Love, Liberty and Licence

Two events caught my eye this morning: the release of Glen Ford after half a lifetime on Death Row for a crime he did not commit, and Sir Tim Berners-Lee’s call for a kind of Magna Carta of the internet. A man unjustly deprived of liberty and a man arguing for less government surveillance may not, at first sight, seem to have much in common, but I think they do; and rather surprisingly perhaps, I think they have something to tell us about Lent as well.

Mr Ford’s conviction was legally unsound but appears (I use the word advisedly) to reflect a deep-seated fear of African American violence. We could say he was condemned to death to ‘protect’ other, overwhelmingly white, citizens. Sir Tim’s  plea recalls the high ideals with which the internet began as a highway for free information exchange, and the grubbiness that has invaded it since. Governments the world over seek to listen in to ‘protect’ their citizens — and their own vested interests. So much for liberty, we say; we have over-reacted because we are afraid, and when we are afraid, we clamp down. It is all rather negative.

There is a problem, however, when liberty becomes licence and loses all moral restraint. Violence left unchecked makes everywhere unsafe for all citizens; an internet without any limitations becomes equally dangerous, allowing terrorism and abuse of others free rein. That is why we have laws and  means of enforcing them. I don’t suppose Mr Ford would argue that law should be abolished just because in his case it was abused, any more than Sir Tim would argue that there should be a complete free-for-all on the internet. Common sense demands that we place some restrictions on our own freedom in order to guarantee the freedom of all.

Lent is rather like that. We limit ourselves in some ways in order to experience a greater freedom, a freedom of spirit we may not always enjoy. We fast, limiting our use of food and drink, to know our reliance upon God, to hunger for him both literally and figuratively. We give time to prayer in order to experience the love of God; and we give alms in order to share that love with others. Love, not fear, is our motive; and the checks we place on our freedom are not negative but liberating. Lent is a most joyful season when we revel in the freedom that is ours as children of God. More than that, we look forward to the freedom that will one day be ours for ever in the Kingdom of God.


5 Suggestions for Self-Censorship (Blogs)

The idea of self-censorship is alien to many. Freedom of speech is something we value, rightly so, but there are times when, as Benedict says, melius est silere quam loqui, it is better to be silent than to speak. Words are dangerous, slippery things. Once let out of the cage, they cannot be whistled back again; and while they are on the loose, they can do untold harm. When should we put a clamp over our mouths or a lock on our keyboards? Here are a few suggestions. I am sure you can add to them.

1. Never turn an argument ad hominem. Good people sometimes do bad deeds, but a personal attack is never justified unless one is in possession of all the facts (unlikely).

2. Never give way to the temptation to be patronising or dismissive: you have lost the argument if you do.

3. Never state as fact what is merely opinion. Everyone has a right to their good name. If you want to make an accusation, make sure you have evidence to back it up.

4. Never forget that acts have consequences: before you write or comment, consider what the effect on others might be, especially those who may suffer as a result.

5. Never underestimate the importance of goodwill. Encouragement achieves more than condemnation, courtesy more than rudeness — no one was ever bullied into belief.

That is not an exhaustive list, but I’m sure there will be some who will see it as a limitation on their freedom, a forcing them to be something other than they are. I myself see it as a discipline, a way of ensuring that what one writes is responsibly written. Lurking behind my suggestions is, of course, an even bigger question than how we should conduct ourselves online but, sadly, it is too big to explore in a short blog post. Can you guess what it is?



Good Advice

Have you noticed how often Twitter users give each other good advice? Quotations from the Bible jostle for place with pithy aperçus de nos jours, most of them worth thinking about and all of them producing, in me at least, a vague sense of failure. There are times when I want to shriek, ‘Enough!’ It is not that I don’t know what to do (usually), but the fact that I am clumsy/got out of bed on the wrong side today/am counting pennies/just plain cantankerous that makes it impossible for me to follow all that counsel so freely given. Perhaps we could declare a holiday from good advice, just for today, and only tweet what we ourselves would like to receive. It won’t change the world, but it might change us. It might make us gentler, kinder, more thoughtful people, quicker to listen than to speak. It might.


Control of Speech

Earlier this week I wrote about silence, but control of the tongue, which Benedict addresses in the portion of the Rule we read today, RB  7. 56 to 58, refers to something different. It is, so to say, a preparation for silence, a precondition. It requires effort, self-knowledge, discipline; and it is an essential component of humility because, of course, we naturally think our own ideas and viewpoints interesting, worth sharing with others. To choose not to speak or write (or blog or tweet or whatever), is not an act of negativity but a deliberate choice of something other, what Benedict elsewhere calls taciturnitas, restraint in speech.

Now the interesting thing about restraint in speech is that it implies understanding and communication, but sometimes without words, without being voiced, and at other times a very careful choice of words, an apt expression of what we think or believe. The words we do speak must always be good and wholesome, such as build up. To ensure that they are, we need time for reflection. How many of us have spoken before we thought and lived to regret it? What Benedict is urging upon us today is precisely that weighing of our words which will sometimes lead us to speak out and at other times to keep quiet. It is all about speech, not silence; and until we have learned something about speech, I do not think we can ever begin to understand silence.