When the truth is polarizing, lies prevail
Perhaps nothing is more distressing to me about the pandemic than the fact that our extremely polarized country continues to be so, even when the crisis is a great opportunity for a new sense of unity and common experience. The U.S. political parties are divided over the severity of the virus (even though concern is growing largely), for example. Add to that, Facebook is profiting off of spreading pseudoscience:
But at the very same time, The Markup found, Facebook was allowing advertisers to profit from ads targeting people that the company believes are interested in “pseudoscience.” According to Facebook’s ad portal, the pseudoscience interest category contained more than 78 million people.
Meanwhile, there’s been a marriage between people who are suspicious of vaccination, and those who think that government lockdown’s are an infringement on their personal rights. It’s noteworthy to me that it seems like President Trump is a ring leader of this movement, offering his own terrible medical advice, suggesting that people might inject disinfectants into their bodies to rid themselves of the coronavirus. The President also takes no responsibility for his careless words. So the President not only lies, when his lies hurt others, he doesn’t own his bad leadership. That’s a subject for another blog post, but it does shed light on the crisis around truth that we have been in since at least 2016 (if not forever), but that is also exacerbated by the public health crisis that we’re currently in.
The truth may be in a fog, but it’s not unfindable
The truth matters more than ever, and allowing it to be overcome by partisanship, ideology, and special interests is not only irresponsible, it is deadly. I disagree with New York Times columnist, Ross Douthat, who wrote that truth is hard to find at all in the fog of coronavirus. Because while we are not certain of a lot, that doesn’t mean we can’t approach truth, and sowing seeds that question the good faith knowledge of experts is dangerous.
Douthat plays right into the culture war idea that there isn’t verifiable truth. This is a way paved by some Western philosophy, but capitalized and exploited by the social constructionists that make up this Administration.
Douthat eventually says, “That doesn’t mean you should ignore experts and just take random posts and Twitter rants as gospel.” And “Yes, you should trust Anthony Fauci more than Donald Trump when it comes to the potential benefits of hydroxychloroquine.” (And, to Douthat’s credit, he is trying to seek the truth, but in this case was wreckless.)
But the issue is that those aren’t his lede and not his point. His writing is actually dangerous because it teaches people to trust their ideology and not the facts. In a pandemic, this is even more dangerous than usual.
Scientists offer all the caution about their findings that Douthat says they should. That’s the responsible thing to do. And even though Douthat tries to do that same thing in his column, his efforts to malign his opponents expose his commitment to ideology and not truth. Douthat should be using his influence to correct his ideological partners, and not to reinforce their deadly thinking.
Empiricism is incomplete, not fundamentally flawed
Christians, during this time, need to consider how we collect wisdom and discern truth, and perhaps more than ever, realize that it may come from secular experts. I think we must use the truth from public health officials and not allow it to contradict, but illuminate the Gospel in new ways.
Though empirical epistemology, that is to say knowing things from observable data, is limited in the truth that it offers. If it’s true, it won’t contradict God’s truth, even if it’s not as complete as God’s truth. I’m afraid that because the ultimate source of truth for the Christian is revelation, we might think that other sources of the truth as flawed or not trustworthy. But truth is truth, wherever it comes from, and it’s all God’s. So we mustn’t fear the truth, but embrace it and use it to advance the Gospel. To preserve life, to love God and to love others, to make disciples of all nations.
It is not as if there is no dialogue to be had around matters of the truth, and there is such a thing as healthy suspicion. However, I don’t think resisting it from an ideological perspective is helpful, and I’m worried that in a war against truth, people will die and the Gospel will suffer. The Gospel triumphs in an environment that values truth, and if Christians ally with those who don’t, the Gospel can be mistaken as untruthful, for one thing. But for another, the Gospel needs to appeal to the truth and not resist it. If people think truth is simply a matter of opinion, politics, or ideology, I think Christianity will be dismissed as a matter of opinion, politics, or ideology.
And this is not a claim against one political party or another, or one ideology or another; it’s a call to truth, and that should affect all of us. (Even so-called moderates, who sometimes think they are the only level-headed ones in the rule, as they bend their knees to the social order and dismiss all of its critics as conspiracy theorists.)
Feelings don’t care about the facts
This of course means that we need to bring the Gospel to the present with great flexibility and allow its truth to triumph in today’s philosophical environment. Though I do not think that simply “being on the side” of the truth matters much. The people who question truth won’t be won over through an argument, through reason, or through the facts. Unfortunately, their feelings don’t care about the facts.
But speaking of feelings, it is love that needs to partner with truth. The truth is essential, but more truth doesn’t really help people who are ignoring it. We need to love each other and care for each other. From a place of love, I think that lies are undone because lies are fundamentally rooted in hatred. Sometimes you explicitly see this, for example, when anti-immigration activists are partnering with anti-lockdown and anti-vaccination advocates.
And I am very emotionally motivated to combat the lies around the coronavirus and around our society in general, but I do think that the key here is softening hearts and not bashing people’s heads. My friend Stan noted the other day that extreme viewpoints are valued in online spaces, and I think that’s noteworthy.
This is true. It’s not worth being rude in order to get attention. It’s also not a great way to convince someone else. https://t.co/zsUVuWaLQz
— Jonny Rashid ✝️ 🕊 🍞 (@Jonnyrashid) April 19, 2020
The temptation here may be to moderate our viewpoints in order to be heard. But rather than tamp down our beliefs, I think we need to amplify love. Let’s let love be our rule to pave the way for the truth. I think that means we need be gentle with each other, even when the situation is dire. And I have as much to learn from this as anyone, because I’ve been loud and aggressive about my viewpoints as we move forward. Don’t get me wrong though, we need strong moral leadership from our leaders, but leadership rooted in love.
Our anger cannot lead the truth-tellers as much as fear cannot lead those who are suspicious of the truth. Ultimately, shame cannot lead those who are following Jesus. We cannot be ashamed of the moral convictions we have as Christians, but we can’t let them harden our hearts to those who disagree with us. Truth cannot be a partisan matter, and sharing it in love will soften the hearts and lead us to a future that isn’t dominated by fear and ideology, suspicion and hatred.