The phenomenon of “fake news” has heightened our awareness of the influence of distorted expressions of reality on many levels and in many areas of life.
The blatant and deliberate misrepresentations have become easier to spot, and we marvel at how easily deceptions are accepted and acted upon as reliable information.
A broader look at our society can see a range of distortion that has been detrimental to our common life much longer than our current concern with the problem of fake news.
Consider the ease with which a distorted caricature of an opposing perspective (liberal, conservative, capitalist, socialist and so on) can become an effective support for one’s own. Demonizing the “other” to gain credit for oneself seems always to be in season.
Or consider the tendency to evaluate and paint a whole community of people on the basis of what extremists do in its name. “Radical Islamists” do bad things; therefore, Islam is evil. Believers do cruel things in the name of God; therefore, belief in God is a detriment to human life.
Or consider how complex issues, especially moral and ethical ones, are presented as simple choices between options championed by advocates whose passion seems to outrun their understanding.
Or consider the subtle (and not-so-subtle) suggestions that information based on credible research is less reliable than opinions held by various vested interests. The kind of misinformation that stalled efforts to make known the harmful effects of tobacco a generation ago has reappeared in claims that environmental concern is overblown (and, of course, detrimental to certain parts of the economy).
Or consider how we have come to expect and accept as normal the inflated promotion of a product’s virtues to enhance its chances of being purchased.
What seems to be missing in all these tendencies is the discernment that can separate the essence of something from its distorted expressions – or, in simplest terms, the content from the packaging. We tend to prefer the familiarity of the package to the deeper understanding of what is inside.
I wonder if this is similar to what led Isaiah to lament those who “drag iniquity along with the cords of falsehood, who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness, bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter, who are wise in their own eyes and shrewd in their own sight.” (Isaiah 5:18-21)
Or Amos to decry those who hate the ones who tell the truth about the trampling of the poor, the taking of bribes and the pushing aside of the needy in the gate. (Amos 5: 10-12)
Proverbs has a special reproach for “one who justifies the wicked and condemns the righteous – both alike are an abomination to the Lord.” (Proverbs 17:15)
Succumbing to distortion leads to a kind of bondage that nourishes a crippling worldview and substitutes the certainty of ignorance for the confidence and hope of faith’s quest.
Ignorance – both the “not knowing” of limited experience, and the “choosing not to know” of rejecting (ignoring) uncomfortable knowledge – has a debilitating effect on life, personally and collectively.
This is the condition that education seeks to replace with knowledge and to provide the wisdom on how to apply that knowledge.
Suggesting that education might be the long-term remedy to this dysfunction of reasonable public life may sound like a naive panacea for a serious problem.
The education I am thinking about is not limited to the systems that we have to provide this essential commodity for our society, but it does not exclude them either.
We teach by everything we do – every act we perform, every idea we embrace, every prejudice we hold onto (even the ones with the clever disguises we develop for them). There is an “educator” within each of us who contributes to the overall health or un-health of our communities, large and small.
The needs of our present epidemic of distortion call for both personal and systemic responses that identify distortions, call them what they are and offer a perspective that does not take refuge in the comfort and security of this or that ideology.
Instead, we seek to model a willingness to see beyond the immediate and superficial to the greater good.
When two brothers asked Jesus to arbitrate an inheritance dispute (Luke 12:13-15), he replied (essentially), “This is not what the way of life I’m offering is about.”
The “distortion infection” that has gripped our ways of thinking and communicating leads us, like these two brothers, to seek to align Jesus with our side of an inheritance dispute.
His reply invites us to rise to a different level of concern. We who would be educators in Jesus’ name would do well to note that.
Colin Harris is professor emeritus of religious studies at Mercer University and a member of Smoke Rise Baptist Church in Stone Mountain, Georgia.