Tuesday, April 04, 2017

ANS -- How could Christians support Trump’s lies? It depends on what you mean by ‘truth.’

Here is an article that quotes Marcus Borg, and a FaceBook discussion about it.  You will see that even very smart people have trouble understanding the point.  The point, at least the one Sara Robinson wanted to make about the two kinds of truth, is that if we want to get back to having a liberal society, we have to learn to speak in the language of emotional truth, and to tell our worldview in that language, rather than strictly in the fact-based scientific/Enlightenment language we tend to use.  

Acts of Faith

How could Christians support Trump's lies? It depends on what you mean by 'truth.'

 March 29

Donald Trump talks with campaign manager Kellyanne Conway during a September visit to Goody's Restaurant in Brook Park, Ohio. (Evan Vucci/AP)

The thing that baffles most opponents of President Trump (and apparently all comedians) is that he and his staff show a blatant disregard for facts. Trump's insistence that he won the popular vote and that President Obama wiretapped his phones have been easily debunked. Trump supporters who accept or even defend these statements must be stupid or willfully blind, those who oppose him say, shaking their heads in confusion (or, worse, righteous self-congratulation). As a scientist, I can't totally disagree with the confused.

When much of our logic-based, Enlightenment-indoctrinated society holds Trump's statements up for examination, they think that the whole world should see that he's a lying liar, feeding us big-league lies. For these people, the ultimate measure of truth is that it can be supported with facts. It may also be the reason many conservative Christians, who are used to having facts shoved down their throats as the ultimate truth, can relate to Trump despite his disdain for many conservative Christian causes. The simple fact is that there are different kinds of truths.

Americans have had a fact vs. "alternative fact" standoff long before Trump. Western culture has not provided us with a good framework for understanding the nuanced nature of truth. Our current concept of truth is largely a product of the Enlightenment, when humans codified a way to state a question, pose a hypothesis and collect observations that either supported or changed their understanding of the "truth." Most people learn this formula in elementary school, and even those who don't grow up to be scientists use this pattern for determining truth. We use hypothesis-testing daily to figure out everything from where to invest funds to the best way to get our kids to eat their vegetables, and for the most part, it works. Using observations of evidence, we can figure out what's "true" in our world. But factual truths aren't the only truths out there.

My understanding that factual and nonfactual truths could coexist grew after a long period of intellectual dissonance between scientific and religious belief. I was raised in an observant and socially moderate Protestant family, where we went to church weekly and prayed before meals. Everything in the Bible was judged to be "true," and if it didn't make sense that five loaves and two fishes could feed a multitude, it was just a miracle that couldn't be understood.

Sometime after starting my career as an academic scientist, however, the dissonance became too strong. In an effort to understand how both scientific fact and spiritual belief can be true, I completed a certificate in Christian theological education, and found the answer in the section on church history. Scholar Marcus Borg, in "Reading the Bible Again for the First Time," calls it post-critical naivete: an ability to understand that stories are true, even when the primary elements of the story are not historical fact.

Biblical literalism and biblical inerrancy became more central in the Christian church after the age of Enlightenment; before that, scientific theory didn't exist, so "factual" truth wasn't a primary concern. The early Christians were reporting an experience that left a deep, meaningful and long-lasting impression on them, and it was the truth of the experience that mattered, not the factual recounting of every minute of Jesus' life.

Borg, anticipating many Trump supporters by 15 years, said that the Bible was best taken "seriously, not literally." Once someone can absorb the idea that factual truth and spiritual or emotional truth are two different frames of human experience, the conflict between science and religion is moot. The problem occurs when we try to apply the wrong frame to a given experience.

Trump has switched the frame on a society that so deeply values logical thought that many Americans are completely befuddled — and think that everyone else should find this reframing as repugnant as they do. Unfortunately, just screaming "Liar, liar, pants on fire!" and hoping that everyone will get on board isn't going to be effective, because Trump often is delivering a certain kind of truth — an emotional truth.

Despite facts to the contrary, nearly a third of Republican voters believe that Trump, not Hillary Clinton, won the popular vote in November. While his claims that 3 million to 5 million illegal votes for his opponent lost him that race haven't been justified, the emotional truth — that the voting system is out of their control and seems to be rigged against them — is real and deeply felt.

It's certainly easy for Trump supporters to "know" without proof that the mainstream media isn't trustworthy: It hasn't represented their point of view, their truth, in years, and therefore is inherently suspicious. And after years of harboring suspicions that former president Barack Obama is a Muslim, a communist, or worse, any accusation about his interference with the current administration can be seen as something that he would do, even if there's no proof to show that he did do it. Facts don't matter if the emotional impact is real.

The dominance of emotional truth over factual truth is hardly limited to Trump supporters. Those of us who think we live by logic use all kinds of evidence to make decisions. Facts are one thing, but feelings and lived experience are another. Psychologists tell us that we make most decisions based on feeling, and fill in the supporting logic later. Emotional truths have weight, and a good story about an emotional truth doesn't have to be factual: It just has to be true.

Tom Forman, chief executive of reality TV shows like "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition," said in a recent NPR interview that Trump is a master at "being directionally correct." Trump knows, Forman said, how to amplify what viewers already know to be true, what they "know in their bones." That's emotional truth, and factual truth can't touch it.

There are times and places for each kind of truth. Scientific rigor is essential in medical testing, for instance, but not important when helping a grieving friend get over a loss. The administration should absolutely be held accountable for logical inconsistencies where logic is called for, which includes all of Trump's misleading claims. But insisting to his followers that all truths be fact-based, and baiting them with factual inaccuracies over relatively minor issues, just increases the emotional truth of the story that they know in their bones: that society does not value their problems, and that Trump seems poised to upend a system that has harmed them in the past.

Our country was founded on Enlightenment principles that very intentionally left room for spiritual freedom. To survive, our democratic society needs to leave room for both logic- and emotion-based truth, and learn to apply them appropriately. To turn our national conversation from acrimonious partisanship, we may need to step back and switch frames occasionally, both to understand why Trump's lies mean so little to so many, and to develop better ways to communicate with our neighbors who find his emotional truths more resonant right now. The future of America depends upon it.

Anna Katharine Mansfield is an associate professor of oenology at Cornell University, holds a certificate in Theological Education (EfM) from Sewanee-University of the South and is a 2017 Public Voices Fellow. She spends much of her time marveling at the depth of human knowledge, both scientific and spiritual.



Katherine Triandafilou
Katherine Triandafilou in my opinion, the onus is not to reach them but to out-wit them. -which, sadly, we seem to be having trouble doing. so...
Like · Reply · 1 · April 2 at 2:07pm
James Scaminaci III
James Scaminaci III I have to read the article. But come on. If you believe in a literal Genesis, you will believe anything someone "anointed" will tell you. This is not rocket science. See The Anointed book.
Sara Robinson
Sara Robinson Read the article. I like it because I spend a lot of time talking to conservatives, and this is a core piece of my strategy. It's not about facts for them; it's about emotional truth. If you want them to hear you, you have to speak in that language, and fit the facts into it.
Like · Reply · 3 · April 2 at 2:13pm
James Scaminaci III
James Scaminaci III Having read the article there is a simple retort: the primacy of emotional truth will get you stuffed into trains headed to concentration camps where showers are gas chambers. We are either going to hold Trump accountable on the basis of facts and logi...See More
David Clow
David Clow The religious community isn't the monolith they're often assumed to be. For millions of them their faith commitment entails environmental stewardship, community responsibility and charity, scientific rigor in practice areas such as climatology, etc. Th...See More
Sara Robinson
Sara Robinson David, I think it's clear that we're not talking about "the religious community." We're talking about Trump followers, very specifically. Stay focused, please.
Cheryl Rofer
Cheryl Rofer Do we have to change hearts and minds by talking to these Trump voters? They have been brainwashed by their churches and rightwing radio. One or a few people talking to them can do very little in that regard. What is more needed is deprogramming. Maybe...See More
Sara Robinson
Sara Robinson I talk to conservatives because their language is my native tongue, and I hope to be useful to Democrats and others in figuring out ways to break through their epistemic closure. And the info in this article is *extremely* useful to liberals who are at...See More
David Clow
David Clow Emotional truth is one way, yes. These people also understand facts when an incontrovertible quantitative case is put before them, such as for example, the costs externalized upon them of conforming to faith-based decisions such as declining inoculatio...See More
Cheryl Rofer
Cheryl Rofer I get the thing about emotional truths. I agree that people should be approached with respect. I also agree that some of their concerns have been ignored. But the reason for some of that ignoring is that they hold concerns that are not compatible with ...See More
Joan Baez - Honest Lullaby (1979) Early early in the game I taught myself to sing…
Sara Robinson
Sara Robinson You don't have to validate *their* emotional truths. It's not about the content; it's about the language you use. We communicate our truths in the language of empricism, because that's what we find credible. Instead, we need to be talking about OUR iss...See More
Like · Reply · 1 · April 2 at 3:28pm
Doug Muder
Doug Muder I'm having trouble grasping the difference between "emotional truth" and propaganda. Encouraging people to believe the false things they are inclined to believe anyway is a propaganda technique.
Sara Robinson
Sara Robinson Not what I'm talking about. I'm talking about telling OUR story using different language -- emotionally resonant language instead of the cooler fact-based way we learned to talk in college. They don't hear that language, and don't trust people who talk...See More
Kim Cooper
Kim Cooper Sara Robinson Where does one learn that language?
Doug Muder
Doug Muder I see what you're saying, but I'm not seeing that in the article, particularly in sentences like: "after years of harboring suspicions that former president Barack Obama is a Muslim, a communist, or worse, any accusation about his interference with the...See More
Sara Robinson
Sara Robinson It absolutely does build on itself, becoming a self-reinforcing narrative. But the original hooks stuck because they were emotionally sticky, not because they made rational sense. And once that hook was set, it was possible to hang an entire worldview on it over time.

If we're going to hang hooks on people, we have to make them similarly emotionally compelling. 

And Kim -- the best place to learn this language is in church, though a good sales program can get you there, too. Reading a lot of poetry helps, along with anything else that moves you away from the literal and into stories that are personal (they're not interested in a million unvaccinated kids, but are deeply moved by stories of my dad's bout with polio), emotional, and overtly moral (there needs to be a point to the story that reinforces their values and says something useful about the nature of good and evil).
Kim Cooper
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Karen Hobson
Karen Hobson This is how I get people to care about student retention. You can't ignore the financial side, because that comes across false. But you have to talk about the individual personal loss that comes to the student when we fail to retain them, and talk abou...See More
Sara Robinson
Sara Robinson Exactly. So much of what we learn in college about arguing from facts, with strong sources, without any emotional content or personal experience added, serves us incredibly badly once we're out in the real world trying to persuade fallible, messy, emotional human beings whose brains are more engaged by a good, sticky story than anything else.
Kim Cooper
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ElJean Dodge Wilson
ElJean Dodge Wilson Once again, Sara Robinson, you have shared an article that expands and clarifies important issues. I love reading Marcus Borg. Thank you.
David Neiwert
David Neiwert I don't know that it's emotional truth they hear so much as it's self-reinforcing narrative. In any event, its entire purpose is to drive a wedge between his followers and the mainstream, drawing them further into the alternative reality in which he is the final arbiter of the truth.
David Neiwert
David Neiwert OTOH, I fully concur that we need to develop gut-level narratives that accompany our factual assuredness. The latter doesn't work.
Sara Robinson
Sara Robinson Right. It's the emotional truthiness of these stories that makes them so damned sticky and self-reinforcing. We will have zero chance of reaching such people until we also start telling our own stories that way.

This is what evangelists and salesmen h
...See More
Kim Cooper
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Ken Cousins
Ken Cousins "Emotional truth" is a euphemism for "that which validates a world view," regardless of the validity (or morality) of that world view.

It was/is an "emotional truth" for some that minorities are subhuman, lazy, etc. This is "true" throughout the world
...See More
Sara Robinson
Sara Robinson Emotional truth can validate a worldview -- but it can also change it. I see this quite often.
Bruce Wilson
Bruce Wilson I disagree, and think this WaPo piece is wildly misguided. What's actually going on is really quite simple - Trump references conspiracy memes pumped out by hard right and alt-right media, such as the false immigration/crime allegation. His audience pe...See More
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