporting is this issue of who we trust and how we come to know things. No matter how fair, objective, accurate, or unbiased any reporting is, if the audience chooses not to believe it, the reporting is ineffective.

All of this leads to the question of how we understand media literacy in a rapidly evolving media landscape. Keith Hamon offers a fascinating exploration of this in his blog post, Reading the "MeToo" Text as Hyperobject

I’m suggesting here that online texts—the billions of text messages, tweets, and Facebook messages, the currently dominant streams among countless others—function as a hyperobject, as Timothy Morton calls it, or a rhizome (Deleuze and Guattari), or noise (Michel Serres), or silence (Paul Goodman and the Buddhists). Approaching those texts from the perspective of hyperobjects may just help me engage them better.

As we move from a society whose news media has been broadcast oriented, distributed through television, radio, and newsprint, to a society whose news media is collaborative and digital, as we move from a modernist perspective to a postmodernist perspective, all of us must become literate in digital media and the hyperobjects that people like Keith Hamon are writing about.

Robin Sloan starts off EPIC with a quote from Charles Dickens, "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times." Perhaps we were right in those early days of blogging. We are changing the world. Now, we are in a liminal time where our media has changed but the audience has not yet caught up. If our words are to have meaning the audience needs to become more literate in the media used.

The Laodicean Times: Neither Cold nor Hot, a Commentary

Here is another commentary I wrote for my News and Religion course. I wrote it several weeks ago, but wanted to share it with the class first. Let me know your thoughts.

Many people on Facebook are participating in a 100 day gratitude challenge. Every day, for a hundred days, they post, “Day n (of 100) of Positive Thinking. What are you thankful for or makes you happy today? Please comment.” I joined in because it seems that a major contributor to the problems of our day is a lack of gratitude. A friend, who had shared this challenge a while ago posted on my first day,

The opposite of hate is not love or vice versa; it is apathy. As the adage goes: all it takes for evil to prosper is for good people to do nothing. The only way we can battle the negativity surrounding us is by a daily practice of peaceful and passionate speaking up against it.

For me, this ties back to my religious beliefs. It brings to mind the message to the church in Laodicea in the Revelation 3:15-16

I know your works; you are neither cold nor hot. I wish that you were either cold or hot. So, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I am about to spit you out of my mouth.

It does seem as if we are neither cold nor hot in our country, that good people are doing nothing, and that evil is prospering. There are exceptions, but they are too few. Yet standing up for truth and beauty can be challenging.

In 2008, The Quill published Keeping the Faith by Debra L. Mason. She wrote about the challenge religion reporters face holding onto their faith. She offers suggestions to help reporters handle their faith on the job.

One important suggestion she has is around avoiding conflicts of interest. Things religion reporters should avoid include: “Reporting on your own place of worship, Reporting on issues from which you cannot separate your religious beliefs…[having] Any leadership position (in a religious body) that would compromise your ability to report impartially about a religious tradition… Profiling people you know through your religious life and Reporting on issues for which you’ve advocated on behalf of your faith group.”

These are important issues to consider, but at the same time, we must avoid being neither cold nor hot. I remember being told that people feel what you feel when they read what you write. If you feel dispassionate or uninvolved in what you are writing, they will feel dispassionate or uninvolved with what you are writing.

The Society of Professional Journalists, which publishes The Quill has a Code of Ethics that I encourage everyone to read regularly whether they are a professional reporter, a communications professional with an advocacy role, an individual blogger, or some combination of these roles.

The code of ethics say journalists should “Act Independently … [and] Avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived. Disclose unavoidable conflicts.” It also says that journalists should “Label advocacy and commentary.”

As a Post Structural Christian Mystic Poet, I question whether any of us can truly act independently. Our way of thinking, our way of speaking, or very language itself, is shaped by when and where we have been brought up, by our social location.

In this context, as opposed to the context of being a professional journalist, I need to find what works for me, as I write about religion. I believe I am called to write about how we reconnect the spiritual to our daily lives. I believe my words need to be “hot” words of advocacy, about places I worship, people I worship with, and even about leadership roles I take on. I also need to make sure that my words are properly labeled as advocacy and commentary and meet as many other of the ethical standards of the SPJ as possible.

We need more people writing about what is good, what is spiritual, whether it is a sunrise, a baby sleeping on our chest, a young child telling us they love us, a hug from a spouse, or the gentle breeze laden with God’s love rustling our hair. We need to find new ways of sharing this writing in our ever changing media landscape, and we need to help others communicate about their spiritual beliefs as effectively as possible.

The message to the church in Laodicea continues in Revelation 3:19-20

I reprove and discipline those whom I love. Be earnest, therefore, and repent. Listen! I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me.

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