Talking About Talking About Politics

social-media-logos (1)The acerbic literary critic, Dorothy Parker, once chided Sinclair Lewis because “the thing he desires to believe is the thing he feels he knows to be true.” It doesn’t require much attention to realize things have not changed much.

“Hey, Bill, Bill, am I gonna check every statistic?” Donald Trump’s recent complaint to Bill O’Reilly were those of a man for whom facts were inconvenient to his bullying intentions.  Trump’s litany of absurd and demonstrably inaccurate statements reflects his deliberate investment in volume over veracity. As Dorothy Parker reflected on Lewis, “he says it so loud and so hard that it sounds to him like the truth.” Ditto Trump, almost a century later.

But we expect that of candidates. Far more worrying is when we as citizens embrace the very same attitude, that the important thing is not whether a statement is true but whether we think it ought to be true. Nowhere is it more evident than social media during campaign season.

Daily I am bombarded with memes and tweets from people whose opinions I once considered thoughtful, supporting their political positions with the most obvious, often odious, factual misrepresentations. False statements which would take less than 30 seconds to fact check get re-tweeted, liked, shared, and posted solely because they affirm a preconceived bias. It is not a partisan disease. In my own small social media sampling I see it more often on display from the right than the left but not exclusively so.

We may simply have forgotten that by what we re-tweet, post, and share, we are all being judged as to our reliability as witnesses to truth.

And this is particularly so for people of faith of which I am one. It saddens me that many of my Christian friends are often the worst offenders when, regarding truth, we should be the best behaved. The most profound weakening of my own faith in recent years has been as a result of seeing other Christians whose influence I had once cherished prove themselves unreliable witnesses. Once bright lights have become dim bulbs not from personal moral failure but simply from the demeanor and imprudence with which they handle opposing opinions and willingly spread misinformation in support of their point of view.

The Apostle Paul wrote “For God has not given us a spirit of fearfulness, but one of power, love, and sound judgment.” As we enter the quadrennial Christmastime before a presidential election perhaps now especially believers should ask themselves three questions before a sketchy re-tweet:

If my friends cannot trust me to show integrity with the facts of civil government, how can they trust me to tell them the truth about the Kingdom of God?

If I am so easily duped by propaganda and exaggeration, how can my friends believe I have good judgement about some obscure Jewish carpenter who lived 2,000 years ago?

If I rejoice in the vilification of those holding opposing views, how can I expect my friends to become curious about grace and lovingkindness?

Not all are spiritual believers, of course, but we all represent something, and whether as ambassadors of our God or simply our political persuasion, class, gender, ethnicity, or whatever, we are all being judged as to our reliability as witnesses to truth.

Americans have historically been hard headed and soft hearted, committed to the hard headed discipline of fairly evaluating competing ideas yet exhibiting that general compassion which de Tocqueville viewed as inherent in American individualism. Yet either from fear or from want of intellectual discipline we appear to be becoming soft headed and hard hearted, unopen to opposing ideas, unwilling to demand critical thinking from ourselves, and trusting invective instead of empathy.

When that happens we diminish ourselves as individuals and as a nation. So from now until the election, before I forward a meme or article or re-tweet a post, I am going to take an extra minute or two to reflect: Is it true? Is it helpful? How does it reflect on my reliability as a witness?

Call me out if I mess up.

6 thoughts on “Talking About Talking About Politics

  1. John – Very thoughtful blog. I enjoyed it thoroughly.

    I discussed this very topic over the holiday with my brother. I agree with your example of Donald Trump but he is just the latest and most bellicose of the offenders. The political spectrum is replete with examples of candidates who willfully or negligently disregard the truth. Hillary Clinton is as skilled at manipulating the truth of any candidate in recent memory. That said, the issue certainly isn’t unique to politics and these examples are just symptoms of the real issue.

    The real issue is “us”. Our social discourse on dozens of topics has become so divided and caustic that logic and reason no longer prevail. Good people with intellectual disagreements and a desire for compromise are seen as weeds in the garden of perfection. Those weeds need to be pulled out from the base to guarantee that they are obliterated.

    In this environment facts are inconvenient things. False facts, statistics, and misquoted information are the tools of the trade. Add to the mix a populous and media that will accept anything that aligns with their beliefs regardless of the truth and you see a problem that continues to multiply.

    Additionally, everyone’s bias makes their view of the facts skewed. Your blog suggests this by the examples you give even if you don’t expressly state it. It took Donald Trump to move your pen despite having a perfectly good example of dishonesty in Hillary Clinton.

    Social media has become electronic mob rule where justice and truth are secondary in priority to getting your point of view proliferated. I have also found that the very people who believe they are operating with righteousness on their side are the worst offenders. Prepackaged stories designed to elicit outrage from one side or the other are held up as proof of the highly evolved position one is taking. There is no tolerance for discourse and your only option is to accept their truth or quickly acquire whatever label is convenient to marginalize you.

    I confess that I occasionally get pulled into a thread whose sole intention is to cram a political or social view down your throat (shame on me). To change this we have to change “us” and the standard we hold ourselves to. I am not as optimistic about the mobs ability to change. The mob loves anonymity and the ability to rarely be held accountable. As a result, I will just continue to use the online tools to hide the people who send the prepackaged insanity designed to divide us. Thankfully John you are not one of those….

    • Thanks for the feedback. I used Trump because he has developed somewhat of a cottage industry in misinformation that indicates a contempt for the American voter far beyond any other candidate, right or left. To have had one Democrat and one Trump as examples would have suggested a false equivalency.

      But, as I tried to point out, I have no real expectation for candidate scruples…yet I do of the citizenry at large and that is where I, and all of us,need to clean up our act. I tried to point out that it is not a partisan problem though as I mentioned I personally see bias induced fact-avoidance far more frequently from the right than the left. This is not to say that there aren’t plenty of examples from the left…just not as many in my little sampling. Not because liberals are particularly better, just different: I believe left-wing foibles tend toward another direction altogether, namely the enthusiasm for political correctness and safe speech that stifles real, genuine, dangerous debate. But more on that in a later blog.

      The real question is…why aren’t you working? I’m the old retired guy with too much time on his hands.

      • I don’t disagree with you at all on Trump. I find his tactics dishonest and objectionable I believe he lacks the requisite substance to be a candidate for public office at any level. I also guess I shouldn’t be stunned that the American people accept this since political contests have been beauty pageants for many elections at this point.

        I also agree with your basic conclusion regarding the citizenry’s role in all of this and our duty to behave more responsibly. I certainly have no quarrel with your reference to scripture.

        One point I was trying to tease out was that all of us are more likely to have our sensibilities bruised by tweets, posts or stories that don’t align with our basic world view. That fact tends to skew how we react and remember events. Said another way, the reference to categorizing a broad group as prime offenders removed some of the power from your point (for me at least).

        Anyway your blog was thought provoking and right on target. One last point – your reference to me as a slacker is also misplaced. I may not be a millennial but I can multi task like one…. Perhaps that was a bit Trumpish of me to claim that.

        Take Care.

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