as preached for the online service of the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston, January 31, 2021
This morning’s sermon draws its inspiration from two people. The first is longtime member of the congregation, the Rev. Dr. Leonora Montgomery. The second is my friend and academic colleague Dr. Kate Coyer.
The title “Truth and Lies” originates with the annual congregational auction. Many of you probably know that each year as part of the auction, I invite people to bid on the right to pick the topic of one of my sermons. Leonora won last year. She asked me to do a sermon on the question of knowledge. She is particularly interested in a phenomenon she has observed in recent years. Everyone seems to be getting their news from from different sources.
Leonora, as some of you might remember, just turned 98. She has children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. When we were talking about what I might preach on, she observed that each generation appears to be going to disparate places to find out what is going on in the world. People from one generation read newspapers and watch the evening news. Younger generations turn to the internet and the ever-expanding multiverse of social media. Some prefer Twitter. Others like Discord, Facebook, or Instagram. In such a fragmented situation, she wonders, is it possible to find any kind of commonality or create a sense of shared society.
Kate is a media studies scholar and an expert on misinformation, disinformation, and social media. Some of you might have seen the ministers’ forum we did with her near the start of the pandemic. She is an excellent source on how the rise of social media has impacted political discourse and is fueling extremism. In a recent report with Richard Higgott, she argues that the power of social media giants has raised serious questions about the future of democratic practice and national sovereignty. They write, the “struggle between the tech sector and the state for control of digital governance” will have profound implications for who can share, and gather, data and information via the ever evolving platforms we access via our smartphones and computers.
After Leonora assigned me the preaching topic, Kate graciously provided me with a reading list on the issue at the heart of the sermon.
Since this is a sermon, I am going to begin with theological claim. Religious difference hinges upon the question of knowledge: What are the sources that offer us an authentic account of what is real and true in the world? John 8:32 reads, “you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” But what is the truth, and who has the authority to declaim it, has been disputed since at least the first-time different groups of humans encountered each other.
Actually, arguing over the nature of the truth and what is true is at the very core of human experience. We are subjective creatures caught in what appears to be an objective reality. So much depends upon whether or not we can agree on what is real and what is not.
The world’s different religions offer accounts about the real that are often at odds with each other. Either Jesus is the world’s Lord and Savior, or he is not. Either the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, is God’s Messenger or he is not. Either the Buddha points the way to enlightenment, or he does not. Either Krishna is the origin of all things or he is not. Either Zeus is the king of the gods or he is not. Either… well, you get the point.
Unitarian Universalism, you might recall, tries to reconcile these different truth claims by arguing that direct experience–subjective experience–is the starting point for theological reflection. The first source of our religious association is, after all, “Direct experience of that transcending mystery and wonder, affirmed in all cultures.” We have been reflecting on this source throughout the month. It implies a particular method for constructing a theology.
First comes our direct experiences. Second, the stories we tell each other about our experiences. Third, the systematization or amalgamation of these stories into something resembling a shared narrative. Actually, the process is not quite that neat. We are born into a shared narrative–a culture–with its particular claims about what is true and what is not.
Describing the process, the Unitarian Universalist theologian Thandeka writes, “human knowledge is mediated by human feeling.” The real is what we experience as, what we feel is, real. The words and stories we use to describe that experience come from the cultures and societies around us.
Forrest Church, another Unitarian Universalist theologian, used the metaphor of the cathedral of the world to depict what is going on. He offered an invitation to imagine a day in which you awake in vast cathedral, “It is a world of light and dancing shadow, stone and glass, life and death.” Looking about you discover an ancient building, “its cornerstone the first altar, marked with the tincture of blood and blessed by tears.” Wander it as you might you can find never the beginning or end. There is an infinitude of windows, glorious windows. Some representational; some unfolding fractals of blues, reds, and purples; some are ever changing, liquid, forming and reforming new images incessantly; others are static; some are as ancient as the oldest redwood; and others are composed solely of new glass. “Each,” Church wrote, “tells a story about the creation of the world, the meaning of history, the purpose of life, the nature of humanity, the mystery of death.”
The light that shines through them is being itself. It shines within us and throughout the entire cathedral. Each window an articulation of how a person, a culture, a community, attempts understand, and fails to fully understand, the shining light.
The experience, the view, had through each window is only partial. It is incomplete. No one person can ever gaze through all of the windows or have complete knowledge. You and I, every human being, is stuck with our subjective experience and challenged to construct from it–from the windows that we can see through–an account of the world we share.
I imagine that those of you versed in philosophy might object to this metaphor as essentially Platonic. Caught in Plato’s cave, we only see the shadows of what is rather than what actually is. But is that not how the brain actually works? It attempts to create a representation of the world based on the information it has available. That information is always less than the sum of the all and the mind fills in gaps to create an experience that seems plausible.
I was reminder of this only yesterday while I was out for a bike ride. I was heading home from the bayou, traveling a side street on the edge of dusk. Another rider was coming towards me. I glanced up and my mind interpreted the light that can through my eyes as depicting a woman wearing a mask. We rode toward each other for a couple of seconds. She was wearing a mask. She was wearing a mask. The mask was the color of her skin. And then I realized she was not wearing a mask.
I anticipated seeing someone wearing a mask and so I did until it was obvious that the other rider was not wearing a mask. My subjective experience of the world was disrupted by what was actually in the world. I was trapped in my false view until I was shaken out of it.
I want to pause here and plead with you to wear your mask whenever you are in public. I have one on whenever I go for a walk or a bike ride. Often when I am on my bike I am many feet from the nearest person and traveling fast enough that there’s little chance I will either breathe in the viruses that they are shedding or shed enough of my own that they might breathe them in. Nonetheless, I view mask wearing as a sort of moral statement. I do not find masks inconvenient to breathe through. Wearing one is my way of stating, I care enough about you that if I have the virus and do not know it, I do not want to infect you.
My predisposition is to assume that people will be wearing masks. I imagine that in this time of plague and pestilence they share my view about the moral thing to do. Of course, many do not and my own preferences seem to shape my perception of the world so much that I sometimes see things–like a fellow bike rider wearing a mask–that are not actually there.
Have you had similar experiences? Where you assume something will be one way and then have your subjective experience, your assumptions, disrupted when you encounter what is actually there? I have them more often than I would like to admit. But when I do I try, as best I can, to accept what actually is rather than what I would like to there to be.
The United States is in the midst of an unfolding social and political crisis precisely because there is a segment of people who refuse to accept what actually exists. There is incredible discord because one group of partisans refuses to embrace the shared sense of reality held by much of the rest of society. New York Times columnist Paul Krugman recently wrote about this dynamic, “The Republican party is stuck, probably irreversibly, in a doom loop of bizarro.” Many of its supporters, and some of its leaders, refuse to recognize the legitimacy of the recent election results. At least two of its members in the House of Representatives adhere to the strange conspiracy theory QAnon, which claims that the United States is being run by a coterie of pedophiles. This evil group, QAnon adherents believe, will be dislodged from power by none other than a man accused of sexual assault by more than twenty-five women, former President Trump.
Houstonian and longtime Republican Party donor Jacob Monty has left the party because “conspiracies have become mainstream” within it. He is sick of so many of his “fellow Republicans [who] are so blind they can defy reality.” While he is not alone, his views are from far the majority perspective held within his former party. Texas Senator Ted Cruz, after all, gave credence to the conspiracy theory that the election was riven with fraud on the floor of the Senate. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy voted against certifying the presidential election–an election which, notably, returned him to his seat–and continues to support the former President.
The problem is rooted in the dynamic Leonora asked me to reflect upon: if people each choose their own sources of information how are we to share a sense of reality. If I listen to DemocracyNow and NPR, watch the DailyShow and the PBS NewsHour, read the Economist and the New York Times, and follow Doug Henwood and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez on Twitter and you listen to Rush Limbaugh and Alex Jones, watch Fox News and the One America Network, read the Claremont Review of Books and the Wall St. Journal opinion page, and follow the Trump family and Marjorie Greene Taylor online then it can be quite difficult for us to agree upon what is happening in the world.
The later set of sources often peddle lies. This can make them more appealing than sources that more frequently offer facts. The philosopher Hannah Arendt long argued that false narratives–particularly false narratives of racial difference–are found at the heart of totalitarian movements. She observed, “Factual truths are never compellingly true.” They need “testimony to be remembered and trustworthy witnesses to be established.” If facts are not things we observe firsthand, they require we can trust the source from which they come. Facts are inherently fragile.
Lies, in contrast, she argued, “are often much more plausible, more appealing to reason, than reality, since the liar has the great advantage of knowing beforehand what the audience wishes or expects to hear.” Lies often confirm what we anticipate to be true. Facts quite often disrupt it.
Take the two recent presidential elections. The fact of the 2016 election was it exposed that white supremacy continues to be an operative and powerful force in the politics of the United States. The fact of the 2020 election was that a white supremacist presidential candidate cannot win in a free and fair election if anti-racists and those disgusted by blatant white supremacy organize against him. In the first instance, many liberals and moderates refused to face the fact of the 2016 election until the hour was quite late. There was a great deal of “give him a chance”ism floating around the editorial pages of major metropolitan newspapers after the election even when it was obvious to those of us who study race and fascism what was going to happen. In the second instance, many reactionaries and racists have refused to accept that a country which they imagine to the property of White people could vote a man who claims to be a White savior out of office.
In order for either liberals or reactionaries to figure out a path forward for the political party that they favor they have to embrace the political facts. The Democrats eventually did this and won the 2018 and 2020 elections. It remains to be seen whether the Republican party will eventually come around to realize that the road to political power no longer runs through an exclusive allegiance to whiteness and the lies of Trump and his allies that support it. At about this time in 2017 I was having my op-eds routinely rejected and my sermons walked out on when I called the former President a white supremacist by many of the same people who later vigorously opposed his illberalism and racism. Maybe Krugman is wrong and once the shock of defeat wears off some Republicans will decide to break the “doom loop of bizarro.”
I suspect that if they do, they will only break the loop through an intervention. The art of politics, Arendt argued, lies in the ability to make distinctions. The ability to make distinctions is a skill that is taught, not a talent we are innately born with.
Regulation and education will be required if social media’s ever expanding set of platforms is to be tamed and a sense of shared reality is to be established. There will need to be consequences for people, like the former President or the QAnon Representatives in the House, who knowing peddle lies. Twitter, of course, enacted a consequence for the former President and some of his chief propagandists by removing them from the platform. My friend Kate has argued that leaving such actions to the whims of corporations undermines democracy. The right to a platform does not exist. I know all too well that free speech does not mean that a newspaper has to print whatever I write. Twitter does not have to let me Tweet whatever I want to tweet.
In an electoral democracy, allowing Twitter to regulate itself means removing elected representatives from the process of determining what kind of speech we want to have available on online platforms. Legislators have passed laws allowing newspapers to be sued for printing slander. The same standard could be applied to social media. Doing so would place a limit on what the platform can be used for, not what individual people can say.
Regulation is often a dirty word and I anticipate that some of you do not agree that it should be extended to social media. Even if it is not, education can play a role in helping more firmly establish a sense of shared reality. The scholar Claire Wardle has distinguished different types of “information disorder” that do harm via social media. There is disinformation, “content that is intentionally false and designed to cause harm.” There is misinformation, “false content shared by a person who does not realize that it is false or misleading.” And malinformation, “genuine information that is shared with an intent to cause harm.”
Wardle has pointed out that much of the issue lies less with people who make problematic statements and more with the underlying algorithms that promote different kinds of speech on social media. Social media companies exist to make money. The more you engage with them, the more money they make. You are more likely to engage with them if they offer you emotionally impactful interactions.
Here we find ourselves back with Thandeka and her claim that theological reflection begins with our emotional experiences. Our engagement with social media begins with the emotional satisfaction–often fleeting and illusory–we gain through it. And it can be tempered with the application of reason.
Wardle argues that the way to move forward is to teach people to distinguish between the different kinds of information disorder and more reliable sources of information. It begins with the simple choice to pause before you retweet and or like something. And to make the decision to read the article or piece in question before you retweet it or like it. Now, this might be difficult, but it is not impossible.
“[E]very person [must] recognize how [they], too, can become a vector in the information wars,” Wardle writes. Such individual responsibility lies at the core of the democratic tradition and, indeed, our own Unitarian Universalism. Will teaching it be enough? The future is as of yet unwritten.
What I can tell you is this: the only way to constructing a shared sense of reality lies through what the Unitarian minister A. Powell Davies once called the temptation to be good. He believed we are all aware that goodness is “a possible choice.” And we can choose it. We can all be aware that pausing, thinking, reflecting before we tweet or like or engage with social media can have an impact, however small, on lessening the amount of lies in the world. Davies preached, “the world falls apart, not through evil, deliberately chosen evil, but because its people resist the temptation to be good.”
The temptation to be good is found in recognizing the truth attested in Forrest Church’s metaphor of the cathedral of the world: there is a shared reality of which we are all a part. The temptation to be good is found in the recognition attested to in our poem from this morning, “Everything is food in the cosmos.” We are all part and parcel of each other.
Recognizing, opening ourselves, to that simple truth, attested in the direct experiences of so many, is the only way to have a sense of shared reality. Indeed, it always has been.
May we recognize that truth, accept our responsibility, pause before we retweet, question what we read, and, in doing so, give ourselves over to the temptation to be good.