The truth: the holy truth, and nothing like the truth – post-truth society and the church

The following article is a guest post by Rev’d Dr Helen Paynter, a Research Fellow and Coordinator of Community Learning at Bristol Baptist College, as well as part-time minister at Victoria Park Baptist Church in Bristol, and it is published here with my thanks to her friendship and ministry.

The paper was originally published in the Baptist Ministers’ Journal in January 2017.  Dr Paynter has also published a book called ‘Reduced Laughter – Seriocomic Features and their Functions in the Book of Kingsreviewed on this blog, and –ahem- reputable offerings elsewhere, drawing on the work of Russian literary critic Mikhail Bakhtin.

It is of no small significance that the great Anthony Thiselton, writing the preface to his 20th Anniversary Edition of New Horizons in Hermeneutics writes, “The two thinkers to whom I would now give serious space if I were writing the book today are probably Hans Robert Jauss and Mikhail Bakhtin” (p.xxi) – emphasis totally mine!

 

To the truth…..

The truth: the holy truth, and nothing like the truth – post-truth society and the church.

Helen Paynter

Bristol Baptist College May 2017

 

 

The post-truth phenomenon and why it matters

Truth is the ground on which we stand and the sky that stretches above us – Hannah Arendt

The art of political ‘spin’ is millennia-old. But in recent years, the will to deceive for political purposes has intensified to a new level – or so it seems. In the light of the now-notorious ‘£350m/week for the NHS’ claim, and the election of US President Trump, we in the UK and liberal West are now, apparently, in the age of ‘post-truth’ politics.

The phrase ‘post-truth’ was designated ‘Word of the Year 2016’ by the Oxford English Dictionary, which defines it as ‘relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief’. In bald terms, it means that the factuality (I hesitate to use the word ‘truth’ here, for reasons which will become clear later) of claimed facts is becoming an irrelevant commodity in public, or at least political, discourse. As The Economist put it recently, ‘Truth is not falsified, or contested, but of secondary importance’.

An important – and disturbing – cultural phenomenon is arising, and the church needs to understand and address it. This paper will briefly consider some of the causes of our current predicament, and suggest some ways that the church might respond. First, I suggest five reasons why it matters.

  1. As shown by a Mori poll published in December 2016, lack of public confidence in the political process is at an all-time low. Ironically, this begets a vicious cycle: ‘When lies make the political system dysfunctional, its poor results can feed the alienation and lack of trust in institutions that make the post-truth play possible in the first place.’[1]
  2. History has repeatedly shown that lies are the tools of political oppression. As Hannah Arendt put it, ‘[Truth] is hated by tyrants, who rightly fear the competition of a coercive force they cannot control.’[2]
  3. Psychological studies have proven that false memories persist, even when they are publically retracted.[3] In light of the commandment not to bear false witness (Exodus 20:16), this should disturb all who take biblical ethics seriously.
  4. A recent Demos report showed that on-line disinformation, a major source of untruth, is disproportionately seen and believed by children and young people.[4]
  5. Contrary to the logic of ‘post-truth’, facts matter – in politics as elsewhere. How I ‘feel’ about Europe or the NHS may or may not be important; whether one of these institutions is receiving £350 million a week certainly is.

How have we arrived at the stage where untruth is regarded as acceptable – or at least, unsurprising – within the common consciousness?

Some causes of the post-truth phenomenon

Postmodernity

Contrary to common belief, post-truth is not a populist phenomenon.[5] In fact, the direction of causality seems to be working in the reverse direction; the untruths and ideological emotivism used on both sides of the Atlantic in 2016 appear to have aroused a populist involvement in politics unprecedented in recent times. Of course overall voting numbers are only ‘coarse’ data, and it is hard to compare voting turnout between election and referendum; nonetheless, the pattern of voter involvement in recent UK elections is striking:

Voter turnout[6]
1992 General Election 77.7%
1997 General Election 71.4%
2001 General Election 59.4%
2005 General Election 61.4%
2010 General Election 65.1%
2015 General Election 66.1%
2016 Referendum 72.2%

In fact, the roots of the post-truth phenomenon go back to postmodern and deconstructionist philosophers: Jean-François Lyotard’s claim that truth is relative to the person making it; Michel Foucault’s argument for the relationship between discourse and power; and Jacques Derrida’s challenge to the reliability of authentic communication. Consider, for example, these words of Foucault, quoted by Stuart Hall:

‘Knowledge linked to power, not only assumes the authority of “the truth” but has the power to make itself true. All knowledge, once applied in the real world, has real effects, and in that sense at least, “becomes true”. Knowledge, once used to regulate the conduct of others, entails constraint, regulation and the disciplining of practices. Thus, “there is no power relation without the correlative constitution of a field of knowledge, nor any knowledge that does not presuppose and constitute at the same time, power relations” (Foucault Discipline and Punish  p.27)’[7]

This philosophical shift has resulted in a generation suspicious of authority and chary of metanarrative. Here is not the place to critique these complex ideas, but we note that their philosophy has contributed to the emerging sense of the irrelevance of ‘facts’. However, these philosophers have helpfully directed our attention to the problem of objectivity on both sides of the communicative act.

Current hermeneutic theory (a term which encompasses the interpretation of any text, not simply the biblical one) teaches that the objectivity of the reader and writer is an illusion; we are pre-conditioned by our prior experiences and our life situation. For example, journalistic objectivity is now considered an unattainable ‘holy grail’. In addition to presupposition bias, the very act of selecting which aspects of a complex event to report, and which events to cover, is clearly subject to the whim – conscious or unconscious – of reporters and their publishers. The role that powerful ‘media tycoons’ play in influencing the selection and reporting of material has been widely discussed. Indeed, whether ‘objectivity’ is even desirable when commenting on issues which have a clear moral bias, is questionable.[8]

Our digital world

Indeed, the very nature of journalism has changed. The enormous multiplication of news providers, including many amateur bloggers, and the on-the-spot real-time reporting via social media, might be regarded as a double-edged sword. The democratisation of reporting has helped prevent powerful state propaganda machines from controlling information flow. However, the amount of data now available, and its unfiltered nature, brings its own problems. Indeed, one might – provocatively – speculate on whether the appetite for real-time updates of news represents mass consumer prurience.

There is a necessary provisionality about real-time news, and not all sources are equally useful, as the biases of private individuals are indiscernible. And although ‘facts’ may carry the illusion of being value-free, in a mass of data, it is easy to ‘miss the wood for the trees’. Good journalism provides commentary as well as facts. Overall, the changing face of ‘news’ reporting has probably weakened our confidence in the facts we are told, and our capacity to question their veracity and assess their import.

The role of social media in the post-truth problem is wider than this, however. It provides a platform for the rapid propagation of misinformation. For example, in one study a false meme posted on July 15th 2013 was found to have received 1,125,055 re-shares (which is considerably less than the number of people who will have read it) by 24th September in the same year.[9] Further, users of social media tend to form ‘friendship’ networks with like-minded people, reinforcing their own opinions, and insulating them from dissenting voices – the ‘echo-chamber effect’, described by Jamieson and Cappella.

The metaphor of an echo chamber captures the ways messages are amplified and reverberated through the conservative opinion media. We mean to suggest a bounded, enclosed media space that has the potential to both magnify the messages delivered within it and insulate them from rebuttal… This “echo chamber” creates a common frame of reference and positive feedback loops for those who listen to, read, and watch these media outlets.[10]

Indeed, some of this echo-chamber effect is due to deliberate filtering of results by search providers:

Most of us assume that when we google a term, we all see the same results – the ones the company’s famous Page Rank algorithm suggests are the most authoritative based on other pages’ links. But since December 2009, this is no longer true. Now you get the result that Google’s algorithm suggests is best for you in particular – and someone else may see something entirely different. In other words, there is no standard Google anymore.  [11]

These wide, loose networks therefore provide very fertile ground for emotional infection. For example, if you are a user of Facebook, you may be familiar with the following type of meme:

As 2016 progressed, an escalating narrative of annus horribilis emerged on social media, probably disproportionate to the actual number of celebrity deaths it had seen. This is strongly suggestive of a positive feedback loop.

Additionally, research has shown that strong ideological investment influences the interpretation placed upon evidence about a related matter – even evidence to the contrary. In fact, ‘direct factual contradictions can actually strengthen ideologically grounded factual beliefs’.[12] We are all susceptible to the linked trio of confirmation bias (seeking only what confirms one’s beliefs), cognitive dissonance (only siding with what is most comfortable) and motivated reasoning  (choosing not to scrutinize contrary ideas).[13] In some groups, adhering to certain ‘facts’ is a badge of loyalty.

The ‘affective turn’

Political and commercial persuasion techniques have lately swung towards the appeal to emotion. The role of emotion in politics dates back at least as far as Aristotle, but was generally seen as secondary to the art of rational persuasion. Now, however, it is widely accepted that voters are heavily influenced by how they feel.

The typical voter makes decisions on small amounts of information which have been selectively filtered. They make little use of abstract categories such as ‘egalitarianism’. There may be little consistency in the opinions that they have, and they can be powerfully influenced by how they imagine “people like us” think and feel about the same issues.[14]

Indeed, in an observation whose roots originate in Nietzsche’s ‘ressentiment’, Slavoj Žižek has noted that in modern post-ideological politics, the only lever for politicians to generate energy and enthusiasm is fear.[15]

Accompanying this shift is a decline in the standard of political debate, where ‘political writers pursue their task as if their audience was composed of easily distracted children’.[16] For example, an analysis of the presidential debates of Lincoln-Douglas (1858), Kennedy-Nixon (1960), and Clinton-Bush (1992) found that the minimum educational standard required to understand the speeches was Grade 12, 10 and 6 respectively.[17]

A similar trend is found in advertising. A recent study showed that brand favourability has an emotional, not a rational, basis. And, in a surprising finding which will not have been missed by political promoters, the study showed that high attention to the advertising lessens this effect. If the stimulus is delivered through subliminal or unattended stimuli, its effect is strongest. Although this might seem counter-intuitive, a little consideration will reveal the logic of the findings, as described here in the Journal of Advertising Research:

If you spend a lot of time thinking about the Andrex puppy, his cuteness is revealed as no more than a ploy to lure you into thinking that the makers are really nice, friendly people who believe in family values and affection.[18]

The complex relationship between  ‘facts’ and ‘truth’

Public confusion between different types of ‘fact’, and their relationship to ‘truth’ compounds this. In an interview on Radio 4 recently,[19]  Professor Peter Mandler distinguished between three different categories of ‘fact’: elementary matters of everyday truth (e.g. Britain is a member of the E.U.); more complex questions with multiple answers (does Britain send £350m/week to Europe?); and value statements (Britain should remain in the E.U). Confusion between these, he argued, and an attempt to extrapolate competing beliefs into objective facts, has contributed to the public cynicism towards actual, verifiable facts. In other words, when opinion is continually narrated as fact, fact will soon be rejected as opinion. And it is opinion rather than fact, according to Hannah Arendt, that is ultimately important for holding power. Therefore, she says, ‘the blurring of the dividing line between factual truth and opinion belongs among the many forms that lying can assume’.[20]

The relationship of ‘fact’ to ‘truth’ is also complex, as truth is a much larger entity than a mere piece of data can communicate. Consider how a work of fiction can nonetheless convey important truth (the story of the Good Samaritan, for example); or, in the area of historical fact, consider how the factually accurate description of certain events can nevertheless give a misleading overall impression. ‘Adolf Hitler revitalised the German economy and had great respect for family values’ is factually correct, but hardly imparts a truthful representation of the late Nazi leader.

A challenge to the Church

So how might we, the UK church, respond to these challenging times? In the spirit of dialogue and not of didacticism, I offer the following suggestions.

We should read biblical wisdom alongside Twitter and Facebook.

The book of Proverbs has an extraordinarily contemporary feel when read with social media in mind. For example:

A fool takes no pleasure in understanding,
but only in expressing personal opinion. (Prov. 18:2) [21]

With their mouths the godless would destroy their neighbours,
but by knowledge the righteous are delivered. (Prov. 11:9)

Taking an overall view of the book, Ernest Lucas shows that Proverbs commends the following virtues in speech: honesty, restraint, fittingness, humility and calm.[22] Drawing upon this wisdom tradition, the book of James warns of the inflammatory power of words incautiously used:

How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire! And the tongue is a fire. (Jas 3:5-6)

During the few years that I have engaged with social media I have seen ‘posts’ that are aggressive, snide, sexist, foul and untrue – from fellow ministers of the gospel. Christlikeness should be its own objective, but the immeasurable social consequences of what we write on these platforms should constrain us even more to caution in writing, responding and re-posting.

An essential element is modelling graceful disagreement. In a public discourse full of sloganeering and cheap point-scoring, Wisdom’s call to restraint and teachability shows a way to demonstrate and live biblical values in the public space. Teachability implies that we trust ourselves a little less.

Let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger;

for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness. (Jas 1:19-20)

Give instruction to the wise, and they will become wiser still;
teach the righteous and they will gain in learning. (Prov. 9:9)

This wisdom is echoed in the recent words of Dan Kahan, ‘We shouldn’t strive to neutralise [our] sense of conviction… but we should be anxious that in a certain kind of environment… we’re not going to be making sense of the information in a way that we can trust.’ [23]

We should listen to the voices we are not hearing

In view of the demonstrable danger of functioning only within our own echo-chambers, my second proposal is that we actively pursue the voices we are not hearing. The following list of examples is indicative, rather than exhaustive.

First, dissonant voices may be found among people of other religions, political persuasions, or who inhabit a different culture-space. We will need to listen intentionally; the filter bubbles applied by social media platforms and search providers will not assist us. We might do this by walking across our street or across our city; by learning to listen well; by engaging in cross-cultural and inter-religious dialogue. Perhaps the first step to loving our neighbour is to listen to him or her. And the ‘other’-ness of those we seek out may be reflected not simply in their views, but in a lack of willingness to reciprocate. Generosity of spirit may not be met with equal willingness for dialogue. Nonetheless, boundaries must be crossed:

For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? (Matt. 5:46-47)

In this regard, we can learn from good mission organisations, which have moved from cultural imperialism to cross-cultural partnership in their fulfilment of the command to ‘Go into all the world’. For example, the eighteenth-century roots of BMS World Mission had links with the colonial expansion of the East India Company; by contrast these days  its TED-style conference ‘Catalyst Live’ gives voice to speakers from across national, ecumenical, cultural, theological and ideological boundaries.

The arts can play an important role, too; their power to ask provocative questions, challenge assumptions and conduct interesting thought-experiments should not be under-estimated. Consider, for example, the way that the seldom-heard voice of the working class northerner is represented in the film and musical ‘Billy Elliot’. (Of course such depictions by directors and actors are open to misrepresentation and stereotype; the voice needs to be authentic. This is a subject for another discussion.)

Thirdly, our embrace of the ‘other’ must be found in our churches. Paul’s wonder at the mystery of a Church comprising both Jews and Gentiles (Eph. 1-3) should be reflected in our own experience of churches that is truly inclusive.

But we should also attend to the silent voices. Hannah Arendt has shown that truth is always in danger of being marginalised by power; Michel Foucault has argued that language is co-opted by the oppressor to enforce power; Eli Pariser has demonstrated how easy it is for internet search engines to manipulate what we read. So in our brave new post-truth world, the church should pay particular attention to the voices which are not heard. We must ‘read the gaps’[24] in the public discourse. Who is being marginalised? Who is being silenced?

We should model good interpretive discipline

The practice of good interpretative discipline – of memes, infographics, speeches and scripture  – is vital.  I am increasingly concerned by the uses to which scripture is put by well-meaning Christians with a commendable goal. Many should know better.  While scripture, like other texts, may (arguably) carry a ‘surplus of meaning’, it does not permit an unbounded range of possible meanings. The term ‘surplus of meaning’ belongs to Paul Ricoeur, who nonetheless says, ‘If it is true that there is always more than one way of construing a text, it is not true that all interpretations are equal. The text presents a limited field of possible constructions.’[25]  A willingness to bend scripture – or other texts – to our purpose, without due interpretive discipline, speaks of a dangerous utilitarianism where any hermeneutical means may be employed towards a laudable end. But all truth is God’s truth, and we need not practice cognitive dissonance when uncomfortable possibilities present themselves. There is a more honest way.

This will require the teaching, promotion and modelling of good critical thinking skills in our churches and among our young people; rigorous engagement – by those who write and teach – with the best scholarship in all fields; and the faithful and dogged application of the best hermeneutical techniques we can muster, to understand Word and world better. This must happen in the academy and the pulpit, so that it can make its way into the home-group and the Facebook page.

We should exercise virtuous scepticism

A marker of faithful Old Testament prophecy was the determination not to collude with a false prevailing narrative. Thus, for example, Elijah confronts Ahab about his illegitimate land acquisition, Isaiah tackles Ahaz about his treaty with Assyria, and Ezekiel speaks against the prophets of Judah and their false assurance of peace. Extending my previous point, I suggest that part of the prophetic role of the church in a post-truth climate is ‘virtuous scepticism’; a refusal to accept without question, or to collude with, prevailing dogmas that do not withstand the scrutiny of good interpretive discipline.

This is not at all the same as a postmodern ennui towards facts or metanarratives; neither is it a throw-back to Enlightenment principles valuing reason above all. It will involve attention towards sociological, political and theological currents and it will necessitate rigorous interrogation of those voices which seek to persuade us. Above all it will seek to bring to light what is hidden, to understand the times, and to be truth-tellers in a culture that does not value truth.[26]

[1] The Economist. (2016, Sept 10). Post-truth Politics: Art of the lie. Retrieved January 6, 2017, from The Economist online: http://www.economist.com/news/leaders/21706525-politicians-have-always-lied-does-it-matter-if-they-leave-truth-behind-entirely-art?fsrc=scn/tw/te/pe/ed/artofthelie

[2] Arendt, H. (1967, February 25). Truth and Politics. Retrieved January 5, 2017, from Hannah Arendt Centre: http://www.hannaharendtcenter.org/truth-in-politics-hannah-arendt/

[3] Ecker, U., Lewandowsky, S., & Tang, D. (2010). ‘Explicit warnings reduce but do not eliminate the continued influence of misinformation’. Memory & Cognition, 1087-1100.

[4] Bartlett, J., & Miller, C. (2011, September). Truth, lies and the internet: A report into young peoples’ digital fluency. Retrieved January 5, 2017, from Demos: https://www.demos.co.uk/files/Truth_-_web.pdf

[5] Calcutt, A. (2016, November 18). The surprising origins of ‘post-truth’ – and how it was spawned by the liberal left. Retrieved January 5, 2017, from The Conversation. Academic Rigor, Journalistic flair.: https://theconversation.com/the-surprising-origins-of-post-truth-and-how-it-was-spawned-by-the-liberal-left-68929

[6] Source: UK Political Info http://www.ukpolitical.info/Turnout45.htm ; The Electoral Commission http://www.electoralcommission.org.uk/find-information-by-subject/elections-and-referendums/past-elections-and-referendums/eu-referendum/electorate-and-count-information (both accessed 11th January 2017)

[7] Hall, S. (1997). ‘The work of representation’. In S. Hall (Ed.), Representation: cultural representations and signifying practices. London: Sage.

[8] For a helpful discussion on journalistic objectivity and integrity, see Gaber, I. (2008). Three cheers for Subjectivity: or the crumbling of the seven pillars of journalistic wisdom. Conference held at the University of Bedfordshire, “The End of Journalism: technology, education, ethics”, 17th & 18th October, 2008.

[9] Friggeri, A., Adamic, L., Eckles, D., & Cheng, J. (2014). Rumor Cascades. Association for the Advancement of Artifical Intelligence.

[10] Jamieson, K., & Cappella, J. (2008). Echo Chamber: Rush Limbaugh and the Conservative Media . Oxford: Oxford University Press.

[11] Pariser, E. (2012). The Filter Bubble: What the internet is hiding from you. London: Penguin, p. 2.

[12] Nyham, B., & Reifler, J. (2010). ‘When Corrections Fail: The persistence of political misperceptions’. Political Behavior, 32, 303–330, p. 31

[13] McNerney, S. (2011, September 7). Psychology’s Treacherous Trio: Confirmation Bias, Cognitive Dissonance, and Motivated Reasoning. Retrieved January 9, 2017, from Why we Reason: Connecting psychology to the world, and the world to psychology: https://whywereason.com/2011/09/07/psychologys-treacherous-trio-confirmation-bias-cognitive-dissonance-and-motivated-reasoning/

[14] Thompson, S., & Hoggett, P. (2012). ‘The affective turn in contemporary political studies’. In S. Thompson, & P. Hoggett, Politics and the Emotions. London: Continuum.

[15] Žižek, S. (2008). Violence: Six Sideways Reflections. London: Profile.

[16] Furedi, F. (2006). Where Have All the Intellectuals Gone?: Confronting 21st Century Philistinism (2nd ed.). London: Continuum, p. 72

[17] Furedi, 2006, p. 73

[18] Heath, R. (2006). ‘Brand Relationships: Strengthened by emotion, weakened by attention’. Journal of Advertising Research, 410-419, pp. 417-8

[19] Fidgen, (2016, January 2). Nothing but the Truth. BBC. Radio 4.

[20] Arendt, 1967

[21] All Bible quotations are taken from the New Revised Standard Version.

[22] Lucas, E. (2015). The Two Horizons Old Testament Commentary: Proverbs. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, pp. 370-5

[23] In Fidgen, 2016.

[24] This term is borrowed from literary criticism, where attention to what is not said in a text can prove to be very enlightening.

[25] Ricoeur, P. (1976). Interpretation Theory: Discourse and the surplus of meaning. Fort Worth: Texas Christian University Press, p. 79.

One thought on “The truth: the holy truth, and nothing like the truth – post-truth society and the church

  1. Thank you for posting this, Richard. A really useful, enlightening article which made me wake up and think.

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