Information, Misinformation, and Missed Information: A Decade after 9/11
The days of what Stephen Colbert called "truthiness," acting as if something is true because you want it to be, clearly did not end with the Bush presidency. The country is still full of people who believe things that aren't true because they don't know any better—or don't want to know any better.
And as we approach the tenth anniversary of 9/11, so many issues are still in play—our relationship with Islam, our understandings of geopolitics, even our readings of our own Constitution!—that clearly it's worth having a talk about how to find out what's true and what's false, and to judge our news sources so that we can use them responsibly to be thoughtful and informed citizens.
Conversation and Contact
Sadly, our most basic way of learning things seems next to impossible these days. Human intelligence—the simple act of conversation and interaction—is, for most of us, limited to people who are mostly like ourselves. In a land of gated communities, we gate up our lives, surrounding ourselves, to the extent that this is possible, with people like ourselves in our schools, churches, and communities. And as is typical of walled communities, the walls are intended to create distance, to wall someone out.
Our society has largely fragmented into smaller, more homogeneous groups, and our chance to meet, interact with, and learn from, someone radically different from ourselves may be rare or nonexistent. That's why I value my Facebook feed, made up, as it is, of people I've known my whole life, readers, and fellow theologians from around the world, of conservatives and liberals, professional Christians and devout atheists. When I pay attention to the threads of this diverse conversation, I get to step out of my gated community, hear from people who are not exactly like me, and wrestle with why I hold my own thoughts and opinions.
But meeting someone who differs from you may still be the best way to learn something new. My friends the Powells just got back from NYC, and my friend Lizzie told me about the interaction between 8-year-old Walker and their Pakistani cab driver. Walker had it in his head that eating a hot dog from a street vendor was an essential New York experience, and so he asked their driver if he liked hot dogs.
"I cannot eat hot dogs because of my religion," the driver said, and he went on to explain to Walker that his food must be prepared in a special way, according to the dictates of his faith, "and hot dogs probably aren't." In the course of that cab ride, Walker heard from this gentle man about his childhood in Pakistan and his loving grandfather, who still lives in Pakistan, and he got to encounter a Muslim not as a boogieman or an enemy, but in conversation.
It's still one of the best ways to learn from others who they actually are—talking to them.
Get Out of the Echo Chamber
A byproduct of our gated communities is that we tend to hear over and over again what we already believe to be true. And if our primary news source tells us only what we already believe, it is doing us a disservice, and this is as true with Fox News as it is with MSNBC, as true in some ways whether you listen to Glenn Beck or Rachel Maddow. I know you can argue that Maddow is a journalist and Beck an entertainer, or that MSNBC has more stringent journalistic requirements than Fox, and I would be sympathetic to those arguments. But the truth is that if either is your sole source of news (and this is also true of TV and radio call-in shows and left- or right-wing blogs), you are limited in what you know and what you hear to what you want to know and hear.
Greg Garrett is (according to BBC Radio) one of America's leading voices on religion and culture. He is the author or co-author of over twenty books of fiction, theology, cultural criticism, and spiritual autobiography. His most recent books are The Prodigal, written with the legendary Brennan Manning, Entertaining Judgment: The Afterlife in Popular Imagination, and My Church Is Not Dying: Episcopalians in the 21st Century. A contributor to Patheos since 2010, Greg also writes for the Huffington Post, Salon.com, OnFaith, The Tablet, Reform, and other web and print publications in the US and UK.