Guardians of the Galaxy – what does “redemption” actually mean?

The open letter released by the “Guardians of the Galaxy” stars, petitioning Disney to reinstate James Gunn as the director of the third installment of this blockbuster franchise, raises interesting questions about what redemption actually means.

Gunn has admitted posting tweets from 2008-11 in which he joked about the Holocaust, AIDS, rape and paedophilia. The BBC declined to publish all the details but quoted two: “I like when little boys touch me in my silly place.” and “The best thing about being raped is when you’re done being raped and it’s like, ‘whew this feels great, not being raped!'”

Now, I don’t think these are just examples of “inappropriate jokes” (as described by Chris Pratt) – they are, in fact, deeply troubling and reflect attitudes that family-friendly Disney understandably wants to completely disown.  It was the right decision to sack Gunn because, as we need to realise and acknowledge, our actions and words have consequences.  I would be more alarmed if we just shrugged and laughed such tweets off as just a bit of risque humour.  They are not.

However, I do believe in redemption.  James Gunn should not be blacklisted or become the latest victim of humanity’s “mob mentality” – he has apologised and is a tremendous talent.  He should be allowed to work on further project, hopefully tackling with wisdom, grace and truth his past misdemeanours and present maturing.  This should not be the end of his story.

Redemption always comes at a cost.  I believe Christ Jesus paid the ultimate “once for all” price on cross, freeing us from the eternal penalty for our sins, our wrong-doing.  When we come to Him in contrition and repentance, He welcomes us with open arms.  Nevertheless, this does not mean he sweeps our transgressions under the carpet – there will still be earthly consequences but, crucially, we can change and overcome through the power of His Holy Spirit.  We can grow beyond our, often self-inflicted, wounds because of His amazing grace.

I hope Disney will stand by their decision to sanction Gunn and I pray that more people will see what redemption really means.

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If you don’t have anything nice to say…

…become a comedian on “Mock the Week” and slag-off any public figure perceived to put a foot wrong! Whilst this kind of comedy can seem alluring, harmless fun, I think it is important to dig more deeply into this issue.

Satire was first discussed critically in Ancient Rome where a distinction was set-up between Juvenalian and Horatian forms. The former encompassed any bitter and ironic criticism of contemporary persons and institutions that was filled with personal invective, angry moral indignation, and pessimism. Meanwhile, the latter was seen to provoke a wry smile by being indulgent, tolerant and witty, holding up to gentle ridicule the absurdities and follies of human beings. Personally, I much prefer the more whimsical version.

Fast-forward about 1700 years and Jane Austen’s fictional Emma learns an oft-repeated lesson for would-be satirists when she insensitively mocks the relatively impoverished spinster Miss Bates – never belittle those less fortunate than yourself. Despite the fact this character is garrulous, sustaining an apparently endless flow of trivial speech, she does not deserve to be insulted and her mistreatment exposes the heroine’s impatient pride, which can then be corrected.

What is missing from so much of today’s satire is the lack of any positive, redeeming features. Everything is focused on deflating perceived pomposity and ridiculing stupidity with no attempt to even hint at a better alternative. It is easy to point-out the faults but very few are willing to actually correct them.

On turning to satire in the Bible, we always see a balance. Prophets like Isaiah mock the idols of Babylon, inanimate so they must be carried, made by human hands and thus unable to save anyone (Isaiah 44:9-20 & 46). However, he also holds out hope, proclaiming in beautiful poetry the One who is all-powerful: “those who trust in the LORD will find new strength: they will soar high on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary; they will walk and not faint” (40:31).

Similarly, Jesus satirises the punctilious rule-keeping of the self-righteous Pharisees. They would “strain out a gnat but swallow a camel” (Matthew 23), meaning they carefully filter their drinking water through a cloth, so they do not swallow even the smallest of ceremonially unclean animals. Yet they ignore much more glaring and obvious character flaws, such as covetous greed or orchestrating the execution by crucifixion of an innocent man. Jesus, wonderfully, moves beyond the critique to point people to the solution: “whoever drinks the water that I give him will never be thirsty again… the water I give is like a flowing fountain that gives eternal life” (John 4:14). Not just a diagnosis of the problem but also an unbeatable offer. What is the point of knocking down a house of cards unless you are planning to help build something better?

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Dehumanised and marginalised

Recently, I was reading an in-depth report on the appalling treatment of refugees by many European democracies, which concluded: “We must be alert to the ways in which some politicians try to convince people to give up rights and protections that exist for the benefit of everyone. Any authority figure who says: “We should look after our own before we look after refugees,” probably isn’t interested in doing either. And we should recognise the importance of collective action. There will not be “solutions” to this crisis, in the sense of one or more policy decisions that will make refugees vanish.”

How could anyone disagree?  Now, imagine that the word “refugees” was switched for “unborn baby”.  This is particularly pertinent because so often we hear the complaint that those who campaign to end abortion are simply not interested in making life better for the poor and those who struggle in our society.  They say we must look after those at the bottom of the socio-economic pile, not sadistically insist they actually give birth to a baby they do not want.

Yet, as we can see with the argument against those who demonise asylum seekers, this is a false dichotomy.  I cannot speak for every pro-life campaigner but from I see this is a movement which cares passionately about all life.  There is a focus on the unborn because they are the most vulnerable and easily overlooked.  Everyone who manages to squeeze out of the birth canal at least has a fighting chance, but the life of those who are conceived, yet not born, is cruelly snuffed out before they can even utter their first cry.  It’s definitely not a case of “either or” – rather a plea for society to listen to the voiceless and follow through on the logic of equal rights.

An inconvenient truth – life begins in the womb

Abortion is the murder of innocent lives. What is progressive about “health care” that destroys boys and girls before they can even utter a cry to protest this inhumanity? That snuffs out their potential on the whim of a would-be parent? What is “modern” about a change in the law that endorses the actions of 170,000 women who have travelled from Ireland to (mostly) the United Kingdom for an abortion since 1980? What is laudable about a vote that condones the three every day who order pills to terminate a pregnancy? Of course, how many of those choices have been swayed by the vociferous advocacy of the well-funded abortion lobby? Laws should not be changed to aid and abet this slaughter – do we leave our doors open to make life easier for burglars?

How can the referendum result be a victory for women’s health care, as touted by the likes of Leo Varadkar, when at least half of those killed in the womb will be females, and many more would-be mothers will now be exposed to the risks of abortion operations?  Stop framing this as being all about choice and compassion, which you refuse to extend to anyone who has the misfortune of not being born.

I am profoundly saddened by the fact that society so often find these realities too painful to confront. They prefer to completely ignore the human rights of the unborn baby, which are never mentioned by those cheerleaders for abortion. Individuals are invited to ignore their responsibilities and opt for the quick fix. There is incontestable science evidence validating the humanity of a so-called foetus, which by Week 12 has a beating heart, can swallow and yawn, can kick, stretch & jump, has arms, legs, fingers & toes, has fingernails & hair, has all his or her vital organs, has vocal chords, responds to touch and has a fully formed face. In fact, there is more certainty on this point than any of the dire climate change predictions that shape our policies on renewable energies.

The point is that both issues – “on demand” abortion and burning fossil fuels – highlight the inability of the majority in this world to make meaningful sacrifices for future generations. To those who object that abortion is a useful limit on the world’s population remember scientists believe our planet could easily sustain ten billion human lives and, if we adapted our lifestyles to waste less food, fight fewer wars and share resources better that figure would surely be much higher. Indeed, that foetus you abort might become the brilliant scientist who cracks the successful colonisation of Mars. As Ghandi wisely observed: “The world has enough for everyone’s need, but not enough for everyone’s greed.”

So please do not be discouraged. Keep living for one another, considering the interests of others as well as you own and remembering that all life is precious and worth protecting. Future generations will see the light and reverse Ireland’s tragic mistake.

 

Pro-abortion misinformation

I was very frustrated and saddened to hear the misleading claims made by Irish pro-abortion activist Sinead Redmond on BBC World Service’s “HARDTalk” show (listen from about 15:40 minutes into the programme). In response to a specific question suggesting that abortion “on demand” will lead to more terminations, she replied “I don’t [accept that]… that’s not consistent with what we see internationally.” As evidence, she brought-up the example of Portugal, claiming that their abortion rate in has actually reduced since – and by implication as a result of – the law being changed in 2007.

This is very misleading and should have been challenged by the presenter. Firstly, any figures (such as the 14 women who died from back-street abortion 2001-2007) are estimates – and, of course, we have no idea how many babies were aborted before the ban. We do know 2008-2015, there were 145,000 voluntary abortions – apparently the trend is downwards since a peak of 20,480 in 2011, blamed on the recession, but is still expected to “stabilise” at 15,000 deaths per year.

Consider also that “abortion on demand” in Portugal is a relatively recent development and it is still too early to forecast long-term trends. A better comparison is the UK where the figures did appear to decline 1973 to 1976 but soon rose to almost 200,000 per year by 1990 (though there are continuing fluctuations). The worst year, 219,454 lives lost in 2007, was before the financial crash and resulting economic downturn!

However, if you listen to the HARDTalk interview, the pro-abort activist makes it sound like there are fewer (or at least the same number of) abortions now in Portugal, since the law changed, than there were before 2007, which is clearly misleading. She ignores the caveats and the many who have reservations about the change in Portugal’s laws.

The programme would have benefitted from slowing down and actually investigating properly some of the numbers, especially this one, which were thrown around, so that individuals were not misinformed about what changing abortion laws actually leads to. The BBC must do better and not abet the broadcast of “fake news”. I have complained to them and I hope they will set the record straight.

Abortion – today’s Irish Question

Please don’t change your constitution. Think about all those many human beings alive and flourishing today because your country defended the right to life of those in the womb. In fact, a conservative estimate is 100,000 people – alive in Ireland today thanks to the 8th Amendment, as calculated between 1994 and 2014.

Beware the slippery slope. This is often derided as a so-called “logical fallacy” but there is hard evidence to back-up the warning: look at England and Wales. Abortion was introduced there in 1967 under the Abortion Act. At the time, the abortion rate was 1 in 40 pregnancies. Within five years, it had jumped to 1 in 7. Today, it’s a staggering 1 in 5. Moreover, campaigners are pushing for further liberalisation, removing the need for a doctor to consent and making pills that would terminate a pregnancy available for women at home. Some – particularly those providers who benefit financially from performing the surgery – even argue for no restrictions whatsoever.

Ireland, please do not allow the life of a defenceless child to be ended at precisely the time and place where they should be safest. Please vote to treasure and safeguard life.

Perusing the Internet – seven note-worthy articles

It’s fashionable at the moment to lambast the internet as a some sort of cyber-sewers, awash with nefarious activity from marauding trolls to sinister misinformation and propaganda campaigns by shadowy state actors.  To add some balance, I have drawn together ten articles that have caught my attention recently with interesting reporting, insightful analysis and hard-hitting conclusions.

1) “Meet Britain’s Willy Wonkas: the Ideas Factory that could save UK industry” – I love stories of innovation and regeneration, which is here evident in abundance.

2) “Ostersunds FK: Rise of Swedish club under English manager Graham Potter” – maybe one day, we will see this story turned into a Hollywood blockbuster, though sadly there is yet to be a fairy-tale ending.  Nevertheless, what an achievement from this football manager and his players who have transformed their club, without spending billions or even millions!

3) “We should all be working a four-day week. Here’s why” – a simple idea that could have a significant impact: “Our social model means economic growth all too often involves concentrating wealth produced by the many into the bank accounts of the few, without improving the lives of the majority. Growth should deliver not just shared prosperity and improved public services but a better balance between work, family and leisure.”

4) “50 Things that Shaped the Modern Economy: the Welfare State” – this was part of a fascinating series of articles which explored a very interesting question.  The author is a great story-teller using eye-catching anecdotes to unpack complicated issues.

5) “Schools can’t work miracles. But with a little help, parents can” – as an educator, I was intrigued by the suggestion that schools should be more involved in adult learning, tapping into the desire of parents to help their children and not be flummoxed by a 12-year-old’s mathematics homework.

6) “High Street take-over: Dumfries aims to be the first community to buy back its town centre” – as a citizen of Scotland, I am always interested in more local innovations and schemes, such as this attempt to revitalise a struggling town centre from the “Doon Toon Army”.  Let’s hope that such initiatives become the norm and the Government does everything possible to address the power imbalance between the rights of residents over absentee landlords.

7) “From sea to plate: how plastic got into our fish” – absolutely shocking.  Humanity is so wasteful and short-sighted that eight million tonnes of waste plastic ends up in the sea each year. Fish eat it – and then we do but we don’t even know for sure how bad it is for us.  We certainly do know, however, that this plastic pollution is damaging wildlife and creating huge messes in our natural landscape, such as the Great Pacific Garbage Dump.  I just wish everyone would engage with this issue and cut-off the problem at source.

The three stages of the working man

When you consider the trajectory of the average career, I believe you can pinpoint three stages for homo laborare (the working man) – attitude, aptitude and decrepitude.

1) Attitude: you arrive at your new workplace clean-faced and fresh-eyed, thinking that you know everything and determined to make a splash.  You question why on earth you must follow out-dated, illogical, unnecessary procedures and policies.  Maybe you want to shake things-up, or possibly you quietly ruminate on the silliness of holding yet another meeting to discuss a policy that no-one will look at again.  Attitude, when harnessed wisely, can be a powerful tool for businesses to unleash new ideas and creativity.

2) Aptitude: you now actually know what you are doing!  Through perseverance and politeness, you have gradually mastered the ropes and are ready for increasing responsibilities.  Alternatively, you have perfected the knack of appearing to know what you are talking about, maintaining a cool professionalism in the face of even the most alarming of “crises”.  Aptitude is a beautiful place to be – you have chiselled out a niche for yourself that fits snugly around who you are.  However, beware that complacency does not creep and do not forget to keep reflecting on what could be better.  Viva la revolution!

3) Decrepitude: hopefully, you never reach this stage in your career journey.  Watch out for these warning signs.  Cynicism has crept in and slowly contaminated your whole outlook.  Everything is a plot by management to extract more labour from your contract and any additional demand on your time is met with a semi-automatic lists of excuses, which push responsibility on to others and leave you with a withered husk of actual work.  You know the price of everything but the value of nothing.  Trying to learn a new skills has become almost impossible as your brain struggle to adapt to a different challenge and make connections.  Don’t count down the days to retirement but seize the moments you have left to make a difference.

So that, in my view, is the life cycle of the working man.  You could also label them as enthusiasm, professionalism and cynicism.  Where on the spectrum do you land?

Revamping cyberspace

Introduction

This question cannot be ignored any longer. There is a real need in a world of “filter bubbles”, Brexit, President-elect Trump and seemingly unending online vitriol to assess what is creating such deep division in our societies, stymying the goal of politics to reasonably discuss ideas in order to reach workable, sensible solutions. We must think boldly about how we can revamp our digital technologies to break individuals out of their echo chambers into the democratic lobby of reasoned discourse.

I was reminded of these ideas, first written in January 2017, by an opinion piece in the Guardian, where respected columnist Simon Jenkins argues for a scheme of online identification to tackle the deluge of vitriol that has turned a “global village into a lynch”.  We need governments to step-up to the challenge and every new revelation, from antisemitic abuse on social media group associated with the British Labour Party to Russia’s cyber propoganda only strengthens my case.

Responsible citizens

Our actions must be based on the classic “harm principle” – the “golden rule” that we do to others as we wish done to ourselves, focusing on the consequences of our actions for other people. As Google’s old motto “Don’t be evil” implies, this is a challenge for all of us: freedom must always be accompanied by responsibility. These fundamentals must be the drivers of any effort to clean-up cyber-space. We can see that untrammelled, uneducated self-expression and thoughtless clicking has a desperately corrosive effect on our polity. Already in Russia, we witness what happens when a deliberately-constructed fog of confusion casts doubts on all fact claims, causing perturbed individuals to crave strong, authoritarian leadership that seems best placed to help sort out the mess.

Tackling the root causes

Crucially, digital technologies should not be scapegoated. The anger and venom expressed online is rooted in fundamental inequalities in our societies, such as the fact average income growth for 90% of American has been negative for the last two decades. As Plutarch once warned, “an imbalance between rich and poor is the oldest and most fatal ailment of a Republic.” Nevertheless, politicians have allowed income inequality to soar to levels higher than at any time in America’s past. Too many believe – with justification – that their life chances are thwarted by corporate special interests and the mechanisms of government only really benefit the elite. Reforming how digital technologies operate, without addressing this gaping wound, can only ever provide the body politic with the scantiest of sticking plasters.

Strategic law-making

There is, nevertheless, a clear role for strategic law-making. Today’s “filter bubbles” have been created by the mechanics of search engines, like Google, and Facebook news feeds, which prioritise serving-up stories ever-more precisely calibrated to individual preferences. They lead to a situation where politics has become viciously polarised, caught in mutually exclusive feedback loops, meaning prejudices only ever seem to be strengthened and minds closed-off from opposing arguments.

For those who are enriched by web traffic and ad revenue, they must be compelled to re-invest into their systems. They should ensure better fact-checking, flag-up where sources are considered “Trusted” (i.e. non-partisan, balanced) and clearly explain how their algorithms influence the flow of information. Above all, they must work to promote respect for truth and our shared humanity, censoring what is patently false and abusive. The scale of distribution on social media is such that even 1% of fake news can have devastating consequences, especially in a tight election race.

If Facebook employed a proper, independent editorial team, they could assess the quality and reliability of articles from news sites, giving each one a ranking to influence how much they appear on their users’ feeds, creating an incentive for proper journalism, rather than the current clickbait-promoting model. Moreover, where a one-sided source is knowingly displayed, Facebook could automatically include a link to another article that provides counter-arguments and/or balance. As a matter of urgency, they must act against such obvious abuses of free speech as the Macedonian fake news factories and ensure news that is fake cannot outperform what is real. Whilst their recent proposals seem promising, their implementation must be closely scrutinised.

Just as the USA once passed an “equal-time rule”, something similar is required today to ensure the general public are encouraged to give both sides of an argument, whether encountered on or offline, a fair amount of attention. Without contact, empathy shrivels up and compromise becomes virtually impossible, effectively subverting democracy.

Whilst these changes might seem daunting, legislators should tap into the zeal of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs to create a better world. They must be reminded of previous bold claim, such as Zuckerberg’s declaration: “we make money to build better services.” What holds back so much progress is the fear that unilateral action would merely embolden unscrupulous competitors and lead to diminished market share, so regulations that apply to everyone fairly are required to create a level playing field. Moreover, many experts believe that the social media marketing model leaves no incentive for tackling the problem as what is fake (yet inflammatory) generally leads to more engagement – exactly the kind of situation where regulators should step-in to pre-empt harm.

Digital technologies are, of course, not limited to any single jurisdiction, so lawmakers must strive for international cooperation. Just as efforts to tackle global warming require restrictions on pollution from every country on Earth, so cleaning-up cyber sewers and policing information superhighways will necessitate collaboration. Where such support is not forthcoming, digital media should flag-up sites or accounts that are subject to integrity standards, making clear what is coming from suspect jurisdictions.

Earning your Digital ID

Before entrusting individuals with the freedom to drive a car, governments across the world understand the importance of some form of licensing system to ensure those behind the wheel have reached a minimum standard. This evolved over many year: firstly, as a means of simply identifying vehicles and their owners; today as a vital means of improving road safety. Similarly, we compromise our freedom to browse whatever we like by downloading and updating virus protection because we realise malicious coders can unleash devastation. We accept that this slows down our web browsing, especially when our computer shuts down for yet another update, but that is a price worth paying for greater security.

Yet we do nothing to protect ourselves from the biggest threat online – humans bent on spreading lies, misinformation and hoaxes, or trolling those they see as hateful. This cannot continue, if we want democracy and society to flourish.

I propose that every citizen must log-on to access Internet (ideally through fingerprint-recognition technology). There should be a home page that web users are firstly taken to where they are logged in and their activity recorded and then properly tracked, if necessary, just as we would expect any public activity to be traceable back to an individual. The home page should also ensure that everyone is properly educated through online civics classes, ranging from training in spotting fake news stories to education about how voting works. There is also the potential to include (eventually) lessons to help prevent fraud and health checks with guidance on how to exercise more or eat better.

It would be impossible to communicate online unless a user was up-to-date with their classes, though browsing of curated sites could be possible (providing this does not open the door to circumventing the system). If an ISP can shut-down your service for downloading pirated material (which should happen much more!) or failing to pay your bill, then why can a mechanism not be established to bar individuals known to be breaking cyber-laws?

Importantly, as with vehicle-driving, people could “lose” their license and be forced to re-sit relevant classes with an actual test of understanding required before they are re-admitted to the online community. The lessons would need to be reviewed regularly and essential updates rolled-out as new threats emerge. However, for the vast majority of people each tutorial would only be sat once, which is vital if such a system is to gain public confidence and not become unnecessarily burdensome. An independent committee could rollout and review this public education and accreditation effort. The basic goal would be to ensure every citizen has a web-surfing license, as this can be a hazardous activity for the uninitiated, dangerous to both themselves and their peers.

Addressing concerns about web-surfing licences

Basically, the laws of our lands must be applied to cyberspace. We cannot afford to tolerate a Wild Web where only profit matters and the unscrupulous battle to feed humanity’s worst instincts. There should be no difference in how those using inflammatory language, whether on or offline, are treated. Whilst these changes seem drastic, a focus on explaining and educating citizens will help everyone see this clean-up is vital. The general public need to understand clearly who is actually being targeted – trolls and lie-merchants. We must be exposed to real-life stories of how spreading false gossip hurts people and not be permitted to click away from viewing the consequences of our action. Where required, appropriate sanctions – such as heavily restricting offenders surfing to read-only certain sites or a post-delay/review function – must be deployed, and are proportionate to the damage we have seen caused through misuse of ICT tools.

The key is to shift mentalities. What we type online is no different from what we say in the real world. Actually, we should be more responsible because digital media creates an unambiguous digital record of whatever we contribute. We should see ad hominem verbal attacks as reprehensible and irrelevant – tackling the player, not the ball. For example, there is no place in a mature democracy for liberals or atheists slagging-off dismissively “religious nuts” or “bigots” when they seek to present evidence on abortion or family issues. This also involves making space for the widest possible range of views, not dismissing genuine concerns as politically incorrect or backward. Testing and weighing-up “facts” – critical thinking – should be one of the most highly prized skills developed across education curricula. We must not let those who can shout loudest, or dominate the most online discussions because they have little else to do, win by default.

As with Wikipedia’s panels of editors, government should be providing online tribunals and appeal systems to establish law and order online. This would allow unfair judgements to be challenged and corrected, increasing confidence in the system. Branches of the police and judiciary that specialise in web disputes and transgressions could be an invaluable tool in fighting the corruption of our digital public spaces. Governments should not be allowed to celebrate reductions in official crime statistics, such as burglaries, and ignore the fact this most likely results from deviance migrating online.

Crucial to this strategy is the role of Internet Service Providers. Just as they are rightly facing growing pressure to cut-off those who use their connections to download or share pirated content, so they are ideally positioned to help manage a digital ID system. This could become a condition of trading, as with the regulations that gambling companies or print newspapers must abide by to pre-empt the damage they could cause if completely unshackled and allowed to prey on human vulnerabilities.

To those who claim that forcing digital media, such as Facebook and Twitter, to make editorial judgments amounts to censorship, then they must realise this already happens. The world’s largest social network has previously acted to remove any photograph on Instagram with a female nipple visible (unless said image is run through the Prism app to create the effect of a painting). This laudable policy was tested by the iconic “napalm girl” photo that captures a horrific moment in the Vietnam war, which was eventually ruled to be of exceptional historic and “global importance”, showing how with feedback and engagement digital media can make the right calls. Twitter, meanwhile, removes ISIS propaganda video. Every act of journalism, deciding what to publish and what to ignore, what stories are worth pursuing and which are a waste of time, involves a form of censorship. As previously stated, free speech on social media should enable a wide-ranging debate with diverse opinions, whilst restricting or marginalising those who peddle dangerous, repeatedly disproved and utterly discredited, myths.

An additional benefit of robust, accurate digital IDs would be to weed-out fake accounts on social media sites. For example, one concerned citizen, Sarah Thompson, reported over 250 bogus profiles to Facebook in one week, estimating that 75% of these were removed, but clearly these could be easily re-created and, for her troubles, Ms Thompson’s News Feed now feeds her spam-like content because it thinks that is what she wishes to read. Most of these counterfeit accounts were infiltrating groups set-up by Sanders supporters and sharing horrendous falsehoods, including “Hillary murders opponents” and “Clinton uses body doubles”, in an obvious effort to suppress the vote. Digital IDs would allow these propagandists to be de-activated, or at the very least, labelled unverified and completely marginalised, rather than the current social media system where each user with a reasonable profile picture appears equally credible.

Examining free speech?

The freedom to speak one’s mind, or click to share whatever one happens upon online, must always be exercised responsibly and with consideration for our fellow-citizens. We sadly see, far too often, how easily a toxic debate can create a poisonous culture that leads to an utterly appalling outcome. How we discuss issues and describe those we do not agree with can have serious, life-threatening consequences, as was so tragically demonstrated in the murder of Jo Cox MP by Thomas Mair just days before the UK’s Brexit vote.

Imagine the situation. You’re a lonely, mentally-unstable middle-aged man who for years has nursed a grievance against a world that seems stacked against you. Distressed by how quickly your country is changing, you feel adrift and helpless, increasingly sceptical of those who promise so much, yet deliver so little. Much of your view of what is happening outside is shaped by snippets of news and complaints you consume online, divorced from context and frequently reflecting embittered, angry prejudices. Slowly, your thinking is being warped and you start to believe that “something must be done” to fix all the problems which never seem to be sorted out.

Suddenly, a new group of mavericks and wannabe revolutionaries appears and seems to offer an answer to all your gripes – one swift, simple solution that will transform Britain for the better. They accuse those who disagree of being liars, scaremongers and traitors. As these rhetorical flourishes trip off their tongues, they fail to consider how others will follow through on their accusations and, with a twisted, sickening logic, reach fatal conclusions.

We have always understood that free speech must not be abused to whip-up a mob into taking the law into their own hands – those who incite violence must be sanctioned for their crime. So, should the drip feed of false information and ugly insinuation be tolerated because it is too difficult to disentangle cause from effect? No, we know that hate speech and fake news has contributed to grievous bodily harm, and even murder, and this must be addressed, not necessarily with a custodial sentence, but through removing the megaphone from those who have failed to show any respect for our shared humanity. When seemingly respectable politicians pander to prejudice they should be opposed by digital media that is replete with evidence exposing the falsity of their misconceptions. There should be no “filter bubble” to which anyone can retreat where every click only reinforces dangerous discrimination. Fantasy and paranoia should not be fed by an alternate “reality”, accessible via phone or PC.

Finding out the facts

We also need much more research into these issues. The widely quoted statistic – 66% of Facebook users “get news” from the site is very ambiguous. How much news exactly do they “get”? Do they just skim headlines or explore detail? Can they spot a fake? Is this their only source of news? Again, laws could be passed to make social media providers more transparent and obliged to reveal the answers to many of these important questions. For example, Trump’s recent campaign involved voting suppression tactics where his team used Facebook “dark posts” to target black voters with South Park-style animated videos of Hillary Clinton’s 1996 “super predator” comments, in an effort to discredit her candidacy. Whilst given the final election outcome this would appear to have been very effective, what was the actual impact of these stories on their intended audience?

Interestingly, one Facebook user who took part in a Guardian newspaper experiment to “burst” the “filter bubble”, concluded: “Maybe we should stop having social media… maybe the ability with social media for people to construct their own reality to create a mob is not worth it.” Of course, this is an extreme reaction to the problem, but does provide an important illustration of how society can change, if allowed to see the breadth of views around us.

Another issue meriting further investigation is the potential of technology to combat online disinformation. If an AI toolkit, inspired by photographs of a toddler’s hand, can be used to automatically detect new child sexual abuse media uploaded to online networks, what else is possible? How can Google change their search algorithms, so a search starting with “are Jews…” does not lead to nine out of ten top returns being loaded with vile anti-Semitism?

Conclusion

Quite simply, a more restricted, collaborative Internet is not a negative development, but a necessary evolution if society is to hold together. Change is urgently needed as the problems outlined above will only become more entrenched. Politics will become increasingly impossible and nations more divided, unless there is protected space for an agreed set of facts to emerge that can then be used to build consensus.

In order to make any progress, there must be a commitment to create more equal, fairer countries that do not leave anyone behind and seek to address genuine grievances. Meanwhile, through strategic regulation, all digital media must be compelled to stop cossetting users and ensure everyone is, where appropriate, exposed to arguments and evidence running counter to their deeply-cherished beliefs, as well as enabled to discern truth from error. Individuals should be required to obtain a web-surfing licence that checks they have the minimum knowledge and understanding necessary to navigate the great debate online, as well as the basic decency to engage in civic discussion.

Alfie Evans – parents and the state

The tragic case of Alfie Evans once again illustrates the need for Parliament to consider giving parents more say over their children’s medical care. I know these are very difficult matters and we don’t see the full picture from the outside, but it does seem to me that there are serious issues, which must be addressed.

There is increasing presumption that the “state” knows better than parents and has the right to intervene. Of course, in cases of unarguable abuse this is absolutely justified. But what about when “professionals” go behind the back of parents, or deliberately mislead them, to give advice and treatments regarding controversial matters, like gender identity or birth control? This clearly diminishes trust between families and the state with all the disastrous consequences that ensue. These are highly debatable and contentious issues on which professionals should at most be neutral, allowing parents as much freedom as possible to shape their children’s development (providing they do not incite hatred of others). Of course, when age 16 or 18 is reached, then young people can enjoy more freedom to make life-changing decisions, but the state should not (for example) be facilitating a 14-year-old girl taking a male name. I often wonder how much LGBT groups are actively seeking to add to their numbers, sowing seeds of doubt and persuading people that they are trapped in the wrong bodies or prefer the same sex. Why, for example, are “drag queens” being parachuted into primary schools for story time?

Ideally, the state exists to defend the families and individuals against oppression, maximising freedoms, not trying to define a narrow version of what is right or wrong.

How absurd that in the tragic case of Alfie Evans, Alder Hays hospital is actively working against treatment and care options being offered by Italy. They want and expect him to die anyway, so why are they concerned if this happens in a foreign hospital, especially after discovering that he was capable of breathing unassisted much longer than they expected. Do they fear he might recover and prove them wrong? This is an act of real compassion from Italy, accorded with the desires of the parents and our refusal to allow the transfer makes Britain seem cold and heartless (just at the same point as our treatment of the “Windrush Generation” proves that point).

Surely, we must remember the case of Ashya King, who saw her parents hunted across Europe after they decided to remove him from hospital and take him to the Czech Republic for proton beam therapy. Today, Ashya is in remission and doing well.

We need to realise the sacrifices of parents. They have given birth to this child, carried in the womb for nine months, nursed over many long nights, love and fought for their child. They are closest to the little defenceless human being who is battling for their life. Most British mums and dads might decide to withdraw treatment in situations like Alfie’s but there will be some, through sincere beliefs and values, who will want to do everything possible and have the capacity to continue that struggle for survival. Alfie’s was an undiagnosed, “mystery” condition – who is to say that two or three years down the line, we do not learn more and discover that he could have been treated, or a miracle happens and he suddenly recovers? Who are the doctors to deem Alfie’s life as worthless?

Given the circumstances of the transfer offered to Italy and the fact that the British taxpayer would not even be paying for this further treatment/care, I simply cannot see why this has been allowed to happen. I would support the initiative by MEP Steve Woolfe and “Parliament Street” to change the country’s law to help parents maintain control over the medical care of their children, within suitable safeguards.