Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Thought for the Day

It’s hard to imagine a cutting edge news programme being launched in 2007 that would allow two minutes forty-five seconds to religious figures to talk unchallenged from a religious perspective on a current news item. But such is Thought for the Day, on which I have been the solitary Buddhist for the last year.

TFTD has admirers who love the cuddly Lionel Blue, and detractors who splutter into their cornflakes at the latest talk by Anne Atkins. One splutterer, Peter Hearty, has been moved by his indignation to start an anti-TFTD website called Platitude of the Day. Each morning Hearty rises in fury to post a prĂ©cis of the latest Thought, that aims to reveal its essential banality. To add injury to insult, he gives a mark out of five on his platitude scale—‘0’ being ‘not platitudinous’; ‘5’ being ‘extraordinarily platitudinous’. He also gives the contributors tags, so I am ‘Vishvapani, much nicer name than Simon Blomfield’ (That’s my non-Buddhist name and for the record I think it’s quite nice as well). Actually, I seem to be in what approximates to Hearty’s good books, but you get the picture.

Like other critics of TFTD, notably the British Humanist Association, Hearty resents the privileged treatment religious people receive in this slot. And who can deny that it is a privilege. While politicians get barely a few seconds before Humphries interrupts their flow, TFTD contributors get fully 165 of them. The cost of having an ‘unopposed’ slot is that you can’t make partisan points. Perhaps that’s one condition that pushes speakers towards platitude. Another is that the talk should include a good chunk of theology, and this is where things go wrong for Hearty who seems to believe that religious comments are inherently platitudinous because their moral perspective depends on the faith’s authority claims.

I don’t claim to have escaped platitude in my ten talks over the last year, but the issue looks different from contributor’s perspective. It may just be that I am a rookie, but my experience is that writing TFTD scripts is hard. You have under three minutes to go from news story to moral, keeping it all engaging and clear. The difficulty is combining a story from the secular world of news with a comment from the world of religion without imposing an artificial moral. You easily end up saying, “Things are bad. It would be so much better if things were better.”

But consider the conditions under which the poor contributor writes their Thought. It’s a topical comment, so it has to be written the previous day and the subject depends on what is in the news. So you look at the papers and squint, hoping to catch a glint of your religion, hoping to find something to say is substantial and isn’t a platitude. Maybe there’s something that grabs you—and the scripts that work best draw a straightforward and forceful moral point from the news item. But want if nothing does? The producers (who are good but very busy) help refine your thinking, but you have to have something to say in the first place.

Hearty’s criticism of TFTD seems to be that that dogma gets in the way ethics. That’s a fair point if contributors speak solely from the standpoint of doctrine rather than that of experience. But in the case of the TFTD contributors I admire, I feel I am encountering a warm and thoughtful individual who brings moral depth to their response to the day’s events. Such a response isn’t the exclusive preserve of the religious—artists, psychologists and philosophers might make good contributors as well. But finding something meaningful to say under TFTD conditions requires that you have a broadly-based and well-articulated moral stance that has moulded your thinking.

People whose lives are rooted in their faith are well equipped to make a distinctive contribution that expresses the moral integrity of their lives and the wisdom and clarity of their tradition. Perhaps it’s too much to expect that each day of the week, but when it does happen TFTD is a welcome relief from the noise of aggressive journalists and squabbling politicians—and not the least bit platitudinous.