The other day I was browsing through my Facebook feed, which I do only occasionally, and becoming more and more annoyed at the politics posts. It’s not that I don’t care about politics; I do. It’s that I don’t like very much of what anyone says about politics on social media.
As I browsed, I scented a certain odor, and I thought the odor was familiar in some way, and not from reading about politics.
But first, let me talk about my cat. The cat you see in the picture to the left, at least mildly annoyed by having her picture taken, is Cheena. Now this post isn’t about cats. In fact, though I will talk about politics a bit, it isn’t really about politics. Nonetheless, Cheena the cat helped me along.
You see, I remember one day trying to explain Cheena to another cat person. She’s not that friendly, she’s a one-person cat, she’s stubborn, self-centered, and wants just her choice in attention. “So,” said this other cat person, “she’s a cat.”
Just so. She’s a cat. But you see, I’ve had many cats, and what I was trying to say was that, compared to the many other cats I have experienced, Cheena stands out for those characteristics. Pretty much every cat I’ve known makes its own decisions as to how long to sit on someone’s lap. But most of my cats, at least, have frequently curled up on my lap and purred. Cheena does this about every 3rd or 4th Christmas.
It’s about context. I could have been explaining how truly cat-like Cheena is, apart from, you know, fur, claws, and pointed ears. I would have used much the same words. But I wasn’t. I was talking in the context of the behavior of numerous cats, and trying to explain how Cheena differed from them.
It’s hard to accomplish that with just a few words. Someone who doesn’t want to take the time to understand Cheena’s behavior probably won’t get it. And why should they take the time? (I might note, however, that often people take more time to understand Cheena than they do many other things one might think more important.
So back to politics, remembering that I’m looking to illustrate something else. I wonder if any of us could give a five minute speech, much less an hour-long press conference, without saying something that could be extracted to produce an attack ad—or meme—against us.
The biggest problem I see with the political dialog is that very few people have taken time to look at the source and context of the material they present. (One of the most important purposes of finding a primary source, such as video of a speech, is to get the quoted line[s] in context. From Clinton’s “basket of deplorables” to Trump’s supposedly kicking a baby out of his rally, things get placed into whatever context a writer or sharer desires, irrespective of validity. Very few of these items are completely made up, but even fewer are totally truthful, representing the true intent and behavior of the person involved.
We tend to construe statements from our friends in the best possible light, while we construe those of opponents in the worst way possible. Sometimes we end up lying both times. Our person isn’t as good as we claim and the other guy isn’t as bad. But my call here isn’t for balance, but rather for accuracy. I find counts of positive and negative stories quite irrelevant. How much positive or negative information was there? Was it reported accurately and in accordance with its value? Was it sourced?
Many people share material without even reading it. The basis for sharing is not the accuracy of the content but whether they agree with the headline.
Now here’s a question. How may of you followed the link in the preceding paragraph? If you did follow it, how many of you realized it was a secondary source, and then followed the link to the primary source? Did you then read the actual study? Do you know what the methodology was? What social media platform was studied? How they determined shares vs. clicks? Do you think the headline of the secondary source was accurate?
We might want to blame social media for this, or perhaps the nature of politics. Politics is dirty business, after all. Yet I think we are all to blame, and we do it all the time.
Now where was it I had smelled this odor before?
It was in church.
Notice how in 1 Corinthians 1:11 Paul observes with indignation (and possibly feigned shock) that he has even heard that there are factions in that church. Sometimes we think factions simply refers to differences of opinion, but Paul is quite open to differences of opinion (e.g. Romans 14). There’s something that’s different about factions.
Factions build up around supporting one another no matter what, and putting down other people. Factions thrive on gossip. In Romans 1:29 we find “rumormonger” as one of the sins Paul lists showing how corrupt people are. Notice how many other words in the list there have to do with the way we talk about one another (slanderer, anyone?).
When someone whispers a juicy detail about another church member to us, and we repeat it, even if we preface it with “I don’t know if this is true, but I heard …”, we’re guilty of rumormongering, gossip, and slander. It’s a sin. Paul saw it as a sign of depravity. It’s endemic in our churches, and generally we are unrepentant about it. Oh—it’s a sin when you do it about people outside the church too, even a politician.
Gossip starts easily, and it can be stopped just as easily. If you want to see how it starts, just check the feed of your favorite social media platform, but don’t blame the technology. That’s precisely how those rumors about “Widow Brown” started in church. Someone says something they heard, or something they think might be the case, and the fire is started (James 3:5). And on it goes. We’ve all heard it. I suspect we’ve all been guilty of helping the flames spread at some point.
How can we stop this fire? Apply two tests to what you’ve heard: 1) Is it well-founded and accurate? and 2) Am I a person who needs to know this? Apply similar tests before you repeat: 1) Do I know the source and that it is accurate? and 2) Does the person I am about to tell need to know?
If it’s politics, it’s appropriate to pass accurate information on to those who need to decide their vote. In church, much more commonly the answer to the second question in each case is “no.” I know it’s hard to imagine, but we really don’t need to know the latest juicy story about our fellow church members. But even in politics we can ask the question of whether the information is actually of value. Should you pass on even accurate information about a candidate’s family? I’ll leave that to your conscience.
I demonstrated some of the ways to check out a story with the link I used above. That’s good for your political information. If you find a story that has no source, or that uses as a source someone who couldn’t possibly know the information, reject it immediately. If an article says that “a study shows” insist on finding the study itself. Could the research they did produce the answer they produced? If not, drop the subject. If the story says “____ said,” ask whether they could know or not.
In church, the procedure of Matthew 18:15-18. But first, make sure what you’re about to ask about is any of your business. If it’s not, dismiss it from your mind. If it is something that would be your business, going directly to the person is the best way to start. Afraid to go to that person? Don’t like confrontation? Then don’t share it. In fact, make “shut up” your default configuration.
And do it about politics too. Unless you truly know.