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On Bearing False Witness

Human society is resilient, yet fragile. On the one hand, it has persisted in some form or another for millennia. Significant cultures and peoples have arisen and managed complex affairs. As social beings, organizing ourselves and abhorring chaos seems to be a part of what we do.


On the other hand, no single human society persists ultimately. Some rise and fall quickly. Others have a longer time in the sun before shuffling off the stage. A few have persistence in terms of culture, yes, but even then the governing structures of these groups have undergone massive tectonic shifts over time.


What is true of the past is true for us as well. Despite the understandable ways in which we imagine that what we see in front of us is stable and persistent, there is no guarantee that what we have now will last. As a matter of fact, I'd say that the consistent testimony of human history ought to lead us to a very different conclusion.


One of the contributing factors to stability in human society is, I submit, a kind of common understanding. An agreement, at least, about what we can know or prove. Legitimate debates can and do occur about plans and processes, but these must operate with shared information in order to operate effectively.


In other words, we have to agree about the facts.


This is, admittedly, what worries me as I gaze out, particularly at our national conversation. So much information (often falsely called) is now available to us, and each of us on our own have heretofore unimaginable platforms to share what we think is true.


At the level of giving opinions and debating topics--indeed, the very thing I am doing here--I think social media platforms can be a great boon for our thought and reflection. But where our online presences become opportunities to spread convincing falsehoods, we run the risk of muddying our shared waters so much that it may be difficult to find a way forward.


I speak here of so-called "fake news." Various sensational theories about vaccines, pro or con. That really juicy (but erroneous) post about Donald Trump. The AOC quotation that confirms everything we have always wanted to say about our distaste with the Left. And the list goes on and on.


I know we'll see these things more and more as we move towards November. But there's danger here. Much of what we see, posted and reposted, may just not be true. Disproving it takes time, and even then our "debunking" is suspected by others of being false or agenda-driven. And, let's be honest: we are not innocent ourselves. When we encounter certain erroneous "facts" that appear to confirm our perspectives, we face the temptation of reposting them, or at least adding them to the mental catalog of reasons we have for rejecting or endorsing this person or this policy or this party. Never mind that they are not real. They confirm what we want to believe--and maybe that is enough.


In short, we are in trouble. Our human desire to support our own "team," our willingness to jump onboard with whatever supports our case, and our ability to mutually reinforce our side with post after questionable post portends the breakdown of our ability to have conversation. To work with a common set of stable facts. If we could trust the verity of what we see out there this would be one thing. But friends, we cannot. If we give in to the worst of our biases and tendencies, develop and solidify positions based upon increasingly questionable data, and both participate in and perpetuate the blurring of our shared reality, our society is in danger of collapsing. Shared human efforts cannot function for long if there is not a shared sense of what is real.


No less than the Ten Commandments addresses a piece of this situation as they enjoin us to "not bear false witness against they neighbour" (Exodus 20:16). In other words, do not misrepresent each other. Do not make up or perpetuate false stories about those around you. Do not do this damage to them and, I would say, do not do this damage to all of us by calling things into question through mistruths.


The commandment's words remind us, of course, that bearing false witness is an old human foible. Human beings have always had reasons to want to make up stories about the Other. We have long had a desire to share juicy gossip that brings others down. We have always been much more apt to believe the best about our friends and the worst about our enemies. That hasn't stopped being problematic. Not ever.


The difference now is that the false witnesses we bear--and share--can garner audiences, followers, likes, and more. They can create and sustain movements. They can bend the shape of reality not just for us, but for the many. And, in the process, they can in a variety of ways begin to demolish the architecture of civil society built in part on the assumption that we can have conversations and make decisions based on what is real.


May we all keep this in mind, especially over these next few months. Not only adherence to the call of the Scriptures but the human maintenance of our shared societal structures demands it.



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Joshua Ziefle

Seattle, Washington

joshuaziefle@gmail.com

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