I feel sorry for Tobias Ellwood who has been widely criticised for posting a video which suggested that Afghanistan had been “transformed” under the Taliban. It’s clearly had an effect too, given his comment that “The last couple of days have probably been the most miserable as a member of parliament,”. I must admit I am surprised he didn’t anticipate it though, given all we have learned about the Taliban and the way it behaves, not least towards women and girls.
Two things stood out for me in the press coverage. Firstly, there was Ellwood’s response itself. “I stand up, I speak my mind. I try and find solutions especially on the international stage, and I’m very, very sorry that my reflection of my visit could have been much better worded and have been taken out of context.” Now I have no idea if his words have been taken out of context, but I have to say I do applaud his willingness to apologise. Far too few of us are willing to do that.
I can identify with his reference to his choice of words too. I spend an inordinate amount of time reflecting on the words I choose when writing publicly but often find myself wishing I had put things a little differently. TS Eliot was spot on when he wrote ‘Words strain, Crack and sometimes break, under the burden, Under the tension, slip, slide, perish, Decay with imprecision, will not stay in place, Will not stay still’.
I am also conscious of what Jesus’ brother said in a letter to his friends: “People can tame all kinds of animals, birds, reptiles, and fish but no one can tame the tongue. It is restless and evil, full of deadly poison. Sometimes it praises our Lord and Father, and sometimes it curses those who have been made in the image of God. And so blessing and cursing come pouring out of the same mouth. Surely, my brothers and sisters, this is not right!”
James was referring to the things we say when we are talking to each other of course, but we would do well to take heed of his advice when we put things into print too, especially in this social media age. Finding the correct words can always be a struggle and this inevitably means there will be times when we make mistakes, but we should do all we can to minimise the risk.
I was also struck by one senior politician’s comment that Ellwood’s observations were “unwelcome”. That disturbed me, because it reminded me that a lot of people seem to want to create a ‘cancel culture’ in which we don’t have to deal with any arguments that challenge our convictions. As someone once said it is much easier to let our prejudices determine our thoughts rather than spend a little time checking our brains are in working order! I’ve read that people who are prejudiced feel a stronger need to make quick and firm judgements and I can understand why: ambiguity can prove challenging.
But real life is often like that, which is why I am a fan of ‘BBC Verify’. Now I know those journalists will not get it right every time either, but their approach is to be commended: check, and check again, and make sure you take account of all the facts, however ‘unwelcome’. Good practice indeed given Jesus’ promise that the truth will set us free.