How to keep the world from falling apart – Part I

It feels like the world is on the brink of something, doesn’t it?  And not just because of one or two things, but because a litany of issues is piling up, creating an atmosphere that’s ripe for some really bad things to go down.

Western culture is in the midst of an identity crisis that’s been building for hundreds of years: we’re reaping the harvest of a philosophical championing of the individual and a libertarian understanding of freedom that has fractured how we think about who we are, how we’re human and what that means.

That’s not entirely a bad thing, as it’s helped to highlight a lot of the problems of abuse and dysfunction that have lurked in the background of many of our governments and institutions that have badly needed addressing.  But instead of a willingness to confront and heal, many who feel threatened are entrenching their positions – polarization is at a fever pitch in politics in much of the Western world, and our churches are crumbling.

An ongoing global pandemic for nearly two years has us fed up and at each other’s throats out of frustration as we can’t agree on how to respond or even whether we should be making as big of a deal out of the situation as we are.

We can’t agree because the idea of truth is under assault perhaps like never before – in America, at least – and our collective ignorance of history has prevented us from learning as well as we should have from the stories of early-20th Century Germany, Italy and Japan: when a large enough portion of the population is willing to believe lies as truth, we begin living in totally different versions of reality and lose the ability to communicate meaningfully with each other.

Just a smattering of issues in which there is a substantial amount of data available that ought to paint a relatively clear picture but in which we are nonetheless currently living in different realities: how big of a deal is the pandemic, really?  Is it safe and smart to get vaccinated?  Are the results of the 2020 presidential election valid or fraudulent?  Are Republicans largely making it harder for people to vote?  Are Democrats truly socialists?  What is Critical Race Theory, and is it really an issue in education?

And this brings us to the root of our current crises, which is the same root for many past crises, not least of which being the rise of totalitarianism in Europe just 100 years ago.  Oversimplified, the problem is simple: me.  And you. 

More specifically, the problem is twofold: it is our collective practice of lying to ourselves and our crippling levels of fear.  We’ll tackle the former in this post and save the latter for next time.

A year or two ago a good friend recommended a short and quite obscure book to me that is having a profound effect on my understanding of our era, and I couldn’t recommend something to you more highly.  It’s called “I Told Me So: Self-Deception and the Christian Life” by Gregg A. Ten Elshof. 

It does an excellent job of demonstrating how each of us lies to ourselves routinely in our daily lives and how that practice can lead to us believing ridiculously false things.  We’d be wise to heed this wisdom, because one of the oft-ignored lessons of 20th Century totalitarianism is our (often subconscious) belief that we are very different people in a very different society than Germany, Italy or Japan (spoiler: we’re not, not in the very basic ways that matter).

Ten Elshof begins by briefly explaining his thesis that we lie to ourselves: he’s a college professor who works reasonably hard at his job and believes he does his job pretty well and, if pressed, would say he’s probably better-than-average.  He cites a study that noted, in fact, that 94 percent of college professors think the same thing about themselves!  Likewise, a survey of a million high school seniors revealed 70 percent thought they were above average in leadership, and just 2 percent thought they were below average.

These are simple surveys that demonstrate a pretty obvious conclusion: we often delude ourselves about our own abilities to avoid facing troubling realities.  We sometimes do this even in the face of pretty straightforward evidence suggesting otherwise: poor job reviews (the boss just has it out for me / doesn’t know what I really do) or critiques from peers (they don’t really understand what I’m going through).  Those parenthetical statements are examples of justifications we use to explain away evidence we don’t like.

To drive his premise home, Ten Elshof focuses in on his own demographic of college professors:

“But who can blame them, really?  They’ve got an amazingly good thing going when you stop to think about it.  It’s hard work being a genuinely better-than-average college professor…And what do you get in return for your effort?  There isn’t much money in it.  And if your field is relatively obscure (mine’s philosophy), you can forget about fame.  At best, you get to go through life with a certain satisfaction in the realization that your job is important and you’re doing it well.  But suppose you could have that same experience of satisfaction without all the hard work of becoming (and continuing to be) a genuinely better-than-average college professor?  If you could convince yourself that you were better than average, you could enjoy all the benefits of theft over honest toil.  The one catch is that you’d have to do all of this convincing without catching yourself in the act.”

He drives home the correlation to more important aspects of life:

“As it turns out, a fair bit of our felt well-being is dependent on our beliefs.  In this case, what I believe about my job performance has a direct bearing on my sense of well-being.  I feel better when I believe that I’m doing my job well.  But other beliefs affect my well-being too.  I believe that I’m in a vibrant, growing marriage with a beautiful woman who has been (and continues to be) faithful to me, that I have friendships that are – some of them, anyway – deeper and richer than your average friendship, and that my friends and my wife love me with something that approximates unconditional love.  I believe that I’m relatively free of egregious racial bias – the kind that leads people to think reprehensible thoughts about and do reprehensible things to each other.  I believe that I’ve successfully come over from being a ‘non-Christian’ to being a ‘Christian’ and that I’m making some progress toward maturity in Christ…These are just a few of the beliefs that contribute noticeably to my sense of well-being.  There are many more.  Each of these beliefs offers me a certain kind of satisfaction.  A discovery to the effect that I was in error about any of them would be pretty upsetting…Here again, life offers me a deal.  The beliefs I have about myself and others do not need to be true to bring me satisfaction.  I only need to believe them.”

Lastly, self-deception helps to explain how we do monstrous things:

“…Albert Speer [was] Hitler’s powerful minister of armaments and war production.  Speer was a ‘talented architect and bureaucrat, a loving family man, and considerate to his circle of peers.’  How, then, could he possibly bring himself to the assigning of prisoners to the torture of Auschwitz?  In his own telling of it, Speer refused to investigate the happenings at Auschwitz and elsewhere.  He diverted his attention so thoroughly and systematically as to render psychologically manageable what would have been morally unthinkable if confronted squarely.  Life cut him a deal: refuse to be convinced that the goings-on at Auschwitz are monstrous – believe instead that they’re not as bad as all that – and you can experience the satisfaction that comes from believing that you’re not a moral monster.  He took the deal.”

The simplest way we’re able to lie to ourselves is pretty straightforward: ignoring the subject.  We either don’t pay attention to a particular issue so that we’re able to more easily remain in our current belief, or we ignore or qualify / uncritically discredit any evidence or arguments that challenges our belief.  Or, put another way, the things we choose to pay attention to are what determine our beliefs.

“William James said that ‘my experience is what I agree to attend to.  Only those items I notice shape my mind.’  The most common strategies for long-haul self-deception involve the management of attention.  Through habitual and systematic management of my cognitive gaze, I can come to believe things that I wouldn’t believe were I to attend indiscriminately to my surroundings.  Through attention management, I exercise a degree of control over what comes into my mind.  And this, in turn, affects what I believe.”

That’s why I think it’s so important that we pay attention to a variety of different news sources across a wide spectrum of voices.  Nearly all of us limit where we get our information from to the kinds of people we already agree with who will reinforce our biases.  We only watch Fox News, or only watch CNN, or only get news from Facebook or Twitter (which have algorithms that have learned what we like and will only show us the same kinds of things).  We need to allow our beliefs and our ideas to be challenged in our best effort to get at the real truth and not a reality that we prefer.

And we need to learn from evidence that challenges us instead of just immediately dismissing it, which is our more frequent reaction.  As Ten Elshof writes: “On the one hand, we manage to deceive ourselves by systematically avoiding attention to evidence against those beliefs upon which our felt well-being depends.  On the other hand, we direct inordinate critical attention to evidence that opposes our cherished belief if that evidence can’t be avoided or if we think we’ll have to answer for it in public.  We give it our attention, it seems, not so much to learn from it as to creatively discount it.”

Other self-deceptive tendencies are to justify by procrastination (“I know I shouldn’t be doing this, but I’ll stop doing it eventually, just not right now” or “I really need to change, I’ll plan on doing it soon, just not now”), which serves to over time weaken the strength of our opposition (I’m able to compromise my morals more easily if I acknowledge something is wrong and I’ll do something about…just later); and surrounding ourselves only with people who reinforce our own ideas – groupthink. 

So what do we do? 

First things first: “I’ll need to come to grips with the possibility that I am significantly self-deceived.  I’ll need courage to admit that possibility and to conduct an honest search for the conditions in my own lived experience that make self-deception likely.”

As a Christian, that involves true discipleship to Christ: picking up our crosses and dying to ourselves.  That’s a popular saying of Jesus’ that any Christian would agree with on principle but, you guessed it, many if not most of us have deceived ourselves and haven’t truly and consistently practiced the entire depths of what dying to self entails.  Death to self means submitting my opinions, my wants, my actions, my possessions and money, everything about myself to God and choosing to live according to his model of being human as demonstrated by Jesus within community with God and the Church.  “If I’m going to be a disciple of Jesus, then, I’m going to be dying.  I’m going to be crucified for the sake of being caught up in the glorious life for which I was intended.  If I’m not dying, that will be clear over time.  But if I’m not dying and I’m going to continue to think of myself as a disciple, I’ll need to be self-deceived either about the call of the disciple to die or about that fact that I’m not dying.  Self-deception affords me the opportunity to enjoy the thought of myself as a disciple without all of the painful business of death and dying.”

Second, we need to seek to be the kinds of people who won’t vilify our friends and family if they’ve done some honest self-reflection and changed their opinions.  To be otherwise is to participate in destructive forms of groupthink.  Instead, we should be inspired at the courage exhibited by such people, whether we agree with them or not: it’s a huge deal to reconsider beliefs we’ve held for years, maybe even a lifetime, and it should be cause for us to have deep and meaningful conversations that can enrich our own lives and help us to see better things that we’ve perhaps been blind to.

Ten Elshof paints a picture of what a community that supports this kind of lifestyle would look like: “These communities must be places where the grace, love, and forgiveness of Christ flows so freely between members that finding that you’re wrong is a cause for celebration rather than defense.  We’re all wrong about any number of things, after all – and if you think you’re an exception, this book is especially for you!  To discover a mistake that can be corrected should be a joyous and sought-after occasion – not an occasion for the stubborn digging in of heels, especially if we really do care about the truth.  But it will not be a joyous occasion unless one feels perfectly safe, loved, and accepted quite independently of one’s views.  Groups without groupthink, then, are groups that invite, pursue, and celebrate diversity – not because of some vague commitment to political correctness but because of a heart-felt desire to make progress toward the truth.  The occasion to have a safe and thoughtful discussion with someone who genuinely loves you and disagrees with you passionately is a rare and precious gift.”

Lastly, I would add that making a commitment to learn how scientific knowledge and specialized forms of knowledge in general operate is critical.  Far too often I see people take a single scientific study or survey or an idea presented in a theological paper and run with it like it’s the gospel.  That’s a very poor way of understanding the big picture of how either science or theology work.  They’re both communities.  There is discourse, debate, and a peer-reviewed process for submitting ideas to scrutiny.  Multiple studies and papers are produced on all sorts of topics over a span of time, and eventually a consensus is reached among the broader community regarding a particular topic. 

Now, that consensus is always potentially subject to change as new studies and ideas are generated, and it’s also not true that the consensus of either the scientific or theological communities is always correct: that’s certainly not the case.  But, as we are all human and all subject to error, that has (for good reason) been the prevailing wisdom across the span of human history: where we’re all prone to mistake, it’s a safer bet by far to go with the general take of the most experts and findings of the most studies.  Far more often than not, that’s proven to be correct.  Anecdotal evidence we learn about through hearsay in our daily lives (“did you hear about what happened to Joe’s sister’s neighbor’s cousin’s cat?”) is both a) subject to being made up or drastically misinterpreted / misreported like a game of telephone, and b) potentially a case of sampling bias as the number of people within even our very broad personal sphere is *incredibly* small as compared to the population as a whole and may well be representative in any given issue of a very small minority of the general populace.

I end this long essay urging you to please take the effort to genuinely listen to evidence that counters your beliefs; to admit the possibility that you’re self-deceived in a number of ways; to listen to voices that challenge you.  We need to commit to learning the truth about our situation instead of simply supporting our beliefs.  And we need to hold people in power accountable when it’s called for regardless if they’re “on our team” or not.

We might not be able to hold back something even worse happening in the future if we don’t.

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