A Facebook Experiment

Yesterday I conducted a small experiment on Facebook. I had been reading what various people had to say in response to the change in the Catechism’s stance on the death penalty and had become more and more interested in the underlying assumptions being made. So I asked my Facebook friends whether they automatically identified with law-abiding citizens when thinking about the death penalty, rather than what they thought about the death penalty itself or the change in the Catechism’s wording. People took my question seriously and answered frankly. I was particularly struck by the responses of those who had worked in the criminal justice system here in the U.K.. Inevitably, one or two wanted to address questions I wasn’t asking, but the majority simply stated what they thought and why, which I found very powerful. I hope those who responded also found it helpful because the answers threw light on why people react as they do to the idea of a death-penalty or changes in the Church’s view of it.

Most of my Facebook friends are thoughtful people and many are religious; so I ought not to have been surprised by the calm and generous way they responded to my question, but I was. The overwhelming impression I took from the discussion was of compassion and humility. We (I) have become so accustomed to thinking of Social Media and the internet generally as being disputatious and shallow that to see the good side was something of a revelation. People are kinder and less dogmatic than we often allow, but if we want to know what people really think about something we need to try to find a way of asking that does not predetermine the answer. If I got it right yesterday, it was by grace alone. It has certainly made me think about how I phrase questions in the future — and much more.

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Amanda Hutton Is Not Like Us

When Amanda Hutton, mother of little Hamzah Khan, was sentenced to fifteen years in prison on charges of manslaughter and neglect, there was uproar in some quarters of the press and internet. The general consensus seemed to be that hanging would be too good for her. Here was a woman, a mother, who had allowed her own child to starve to death in the most appallingly squalid conditions while she drank herself to oblivion. If you followed the trial reports, other details emerged that were almost equally troubling. She was the mother of eight (how feckless) and had claimed child benefit after Hamzah’s death (a benefits cheat). True, there was the fact that the child’s father had beaten her up and actually been prosecuted for doing so, but what is that in the general scale of things? He had pleaded with the authorities to look after his child and they had failed to do so. The fact remains that Amanda Hutton was a selfish and cruel woman, an unnatural mother, who deserves to die for what she did. Or so the mob would say.

I must admit I am uneasy about the reaction to Amanda Hutton. It strikes me as being rather like the reaction to the Mick Philpot case or those convicted of paedophilia. It seems as though we all need to be able to say, ‘Bad as I am, I am not as bad as he/she is.’ We may want to say it, but I wonder whether it is true. I am never convinced by those who say they would be incapable of doing such and such a thing for the simple reason that I know myself to be capable of any enormity or sin. Law, custom, a sense of shame or even self-preservation may hold us back, but we none of us have perfect control over our thoughts and feelings. It takes only a sudden flare-up of anger, the presence of a weapon and the potential to harm another is there — even a well-aimed dishcloth can deliver a surprising sting, though the effects are not usually deadly. Add to the mix illness, addiction, financial pressure or what have you, and the potential to harm becomes greater still. In Amanda Hutton’s case, she has committed the ultimate sin of failing to live up to our ideas of motherhood and we damn her for her failure as much as for her crime.

Of course, most people don’t do such dreadful things as Amanda Hutton has been convicted of. Most mothers do not neglect their children or allow them to live in squalour. Most fathers do not expect the State to exercise the duty of care in place of themselves as Aftab Khan did. But in the midst of all the vicarious anger Hamzah Khan’s death has provoked, one important fact is in danger of being lost sight of. Unless or until we each of us understand that the greatest gift of all is life itself, we shall go on experiencing such tragedies because, in a way, we are all implicated. We each of us have a duty to help others, never more so than when they seem to be failing in some way. It was not only Amanda Hutton who stood in the dock but, in a sense, all twenty-first century Britain, with its plethora of laws and regulations designed to make life safer and and better for all. Ultimately, however, it is the personal that counts. ‘Am I my brother’s keeper?’ is one of the oldest questions in the world, and still one of the most difficult to answer.

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