Saturday, September 16, 2006

out of context

BBC News: The Pope's speech

The whole furore over the Pope's speech has been blown out of all proportion, just because a short soundbite was taken out of context. This is what is so irresponsible about news - it takes a tiny bit of something out of context and then relays it around the world just to wind everyone up.

I can honestly say that I am a completely neutral observer (not being a Catholic at all), but taken in context, there's nothing to be offended about. I'm not a fan of "God's Rottweiler", particularly, but I intensely dislike being misled by the media.

This is what he actually said:
I was reminded of all this recently, when I read... of part of the dialogue carried on - perhaps in 1391 in the winter barracks near Ankara - by the erudite Byzantine Emperor Manuel II Paleologus and an educated Persian on the subject of Christianity and Islam, and the truth of both.

In the seventh conversation...the emperor touches on the theme of the holy war. ... he addresses his interlocutor with a startling brusqueness on the central question about the relationship between religion and violence in general, saying: "Show me just what Muhammad brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached."

The emperor, after having expressed himself so forcefully, goes on to explain in detail the reasons why spreading the faith through violence is something unreasonable.
  1. The Pope distances himself from Manuel II by prefacing the quote with the phrase "with a startling brusqueness" and following with "after having expressed himself so forcefully".
  2. Manuel II was talking in the sense of comparative religion, saying that the main difference between his religion (Orthodox Christianity, which didn't do forcible conversions as far as I know) and Islam was that Muhammad had only brought violence (in addition to stuff that other religions had already invented). Clearly they hadn't really got the hang of interfaith dialogue in those days.
  3. The Pope is quoting this in support of his argument that faith and reason need to go hand in hand; not as part of an attempt to persuade people that Islam is bad.
  4. He is specifically talking about Islam because he wants to make the point that the Muslim view of God (in the 14th century at any rate) was that God transcends our categories, even rationality; whereas the Byzantine view was that not acting reasonably is contrary to God's nature. He then reflects on the question of whether the Greek view is universally true, or just an opinion.
My own criticism of the above would be that the Pope should also have mentioned the forced conversions of Muslims and Jews in Spain in the fifteenth century, and indeed the Crusades, which were also heinous (and could also have been used to bolster his argument that faith and reason should go hand in hand), but apart from that, it is clear that the Pope himself was not saying that Islam is evil and inhuman (and I'm pretty sure Manuel II Paleologus wasn't actually saying that either). Here's the whole speech if you want even more context.


John said...

We were discussing this very subject at work (that is, the quote being taken out of context). But - given the current world political situation - was the pope wise to use Islam as an example? Or did he have something in mind when he did so? That is, the world situation was precisely why he did use Islam.

I agree with your central point, though - the press do enjoy getting into a lather about things.

The Silver Eel said...

Good post. Thanks for this. I'd been meaning to check out the context online myself but got distracted by, well, life. I assumed that the context would make things clear, but it was imsmeggingpossible to find out what it was from the Radio 4 news reports, which did everything to big up the 'controversy' (thus making things worse) and nothing to explain in detail what the Pope had actually said. It was nothing short of irresponsible. If we'd tried something like that in the mocks on my journalism course we'd have been hauled over the coals for it.

Yeah, it's clear from the translation that the fact it's a quote about Islam is peripheral to the argument. I wondered if it could have been toned down, but on re-reading it's clear that the use of the first part of the quote, the part which has caused the furore, is necessary in order to make sense of the second part - and as you point out, the Pope distances himself from it with a precise and sensitive observation on its nature. I think quite a strong case can be made for the choice of quote being politically naive, but that depends on one's assuming that the potential world-wide audience is made up of potato-heads, instead of rational, intelligent human beings, such as those he was directly addressing at Regensburg.

Now millions of Muslims, among others, one supposes, across the world, with the help of the BBC, have shown that to be the case. The fact he used it at all shows him to be partial, but he is the head of the Catholic Church, for chrissakes.

There are, as you say, many examples of Christians using violence in the name of the Church, with forced conversion being an element of it (one can add all of South and Central America to your list), but presumably none of them - or none that the Pope is immediately aware of - raises the theoretical discussion of faith alone versus faith and reason together in a way which would have been relevant to his speech.

The Silver Eel said...

Further thoughts:

1) It is always possible that he was subtly sending a message, one which has been ignored, by quoting the part which reads: Whoever would lead someone to faith needs the ability to speak well and to reason properly, without violence and threats... To convince a reasonable soul, one does not need a strong arm, or weapons of any kind, or any other means of threatening a person with death...

2) One would have thought that anyone capable of delivering such a complex and intellectually demanding speech as this would have been able to figure out the impact it might have.

3) It's interesting that he was reading up on these dialogues in the first place.

emile said...

BBC, and the western-media-that-runs-in-a-pack, is clearly guilty of misrepresentation which is grounds for a lawsuit, though the vatican is unlikely to sue the western world press.

BBC said, and i quote; “Questioning the concept of holy war, he [the Pope] quoted a 14th-Century Christian emperor who said Muhammad had brought the world only "evil and inhuman" things.

the pope did NOT quote the emperor, he quoted from a dialogue between the emperor and a persian muslim, in the context of different views of the ‘truth’ and he went on to pivot from this dialogue between two people of differing views, to make his point about ‘faith-and-reason’, which he, being a philosophical type, often writes about (and has been imputed to be the ‘ghost-writer’ for the late Pope John Paul II’s most important encyclical ‘Fides et Ratio’ (faith and reason).

now, if you were quoting from a dialogue between two parties with strongly opposing views such as an actual dialogue between lincoln rockwell and a black person wherein rockwell said, as he did;

"ROCKWELL: We're talking about niggers and there's no doubt in my mind that they're basically animalistic."

... so as to pivot from this contentious dialogue and make a far more general philosophical point, and the BBC reported that; “Questioning the origins of racial strife, he quoted lincoln rockwell who said “We're talking about niggers and there's no doubt in my mind that they're basically animalistic”

then surely the BBC is grossly misrepresenting the facts since you did not ‘quote lincoln rockwell’, you quoted from a dialogue between lincoln rockwell and a black person with severely opposing views, such dialogues even if between erudite bigots, giving some representation to the nature of the conflicts society is dealing with, from which philosophical observations might be extracted.

after giving your clearly philosophical talk about the historical origins of racial conflict, what would you think when you heard on BBC that you had ‘quoted lincoln rockwell’ who said that “We're talking about niggers and there's no doubt in my mind that they're basically animalistic”?

would you not be looking for a good lawyer?

the press has conceded that, over the years, they have progressively reduced the length of their ‘sound bites’ because of, so they say,the declining attention span of the listener base. many journalists have conceded that they are often unable to capture the full context of those whose discourse is not uttered in short sound bites (derrida?, foucault?). this journalistic reduction is no doubt a factor since the pope, a full one paragraph earlier, provided the contextual framing;

“the dialogue carried on - perhaps in 1391 in the winter barracks near Ankara - by the erudite Byzantine Emperor Manuel II Paleologus and an educated Persian on the subject of Christianity and Islam, and the truth of both.”

... and this contextual framing was not reproduced in the BBC’s punchy story-line.

BBC and the western-media-that-runs-in-a-pack, clearly went for the inflammatory misrepresentation and they got the result that excites them so much since it ‘sells copy’. meanwhile, the pope loses, the muslims lose and we all lose.