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Rowan Williams and people's unwillingness to read


12 February 2008

Over the last few days, we have seen a firestorm of protest in the media, following the Archbishop of Canterbury's lecture at the Royal Courts of Justice "Civil and Religious Law in England: a religious perspective" on Thursday 7 February 2008.

The full text of the lecture can be found on Archbishop Rowan Williams's website.

Several points emerge from listening to the reporting on BBC Radio 4, reading the Saturday copy of "The Independent" and reading "The Sunday Times."

(1) The media have no interest in knowing what Dr Williams actually said.

In one sense, this is not a surprise. I downloaded the speech and copied it into Microsoft Word. It is 6,263 words long, comprising 132 sentences. That gives an average of 47.4 words per sentence; rather longer than the average sentence in any quality newspaper, let alone the tabloids.

Microsoft Word also contains built-in tools for assessing readability. The "Flesch Reading Ease" score is on a 100-point scale, and Word encourages you to aim for a score of 60-70. The speech is given a score of 17.8.

The "Flesch Kincaid Grade Level" attempts to categorise the document by the average reading age of children in American schools. For example, grade 12 corresponds to a reading age of 17-18. Microsoft Word gives the speech a grade level of 20.6 implying that readers need education to the age of 25-26, which I interpret as being post-doctoral level!

The speech is genuinely hard to read, and some sentences need to be read several times. Accordingly I am not surprised that most journalists cannot be bothered trying to read or understand it. However, such journalists have no grounds for commenting upon it.

(2) The very word Shariah inspires almost pathological hatred.

I don't read the tabloid press but one cannot avoid the front pages in newsagents and one also hears digests on the radio. As well as vilifying Dr Williams himself, the tabloids have been extremely abusive regarding the Shariah, as if only a religious fanatic could play any regard to it whatsoever.

Of course the only purpose of the tabloid press is to sell newspapers. I assume that the journalists and editors are well acquainted with the personal prejudices of their readers. Sadly, this implies that most people who read tabloids are indeed bigots in dire need of education.

To the average Briton, Shariah means no more than chopping off the hands of thieves and stoning adulterers and homosexuals. Unfortunately, we will never educate Britons to the contrary while so many Muslims themselves also focus on exactly the same subjects.


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