Saturday, December 5, 2020

The official student newspaper of Methodist Ladies' College

To judge or not to judge – religion, media and Amy Coney Barrett

This last week, Amy Coney Barret’s name has all but dominated my news feed. After getting over the admittedly strange feeling of seeing my first name plastered all over the internet, I found myself reading article after article, all repeating some form or another of “Amy Coney Barret’s confirmation as Supreme Court justice will spell the end for [insert xyz cause].” Then, I turned to Facebook, (a place that never fails to disappoint if you want to see the other side of a story) and suffice to say, I was bombarded by post after post comparing A.C.B to the biblical Esther. It was a wonderful dichotomy.

All jokes aside, the impending confirmation of A.C.B has once again brought the issue of religion’s place in modern politics to the forefront. Ever since the first whispers of her nomination began circulating online, there has been incessant discussion of her ability to offer impartial judgement given her personal religious background. Of course, I realise the importance of the principle of separating Church and State but the more I articles I read dissecting A.C.B’s religious history,  the more I found myself questioning to what extent am I justified in making judgements on her professional capabilities based on her personal life.

As a principle, I have always harboured distaste for the media’s tendency to scrutinise a woman’s personal life as a way to either validate or invalidate her professional life. While not exclusive to just women, such behaviour seems to be both more prevalent and more effective when the subject being examined happens to be female.  With this in mind, I couldn’t help but feel conflicted as I saw A.C. B’s involvement with the People of Praise group be brought up repeatedly as an argument against her nomination. It is clear why there is so much focus on this particular aspect of her life, with its air of mystique (the word “cult” makes a few appearances), traditionalist values and the oh-so-sinister title of “handmaids” given to female leaders within the community (this was changed a few years ago, thanks to the popularisation of the TV show The Handmaid’s Tale).

I agree that there certainly is a need to research and understand the background of someone in A.C.B’s position – after all, no one can operate in full isolation from their upbringing and familial background. However, what worries me is that all this talk about the inner workings of the People of Praise community could easily overshadow the true purpose of the discussion, which is to determine if A.C.B’s involvement with them will compromise her ability to serve in the Supreme Court. It is so easy to latch onto one specific part of someone’s life and define that person by this single aspect of them. A casual partaker of the news (or of the Supreme Court nomination process) could run the risk of dismissing A.C.B’s entire claim to the position of justice by only viewing her in the context of her relationship with the People of Praise and hence, see her as a complete extension of the values (as reported on by media outlets) espoused by the community. At this point, it’s no longer so much an issue of A.C.B’s capabilities or even her personal values as it is an issue of being blindsided by one aspect of someone that is particularly vulnerable to sensationalist reporting.

All that said, the situation I just described is unlikely to be true for the case of Amy Coney Barrett’s appointment process as it is ultimately decided by US Senate, not the casual news partaker. That is not to say though, that a similar situation does not arise for other debated figures or topics. As an avid follower of all kinds of political and social discourse, I have found many instances in which people’s perception of someone is wholly formed from a select few aspects of their lives which had been mercilessly dug up and laid bare by the media. In some cases, the aspects in question may be so morally repugnant or simply criminal in nature that I feel it is justified to let it permanently affect your opinion of someone.  Other times, not quite so.

In truth, the question of whether I can judge Amy Coney Barrett’s personal life has evolved into something much larger. In true IB Theory of Knowledge fashion, what had started as a targeted, if not simple, question expanded to encompass a proverbial truckload full of societal issues like the influence of sensationalist media or how becoming too preoccupied on one detail can lead to overlooking the greater picture. It’s all very philosophical and probably too deep for one sleep-deprived Year 11 to answer.

So in conclusion, I still don’t have an exact answer to my question. I’m still somewhat torn about the way in which A.C.B’s personal religious history has been discussed. But, I do know that it is an inevitable part of being a public figure and it is probably for the best of the people that she be scrutinised in this way. Personally, I have never been a supporter of her nomination and given that I don’t live in the US, her direct impact on my life is likely to be minimal. However, if there is one takeaway lesson from this rambling mess of an article, it would be to never take things at face value, especially when the media is concerned. Do your own research. Make up your own opinions. That way, if you want to make a judgement on someone, at least it’s on your own terms.

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