May 31, 2021

Is The Crowd Telling The Truth?

As mentioned earlier this month, my newsletter goes out monthly and will be coming out again tomorrow—the first of June. Considering many things going on in our culture, it seemed appropriate to share the content from my May newsletter on the blog. If you have not yet, you can sign up here for my newsletter. Below is what I wrote earlier this month …


I'm thinking about Søren Kierkegaard. I am writing this on his birthday (May 5). Kierkegaard was a 19th century Danish philosopher. He wrote critically about Christian faith and the Church even as a devout Christian himself. He embodied the sentiment of one of his titles, The Crowd is Untruth. What I mean is that Kierkegaard had a healthy skepticism about what is popularly accepted. What this might look like today in dominant culture is that what is not normal becomes normalized. Consider how accustomed we have become to school shootings or undocumented children in cages. These atrocities are not normal. Developed societies should not tolerate this kind of treatment to children. And, yet, these have become commonplace in America. We are bothered but not enough to do anything. What is distinctly different in our time from Kierkegaard's is technology. You post something online to establish your position on an issue—which clears the conscience—and then your attention is swiftly redirected by the algorithms. We forget that to be human is to be connected to a time, a place and a people. Unlike the bots (automated software applications) who influence public opinion and live exclusively on the Internet, you and I are connected to the natural world. We know that "the crowd," as Kierkegaard put it, is often influenced heavily by what is spread online. In 2020, researchers at Carnegie Mellon University’s Center for Informed Democracy and Social Cybersecurity found that "bots may account for between 45 and 60% of Twitter accounts discussing covid-19."

For me, punk rock encouraged me to question norms as a teenager. When I discovered the Christian hardcore punk band The Crucified I took to heart a line from one of their songs, "I worship a God who allows me to think!" You don't have to love loud music to appreciate that a healthy sense of skepticism inoculates us from creating false idols of popular personalities or ideas. The challenge for us now is that we all have the opportunity—and responsibility—of public influence at our finger tips. In the Episcopal Church, we have a prayer for those who influence public opinion,
"Almighty God, you proclaim your truth in every age by many voices: Direct, in our time, we pray, those who speak where many listen and write what many read; that they may do their part in making the heart of this people wise, its mind sound, and its will righteous; to the honor of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen." (BCP, p. 209)
The reality is that in our day and age, each of us has the means to influence public opinion. We do not get to abdicate this responsibility to someone else. I confess that I have not always appreciated this development within our culture but I am trying to do better. What Kierkegaard would have to say about this is that each of us is responsible for shaping "the crowd" by recognizing our own voice and offering our own contribution. As Kierkegaard would say, the crowd only wins when it convinces you that you are "weak and powerless" as an individual.

So, what can we do about it? How can we practice a healthy skepticism of the crowd's capacity for untruth? How might we be more responsible with how we influence public thought? My thoughts here tend to align with historian and Yale professor Timothy Snyder:

1) Take a break. Get away from screens. Be in the natural world. Get accustom to seeing the world around you. Yes, we are still wrestling with a global pandemic so wear your mask and social distance when appropriate (and get vaccinated!) but nonetheless, get outside. Go on a walk without your earbuds. When we do go back to our information feeds, maybe then we will be more appropriately aware of what is not normal and requires our attention.

2) Be discerning. We've all shared something online that only later on we've come to realize was misinformed (wait, was that only me?!). Use sites like Snopes or Politifact. Follow the work of groups such as The Alliance for Securing Democracy or The Observatory on Social Media. If you don't have time for that, consider this simple rule: if it incites fear or hate of others, it's probably not worth your support.

3) Love your neighbor. Kierkegaard argued in The Crowd is Untruth that we work against popular untruth by demonstrating human equity by love of the other. The untruth has and always has been that enmity for the other is always appropriate. We work against this by loving our neighbors. The temptation was to list "find your voice" as the third and last thing we can do. You should find your voice but not for your own gratification but for the care and well being of the other. Contribute to the discourse in whatever way suits you. Write to and call your public representatives. Attend and speak up at school board meetings. Volunteer. Vote. Show up. But do it for the love of your neighbor.
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