The inevitable follow up question

Gradually over the years, my wife has trained me to do better. In the early days of our relationship, I’d share some news with her about a birth, death, engagement or such like. She’d then ask follow up questions – like the baby’s gender, weight, name etc and I wouldn’t know.  Sarah would keep telling me that I needed to learn to ask what we’ve come to call the “inevitable follow up question”. 

I was thinking about that just now following news that the Guardian’s editor, Katherine Viner, has emailed staff blaming “failures in the editorial process” for the recent cartoon about the resignation of Richard Sharp as chairman of the BBC. People immediately identified serious antisemitic tropes in the cartoon.  Yet, the cartoon managed to get through the editorial process and was published.  Now, blaming the process does seem like an easy way of deflecting blame and responsibility. There’s a “not me guv” element to this.  Viner was apparently away in New York.  It’s worth going back toa  crucial principle.  The leader/manager is responsible for the process. The editor is responsible for the editorial process. They may not be to blame for specific things but they are still responsible.  Ifd the process fails then there’s a reason for that.

However, I want to pick up on one specific issue with the process, that relates to my introduction.  You see, apparently, staff at the Guardian looked at the cartoon, it was okayed by numerous people, all of whom would presumably be shocked and angered at antisemitism and yet they completely missed it when it was right in front of their eyes. According to Hugh Muir, the Opinion Editor,

…at least three opinion desk staff had seen the cartoon, but the “aggravating issue” was that none knew Sharp was Jewish – or, again, “the unhappy lineage of the vampire squid image”. The cartoon therefore went to press “with images that would have been harsh in other circumstances but were disastrous when viewed in light of all the facts. This was an undoubted failing, and there will need to be learning from it,”

They did not know,  that the squid motif linked to a previous description of Goldman Sachs as a giant, vampire squid with its fangs and tentacles digging deep into the institutions and places of power and wealth around the world.  That’s fair enough, we don’t expect people to know everything and as soon as they were alerted, they seem to have acted quickly. This is much better than other examples I’ve seen where people have been alerted to antisemitism that may have been a result of ignorance but instead of correcting things have doubled down.

Yet, if they did not know that a squid image was antisemitic in this instance, then that raises the inevitable follow up question “what did they thing it was doing there?” In the same way, that they might not have known that Goldman Sachs are Jewish and that their name often appears in antisemitic conspiracy theories but surely that should have prompted the question “Why is Sharp carrying a box with Goldman Sachs written on it and not ‘The BBC’ as that’s the organisation he’s been forced to resign from?” 

In other words, the people in the process failed to ask the inevitable follow up questions: “Why a squid?” and “why Goldman Sachs.”  Given that those items are not in the cartoon randomly, given how cartoons, and indeed art generally, work by using symbols to signal deeper messages, they should have been asking “what message is the cartoon signalling here?” If they had asked those questions then they would have quickly realised that the cartoon wasn’t just confusing, it was deeply, seriously problematic and I hope they would have shut it down quickly.  If Viner has an immediate corrective action, then it is to get those inevitable follow up questions built into her editorial process.

What is true for editors is true for pastors too – in fact, it’s true for anyone engaging with information before seeking to act on it.  Acting on that information may include:

  • Passing the information on to others to act on
  • Sharing the information as news.
  • Using the information as an example or illustration to make your own point (e.g in a sermon or when giving feedback).
  • Giving advice
  • Providing practical help
  • Praying

I’ve noted before that there are crucial questions to ask before passing information on to protect us from getting involved in gossip.  So, a crucial inevitable follow up question is always “why am I being told this specific thing, in this particular way at this specific time?” 

However, there will be lots of other follow up questions we will need to ask if we are to handle knowledge in a godly way and especially if we want to be pastorally helpful.

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