Over the last couple months, I’ve watched my social media newsfeed become increasingly frenetic and hyperbolic. A glance at this intensified activity reveals two particular, peculiar phrases that have gained a new level of use in our public parlance. As you may have guessed, these phrases are: “fake news” and “alternative facts.”
When you first see these phrases, it can be easy to be dismissive. As many have noted, both sayings seem to be contradictory. By definition, both the word ‘news’ and the word ‘facts’ assume truth. News purports to be noteworthy, accurate reporting of a current event and a fact is an objective detail about something real. By applying the word “fake” or the word “alternative” one simply denies the definition of the word. Thus, saying alternative fact is not a contradiction. It’s not like saying someone is a tiny giant or a married bachelor, which are contradictions. Rather, it is another way of saying that something is false. Simply put, “alternative fact” is another way of saying fiction. Through the use of these simple phrases, the true problem on our news feed begins to materialize. They are rhetorical devices that uncomfortably twist and stretch the meaning of the words they contain.
Unfortunately, these phrases are being used to dismiss anything that contradicts one’s chosen narrative. This is not limited to supporters of our current administration. I’ve seen it employed by people of several ideological positions. Dialogue is hard, compromising work. It is remarkably difficult to be open to critique and change, especially when such change requires work on our part. Thus, the temptation to use these phrases becomes more and more attractive. Instead of entertaining critique and honest discussions, what if we could simply deny everything our challengers said? This rhetorical move requires no adherence to the truth or facts of a situation. There is no hard work or research involved. Nor is there an appeal to empathy or active listening. You simply deny your competitor's claim. What could be easier?
However, this rhetorical move results in collateral damage. When we affirm our own capacity to simply dismiss the claims of another as unworthy of our consideration, we provide an example that gives others permission to do the same to us. This destroys dialogue. As Christians, we have even more reason to avoid this strategy; we have the Ninth Commandment commonly rendered in Exodus 20:16 as “Thou shall not bear false witness against thy neighbor.”
This commandment is both an indictment and an encouragement. It accuses us by identifying our eagerness to support and distribute deceitful and unfair articles and images that misrepresent our ideological opponents. How many of us have shared something on social media or in conversation that is funny or clever, but unfair? How many of us have found joy in content that surpasses the bounds of satire and enters into slander and libel? What role do these actions play in our capacity to engage in winsome dialogue with our counterparts? What effect does this have on their willingness to listen to us?
However, there is also encouragement found in this command. Scripture has provided for us a prescription to speak truth into present conflicts. In Leviticus 5:1, we see this commandment expanded. We are given the responsibility to testify truthfully about the actions of others. This is not permission to slander them or misrepresent their view, but a duty to be truth-tellers. If we fail to speak publicly in this way, we deprive our culture of a Christ-like example of what a discussion of facts and news should look like.
In discussing the application of the Ninth Commandment, philosopher Lewis B. Smedes wonders about the burden it places on us. In chapter eight of Mere Morality, he writes, “An avalanche of qualifications falls over the commandment at the start.” How can we push back against the tide of articles and memes that endlessly roll down our newsfeeds? Smedes finds encouragement in our obligation. He leaves us with the following commentary:
When we hear a story that demeans or maligns another person, we need to expose it…when our friends pass along half-truths, we must supply the other half if we can. We must, in short, expend ourselves to protect people from untruth about themselves.
So, the next time you come across “fake news” and “alternative facts,” recall the Ninth Commandment. Remember our obligation to be sources of whole truth in a sea of half-truths. Cultivate the delicate work of listening and fact checking, for such work provides a glimpse of the Kingdom.
-Jarrod Phipps is a human, husband, and philosopher finishing up an Mdiv at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, CA.