Saturday, August 22, 2009

Fear, Anger and Truth

Within days of Barack Obama’s election, the FBI and the CIA were developing strategies for dealing with a resurgence of armed militias. In a grim sort of way I have to tip my hat to them for their foresight. While I dared to hope we were about to enter a new era of national unity, they knew that having a liberal African-American in the White House would inevitably create fear in certain portions of the population who would take up arms to protect themselves from the coming (pick one) Communist/Socialist/Nazi takeover of America. I heard an interview with a militia member who sincerely believes that the Obama administration is supporting a secret plan by the Mexican government to reclaim the states of Arizona and New Mexico. When you mix fear, anger, misinformation and weapons you wind up with a very dangerous combination.

Perhaps the most poignant question asked in the Christian Gospels is the one posed by Pontius Pilate: “What is truth?” When a society cannot agree upon what constitutes truth, cannot agree upon what is fact and what is fiction, dialogue becomes impossible. We have seen this most notably in the debate over health-care reform, where bizarre rumors (such as the one about the government establishing “death panels”) are regarded as factual truth by many people. I confess that I took more pleasure than I perhaps should have in Congressman Barney Frank’s response to one such woman, who accused the congressman of supporting the President’s “Nazi health plan”—“Ma’am, trying to have a conversation with you would be like trying to argue with a dining room table. I have no interest in doing it.”

It is not realistic to expect everyone to be in agreement about complex political and cultural issues. It is healthy and productive to dialog with one another in a respectful manner about those issues on which we hold different views. But in order to do so we need common grounding in the facts which define the issue. Lewis Carroll gave us the line “If I say it three times it is true,” and between the media and the internet such “truths” are being created and believed in alarming numbers. Misinformation has become the single greatest threat to civilized society.

By all means hold your own convictions and argue them with passion. But first, pause to ask yourself “Is this true? How do I know it is the truth? Where can I check my facts?” Persons of moral integrity will not always agree with one another, but they must not allow themselves to be guilty of spreading misinformation, rumors, or lies.

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