On Media

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Immersed in stories as humans are – print, radio, television, internet, social media, interactive gaming, virtual reality – we can easily lose sight of truth. Especially when a story fills our imagination with images we dearly want to believe in, we can feel reluctant to break the story’s spell.

The early Quakers called themselves Friends of Truth.  This is our faith: that Truth is real, that we are required to seek it, that we are required to defend it, and that we are required to profess it. These are not mere beliefs, held sweetly in our minds. These are expressions of faith, the ground we walk on.

From the start, Friends made a distinction between “notions” and “Truth.” They made a distinction between “the fleshly man” and “the spiritual man.” They spoke of the coexistence of a world of darkness and a world of light. The finite person in a body, “the fleshly man,” is full of notions and instincts. In a book of advice to new Quaker ministers, published in 1750, Samuel Bownas listed “works of the flesh” that obstruct “divine inspiration,” including: adultery, uncleanness, lasciviousness, idolatry, hatred, wrath, strife, seditions, heresies, envyings, murders, and drunkenness. It is not merely “the ego” that hinders the fleshly man, but the id, the ego, the superego, and human physiology combined. To overcome these hindrances, Bownas advised, “I say then, inspiration or revelation from God by his Spirit is of absolute necessity . . . [so that we may] speak with the Spirit, and understanding also . . . [and so] that in the Lord’s time we may speak (of what our eyes have seen, our hands handled, and what we have felt of the good Word of Life, and powers of the world to come) . . .”

This advice to communicate Truth by using both “the Spirit, and understanding” and to speak of “what our eyes have seen, our hands handled, and what we have felt of the Word of Life” describes an experience of “the spiritual man” communicating by necessity through the medium of “the fleshly man.” Beat writer William Burroughs said in the early 1960s that “language is a virus,” precursing the current view that “memes” shape communication the way “genes” shape biology. So even though we might experience the Word of Life as a palpable reality (no mere notion, wish, or obsession), we also experience continuously the effects of other people’s words insinuating themselves into our minds. Thus, to be Friends of Truth, we cannot only be Friends of the Truth in the Spirit; we must also be Friends of truth in the flesh.

Our world is deeply entrenched in an age of “post-truth politics.” This age is distinct from previous ages of deception, when the rich and powerful have lied routinely to gain personal advantage and to bury damaging truths. In the age of post-truth politics, inconvenient evidence needs not be covered up; it can simply and openly be dismissed as irrelevant. If a particular piece of evidence refuses to disappear, opponents can blame “a conspiracy” for fabricating it. With the proliferation of media channels that began in the 1980s, the vast majority of Americans now reside in “filter bubbles” of like-minded opinion. Nearly two thirds of Americans use their social media feeds as news feeds (Pew Research Center, 2014). In the ecosystem of social media, outright lies and fringe beliefs carry as much “truthiness” as peer-reviewed research findings. People place their deepest trust in their friends and in ideas that “feel right.” The human brain is not well designed to recognize falsehoods.

As Friends of Truth in our everyday world, we can shine light on everyday lies – in politics, government, advertising, banking, race relations, land management . . . the list goes on and on. One place to start is by fact-checking dubious stories (see: reporterslab.org/fact-checking/). As Friends of the Truth of the Spirit, we wait expectantly for divine inspiration. Such inspiration will not indulge our ids, nor flatter our egos, nor assuage our superegos, nor satisfy our corporeal bodies, but as Bownas put it, divine inspiration will give us “a true understanding of divine things, that we may make choice of and walk in the paths of wisdom, which is the just man’s path.”