Like everyone else I awoke on Sunday 29 January to discover that the US and the world in general was reeling from the news of the Executive Order signed by President Trump calling a halt to the US’s Refugee Admissions Program for 120 days and banning travel from seven Muslim-majority countries for 90 days. As I read through my Twitter feed and studied the various news websites I found myself becoming progressively more shocked and horrified at what had happened – particularly the brutal way it had been introduced without warning, at huge human cost. I also came across the petition calling for Mr Trump’s State Visit to the UK to be downgraded (not stopped); at the time it had gathered about 12,000 signatures (at the time of writing this piece it stands at around 1.75 million).
How should one react to such a situation? As someone who has spent a good part of his professional career trying to uphold international human rights law and standards – including those contained in the 1948 Refugee Convention – this felt like a seminal moment. I know something of the reality of life for refugees – especially children – and any threat to our commitment to provide them with assistance and protection is a serious matter. Like many others I had been appalled by Trump’s campaign rhetoric, but I did not seriously believe that his Administration would enact something with such a potentially destabilising effect on the international system. I also feared for the US: had the American people really chosen someone bent on sowing division between different religions and ethnicities – and what might he do next? It was hard to feel anything other than outrage mixed with despair, and my natural reaction was to fight back using the power of the pen – or rather the keyboard – via Twitter.
But. There is a big but – in fact more than one. First, the US Presidential Election – as much as our own EU Referendum last year – has revealed a deep polarisation of political views, reflecting equally deep economic and societal divides, and a lack of meaningful dialogue across them. The people I follow on Twitter, the news websites I read, all pretty well express opinions similar to my own; therefore when I broadcast my views I am – by and large – preaching to the converted. And where there is disagreement on Twitter, Facebook, or other websites it is usually of such a vitriolic nature that arguably more harm than good is done by the exchange. I did venture out on Sunday to look at the Breitbart website but almost wished I had not, such was the unpleasant nature of some of the comments people had posted. It seems that we have lost the art of political debate across the full spectrum of viewpoints, preferring instead to hurl insults at each other.
Second, I identify myself as an academic and therefore a seeker after truth rather than as an advocate for a particular political position. In an earlier part of my career I was a member of a Civil Service whose core values are Honesty, Impartiality, Integrity, and Objectivity – and these still serve as a guiding beacon for how I live my life. So to enter the fray in such a highly politicised environment where people do not listen to each other carries a serious risk of forfeiting whatever authority one might have as a reasoned and reasonable commentator. And how much “truth” can I really hope to convey in 140 characters?
In the middle of all this the outgoing Bishop of London, Richard Chartres, argued in an interview in the Evening Standard (which took place before the row over the Executive Order exploded) that our society “should rediscover the Christian tradition of reticence”. He continued: “I have learned…that condemnation belongs to the Devil…if you go around smiting people, what tends to happen is they become even more extreme than they were before”. I fear that this is exactly what is happening in the current “debate” about the Trump measures.
And yet…And yet sometimes it seems that the violation of the principles one holds dear is so egregious that one just must take a stand. Otherwise, who will, and where will it all end? That is certainly how I felt on Sunday morning, so I signed the petition and I did my best on Twitter to make the point that there is a difference between a government’s policy on immigration (which it is entirely free to choose) and its respect for international law and conventions (by which it is bound). But now there is another petition arguing that the Trump visit to the UK should go ahead as planned, and although (at the time of writing) it has far less support it still has been signed by over 175,000 people. No doubt the folk who signed that feel as strongly about their principles as I do about mine.
So, is it just a matter of moral equivalence? Is one opinion as valid as another? Is it my duty as an academic to remain neutral, recognising the legitimacy of everyone’s point of view, and contenting myself with an analysis of why people think and act the way they do? Or is it to stand up for the values I hold dear, certainly trying to observe Bishop Chartres’ warning about “condemnation” and showing respect even for those I strongly disagree with – but not taking the line of least resistance, either?
I will be honest: I find it really difficult to answer my own question. I know that I cannot stand idly by but I also know that I abhor invective and people talking past each other; my natural mode is that of a mediator, trying to reconcile different opinions. So I know I am taking a risk by tweeting on such a controversial subject, but on balance – and for the sake of the innocent and the oppressed who are the real victims of what has happened – it feels like a risk I have to take.