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.