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Consider the Source

So, words like “truthiness” and “post-truth” are rudely and forcibly inserting themselves into our collective consciousness and public discourse. The former, according to an article today in Macleans, refers to people’s “preference for concepts they wish were true over ones that actually are true” (sometimes referred to in distant bygone ages as “illusions” or “lies”); the latter points to “circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than emotional appeals.” Neither addition to the Oxford dictionary flatters us much as a species. Is it possible to repent for making such additions necessary?

The Macleans article presents a dispiriting reality that I suspect most of us are painfully well acquainted with after the recent US election cycle. I must confess that a little part of me dies each time I read about people busily churning out fake news because it turns out to be better click bait and therefore more lucrative to advertisers. And about how fake news contributes to the formation of real opinions that have real and toxic effects in the world. Is it possible to reach escape velocity with something like collective stupidity? Could the Internet eventually collapse under the weight of the ignorance and anger that we daily pour through the ether? I wonder…

At one point, the Macleans article says,

A friend recently told me she’s on an “opinion diet” — that she’s limiting her consumption of hot takes and editorials — and instead taking in more news stories in full and reading more non-fiction books to help her better understand the world and come up with her own opinions and values.

I wonder if we’re past the point of dieting. Maybe only a fast will do.

——

Yesterday, I read an article in The New Yorker that talks about how outgoing president Barack Obama is dealing with the prospect of a Donald Trump presidency. It was an interesting piece if for no other reason than it’s fascinating to see the people behind the headlines that scream at us daily. The one line that stuck with me was when Obama mused thus about leading in a post-truth era:

[I]f I proposed something that was literally word for word in the Republican Party platform, it would be immediately opposed by eighty to ninety per cent of the Republican voters. And the reason is not that they’ve evaluated what I said. It’s that I said it.

One suspects that the same would hold on the other end of the political spectrum. Which doesn’t detract in any way from the depressing nature of the statement. We don’t evaluate ideas, we evaluate people and the organizations they represent, it seems. It’s like being the parent of a teenager. If a parent says something out loud and there are no teenagers around to hear it, is it still wrong?

Perhaps at one point, “Consider the source” was meant to be a guard against taking truth claims at face value without considering the one who was making them. Now we seem to have the opposite problem in our political “discourse.” We’re not capable of (or willing to) consider anything but the source.

——

Peter Marty recently wrote a reflection on his relationship with the news that I suspect many of us might resonate with.

Ever since I started using my smartphone as a morning alarm clock, my wake-up habits have shifted. Instead of engaging in prayer to open my day—once a regular feature of my rising—or paying attention to the chipmunk that chirps outside my window, or conversing softly with my wife, I check the news. When I lean over the edge of the bed to shut off the alarm, I notice my screen displaying news alerts that arrived overnight. Of course I click on them, wondering what I might have heroically saved in the world had I stayed up all night.

While this reflex to tune into the news immediately is not as frightening to me as living in a household where Fox News or CNN saturates viewer eyeballs 24/7, it still troubles me. Like a billion other people, I’m consumed by the news. By the way, do we actually consume the news, or does the news consume us?

An important question, that last one. As is his call to return to simpler and healthier practices to launch into the day. Prayer. Silence. Attentiveness. Anything but the news.

Later, citing the philosopher Alain de Botton, Marty opens up another nest of issues that we would probably rather ignore, namely, the role that “the news” plays in forming and maintaining our moral imaginations and propping up our preferred identities:

News has largely replaced religion as “our central source of guidance and our touchstone of authority.” The news—not scripture, tradition, or inspired ritual—informs how we handle suffering and make moral choices. A desire to know what’s going on all hours of the day and night actually makes us more shallow than we may want to admit.

So, if I’m reading Marty correctly, the way to become a person of depth is to never want to know what’s going on, right? 😉

——

Speaking of obsession with news I read with interest of a study that asked teenagers to sit in a room for an entire morning without their smartphones. Being the father of teenagers, I’m surprised they could find anyone willing to participate in such an inhuman experiment. You might as well have asked them to amputate a limb.

(Actually, come to think of it, I’m not sure that many adults I know would have been any more eager to do this…)

At any rate, against all odds, they found a few teenagers to suffer for a morning without their phones. And they were, predictably bored. Which might not be such a bad thing. Boredom can stimulate all kinds of creativity and resourcefulness…

Apparently… Just a minute, something just made a sound on my phone…

… ok, I’m back… Where was I?

Ah yes, boredom. According to Dr. Sandi Mann,

“We’re spending too much time trying to get rid of boredom, swiping and scrolling every moment…” The constant feed of fresh updates on our smartphones has got us caught in a vicious cycle…

Novelty and new stuff gives us a burst of the pleasure hormone dopamine in our brain. And of course it’s highly addictive. [But] once you’ve viewed something, it’s no longer novel. So, to get that same hit, you need to keep viewing more and more stuff.

So to bring all this full circle, I wonder if our loose interest in the truth of the matter or our propensity to ignore ideas and just evaluate the people/institutions who espouse them or our obsession with the news basically just bottoms out at a pathetic craving for dopamine.

Consider the source.

9 Comments Post a comment
  1. Chris #

    I view all news now as fake news. Fake in the sense of artificial, fact-selective, and reflecting a particular worldview and set of biases. I agree that news is addictive. I am trying to abstain from FB and limit news consumption. Hard to do, though.

    November 22, 2016
    • I view all news now as fake news. Fake in the sense of artificial, fact-selective, and reflecting a particular worldview and set of biases.

      Absolutely, Chris. And I share your struggles, incidentally. Perhaps one must diet before one can fast 🙂

      November 22, 2016
  2. Bart Velthuizen #

    record under “Truth”

    November 24, 2016
  3. Kevin K #

    Hi Ryan,

    I noticed the Maclean’s article as well, and appreciated your perspective. Though I wondered… how would you respond to the assertion that “religion” specifically christianity is us choosing a “preference for concepts they wish were true over ones that actually are true?”

    Would be interested in your take on that.

    Thanks for the reflections.

    Kevin

    November 24, 2016
    • I can’t really do much better than Frederick Buechner on this one… From Wishful Thinking:

      Christianity is mainly wishful thinking. Even the part about judgment and hell reflects the wish that somewhere the score is being kept. Dreams are wishful thinking. Children playing at being grown-up is wishful thinking. Interplanetary travel is wishful thinking. Sometimes wishing is the wings the truth comes true on. Sometimes the truth is what sets us wishing for it.

      November 25, 2016
      • Kevin K #

        That’s quite helpful. I’d have to agree. I suppose it’s more difficult when another’s “wishful thinking” leads them towards outcomes (truths?) we ourselves don’t share. Seems any political system actually involves a great deal of faith and wishful thinking. Perhaps more than we had thought (or perhaps forgotten).

        November 25, 2016
      • I suppose we all embrace the worldviews we do in part because of what we want to be true and in part because of what we believe we have figured out or been shown or what has been disclosed to us by God. But comprehensive and indubitable proof is off the table, obviously, no matter what worldview we embrace.

        For me, Christianity is in part “wish-fulfillment,” but in such a strange and demanding way, that I am convinced that it might just be true… 🙂

        November 26, 2016
  4. chris #

    Today I glanced at a webpage and thought the word liturgical was the word logical. I had to look again to correct my first impression. I was thinking afterward how those two words, liturgical and logical, though looking superficially similar, belong to two different universes.

    Do I believe liturgically (say, in God or an afterlife) what I cannot prove logically? I certainly do. I suppose you can make a case that I believe because I want it to be true. Yet, I still think about my faith logically. I seek to have warranted beliefs, beliefs that make sense intellectually. I often frame matters, too, in light of the old Wesleyan quadrilateral: scripture, tradition, reason, and experience. Increasingly, I am putting more emphasis on the last two, reason and experience, in thinking about what I actually believe.

    I wonder: do atheists believe there is no God because deep within they want there to be no God? God would be inconvenient. I doubt we human beings ever escape our wants, and our wants shape our hopes, beliefs, and perceptions.

    Just musing on a Tuesday. Peace to you.

    November 29, 2016
    • I appreciate and resonate with your musings on a Tuesday, Chris, particularly this line:

      I doubt we human beings ever escape our wants, and our wants shape our hopes, beliefs, and perceptions.

      Thank you.

      (Regrettably, God is sometimes inconvenient for those of us who aren’t atheists, too 🙂 )

      November 30, 2016

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