Tag Archives: angels

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15 Feb

Recently I posted a comment on Facebook about a government minister that caused some offence to someone.

I don’t particularly wish to rehash the ensuing exchange, but it did prompt me to think a little about why I even bother to comment about these things.

After all, it’s not as though any comment of mine is actually going to change anything, is it?

For one thing I have no idea how many people actually read anything I post on Facebook and for another, I have no idea to what extent any comment I post actually affects anyone’s thinking or behaviour. Probably not much, as a matter of fact.

So maybe all this commenting on Facebook is completely futile, or worse, a form of narcissism.

Which brings me on to a different, but related topic; i.e. online petitions.

Like almost anyone who has ever been online I have signed and shared the odd online petition and it’s possible that some of these petitions have had some kind of effect. Organisations like Change.org, Avaaz.org and 38 Degrees will obviously claim significant achievements for the petitions launched and supported by their members and I’m sure they’ll have convincing evidence to support those claims.

On the other hand, like most people who spend any amount of time online, I receive notifications about new petitions on a daily basis and I’m aware that there are far more online petitions out there than I will ever hear about and this is the bit that troubles me.

In a way it’s a good thing if anyone can start a petition if there’s something that they feel strongly about. But in another way I think there’s a problem here. With so many online petitions flying about there’s a risk that support for a cause that has general support will be divided amongst half a dozen petitions, thereby making it that much easier for the powers that be to ignore each petition in turn. Something that might be more difficult to do if there was just one petition signed by everyone who cared about that particular issue.

The other risk that follows from having so many online petitions is that any one petition, no matter how worthy, is liable to be swamped by the sheer volume of other petitions, however worthy in themselves. There is also the risk that politicians, amongst others, will find it all too easy to dismiss online petitions and the people who sign them. Already we’ve had Liberal Democrat Lord Tyler using the term ‘rent a mob’ and Simon Burns MP (a sometime Health Minister) describing members of the petition website 38 Degrees as ‘almost zombie-like’. (This is a very politician like smear since it gets across the basic ‘zombie’ insult, while the qualifier ‘almost’ allows plenty of wiggle room in the face of any challenge).

So there is a question about whether or not the sheer accessibility of online petitioning and campaigning effectively undermines the message being sent as a result of so many messages being sent.

You could avoid this problem, or at least reduce it, by having some kind of filtering process in order to avoid duplication of effort or even to weed out the cranks. (To some extent 38 Degrees, for example, does this because it will only go ahead with a campaign on a particular subject if there is a strong consensus amongst its members behind it). But the risk involved in ‘weeding’ anything out is that some perfectly justifiable point of view is suppressed simply because it’s unfashionable, or because it goes against the hang ups and prejudices of whoever’s doing the weeding.

Which brings me back to my original question. Is there really a point in making a comment, signing a petition or sending a letter or email to your MP when you can be pretty sure that it’s going to have no real effect in practice?

As an aside, it’s worth noting that on February 2nd 2003 an estimated million people turned out to protest against the American led invasion of Iraq. (This in spite of Tessa Jowell, the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, instructing the Royal Parks Agency to deny permission for the use of Hyde Park for the rally. This decision was apparently taken on safety grounds and in order to protect the grass. The decision was later reversed and the rally took place with, so far as I can gather, no great risk to anyone’s safety, although there may have been some

damage to the grass).

This protest, probably the largest in UK history, achieved absolutely nothing in terms of changing government policy. We had a pretty bland comment from Toy Blair (The Prime Minister at the time) about respecting other people’s views, but then the invasion went ahead anyway. (It’s very possible that Mr Blair means something different from the rest of us when he talks about ‘respect’. I think in his lexicon to ‘respect’ means to ‘ignore’).

So was there a point to that rally?

Probably.

If nothing else it was an attempt to speak truth to power. (Something that’s probably always worth doing). And if nothing else it means that no amount of lying, spin, or history revising will ever allow supporters of the war to claim that the Blair government had the wholehearted support of the British people on this issue.

Which brings me back to my habit of commenting on various issues on Facebook. (A somewhat more modest proposition than rallying a million people against a war, I admit).

Why should I bother?

I suppose most of the reason is because it relieves, to some extent, my frustration and irritation at the behaviour of people in power. To that extent, I suppose, it’s therapeutic and therefore has some value, if only to me.

As for anyone else?

Well, of those who actually see anything I post on Facebook, I suppose some will simply scroll on until they find something more interesting. Others will at least read what I’ve posted. Of those some will agree, others will disagree and from time to time someone will take offence.

In any event the world will go on with its turning and the price of cheese (amongst other things) will remain entirely unaffected).

Except that maybe someone will be made aware of something that they might otherwise have missed and maybe someone will think about something they might not otherwise have thought about and maybe change their mind. (NB I make no claim that I will be able to change anyone’s mind, I’m deeply sceptical about my ability to do that, but I do think that people can change their own minds if presented with new facts or maybe a point of view they hadn’t encountered before).

Which brings me to a brief digression on the subject of angels.

Our word ‘angel’ is derived from a Greek word for messenger (ἄγγελος or ángelos). Angels turn up, of course in various religions and mythologies, particularly Zoroastrianism and the Abrahamic religions, and more recently in some New Age belief systems.

One, rather fetching, take on angels that I heard once, was provided by a Rabbi who said that anyone could be an angel. His view was that an angel was simply someone who said something, perhaps quite inadvertently, that changes the way you see things.

But then again, my chances of acting as an angel are probably no better than anyone else’s, and probably greatly reduced on Facebook since most people on social media are less likely to be seeking enlightenment than funny pictures of cats. (Or glamorous pictures of horses).

So again, why bother?

Well, I suppose I have a vague notion that when we come across something we think is wrong we shouldn’t just let it pass. Ideally we should do something about it, or if we can’t do anything, then we should say something. Even if no one’s paying any attention.

This is because I think if we just let things carry on as they are, even when we know that what’s happening is wrong, then we become complicit.

It could well be that if you speak out, you’re only talking to yourself, but that’s not such a bad thing even if it only serves to remind you of what’s right or wrong and how to tell the difference.

And it seems to me that the alternative is to simply acquiesce. And the risk of doing that is to allow things to become acceptable when they should be completely unacceptable.

There is also the fact that big problems don’t have to be solves all at once and sometimes the non-negotiable demand for a complete, all in one, solution ends up being an obstacle to taking any action at all.

(For example, in a city plagued by slum housing, the local authority may wish to institute a large-scale campaign of urban renewal, demolishing the slums and building new homes for all the people displaced from the slums. Obviously this campaign will cost a huge amount of money and require a great deal of careful planning and organisation. Obviously this will be a huge benefit to the community if it all goes well, and the temptation would be to stop carrying out basic repair work while the big plan is pending because the big plan will make all that repair work redundant. Or, what’s worse, to ignore the basic repair work because fixing one person’s leaky roof doesn’t address the big problem and the big plan will do just that. But what happens if there is no big plan? Do you fix the leaky roof, or do you just complain that fixing a leaky roof won’t provide a complete solution to the big problem?).

So I think we should speak up in the face of things we think are wrong. I also think we should speak plainly and speak the truth. (If we can and in this context, FactCheck.org, Snopes and Mythbusters all provide a useful, if much underused service).

It might not do any good or it may only do the least conceivable quantum of good. But if it does any good at all then that’s better than nothing and little things can accumulate until they become quite big things. A tiny effort by enough people can become an unstoppable force.

Which is not to say that the full extent of our moral obligations is to post a snarky comment on Facebook. If we can do more then we should. But registering some kind of protest is a perfectly acceptable first step and if that’s all we can do then that’s what we should do.