Friday, 21 April 2017

Unmasking the myths - Not Another Election! How we get fooled again (and again and again)

And so here we are again- on the verge of another major national vote; the third in three years. This is despite our Prime Minister assuring us there would be no new election until 2020! And as in the previous contests we will find ourselves often casting our vote in a different way to many of our family, friends and neighbours with whom we share very similar life situations and even the same faith and values.

Christians (and indeed Muslims, Sikhs or Jews) would say they seek to base their lives and values on the same book and the same God as their fellow believers. However, as we saw most clearly in the US Presidential elections, people of the same faith can end up coming to some very different political choices. So why is it that people who share similar life situations and similar faith and values often end up reaching different political choices?

From what I have seen I believe the answer is that, whatever or whoever we vote for, many (probably most) of us who vote will cast our vote based more on myth than fact. As a result, I believe we are often lead us to vote in ways that are ultimately against our own interests and against the values that we really believe in.  Sadly, all too we then just repeat the same mistakes again. To misquote  the Who, “we will get fooled again”. And in case I’m here accused of arrogance I will freely admit I am not immune to such deception. Looking back, I believe I was fooled in the way I voted in 2 out of the last 3 general elections.

So why are we so often taken in?

As a Christian, I believe that humankind in general is ultimately deceived about themselves, God and life as a whole and clearly politics is included in that deception. And the ultimate deceiver is not any politician, however eloquent and successful, but someone far more powerful-  a supernatural being, Satan, “the Father of Lies” as Jesus calls him (John 8 v44). From the beginning, he was out to get us, to separate us from God and from each other and all the good things God wanted for us all. He mostly achieved this through spreading lies. This was seen first in the Garden of Eden. His lies about God’s motives in keeping the tree of knowledge off limits deceived Eve who in turn deceived Adam so that they both disobeyed God. (Genesis 3). In judgment, they were driven from the Garden into a harsh and broken world where we’ve all been struggling ever since.

As a Christian I believe that Satan was defeated by Jesus on the cross and his fate is sealed. However, he is still very active in the world and still trying to make us suffer as much as possible. Even though he is mortally wounded like an injured beast he remains very dangerous, “prowling around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour” (1 Peter 5 v 8). And his methods haven’t really changed since the Garden of Eden. One of the main ways he still makes us suffer is through spreading lies. Sometimes he does this directly but mostly he does this through humans deceiving each other, just as he did in the Garden. Like Eve, having been deceived, we become the deceivers of others. And we are all caught up in deceptions sometimes as the deceiver sometimes as the deceived and often a bit of both. This applies to all aspects of life and certainly applies to our beliefs including our religious and political beliefs.

 In fact, as a Christian I would say the most important thing that most of the world is deceived about is Jesus and His message. If most are deceived about that then it is hardly surprising if most are also deceived about other slightly less important stuff like politics. And Christians are certainly not immune to such deception!

 I believe one of the things that makes us most vulnerable to deception is natural bias. So much of what we believe comes not from facts that we’ve seen or observed but from the influence of natural bias. We are all affected by natural bias. Often it’s negative bias, e,g. distrust of benefit claimants, of the rich, of employers, of trade unions, of the EU, of politicians, of Tories, of socialists, of immigrants, of Muslims, of Christians, of atheists, of economists,  of journalists, of bankers, of northerners, of southerners, of political correctness, of “red tape”/”health and safety”, of patriotism. But it can also be a positive bias e.g. in favour of anything that promotes free speech, free enterprise, the environment, equality, “health and safety”, helping the poor, law and order, security, self-dependency, anything “British”, anything “Christian”.

Sometimes our bias might happen to align with reality but often it doesn’t. Bias may even lead us into making wise choices but for the wrong reasons.

And where does our bias come from? It could be our upbringing and childhood influences- sometimes due to our particular life experiences and often through osmosis of the opinions of our families and our friends we grew up with. That bias of course can be influenced by later life experiences and social interactions. But our bias isn’t necessarily overcome by facts that might contradict that bias, because we often see and interpret the world through the lens of that bias. So two different people looking at the same thing do not necessarily see the same thing. And when we find others agreeing with our views we will naturally tend to take this as confirmation that we were right all along. In doing so we fail to recognize that we tend to gravitate towards those with similar views and bias that we already hold.

Then there's the influence of mass media; the views and spin of newspapers, TV journalists and increasingly of social media outlets.  And we need to consider who are the people who fund those who propagate those media messages? Some of them may be new types of influencers (individual bloggers like Russell Brand). However, many of them have a much more established pedigree, e.g. the owners of newspapers and TV/satellite companies, the spin doctors of political parties and political pressure groups (often masquerading as policy “research” centres). And increasingly they will share their more traditional product via social media.

I would suggest we need to be particularly wary of the influence of the media because their direction is generally determined by their owners who by definition will usually be super rich individuals and corporations. They will therefore tend generally to have a bias towards parties and policies that will serve the interests of the very rich rather than the interests of most ordinary folk, let alone the poorest and most vulnerable. These if you like are the descendants (in some cases literally) of the ruling rich elites that have by and large always run our country in their own interests. Originally, they did so as kings and feudal lords who lauded it over ordinary folk in a world before democracy. But their power and money has allowed them to retain much of their ability to control things in their own interests. Even in our supposedly democratic country they can still do this by influencing the opinions of ordinary folk to vote (or not vote) in a way that serves the interests of the elite.

 A key way they achieve that end is by spreading political myths and fake news that deceive ordinary folk into voting for parties or policies that ultimately are contrary to their own interests but for the benefit of the rich elite. Note (unlike the “Father of Lies”) I am not suggesting they are out to harm the interests of ordinary folk. Like most people, they are primarily motivated by self-interest, without looking to positively harm others. It’s just that their wealth and privilege means that very often what is most in their interests is not in the interests of most people.

And very often the way the media manipulators influence opinions and votes is by latching onto popular bias. They use this to nudge or push the public towards the party or policy they want to sell.

And then there’s the sinister influence of the intellectual cyber criminals, who spawn the fake news viruses-  editors of fake news websites and even more macabre, foreign government cyber spies. Through the internet they can spread their fake news viruses far and wide though news websites and social media. And then through TV and more social media via the fingers and mouths of politicians and other opinion formers and then repeated through wider public social media. It gets into our own eyes and ears and then into our minds. It then comes out of our own fingers and mouths as we in turn spread the virus further. And if we had any doubts about the devastating influence of fake news we only have to look at the US Presidential election.

But it’s not just about deception or bias. Even without any fakery it is often difficult working out the best way to manage things in this world. That’s because the world and us humans in it are broken and dysfunctional and have been (I believe) ever since the Fall. As a result, neither we nor our world works the way it should and how we interact with each other and our world is complicated. None of us fully know and understand how it all works.  As it says in Ecclesiastes 8 v 17, “No one can understand what goes on under the sun. Despite all their efforts to search it out, no one can discover its meaning. Even if the wise claim they know, they cannot really comprehend it.” And the pace of change in our modern world, with ever developing technology and the globalisation it brings only makes our world even more complicated.

And history has taught us that there is no social or economic model that has really succeeded in bringing good outcomes for all. To a greater or lesser extent all have failed, albeit some certainly more than others. And even with the greatest effort and best of intentions things often don’t work out as we think they should.  “Time and chance happens to them all.” (Ecclesiastes 9 v 11). There just seems a lot of randomness.

 It’s because it’s difficult enough to work out stuff even when we do know the truth that it becomes even more important to strip away the myths so that we can at least start from a basis of truth.
But in this ever more complicated world of 24/7 media we are surrounded by a wall of competing messages. It gets very confusing. For many of us trying to sift the fake from the real, the myth from the truth seems almost impossible. It just gives us a headache.

No wonder then that an increasing number of people simply do not vote . In fact, in the 2015 election the winning Conservative party received only 24% of the votes of registered voters. This was dwarfed by the 34% of registered voters who didn’t vote at all. Tragically in all recent UK general elections the largest political camp has not been Labour or Conservative but non-voters. Yet the right to vote is a precious gift that people have died to win for us. I therefore believe we have a moral duty to exercise a right to vote. However, equally we have a moral duty to exercise that vote responsibly and after due consideration of the evidence. Frankly voting irresponsibly without properly considering the evidence is an abuse of that right which is at least as bad as not voting at all.

But to fulfil our moral duty to vote and vote responsibly how can we find our way through the miasma of myths and mixed messages to reach some truth? In my next piece, I will suggest what I hope are some good biblical pointers towards exercising our vote responsibly.

This blog is written for Christians and anyone of other faiths or none who shares the essential core Christian values seen in the bible and the life of Jesus Christ.

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