The Reith Lectures

⭐⭐⭐ based on 1 review.

tl;dr: An interesting series exploring topics in greater depth, that unfortunately seems to occasionally do so by platforming people on subjects where they have no relevant expertise.

2022: The Four Freedoms

Spoilers Ahead: My reviews are not spoiler-free. You have been warned.

I'd not heard of the Reith Lectures before, but they came highly recommended and clearly have a prestigious history, so we downloaded some for the car journey back home. In the end, we only made it halfway through the season – AKA through two lectures – to start with, though I hope to catch up with the rest soon. Still, I wanted to jot down some notes early whilst it was still fresh in my mind. I'll say right at the top that the format for 2022 was unusual. Apparently, it's usually one person giving four lectures on a specific topic, which I assume means that the person selected is something of an expert with a particular thesis that they want to approach from various angles. For this year, they chose to split the lectures up, so it's still four entries, but each is given by a different person, on a subtly different topic. The common thread is that all four are looking at the "pillars" of democratic freedoms (as originally coined by Franklin D Roosevelt), with each lecture taking a different

Episode one was a beautifully written hot mess. I don't know much about Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, but she can clearly string together some elegant and subtle prose. She also seems to be a genuinely thoughtful, compelling human with a kind heart and an outlook on political/cultural ideals that broadly mirrors my own. But she was brought onto the show to talk about freedom of speech and my overwhelming takeaway is that she doesn't have a particularly deep understanding of either the concept or the current complexities of the subject.

Her talk was riddled with what I would best describe as "Boomer takes" that simultaneously vilify and yet fail to understand the emerging youth culture in the cultural West, as well as the societal impact and position of social media and the broader internet. Despite there being ample conversation to be had around the topic of free speech without touching on the web, she nevertheless spends the majority of her lecture critiquing a medium that she professes herself to not take part in. Sure, she's on Instagram, but she later admits that she doesn't even know how to log in to the platform, and instead posts entirely through her assistant. Not only does this explain her clear lack of understanding or nuance on any of the related subjects, but it also (frankly) reeks of a level of privilege that means she can't even really take part in this conversation. One poor audience member asks her how to cope with the reality of being a creative in a world that relies on social media for outreach, networking, and self-promotion, whilst balancing the negative effects that cycle brings. Adichie's response is to ignore social media, get someone else (i.e. an assistant) to do that part for you, and not worry about it. The level of disconnectedness this shows really helps underscore how poorly situated she is to tackle this subject.

I mean, here we are talking about moderating speech online without any mention of sealioning, or doxxing, or white knighting, let alone touching on any of the myriad studies that have been done on the subject. She mentions dogpiles (though consistently refers to them as "piling on") and briefly uses the word "troll" (though does so in a way which isn't fully correct, or at least shows a surface-level understanding), but that's it.

Instead, her suggestions are paradoxical. One should ignore the haters and just do what you want online; say what you want, how you want to, because that's your right. But if you notice actively negative, toxic, or otherwise problematic behaviour, you should point this out and combat "bad words with good ones", with the aim of changing that other person's mind. What? You've just told people not to change your behaviour based on the feedback from other people, then advocate for doing just that? She also (rightly) points out that dogpiles can lead to severe mental health crises, but fails to understand that in a global forum, the concept of actively providing feedback results in dogpiling. She claims that people are inherently good and would therefore stick to a formal code of conduct if presented with one, without understanding or commenting on the deep evolutionary psychology of tribalism, nor the complex neurology of being confronted with opposing viewpoints. At one point, she even claims that there are absolute truths and that any beliefs that cannot be verifiably shown to be true are therefore lies or falsehoods, which is mind-blowingly naive. This answer is given to a question about squaring anti-trans rhetoric, and whilst it was nice to hear Adichie state in no uncertain terms that she agrees that trans people exist and are a valid expression of humanity, her refusal to understand the nuance of the situation – that to some people that "truth" is anything but – is either blissfully ignorant or willfully naive.

Her ideals are admirable but simply do not work. She can dislike that as much as she wants, but the evidence is clear: platforming conspiracy theorists spreads conspiracy theories; platforming fascists spreads fascism; platforming hate begets hate. You cannot turn the tide on misinformation and hateful speech through voluntary community work alone. It doesn't work in IRL communities (something she seems to think doesn't happen, spreading the same simplistic viewpoint that these phenomena are somehow brand new, and before the internet simply didn't exist, which shows a fundamental lack of understanding of cultural evolution and historical context) and it certainly doesn't work on platforms like Twitter, where there will always be too much volume of discourse to apply meaningful counter-arguments to.

Ironically, the Q&A section does a great job of showing up her own arguments. She platforms a man with extremely questionable intentions – wrapped up neatly (as is so often the case) in a coherent argument filled with dog whistles – and then utterly fails to ask meaningful questions or refute his statements. That'll show 'em, Chimamanda. You sure helped him see the light. If anything, you just provided a soundbite that would happily do the rounds within white supremacist circles to much high-fiving and applause 🤦‍♂️ She then goes on (as mentioned above) to claim that her beliefs are true facts, and all others are falsehoods whilst failing to consider the nuances of different cultural and religious views (to be clear, I agree wholeheartedly with Adichie's views on the topics discussed, but the way she goes about it heavily undermines her own words). She even presents an anecdote from her own classroom where a male student had written a deeply misogynistic story and was called out by a female student, who she then silenced and... doesn't seem to address the issues in any further way. It's almost baffling that she can't see how damaging those actions are. A man writes a hurtful characterisation, and she silences the woman that is trying to point this out?

To be clear, I completely agree with Adichie on several points. Dogpiling is counterproductive and does little to actually improve discourse, whilst it can also be weaponised in a way that is extremely harmful (intentionally or, worst of all, not). We do need to consider other people's words from a platform of trust and good faith, rather than just immediately assuming the worst of intentions. There is real power in making helping others understand your worldview or experiences by humbling yourself first. These are all excellent observations. But the solution isn't to lean on the good nature of some to have to permanently argue against the bad faith of others. Nor is it to remove the anonymity of the web – a key factor in the few social movements that Adichie praises, such as the Arab Spring. It certainly cannot be to ban moderation. And the most ridiculous part of her lecture is that Adichie doesn't even seem to believe her own words. She admits that some speech needs to be moderated or censored. For her, that means speech which incites violence. Yet she dismisses the reality that this is a broad categorisation open to multitudinous interpretations and that no one method of application will fit every person's preferences.

The result is, as I said above, a beautiful mess. It's full of bad takes and misunderstandings; it lacks nuance or even a basic understanding of the complexities of the problem space; and it's clear that Adichie is just regurgitating middle-class talking points from a position of privilege rather than doing the work to understand what has been tried, what has failed, and what the takeaways are. We are well over a decade into this era of human interaction and there is a wealth of data and discussion out there. It's a shame, then, that none of that was platformed here. But I don't fault Adichie for that. I fault the BBC for bringing in someone with no expertise on the subject to talk about it.

Which brings me onto episode two. Here, former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, delivers a lecture on the freedom of worship (effectively the freedom of religion). So we get a faith leader of significant stature with decades of experience treading the fine lines between political/social needs and those of religion, whose previous direct experience includes working with multifaith councils and liaising with figures at the highest levels of governments, to talk on the way we can guarantee religious freedoms without imposition. Fantastic! You could barely ask for a better authority on this topic 👏

And the result is phenomenal. I don't 100% agree with everything that Williams says, but his understanding of the subject is unquestionable and fascinating to listen to. He's extremely fair in his approach and an exceptional public speaker to boot; he approaches the audience questions with transparency and thoughtfulness; and he's not afraid to poke fun at himself (or his faith) in moments. It's a brilliant talk that I can't recommend enough. 10/10, no notes!

Better yet, it made me question some of my own assumptions. I really loved his points about bringing kids into places of worship to actually understand what it is. I remember going on a school trip to a Buddhist monastery myself, and how revealing this was at the time (though I do think it could have been improved). I also learned a huge amount attending a Catholic school and watching how the monks went about their lives. It made these topics real in ways that my textbooks couldn't, and I wish I'd had the opportunity to go to a mosque or a synagogue at the time as well. To be clear, I don't think that taking part in the worship should be enforced (or even, possibly, encouraged) during a school trip, but the idea that you might approach this subject by considering the people of that faith first, rather than the more academic way of looking at holy books or laws or cultural differences, well, that makes a lot of sense.

I also really liked his distinction around how freedom of worship is more than just a freedom to believe in a specific religion or set of moral constructs. It's a freedom to practice your belief; to do what you need to as a result of your personal ethical framework, be that religious or otherwise. And that the state should never force you to act in a way that contradicts that set of beliefs. That's a good way of framing this, in my mind, because it allows for nuance. It allows for a person to abstain from giving blood, if that would be a religious taboo, whilst not allowing for a business owner to discriminate against an LGBTQIA+ individual for their sexuality or gender. I also like that Williams admits that this is a hard line to distinguish and that there are lots of grey areas – one given was whether a Catholic surgeon should be forced to advise a patient on getting an abortion. There was a general feeling that forcing someone who believes an abortion to be immoral to perform one is problematic, and forcing someone to get one who believes it is a sin is definitely not okay, as is preventing someone for whom there are no moral qualms from accessing that form of healthcare, but also acknowledges that there can be a tricky middle ground that is hard to define. Broadly, I thought Williams made a good case for where he would draw that line, and it definitely made me think about that question (and many others) a little more deeply.

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