Valuable and vicious: Welby’s verdict on social media

15 May 2019

william temple foundation

Archbishop Welby with the Archdeacon of Lindisfarne, the Ven. Peter Robinson, chair of trustees, and Professor Chris Baker, director of research, at Lambeth Palace on Monday

Archbishop Welby with the Archdeacon of Lindisfarne, the Ven. Peter Robinson, chair of trustees, and Professor Chris Baker, director of research, at L...

SOCIAL media give a “voice to the voiceless”, the Archbishop of Canterbury has said; but their lack of accountability encourages “vicious” behaviour.

Archbishop Welby delivered the William Temple Foundation annual lecture at Lambeth Palace on Monday evening. It was entitled “Reimagining Britain: Faith and the Common Good”.

The speed and form of modern communication through the internet and social media was “genuinely unprecedented”, he said.

“For many, many people, social media has provided solace, connection, and community: the housebound, the disillusioned, the lonely, and many other groups.” It had helped people “build powerful, effective, and hope-filled social movements”, he said.

“It has enhanced people’s ability to hold power to account. It has given consumers a voice to challenge unfair or unethical behaviour by businesses of many kinds.”

He went on to describe a darker, more polarising side of the new media, however. “But in the world of social media, difference can all too often become enmity, diversity can be seen as mere menace, disagreement can be a threat, mistakes can be unforgivable. The online world can be very exposing; people can reveal details of personal struggles which they may later regret — but it’s there forever.

“And we know many examples of individuals who have been subjected to vicious personal attacks. There seems to be a lack of accountability online, which people think somehow gives permission to be more vicious than perhaps they would be in real life.”

Archbishop Welby spoke of the need for a “hermeneutics of social media”.

“We have not yet developed a framework to hold all of this — the good and the bad — and it is something that does need to be addressed urgently. This entirely new form of interaction — international, engaging across cultures — without the translation of relationship does not address the hermeneutical conundrums thrown up by the hyper-modernists, does not allow for reader-response, even though they are written and read, and gives no time for horizons of understanding.”

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Towards the start of the lecture, the Archbishop suggested: “In this country, we are in a pivotal moment in the life of our nation, on a scale we haven’t seen perhaps arguably since World War Two, or in peacetime since long before that. We face many choices about the kind of country we want to be.”

The country was, he said, grappling with “the reality of rapid social, cultural, economic, and technological change, which offers great potential for our country and community, but also major risks if not handled with care and managed appropriately”.

The success of the post-Second World War economic settlement, agreed at Bretton Woods, and the Beveridge Report, which led to the founding of the Welfare State, had, Archbishop Welby said, “made for a far more civilised, caring, and compassionate society”. But it had “also, perhaps, [made] for a less resilient one. Decades of relative calm — at least compared to the first half of the century — have led to complacency about the structures which maintain us.”

The victory of market-based capitalism in the 1970s and ’80s had, “in some ways, had within it the seeds of its own destruction”.

In societies such as the UK and the United States, it had been assumed that Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” would “sort things out at the right moment”. But “Smith’s understanding was that markets could only function as invisible hands when they were in a rule-based world, the rules coming from elsewhere — moral rules, ethical rules. Once it has been turned into a deity, the market has all the morals of Zeus and all the mercy of Pluto.”

The result was that “wealth inequality has soared, as has income inequality to a much lesser extent, although that has diminished since 2016, at least in the UK.

“The problem is not merely income inequality, though, but, more fundamentally, inequality of outcome, of hope, of aspiration, of consequences.”

Later in the lecture, the Archbishop said: “The storm of the 2008 to 2009 global recession challenged the idols of finance, materialism, and market-driven consumerist hyper-autonomy. Nothing could withstand the strain, and there is thus a free-for-all in the search for identity and a new weaponising of public discourse through communications.”

Addressing how the Church should respond to the storms engulfing society, Archbishop Welby said that it would be a mistake “to try and change everything. . .

“Calling for radical change without being aware of, or having respect for, the traditions that make up the foundations of our structures and institutions will inevitably leave our society drifting,” he said.

It would also be a mistake, however, “to try not to change anything”, he said.

“The role of the Church is not piously to wring our hands or preach self-righteously, but to live out our faith in Christ, putting the vulnerable and marginalised at the centre of our ministry, as did Jean Vanier.

“The Church and other faiths have a role to play now, in opening doors, modelling good ways of disagreeing well, helping people feel like they belong, providing welcome and love to all, and speaking and challenging injustice. They are written and read, and gives no time for horizons of understanding.”

Read the full lecture at www.archbishopofcanterbury.org.uk, and a blog by Professor Chris Baker at williamtemplefoundation.org.uk/blog-flexible-and-audacious-hope.

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