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The Ven. Dr Rachel Mann - 30/01/2024

Good morning. In a rare example of unity, US politicians on all sides have called this week for new federal laws to criminalise the creation of deepfakes, after explicit faked images of Taylor Swift were viewed millions of times online. According to last year’s State of Deepfakes report, pornography comprises the overwhelming majority of deepfakes, with women making up 99% of those targeted.

We all carry within us images of ourselves – of what we look like and of who we are. I can barely imagine the damage that is done to that self-image by seeing yourself manipulated into pornography. Part of the destructiveness of deepfakes, then, is that they force other human beings into twisted fantasy images of who they are. I don’t think anyone, whether they’re famous like Taylor Swift or just an ordinary person, should have to deal with that.

I am also aware that, as much as anyone else, my own self-image and the image I have of others will be a mix of truth and falsehood. Indeed, the Trappist Monk Thomas Merton suggests that it takes real focus, attention and will to live in such a way that we come to a clearer, kinder and more truthful image of our self and others. He says, ‘The beginning of love is the will to let those we love be perfectly themselves, it is the resolution not to twist them to fit our own image.’

A strong will, I think, is not enough. The catholic philosopher Thomas Aquinas suggests that coming to a truthful appreciation of our self and of others is a practical matter: it involves seeking to live according to the virtues. For Aquinas, a virtue is a quality like honesty or self-control or courage that when practised with others brings our self-image into closer alignment with the truth: that we each have infinite dignity because we bear the image of God. Aquinas suggests that as we practice the virtues, we are less inclined to manipulate others for our own ends and live more truthfully.

I value Aquinas’s view as a useful reminder that how we view other human beings is a genuinely practical matter, shaped by the values we hold. I also think

we should not lose sight of Thomas Merton’s insight when he says, ‘[if we love others] only for their potential likeness to ourselves, then we do not love them: we only love the reflection of ourselves we find in them.’ It is in attending to the precious dignity which attaches to actual human beings that we have a stronger chance of promoting their real flourishing rather than turning them into fake images for our own ends.

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