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109 The Good News is Not Fake News

April 30, 2020

“Today, with the enormous amplification of news and of opinion, we are suffering from more than acceptable distortions of perspective.” Thomas Merton wrote these words over 50 years ago and they are just as true today, except what Merton referred to as “propaganda,” we call “fake news.” In this episode of By Your Life, we talk about how we are all guilty of distortion of perspective and what we should do about it.

Third Sunday of Easter – April 26, 2020

Happy Easter and welcome to the one hundred and ninth episode of By Your Life. I’m Lisa Huetteman and I know that you have many options for what you could be doing right now, so I thank you for choosing By Your Life.

My goal is to inspire, empower, support, challenge, and encourage you to connect Sunday, with Monday-Friday, in a secular business world. It’s my desire to help you live our Catholic faith in the marketplace. I hope to offer you practical ways to go forth and glorify the Lord by your life.

The propagation of fake news

In this edition, we’ll reflect on the readings for the Third Sunday of Easter. Last week, the mayor of Jacksonville Florida reopened the beaches to the public with limitations and guidelines for social distancing and it set off a mainstream and social media frenzy when a lot of people showed up to enjoy the sunshine. Some Twitter users called out Floridians for not taking proper precautions using the hashtag #FloridaMorons, which the mainstream media picked up and reported.

Then, there was a Facebook post that placed two images of the Jacksonville beach side by side and claimed the image of the crowded beach that was published in the news was from over a year ago and was being used to mislead people about the current situation. The post said, “Once again the media is giving the public fake news… They are lying again.” As it turned out, this post was the real fake news.

I watched this with interest because both stories were shared with commentary that highlighted the bias of the person sharing or retweeting. The rest of us who didn’t bother to share were likely to agree with one or the other point-of-view depending on how well it aligned with our pre-existing beliefs. Personally, I wanted to dismiss the version that painted the opening of the beaches as irresponsible, and not because I have any personal interest in whether the beaches are open or not, but because I am from Florida. I objected to the “Florida Morons” label, so I rejected the opinion of those who shared it.

The truth of this story is probably somewhere in the middle. According to News4Jax, “Not all of the beaches were crowded. Not all were empty. Most people didn’t break the rules of social distancing. Some didThe discrepancy in the perspectives has a lot to do with people looking at images of different angles from different times at different parts of the beach. Their preconceived notions also came into play. So, neither was the media fabricating news about crowds on the beach nor were these Floridians morons.

Wisdom of Thomas Merton

As this story was playing out online, I happened to be reading from The Pocket Thomas Merton, a little compilation of Thomas Merton’s works. Thomas Merton wrote in Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander that:

This is no longer a time of systematic, ethical speculation, for such speculation implies time to reason, and the power to bring social and individual action under the concerted control of reasoned principles upon which most men agree.… Action is not governed by moral reason but by political expediency and the demands of technology—translated into the simple abstract formulas of propaganda. These formulas have nothing to do with reasoned moral action, even though they may appeal to apparent moral values—they simply condition the mass of men to react in a desired way to certain stimuli. (CGB 53-54)

Oh, how Merton describes our current culture and the spread of propaganda, a.k.a. fake news. Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander was published in 1966, decades before the advent of 24/7 news channels, the internet and the public’s obsession with social media. What would Thomas Merton write today? The same thing!

In Faith and Violence, published in 1968, Merton wrote:

Today, with the enormous amplification of news and of opinion, we are suffering from more than acceptable distortions of perspective. Our supposed historical consciousness, over-informed and over-stimulated, is threatened with death by bloating and we are overcome with a political elephantiasis which sometimes seems to make all actual forward motion useless if not impossible. But in addition to the sheer volume of information there is the even more portentous fact of falsification and misinformation by which those in power are often completely intent not only on misleading others but even on convincing themselves that their own lies are “historical truth.” (FAV 250)

Bias affects our ability to think critically

We are all guilty of this. Humanity has done it forever. That’s why Merton’s writings are as relevant today as they were over 50 years ago. We are subject to the way our minds are wired. We are all subject to bias and it is bias, not objectivity, that affects our ability to think critically and respond responsibly.

What are some of these biases that we all suffer from?

  1. Anchoring Bias, Primacy Effect – We overvalue the first information we see/hear. (This is why we say it is so important to make a good first impression.)
  2. Bandwagon Effect/Groupthink – Believe something not because we believe it, but because that is what everyone else believes. (Look at the stock market, how polls affect voting, and how people react in a meeting for examples.)
  3. Confirmation Bias – We listen to information that confirms what we believe, or receive information in a way that confirms what we already believe. (Hiring managers can be guilty of this when screening job applicants.)
  4. Ostrich Bias – We ignore negative information as an outlier. (This is true of smoking. Everyone knows that it is bad for you, but those who smoke think that they are an outlier and won’t be affected by it.)
  5. Blind Spot Bias – How biased are you? Most people are likely to say they are less biased than the average person. You’re not. (We all have blind spots and we are all biased. If you think you don’t, that’s your blind spot.)

So, you might be wondering what this has to do with our Sunday readings.

The Good News is not fake news

Our Gospel was taken from Luke 24 and is the famous Emmaus story. The two people, Cleopas and his companion were walking away from Jerusalem toward Emmaus. We find out that Cleopas knew all about Jesus, that he “was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people” (Lk 24:19), and he knew that others “were at the tomb early in the morning and did not find his body; they came back and reported that they had indeed seen a vision of angels who announced that he was alive.” (Lk 24:22-23) But yet, they didn’t believe it. They didn’t believe it even when others “went to the tomb and found things just as the women had described, but him they did not see.” (Lk 24:24) They must have thought it was fake news, otherwise, I can’t imagine that they would have left Jerusalem.

Why were they downhearted and walking away?  Because the “chief priests and rulers both handed him over to a sentence of death and crucified him” (Lk 24:20) and they “were hoping that he would be the one to redeem Israel.” (Lk 24:21). Could they have been suffering from Blind Spot Bias? What they were hoping for—that Jesus would be the one to redeem Israel—didn’t happen the way they thought it should. Their blind spot was their belief the Messiah was someone who was going to redeem Israel from the Romans and Jesus’ death at the hands of Roman executioners meant he wasn’t the Messiah after all. So, they were downhearted and walked away.

But then, “Jesus himself drew near and walked with them.” (Lk 24:15) And as they walked, he helped them remove the blinders that kept them from seeing the truth, that Jesus was, in fact, the Messiah. He helped them interpret all that had happened through the lens of “Moses and all the prophets, … [and] all the scriptures,” (Lk 24:27) not through the lens of their beliefs about the Messiah. He revealed to them that what they thought was fake news, was actually the Good News. Such Good News that their hearts were burning within them. (Lk 24:32)

This is the Good News that should shape our view of the truth, our biases, our perspective, and our responses to others. It should be the lens through which we interpret and live the Gospel. And since most of us are living the Gospel online now more than ever, it should be the lens through which we respond—or not—to things that other people say.

The Gamaliel Principle

One final thought: On Friday of last week, the first reading was from the Acts of the Apostles chapter 5. In it, a “Pharisee in the Sanhedrin named Gamaliel, a teacher of the law, respected by all the people,” (Acts 5:34) spoke to the Sanhedrin about what to do with the apostles, who had just escaped from prison with the help of an angel and went right back out to teach in the temple area, even after they had been given strict orders to stop. The Pharisees had become so “infuriated with them that they wanted to put them to death. (Acts 5:33) But, Gamaliel said, “I tell you, have nothing to do with these men, and let them go. For if this endeavor or this activity is of human origin, it will destroy itself. But if it comes from God, you will not be able to destroy them; you may even find yourselves fighting against God.” (Lk 5:38-39)

These words of the great teacher of the law have become known as the “Gamaliel Principle” and is a helpful lens through which to view the things that might disturb us and instead of reacting, wait, gather more information, and see if it resolves itself. Bishop Barron offered this takeaway for leaders. He said, “A great leader should see everything, tolerate most things, and change a few.”

This advice reflects what Thomas Merton wrote when he criticized that “action is not governed by moral reason but by political expediency and the demands of technology.” (CGB 53-54) Sometimes doing nothing is the right thing. Instead of reacting, take some time to gather the facts and reason out, calmly and objectively, the moral implications of whatever action you plan to take, whether it be a retweet, share, comment, or more importantly in entering into dialogue with someone. To quote Thomas Merton again, “If we love our own ideology and our own opinion instead of loving our brother, we will seek only to glorify our ideas and our institutions and by that fact, we will make real communication impossible. (FAV 163)

So, as we go through this week, let’s remember Cleopas and his companion. They are like us and we should identify with them. Instead of walking the wrong way where we don’t recognize Jesus in the people we meet, let’s stop and take time to view them through the lens of Christ, and respond with mercy and truth as he taught us. Let’s ask the Holy Spirit to help us.

Lord, no good life comes without the right discipline. Give me the grace to impose it upon myself. Help me to discipline my tongue, that I may be clear rather than clever, sincere instead of sarcastic. Help me to discipline my thinking and actions, to do what is right and not what is easy. And, help me to do the best I can and leave the rest to You. Amen

May God bless you abundantly this week and may you glorify the Lord by your life.

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