Polarization over the truth at Thanksgiving
Last year during this same week I wrote about changing the subject at the Thanksgiving table because I really didn’t think the holiday table was the best place for political debate. I still think it makes sense not to go into the dialogue guns a’blazing, especially when the president is deepening trenches with misinformation and outrage. Right now, we see our political rivals as enemies, instead of rivals. And so the discussions themselves become about much more than political philosophy or policy even; they are existential. That means they are connected to our very being. Our identities are wrapped up in our political ideology, and not always for bad reasons. When sexism and racism are as rampant as they are right now, it’s very hard not to take politics personally.
So while you may not want to discuss erasing student debt and Medicare For All at Thanksgiving table, my word to you this year is not to let go of the truth. In our deeply polarized and entrenched time (and, once again, it is the cheat-in-chief who is primarily responsible for outraging us), when misinformation and propaganda are a normal part of the discourse, it is tempting to throw your hands up and quit in distress. Alternatively, the temptation may be to err on the side of politeness, even at the expense of truth. But don’t let your commitment to love turn you into a liar (and don’t let your commitment to truth turn you into a killer). That’s wisdom from Eberhard Arnold, by the way.
But we can be gracious, because most people have opinions based on the facts that are presented to them. And when new facts contradict our opinion, we dismiss them, or we at least hear them dismissed as what? As Fake News.
Our commander-in-chief has discredited, among his base, any hostility from the media. Discrediting media is a play out of the authoritarian playbook, so in my view it’s not surprising that he’s done that. But most people aren’t just dismissing point of views they disagree with as “false,” they simply think, somewhere in their minds, that we are just seeing the facts differently and interpreting the facts differently.
Facts never speak for themselves, we speak for them.
I was having a discussion with someone a few months ago who thought I was getting a little too political on this blog. I told him the evil I was naming wasn’t me being political, it was a matter of fact. He told me we interpret the news differently. Anyway, I don’t want to get into the specifics, but what he pointed out to me was clear: we can’t tell the difference between facts and opinions, and so we have a problem. Everyone is entitled to their opinion, and as a result, also their own facts. The facts we get filtered to us, the ones that “matter” are also subjective in their nature.
And honestly, I am fond of this idea in general: the facts never speak for themselves, we speak for the facts. Facts don’t really exist until we give them life, and upon giving them life we paint them with our opinion. Everyone being entitled to their opinion is actually just a fact. We see the world and then we interpret automatically. Realizing that should make us more gracious with each other, and not less.
For a long time, it was the dominant powers that controlled the narratives that we used to understand the world. European men, in particular, were people that framed how we thought of the world. They dominated politics, art, literature, culture, the church, and so on. Every institution that frames how we think of the world.
Deconstruction got us out of a mess and put us into another one
What followed this was a period of deconstruction, some people call it postmodernism, where the assumptions we had about the world were no longer centered on what these European men thought. A period of new philosophy followed, existentialism is what some people call it, and it’s premised on this idea: existence precedes essence. Put another way, we aren’t anything until we say we are something. We offer ourselves our essence. It’s what Nietzsche says, “What does your conscience say? You should become the person you are.” Other existentialists found freedom from the absurdity of life and their angst through it by realizing life really only has the point we offer it. The essence we offer it.
I can appreciate this work for a few reasons, not least of which, is that challenging the assumptions that preceded this intellectual movement allows other people, from other contexts, namely women and people of color, to offer their perspective.
That’s an important development. But in deconstructing the past, we ended up with a tenuous present. Because we made some progress (and we need to make more), it is clear that it is no longer just Europeans that can offer their perspective on the world, we’re left with limited value in deconstruction alone.
Noting how socially constructed our world is, is helpful insofar as it challenges the assumptions that we have, but too much of it results in a rebellion from a basis that can result in the worst of things, including white nationalism and the argument for a white ethnostate. The argument here is that if existence precedes essence, then there is nothing wrong with me inventing my essence, even if it is oppressing you or hurting you in some way.
We didn’t imagine that postmodern social construction would result in the thing we were fighting, but that’s how it is. Deconstructing the truth as given to us, by the authorities and the powers that be, ultimately resulted in us being unable to speak the truth, even in love, without causing tension over the turkey and stuffing.
Don’t be polite at the expense of the truth
I felt our commitment to politeness overtaking us, and not truth, when I read the New York Times’ profile of Sarah Huckabee Sanders. My friend joked to me that the piece felt like a Better Homes and Gardens piece. I thought it was a soft, human interest story. It didn’t deepen our understanding of Sanders, but it did attempt to rehabilitate her (and not even by humanizing her). I think Americans are committed to that rehabilitation because we insist on normalizing our political economy because we’ve been duped into thinking that it’s the hope of the world. That’s a lie that’s sold to us from birth, essentially.
Sanders is a former press security for Trump. She answered questions for the press on behalf of the liar-in-chief. The President’s lies are well-documented, and so are Sanders’ when she was representing him. And so the New York Times missed a great opportunity to name her lies, when she said it “hurt” to be called a liar. Instead of being honest, the Times leaned into the politeness that I think we are trained to lean into if we want to be “good people.” And we want to be good people at holidays.
But here’s the thing: politeness doesn’t solve our problems. Politeness, in many cases, is just a new expression of indifference. Politeness is what Christian indifference looks like. We think we’re doing that right thing when we are nice, but niceness isn’t a commandment. Kindness might be, but Jesus never divorces kindness from the truth, and his kindness is reserved quite often for the oppressed and the pagans; not for religious leaders. But the thing is religious leaders today, Christian leaders today, are the ones that need the truth told to them, and in a very clear way. Here Eric Metaxas and Franklin Graham talk about the economy as an indicator of Trump’s success. I’m surprised at how brazenly political and partisan they are. I really do think we need to be the alternative to all of this nonsense. Shane is helping.
Create a community that cares, and isn’t just indifferent
But being the alternative means speaking the truth. We’re trying to create a community that cares, and so we won’t just let ourselves succumb to “privacy” or “indifference.” At the Thanksgiving table, it seems to me like we’re trained to not stir up trouble by having hard conversations, and while I don’t think you should fight at the table, part of loving one another is getting into the real stuff.
“Getting into the real stuff” does not entitle us to being cruel or mean-spirited, though. But I think that our commitment to politeness leads to cut-offs and blow-ups. So instead of building pressure under the guise of politeness, and then releasing the blow-off valve, let’s speak the truth in love. Don’t shy away from the truth, keep speaking it in love. You don’t need to cancel your aunt to do that. Name the lies, speak for Jesus, and speak like Jesus. Jesus got into all the stuff, but did with grace and truth. You might still offend your parents, but you don’t have to offend them because you were mean or hostile.
And if you don’t do it at the holiday table, do it in our community. Speak the truth in love; shine a light on darkness; use sunshine as a disinfectant. Care about one another; don’t be indifferent, don’t be “polite.” Can we keep building a community that cares, conflicts, and doesn’t just “mind its business?” I think we should be that intentional. Indifference is probably the antithesis to love.