Thursday, April 16, 2020

Truth, Not Rumors: A Reflection on Our Willingness to Believe the Worst

One of the trends I notice, whether in religion, politics, or other topics, is the tendency to stick with the story one has first heard. From that initial report, we see people form their opinions. When another report comes across that show the original reports were false and we staked out an opinion based that is wrong, our tendency is to defend that opinion. 

For example, in the infamous case of the Covington students accused of racism, I believed the initial accounts that the students were involved in racist chants. Later, when the facts came out, my temptation was to deny any fault, and question the objectivity of the sources. Admitting on my blog Facebook page that I was wrong was one of the harder things I’ve had to do.

I relate that story because we need to seek out what is true, and not contribute to spreading falsehoods† that mislead others. That means we don’t run away with conclusions drawn from the initial reports we hear. We have an obligation to determine if the source is accurate, and that we have properly understood it.

As Catholics, we should especially remember the harm that sincerely believed falsehoods cause. Anti-Catholics believe the falsehoods that Luther and Calvin spread about the Catholic Church, repeating them as if they were indisputable facts. In fact, they will look at you with surprise if you suggest that Catholics don’t believe these things and think you’re lying or ignorant. They believe that the Catholic Church is capable of these things and therefore believe the stories are true.

When it comes to a politician we dislike, a member of the Church, news stories, etc., we should remember that we don’t get a free pass to repeat things that we think those we dislike are capable of. we all know this and get angry when something we have sympathy towards is attacked. But we tend to forget that anger when the attack is directed towards something we oppose. 

In other words, we don’t always practice the Golden RuleDo to others whatever you would have them do to you. (Matthew 7:12a). If we want others to speak justly about things, we must also speak justly. That rule is not negated when the “other side” doesn’t follow it.

We should be aware of this: Calumny and rash judgment are sins that are easy to commit. Calumny is spreading falsehood. Rash judgment is assuming that the faults we hear about are true, without basis to do so. It’s easy to go by what we see, hear or read, and assume that the conclusions we draw are the only ones to be drawn. But that isn’t the reasonable basis we’re required to have.

Because the issue is not over defending the indefensible. The issue is over whether the accusation is true. As the cases of Luther and Calvin show, as the people who invented the Pachamama crisis show, the accusations can be false. If they are false, we will need to answer for the wrong we cause by spreading them around, based on what we could have known if we bothered to check. Remember that It’s not my fault that X is unclear is an excuse, not a justification.

So, before we repeat the scandalous claims that we think our foes are capable of doing, let’s make sure that we do the required fact checking. Because the obligations to do good and avoid evil are not limited to those we agree with.



(†) A falsehood is not necessarily a lie. A person who honestly believes something that is untrue is spreading a falsehood by telling it to others.

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