(Information) Bubble Trouble

(Information) Bubble Trouble November 4, 2020

All across the United States there are people who wonder how anyone could possibly support Donald Trump, and people who wonder how anyone could possibly support Joe Biden. It is easy–much too easy–to assume in accordance with one’s own self-perception that the answer is simple: we’re good and they’re evil. That diagnosis of the way things are may or may not be ultimately correct, but I want to argue here that there is much more to it than that. Evil people tend not to think of themselves as evil. Someone who is convinced that Donald Trump is about to turn the United States into a dictatorship and constitutes an urgent threat to democracy might attempt to assassinate him, persuaded they are doing the right thing. Someone who is convinced that Joe Biden leads a cabal of Satan-worshipping baby-killers may reason in the same way. One of those motivations is obviously much more plausible than the other. But what makes it obvious, and what makes the reverse seem just as obvious to others? That is the key question that needs to be asked.

I was dismayed when my wife showed me a video by a Catholic conspiracy theorist named Michael Matt that a Romanian had shared on Facebook. It was standard misinformation, coupling centuries-old antisemitic tropes with decades-old rhetoric about a New World Order and a plea to people to refuse vaccination and the reject wearing of masks. All of it in one place, offered in a tone of authority and moral superiority, with not a shred of legitimate evidence offered to support it, only snippets of words taken out of context and twisted to weave the narrative they wanted to. It is a narrative that is rooted in hatred of others, but just like the person who justified stealing from strangers to provide food for their own family, demonization of others is offered under the guise of loyalty to one’s own nation, religion, and heritage.

I have an idea for a graphic novel that I would like to pursue. I think it could be educational, although it wouldn’t be marketed in that way. I want to tell the story of one person twice, envisaging them as they live within two different information bubbles, one provided by mainstream media, science, and reliable history, the other by conspiracy theorists and right wing media. The news that is on their TV and the podcasts they listen to on their phone can be represented in text bubbles that literally surround the character. I want the days to unfold differently as the individual makes different assumptions about the Arabic-speaking Muslim immigrants in the neighborhood he walks through, and as he sees an altercation down an alleyway involving a white male and a darker-skinned individual and intervenes in different ways based on differing assumptions. I am still not sure whether I want the two stories to progress starting on opposite sides of the book when flipped over (like the Mandaean sacred text the Ginza Rba) or on opposite pages so that the left side tells one story and the right another.

As I thought more about information bubbles, having begun with media sources and the like, my thoughts soon turned to sermons and religious literature. I recall living as a teen in a world populated with demons and angels, in which every encounter was part of a spiritual battle for the salvation of human beings who are being led astray and in turn leading others to their doom. If you weren’t on our side in the fight you were either an enemy combatant or a hostage or casualty that needed to be rescued if possible. I wasn’t in that Pentecostal context for very long, but it was in the early days after having my born again experience, and I genuinely perceived the world in this way. This dualism was eventually challenged as many things, including things in the Bible and Christian tradition, revealed the painful truth that the dualism of good vs. evil does not run between religious allegiances but through each one of us. For quite some time I was, as a friend from that era put it, “obnoxious for the Lord.” But at the time I didn’t see myself that way.

There is no easy way to avoid this. I don’t think human beings ever get to mature openness to correction and acknowledgment of dependence on the expertise and insight of others except by way of adolescent certainty and zeal. The only solution is for those who reach maturity to not forget the steps it took to get there, and to patiently help those following on the road behind us. Looking back scornfully on those who are not where you are yet shows that you haven’t really progressed, but merely migrated from one variety of immature self-confidence to another.

As someone who enjoys time travel stories, this is why I rarely bother with the question of what I might tell my earlier self if I had the chance. My older self wouldn’t listen, would resist the attempt at demonic deception. A better question is how I foster in myself a willingness to listen so that, should my future self appear in a time machine with a warning, I’d be more predisposed to listen than my past self was.

Let me close with something Steve Wiggins wrote that explores the theme of this blog post:

Bonhoeffer was hanged by the Nazis he tried to displace, but his spiritual eyesight was clear.  Faith can blind believers to the truth.  We’ve seen this happen time and time and time again.  Instead of condemning we need to help them since they cannot help themselves.  This is the truest form of what Jesus stood for.  Read the gospels if you doubt.  This year the decision isn’t for Democrat or Republican, it’s for clear-eyed assessment or self-adoring narcissism.  If a mirror’s held too close, we can’t see what’s truly reflected.  We must vote today to show what we want America to be.  The eyes of both the past and the future are upon us.  How will we want them to be remembered?

Faith, worldview, and upbringing do not have to blind us and lead us astray. They can also motivate us to seek truth and patiently try to help others. The problem is that, unless our values include a commitment to questioning the things that we have been brought up to believe and what we are now being told, in order to protect ourselves from being deceived, we will simply have no way of telling whether we are aligned on the side of truth or lies, that of good or evil. What is clear that people all across the ideological spectrum fail to make this a core commitment. The results are at times harmless or merely a nuisance. At others they are dangerous, deadly, and downright terrifying.

Of related interest, see also:

About “Those People” (Political Version)

‘Allegiance to a particular notion of American identity’

American Unreality

Democracy’s Hard Truths

When Religion Becomes Idolatry

Kirk Cameron: “Disguised” Commies and Socialists Are “Knocking on Our Doors”

A televangelist claimed that God would punish anyone who voted for Biden

Theology and Reality

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