Talking to flat-earthers

As I have been reading political opinions and articles folks have posted on Facebook, I have had a few thoughts.

I will start by stating that I took AP American History in high school precisely because it included neither a government nor an economics unit (if I recall correctly). I did take statistics in graduate school. I am a fairly intelligent person and fairly widely read, but I do not have any expertise or experience in political science, economics, government, etc. And I get all of my news through Facebook. By choice. Fact-finding has become such an onerous task for the non-expert that I am often unmotivated to invest the necessary time and energy at the cost of other things. I apologize… sort of. I feel a vague shame — that I ought to find politics important enough to invest significant time in it. And yet I also feel a vague conviction that spending time with family and friends, cooking and homeschooling, making music, reading, prayer and worship, and various other things are as important — if not more important — than wading through political stuff looking for truth. I understand that I ought to care more, and do more, for people outside of my social circle, perhaps including wider actions designed to have an impact on the systemic level… not sure yet what form that should take at this point in my life, but am trying to be open and willing.

TOLERANCE, RESPECT, DIALOGUE, MODERATION

One of the things that bugs me, and a lot of you from what you post and link to, is the amount of ridicule, intolerance, shaming, name-calling, and dismissing that goes on in so-called political discussion. We want to see everyone treated with dignity — everyone’s opinion heard with respect — everyone given the assumption that they have done their research; that they are acting from good will, in good faith; that they are reasonably intelligent and committed to the truth; that, if Christian, they are faithful to the Bible and to God and that they pray and read carefully. Except we can be so quick to assume that some folks’ opinions demonstrate that they can’t possibly be both intelligent and sincere.

We want everyone to be willing to negotiate and compromise — except we think some things are non-negotiable.

We want everyone to respect the views of others — except we think some views have been thoroughly debunked, some views are obviously and uniquely true, some views are solidly founded on incontrovertible evidence, some views have no support whatsoever.

To take an extreme example — because often the extremes are the easiest things to see and think clearly about, or to avoid — let’s consider the shape of the earth. Pretty much everyone agrees that it is a sphere. Science says so. So no one needs to respectfully consider the arguments of flat-earthers. No one needs to enter serious dialogue with them. There is no need to try to compromise or negotiate about it.

However.

A) Is it okay to ridicule someone for being wrong, even wrong about something so obvious and widely acknowledged? Perhaps the person doesn’t have much intelligence or knowledge, in which case they’re ignorant but not malevolent. What’s actually the most effective way to lead them to learn? Perhaps the person knows it’s wrong and claims it anyway for some malevolent reason. How possible is it to know that? Can we see their heart? What’s the most effective way to invite them to repentance? Perhaps the person really believes some alternate theory with what looks to them to be plausible arguments and interpretations of evidence. Who knows what could lead someone to that point — something plays on their fears or presuppositions and derails their otherwise intelligent approach to things? What’s the most effective way to restore them to clear thinking?

Surely in any case we can emphatically respect the dignity of such persons as bearers of the image of God, and beloved by him. Surely we can call out falsehood and deception without resorting to name-calling. I find it unfortunate that the letters of Paul and the Gospels include name-calling, sarcasm, and hyperbole in addressing opponents. I suppose it was acceptable rhetoric for the times. I wonder if any Pharisees repented because being called a brood of vipers or white-washed tombs confronted them with a reality they hadn’t known before. Or if any Judaizers repented because Paul wished they’d emasculated themselves. If we think the trajectory of Scripture is toward more inclusive loving, why hold onto this form of rhetoric? Why don’t we talk as much about the dignity of every person — even slimy politicians — as we do about the ministry of women or the full inclusion of homosexual Christians? Doesn’t a politician count as our neighbor? Or is name-calling really the best way to love them, to confront them with important realities and call them to repentance? Does loving one group of people justify hating and vilifying another group that oppresses them? In what way is that “loving our enemies?” Isn’t that what’s wrong about many of the psalms? I wish the Bible more clearly distinguished between behavior and being.

I appreciate that quotation that floats around — “be kinder than necessary, because everyone you meet is fighting some kind of battle.” I maintain that however evil someone may be right now, they didn’t start out that way, and never simply decided “Today I am turning to the dark side.” Even Anakin had a reason — he didn’t simply freely and consciously choose evil. There is always a history, hurts, disappointments, frustrations, that leads down that path. Evil people are not some separate species, some category distinct from “us.”

Maybe you might argue that the slimy evil people don’t deserve or need our love as much as the “least of these,” whether you put the unborn, the poor, the gay, the bullied, or some other group of people in that category. The arrogant, the mean, the blasphemous, the hateful, are also among the “least of these.” Hand in Hand Parenting talks about the importance of the needs of the kids who bully and hit and yell — they are just as afflicted and hurting as their victims. An aggressive kid is a scared and threatened kid. I think that’s true of adults, too, although the fear and hurt and threat is usually deeper, more hidden, and more complicated to parse out than in a child’s case.

B) I am pretty solidly convinced of the spherical earth. Other issues? How am I to know which ones are really obvious, solidly supported, incontrovertible, not worth further discussion or negotiation? When people are involved, there are so very many factors. Statistics CAN be manipulated. Fairly easily. Non-scientists are not equipped to evaluate scientific studies. Media articles about peer-reviewed studies don’t always present them accurately. If an issue involves people on both sides, it seems chances are rather good that it is not as clear as either side thinks it is. The number of people believing or disbelieving something doesn’t determine whether the something is true or not… and yet on some level numbers are useful. There are very few flat-earthers. But there are a LOT of people arguing on both sides of issues around health-care, poverty, foreign policy, and so on. So much depends on your assumptions, especially if you are not aware that you have any. So much depends on your personal experience and the anecdotal evidence you hear from friends. So much depends on which people or media outlets you trust as authorities and experts.

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4 thoughts on “Talking to flat-earthers

  1. While I don’t necessarily agree with everything you said, I found your article well written and thought provoking with many good points. Thank you for sharing.

  2. I totally shouldn’t be on here reading blogs as I just don’t have time, but I’m glad I did just for a sec to read your post. 🙂 Really appreciate your thoughts here. Thanks Marcy.

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