In 1980, Isaac Asimov wrote, “There is a cult of ignorance in the United States. The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that ‘my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.'” Remarkably, he said this before the onset of social media. His quote is perhaps truer today than ever. Every day, outlets such as Facebook and Twitter are seemingly overrun with examples of misinformation and rampant, ungrounded opinions. If one has a feeling about the way something is, they are free to express their opinion freely and loudly. Indeed, with billions of interconnected voices on the planet, we can even provide support for our opinions by citing experts whose viewpoints reflect our own, even when the overwhelming majority of experts disagree.
Assuredly, the advent of the 24 hour news cycle, which coincidentally began in 1980 with CNN, has also fostered a culture wherein opinions are widespread and facts often get lost in the chaos. In a similar way to the availability of supposed expert opinions, we now have numerous options for getting our “news,” which has sadly become less about the reporting of facts than about propaganda.
In addition to the nearly complete penetrance of social media and the unrelenting cacophony of propaganda presented as news, some of the shifts in education have not served us well. The self-esteem movement, for all of the good it has done, has also gone wrong in many ways. It has moved beyond helping people to understand their unique value to overvaluing of one’s own opinions. I recall reading in D.A. Carson’s The Intolerance of Tolerance that this elevation of opinion was even finding its way into math classes where students were not corrected for making mistakes even in simple calculations.
These seeds take root. We learn from an early age that every person’s opinion is as valid as everyone else’s, but then we confuse opinion with fact. Social media then provides a platform for every person who wishes to share whatever they want and, because of the proliferation of the 24 hour news cycle and self-professed experts who conflate opinion and fact, anyone can provide evidences for their pet positions. This ends up providing fertile ground for animosity and division.
So what then is the answer? Let me suggest a few things. First, I think we as a nation would benefit from a large infusion of humility. Unfortunately, we don’t have many visible models for humility because our society does not value it and truly humble people are often in the background. Listen, it is perfectly okay to admit that we do not possess all of the answers on everything. Not only do we not need to be “experts” on everything, in humility, we are free to acknowledge that we actually are not experts. There are experts out there, but in most cases, it isn’t you or me. I have frequently encouraged people and myself foremost, to ask “Is it possible I am wrong?” Let’s not start from a position that asks is it possible if the other person is wrong, but begin with ourselves. Another unfortunate trend in the last several decades has been a lack of training in logic and critical thinking. We are unable to look at information critically and accurately, assessing strengths and weaknesses of the arguments that are presented. Too often, we accept as true the loudest opinions, not the ones that are the most well reasoned. Routinely, we overvalue our own perceived reasoning abilities, believing we are immune from manipulation. But here’s the thing: You are not immune to propaganda. Neither am I. The multi-billion dollar advertising industry counts on it.
Second, before you click “share” on something, ask yourself “is it true?” Many of the provocative memes and “news stories” that make the rounds on Facebook have no basis in truth, but again, with flashy words and tantalizing pictures, we believe them. If you feel compelled to share something, do a little leg work first. But let’s not stop with the question “is it true?” Let us also ask is it good and beautiful. Too many of the things we are exposed to every day and too many of the things we share add to the ugliness. Each of us has the opportunity to be light bringers. Let’s not spread darkness.
Third, develop humble curiosity. Become a listener. Seek to understand the viewpoints of others. Too often our interactions, and especially those that happen online, are characterized by an against mindset. We view those who hold alternative viewpoints as our enemies though we may not use that word. As a nation, it seems we are increasingly divided. We do not seek to understand; we look for people to blame, a perspective that has increasingly characterized our major influencers–news agencies, politicians, public figures, and even pastors. Sadly, these models give us implicit permission to be divisive. When we constantly hear accusatory messages, we come to believe that a) there is definitely someone to blame and, b) it isn’t us. What would change if there was a movement to develop a with mindset instead? From a with mindset, we do not view others as our enemies, but as fellow citizens of the planet. Larry Crabb wrote, “we are people of radical worth and largely unrevealed beauty.” Every one of us. Do our interactions, even with those with whom we disagree seek to reveal beauty and worth? Let’s stop looking for people to fight and instead look for people to love. Sometimes, I think that we forget that our battle isn’t against people, but against evil and divisiveness (see Ephesians 6:12). When there is continued misunderstanding, perhaps ongoing dialog is appropriate, but I think it would be beneficial to engage in “mutual inquiry” and not “debate,” a suggestion I heard from the late Dallas Willard. The difference in language may seem subtle, but I think it does change perspective. Admittedly, social media is rarely the place for such truth seeking, but sometimes, we can dialog together respectfully, patiently, and lovingly. Otherwise, it may be best to offer our peace and disengage with grace.