How Facts Backfire


I found the above Boston Globe piece referenced in a blog post by Adam Ericksen at The Raven Foundation.   In that post, Ericksen spoke about how Matthew Vine’s recently published God and the Gay Christian, though it presented sound and Biblically supportable arguments, was not likely to change any minds on this particular religious/cultural battleground.  “Arguments don’t work because nobody wants to be wrong,” says Ericksen.  “Being wrong threatens our sense of self, our very identity. In most cases arguments only serve to reinforce someone’s previously held position. Arguments simply don’t work to convince people on the other side of this, or any other, debate.”


It seems obvious to anyone who has hung around for any time in the divisive virtual world of the blogosphere that facts don’t convince, but as “How Facts Backfire” asserts, the idea that they might actually reinforce an opposing position is intriguing. Maybe this is what is meant by the Culture Wars.  Our ideological battlefields are similar to real battlefields; seeing our “enemies” up close may not convince us of their humanity as much as it re-emphasizes our differences.  And these differences can be vast.  But does what divides us in our beliefs really constitute a “war”?  Is this term, “culture wars,” pushing a metaphor too far, or does this in some way actually describe what is happening in the world?  Think of the religious factions in literal wars, separated more by belief than by history, and then think about the often angry and insulting rhetoric coming out of the Left/Right debate in America.  Do we think the wall that keeps the latter from turning into the former is impregnable?  And what will we do if that wall falters and falls?   


“Facts” certainly won’t matter then.


But if “the facts” do not matter, what is the whole point of the Culture Wars?  What are we arguing about, what are we “fighting” for?  Why do we think we need to convince anyone of anything?  I’d like to raise some questions here around this whole idea of the Culture Wars.


...Particularly for those of us in North America, where are the increasingly divisive Culture Wars leading us?  If we accept the war metaphor, will this “war” turn out any better than any other war?

...Particularly for those of  us who identify as Christians or people of Faith, how do we reconcile the Culture Wars, which appear to exist for the purpose of emphasizing our differences,  with love of God and neighbour?

...And particularly for those of us who call ourselves Quakers or pacifists (or attempting to live out some kind of non-violence), how do we, or should we,  practice non-participation - or active resistance - in the Culture Wars?


And further, for many Quakers and others who strive to approach Faith with, as Ericksen calls it, “a hermeneutic of non-violence,”

 ...What is the difference between Belief and Faith, anyway?  Are there times when the former dominates or suppresses the latter, and when are we okay with this and when are we not?

...We all have beliefs, and we should all feel free to express them.  How do we do this in a loving and  non-judgmental way? (It appears that this is much harder than it sounds).

...How do we tell when our different viewpoints or opinions or beliefs are becoming divisive enough to constitute a war with the “different” one? 


As a veteran of many a Culture War battlefield, I want to find a way of laying down my weapons and learn to fight no more.  Is this even possible? 


And while I’m ranting off on a tangent here, what do Friends think of this: When Jesus said “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone,” did it have anything to do with a realization that once the first stone is cast, it becomes easier and easier for everyone to follow suit?  Is there something mimetically built in to the fallen creature that says this is our natural tendency?  And are the Culture Wars simply our modern stones, so easy to pick up and throw, once we begin?


If this is the case, perhaps our first response should be to apply Jesus’ reply to the ancient stone throwers to our own cultural battlefields.  We must always resist the urge to respond in a less-than-loving way; Jesus did not tell us to treat our ideological enemies any different than our more literal ones.  We can also begin by refusing to call ANY individual “evil” or a “devil.”  It’s wrong when the Right does it to Obama and it was wrong when the Left did it to Bush or the Koch Brothers.  Every person is a beloved child of God even if they - JUST LIKE US - may be capable of doing very wicked actions.  Why do we forget that?


And we can also take the small step of refusing to get sucked in to the negativity and disconnectedness of online “conversations.”  Ultimately, it is not important that our opinions be heard.  But it IS important that we speak Truth with our lives.  “If you can’t say something nice about someone, don’t say anything at all,” was sage advice from our mothers, but it was also a practical tool for beating our rhetorical swords into plowshares for a more fruitful and loving world.


Is this not part of our call to be Peacemakers?  Can we refuse to fight in the Culture Wars?





Views: 270

Comment by Forrest Curo on 7th mo. 5, 2014 at 11:35am

You're worng!!!

Facts arem't really 'Earthly weapons' -- but once people start using them that way, the recipients start ducking and fending off with just as much enthusiasm as if they were.

This doesn't mean that everyone is entitled to immunity from inconvenient facts; it just suggests that we can be sparing of them .

You have the right to remain wrong. If you choose to remain wrong, everything you do may make you look very silly -- as well as possibly causing harm to yourself and others. Um, people might really not want this sort of outcome -- Is there a way to actually exchange information, including (sometimes) even unwanted information, without exchanging blows?

To what extend can we approach an opponent who will interpret whatever we say as an attack on their identity?

Is this 'a problem' to be 'solved'? -- or a condition we simply need Guidance to navigate whenever we encounter it in some particular form? If so, then there is such a solution - but that solution is to always ask for the necessary Guidance.

Comment by Forrest Curo on 7th mo. 6, 2014 at 12:31am

[My somewhat cryptic introduction to my last comment... Ideally, a chance to find out we really have been wrong -- ie that there's a significant new truth we could learn -- ought to be cause for rejoicing.

It doesn't seem to be, in practice. It isn't just reluctance to retool our thinking -- Probably we've spent considerable effort trying to understand how things really do work; we've got good reason to believe that what we have acquired is true and worth defending, so that's the assumption we start from. It simply doesn't happen to always be true, alas!

The line "You're wrong!!!" is one that I learned from a large, friendly woman who would suddenly bellow that in one's ear in the middle of a friendly conversation. I offer it as an example of the superiority of face-to-face interaction over the internet mode of communication. As well or as badly as you may have taken that line -- I bet it didn't literally make you jump!]

Comment by Randy Oftedahl on 7th mo. 6, 2014 at 4:12am

"Probably we've spent considerable effort trying to understand how things really do work; we've got good reason to believe that what we have acquired is true and worth defending, so that's the assumption we start from. It simply doesn't happen to always be true, alas!"

Forrest; I agree.  We probably have spent a great deal of time searching for Truth - and perhaps we have found it.  Wonderful!  But Truth does not trump Love; in fact, it may be a good guidepost to remember that when our need to both find Truth and speak Truth interferes with our "primary directive" to love one another....well, perhaps we haven't found the whole Truth.

Thank you for your comments.  I wasn't really proposing anything here more than asking some questions about how we balance our need to speak truth with our ability to stay in that Spirit which gave us Truth.  I have found it personally very challenging to keep centred in Christ while still holding strong opinions in the Culture War battlefields...but I'm sure this feeling is quite common.  

Comment by Julianna Flynn on 7th mo. 6, 2014 at 4:35pm

That you for speaking  to my condition in this post.  I find myself unable to respond to many things because of anger or impatience on my part.  I don't think "facts" help much in these discussions because we've all seen how statistics and partial truths can obscure truth.  

I think if we manage to come from Love that Truth will follow.  The first step is to understand that each person in the discussion can have a part of the truth, only Spirit has it all.  Perhaps the only way it can be found is by truly listening to each other and trying to find the truth in the other person's point of view that has been invisible to us.


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