“Facts are our friends,” says evangelical leader Ed Stetzer, pointing out why we should not resist the facts, no matter what they might tell us. But what happens when people decide they only want “friendly facts” that fit into their preexisting worldview?
The late Daniel Patrick Moynihan used to say, “You’re entitled to your own opinions, but you’re not entitled to your own facts.” He’d have been surprised to see that, in a world of social media and multiple news sources, many Americans now feel entitled to both.
Entitled To “Your Facts”
This development is bad news for our nation. One reason our society’s debates are so frustrating is because we do not agree on what is true. A satisfying debate takes place when two people observe a particular situation, offer a good interpretation of that situation, and then explain why their vision is the best way forward. In other words, we look at the facts, interpret the facts, and then push in a certain direction.
But in a world of constantly-flowing, often-contradictory information, we rarely get to have a satisfying debate because we don’t agree on what the situation is. You can’t debate a “good” interpretation or discuss the “best way forward” if there’s no common ground of agreement.
An Example from the Left
Let me give you two examples, one from the left and one from the right.
On The View a couple of weeks ago, the hosts interviewed Republican presidential candidate Carly Fiorina. When the question of abortion rights came up, Fiorina mentioned the sting videos showing Planned Parenthood harvesting and selling body parts from aborted fetuses.
Whoopi Goldberg stopped the conversation right there. “No one is harvesting baby parts,” she said. “Come on girl.” She would not let Fiorina go any further. Joy Behar was offended by the accusation. “That offends my sensibility to hear you say something like that when you know it’s not true!” (Watch the video.)
According to Whoopi, Nothing of the sort is happening. No one is harvesting body parts. No one is selling anything. The debate “ended” – not because of a satisfying discussion about that claim or what is “good” or “bad” or the “best way forward – but because Whoopi said, in effect, “We don’t agree on that fact.” No sense in discussing your opinions if you can’t agree on the facts.
The bad news for Whoopi is that even Planned Parenthood does not deny that they have sold the body parts of aborted fetuses. Whether you call the practice “harvesting organs” or “donating fetal tissue,” the “fact” is the same – the biggest abortion provider in the country was cutting up human fetuses and selling the remains. What’s more, the videos proved to be so controversial that the organization agreed to start donating the human organs free of charge. So now, no money will exchange hands, but little hands will continue to be exchanged.
Perhaps you attribute this abysmal interaction to the blood-pressure-raising atmosphere of The View. Or perhaps you see Whoopi Golberg as a liar deliberately seeking to lead the public astray. I do not assign those motives to her. I believe she truly believes her own facts and the media spin she has received from her self-selected news sources. She really does think Fiorina is just making up the “body parts” story.
Most likely, Whoopi hasn’t seen the videos. She takes for granted the news sources that make it sound like the videos were so “heavily edited” as to be completely fake. She is wrong, of course, as Planned Parenthood’s own testimony made clear. But here’s my point: we will never get to the substance of whether harvesting organs from aborted fetuses is good or best if we cannot even agree on whether or not the practice is real.
We cannot debate what is good or best unless we agree on what is true.
An Example from the Right
Distortions can also take place on the right. For example, the Supreme Court has decided to hear the case of the Little Sisters of the Poor as they seek a religious exemption from the Affordable Care Act.
According to some of the articles and news stories I’ve seen online, it appears the Obama administration is “forcing” the Little Sisters of the Poor to pay for birth control and abortion-inducing drugs. Not true. No one is forcing the Little Sisters to pay for abortion drugs.
The debate is over whether or not the Little Sisters should be required to fill out a form of dissent that, in essence, triggers the coverage of abortion-drugs from other sources. Notice the difference. It is a question of complicity, not coverage.
Now, I want to be clear that I’m with the Little Sisters on this one. As an advocate for religious conscience laws, I don’t want these selfless servants to feel that they must be even slightly complicit in what they see as a great moral evil.
But we do ourselves no favors by mangling the facts of this case. Instead, we harm the cause of religious liberty, conscience rights, and fail to engage in satisfying debates over what constitutes the government’s “compelling interest” when we pass along articles that get basic facts wrong.
Never Sideline The Truth
I’m glad to see the previous generation’s three-channel monopoly of news go away. I’m glad there are multiple places to get news and information.
But I do worry that our intake is so diffused that no news is treated as even close to “objective” anymore. Even the “fact checking” sites, launched as a way of cutting through the clutter and giving providing facts free of interpretation, have been exposed as politically motivated, just another weapon in the arsenal of partisan politics.
The temptation for conservatives and liberals alike is to sideline the truth in advance of the cause. As Christians, we must resist such a practice. We are a people of truth. We should care about getting the facts right. We should be the least gullible people online and the first to challenge viral posts or Facebook videos that reinforce certain narratives with inaccurate information.
As Christians, we can be truth-tellers and truth-spreaders, but only if we are willing to do our due diligence in exerting discernment and caution. Let’s point the way forward. Because, if we as a society cannot agree agree on basic facts, then we will never be able to debate big ideas.