20/11/2007

Selective quoting bans Christmas

When I originally posted about the IPPR study "The Power of Belonging: Identity, Citizenship and Community Cohesion" and how the papers decided it argued for banning Christmas, I emailed the IPPR asking if they could point me toward a copy I could access.

Just under two weeks later, the think-tank have come through and emailed me a pdf version. It's a 57 page document covering all sorts of issues about multiculturalism, so naturally, I turned straight to the section about Christmas to see if the papers had been accurate about it.

Or, I would have if there was a section about Christmas. There isn't. The word 'Christmas' appears once in the entire document, in the middle of Chapter 5 - 'Multiculturalism and Citizenship'. This chapter examines whether the state should be made more culturally neutral, and looks at the argument against multiculturalism that says the state should not favour any culture over another or give any special attention to any one. The chapter argues that those things that can be made more neutral should be, but that since some things can't, other minority cultures should be recognised by the state. Christmas is just used as an extreme example of something that is so deeply ingrained into the national culture that it can't be made more neutral - and the inclusion of 'even if we wanted to' in the mention of it is a signal that the report's authors don't actually want to make Christmas more neutral, or 'downgrade' it anyway.

Which brings me to the actual quotes from the papers. The word 'downgrade' doesn't appear once. So its inclusion in quotation marks in the headlines of the Mail and Express versions is misleading from the get go. Of course, the report doesn't argue that Christmas should be scrapped or banned either. Both of those are inventions.

Sticking to the Christmas quotes from the papers for now, the Mail claims that the report says:
"Even-handedness dictates that we provide public recognition to minority cultures and traditions.

"If we are going to continue as a nation to mark Christmas - and it would be very hard to expunge it from our national life even if we wanted to - then public organisations should mark other religious festivals too.

"We can no longer define ourselves as a Christian nation, nor an especially religious one in any sense.

"The empire is gone, church attendance is at historically low levels, and the Second World War is inexorably slipping from memory."
This quoting is very selective. The first sentence is only partial. It actually begins with the words 'In these circumstances,' because the context is further explained by what leads up to it. The circumstances are ones in which some things can't be done away with or changed. The chapter itself is two pages long, and the Christmas quote appears at the bottom of the first page.

More importantly, the third and fourth sentences don't immediately follow the first two like they do in the quote. They come three pages later, in a completely different chapter about national identity. Mashing the two sets of quotes together creates a new context to the original quotes, making the idea that the report is calling for a downgrading of Christmas seem more likely. Instead of Christmas being an example of part of the national culture that is so deeply ingrained it couldn't be expunged even if we wanted to, it becomes something we should expunge because it's an anachronism.

The Telegraph - as well as saying the report tells us to scrap Christmas - claims the report says:
"If we are going to continue to mark Christmas - and it would be very hard to expunge it from our national life even if we wanted to - then public organisations should mark other major religious festivals too.

"Even-handedness dictates that we provide public recognition to minority cultures and traditions."
Here, the context that leads up to the Christmas quote is not only removed as in the Mail, but the lead in sentence is switched so it comes after the conclusion to make it look like the conclusion itself. It makes it look as though the report is arguing that we should be even-handed with regard to the treatment we give to other traditions to the extent of making them as celebrated as Christmas. In fact, the Christmas quote is followed by caveats about how it's difficult to recognise different identities without encouraging uncritical submission to them and how we should be critical of those identities where we need to be.

The Sun claims the report says:
“National culture will inevitably represent something of a barrier to most new migrants.

“If we are going to continue as a nation to mark Christmas – and it would be very hard to expunge it from our national life even if we wanted to – then public organisations should mark other major religious festivals too.”
As with the Mail and Telegraph, there's some farting around here. The first sentence doesn't actually precede the second in the report, it comes a couple of paragraphs later in the chapter. Putting it first makes it look as though the report has specifically targeted Christmas as being a barrier to new migrants when it hasn't.

That's it for the quotes about Christmas in all the newspapers. There are three different versions of the same quote in these three papers. The Express doesn't give the quote any context, but does go on to say the report has made a conclusion it hasn't (see below). What is surprising is that such a throwaway line about something we can't and don't want to change became the main focus for articles telling us the report says we should change it, or worse still, ban or scrap it.

There are other instances of farting around with quotes about other aspects of the report. The Mail includes a quote about the introduction of '"Birth ceremonies", at which state and parents agree to "work in partnership" to bring up children', whereas the report doesn't mention birth ceremonies once. There is a suggestion that the registration of a child should take on qualities like that of a citizenship ceremony, and that parents, their friends, their family and the state should agree to work in partnership in bringing up the child. But 'birth ceremonies' sounds more wishy-washy and less like a Christening - and eliminating references to friends and family makes it look a bit more loony lefty.

The Express repeatedly quotes the phrase “foster a sense of shared values” and gives the idea that this is what the things the report recommends are supposed to do - especially recognising other festivals alongside Christmas. But the quote doesn't appear in the report. It does say that one thing the government can do is 'foster a set of shared values', and it continues to 'argue these values on their own lack the motivational power to bind a community together'. Of course, 'sense' is more wishy-washy and vague than 'set'. Giving the idea that we should be recognising other festivals to foster this sense of values is also more wishy-washy and cartoon lefty sounding than merely saying that one thing the government can do is foster a set of values, and arguing that this on its own is not enough.

None of this is to say that the IPPR report is a fantastically clear and concise document that any fool can understand. It isn't. It's sometimes difficult to know when it's talking about religion and when it's talking about ethnicity. The idea of cultural neutrality is confusing, and it's difficult to work out whether that just means secular in a religious sense, or lacking in any culture at all. What is being 'culturally neutral' anyway? If we're talking about things being more secular then that's what we should say - since doing so would just make them part of a secular culture. I'm not defending the report as a great piece of work here.

But the idea that the document is about how we should ban Christmas is ludicrous. As for whether we should downgrade Christmas - I could understand how someone might wonder if the report's authors are saying the only reason we shouldn't do that is because we can't, but to show that the report really does argue that Christmas should be downgraded, you have to fart about with quotes, like the papers have done here. Looking back over the newspaper articles, it's surprising how few extended quotes from the actual report there are, and how many single words or phrases are taken out and 'explained' by the papers.

Maybe the blame should be spread around a little, but I can understand how the report's authors would be surprised that a single throwaway sentence in the middle of a report that stretches over fifty pages would become the entire focus of a whole bunch of 'ban Christmas' scandal articles.

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