Are White Lies Harmless?

17 12 2016

by Nick Galifianakis

‘If you were hiding Jews during the second World War, and the Gestapo came to ask whether you were sheltering them, is it morally wrong to tell the Gestapo that you are not, when indeed you are?’ is a question that is often posed to discern whether lies are ever excusable. Perhaps the white lie is a more whimsical example, where a woman from whom you desire affection asks, ‘How do I look?’ in the obvious case that she is having a bad appearance day. Is it ok to lie to make her feel better or is it morally correct to always tell the truth even in ‘frivolous’ situations? These are actually not easy questions, but your answer to them will reflect your ascription to a certain type of morality, lying, and most importantly truth.

Truth. In the recent American news, there has been much talk about the role and influence of fake-news and social media in the 2016 presidential election. Though there are many credible sources that say it wasn’t the determining factor in the election. There are numerous articles claiming the serious negative impact fake-news has whether it is determinative or not (NY Times, The Guardian). Perhaps, the post-modern world has really reached its apex and embraced the notion of ‘post-truth’ a word selected by the Oxford Dictionary as the International Word of the Year for 2016. Post-truth is defined as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.” But fake-news is not merely about philosophy, truth, or post-truth, it is additionally about our abandonment of morality in the economic sector. NPR’s Planet Money traces down one of the owners of the fake news websites in a recent podcast episode titled, “Finding the Fake-News King“. In the fascinating episode, Jestin, one of the owners of these fake news sites, reported to have made in the range of $10,000 to $30,000 a month. There is clear financial incentive here and in a world where profit trumps morality, it’s no surprise that fake-news is such a rampant phenomenon.

Money. So then is this fake-news phenomenon primarily a financial incentive issue? It’s hard to tell but one partial solution is to financially support credible news sources so that they can be empowered to report what is important rather than what sells. But it’s not merely an issue of money, there is indeed culpability in our post-truth mentality. We have taken truth too lightly in our generation. The 9th commandment of the decalogue seems like a peccadillo compared to its sixth and seventh counterpart (i.e. Don’t kill, Don’t commit adultery). Perhaps, we take it lightly because telling a lie doesn’t seem to harm anyone or if it does, not too much harm. Trump sure seems to believe it. We are all protégés of William James, whether consciously or not, and subscribers to the dominant American philosophy: pragmatism.

Pragmatism. Then, do we deny the enticing motivations of pragmatism and go back to modernist affirmations of right and wrong, that there is truth and there is untruth. That there is no such thing as post-truth. Perhaps. It wouldn’t hurt (haha). But to only think in the spectrum of right and wrong won’t help us properly navigate the moral ambiguities of white lies, or whether it is ok to lie to protect those in imminent danger, and it certainly will not help us see the foundational meaning of truth. What can help us see thus, is a biblical lens of shalom.

Shalom. Truth is not just right and a lie is not just wrong, as the world was created on truth as its foundation. Indulge me for a bit. A human is human. Air is air. Water is water. To mistaken heat and cold will lead to chaos. Honest predication, or truth, allows order, that is, shalom. It’s spacial. Then, there are promises. A word is my bond. Promises are truth connections of the past through the present into the future. We make promises in the present to guarantee a particular truth reality. Something of a temporal thing. And trust. Trust cannot exist with out the truth of promises. And without trust, there cannot be flourishing of relationships of any kind. Shalom, as Nicholas Wolterstorff defines it, “is the human being dwelling at peace in all his or her relationships: with God, with self, with fellows, with nature.” It is an affirmation of predication and predictability. Truth guarantees this flourishing. So a lie can be filtered through the lens of shalom. Though it’s not formulaic, it adds nuance. Should you lie to hide people in imminent danger? Yes! Will you be morally culpable for doing so? I’d like to say no.

Fake-news. So then, are we to blame the news for the result of the presidential election? No, but there is a profound shaking of foundations when we continue on with such false reporting for the sake of profit. It is more than getting things wrong, it’s increasing chaos and diminishing flourishing on a cosmic scale. It is no wonder Jesus included truth along with the way and life to predicate who He is.


Origin of Politics

5 06 2016

Thursday seemed to be the last final piece of the Trump ship, making possible a unified sail towards the White House. Paul Ryan, the highest-ranking elected Republican, after weeks of waiting, hesitation, or whatever it was, endorsed Donald Drumpf’s nomination for the presidential race. The last few paragraphs of the coverage in the NY Times article is somewhat telling:

Adam Jentleson, a spokesman for Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, the Democratic leader, said the Republican Party is now “the party of Trump.”

“Speaker Ryan’s abject surrender makes it official,” he said in an email. “The GOP is Trump’s party now.”

“Surrender”. Given the description finds its origin from the keyboard of the opposition, it cannot claim it to be an unbiased critique. But ‘bias’ doesn’t always negate truth, and here perhaps, the word surrender is telling of the nature of what the political system has become.

When modern people think of politics, the initial descriptions that come to mind are ‘corruption’, ‘power’, ‘policies’, and the like. Ryan’s ‘surrender’ seems fitting in such a climate of politics, where power is the overarching drive. Ryan to his credit seemed to be one more for principles rather than power. The Trump ship is more Machiavellian than The Prince, and it’s slogan of power can only be contended by it’s fragile desire for popularity.

Thus, ‘surrender’ is appropriate.

The irony, for one who knows a little of the classics and the origin of politics, is that power was not supposed to be centerstage of any well politically functioning society. Politics was a word representing polis or the city. It was about the city and the good of the city. Aristotle hints at what happens when power finds itself in the spotlight:

When states are democratically governed according to the law, there are no demagogues, and the best citizens are securely in the saddle; but where the laws are not sovereign, there you find demagogues. The people becomes a  monarch, one person composed of many, for the many are sovereign, not as individuals but as an aggregate…such a people, in its role as a monarch, not being controlled by law, aims at sole power and becomes like a master, giving honour to those who curry its favour.

Us moderns like to think ourselves advanced, but in the current realms of politics, I daresay, we have devolved from even the standards of the ancient Greeks. Politics will never be void of power, but politics will never be helpful if power is an object to attain rather than dispensed for the good of the city. And though I am pointing a finger at Ryan for choosing power over principles, perhaps I will stop. Because I still want to a have hope. And hope rarely thrives in the bed of blame shifting, it thrives among the responsible. And so, I stop with the blaming and move to do more optimistic pointing. Without negating the importance of the federal government, I want to spotlight the importance of the polis, the city. And Mayor Kasim Reed can do a much better job than I at that, so to conclude, here he is: “How Are Mayors Better Poised to ‘Get Things Done’?

Drumpf, the Mob, Truth, and Belonging

16 03 2016


David Brooks wrote in yesterdays opinion pages an interesting piece on the shift of American culture from one of guilt to shame. Quoting much from Andy Crouch’s Christianity today article, he explains that rather than drawing lines between right or wrong, morality is pictured through the realms of inclusion and exclusion. Brooks interprets Crouch:

Crouch starts with the distinction the anthropologist Ruth Benedict popularized, between a guilt culture and a shame culture. In a guilt culture you know you are good or bad by what your conscience feels. In a shame culture you know you are good or bad by what your community says about you, by whether it honors or excludes you. In a guilt culture people sometimes feel they do bad things; in a shame culture social exclusion makes people feel they are bad.

And with the decline (or death) of modernity and the rise of post-modernity, subjective relativism is still lingering in our midst. The lines are not between what is true and untrue, it is between what you think and what I (or we) think. And the difference between the You-I, inclusion-exclusion line creates new markings for morality, but with a caveat. The line is always susceptible to change. Because rather than an unshifting standard of morality, the rules of in and out are determined (and perhaps shifted) by those in power. Again Brooks on Crouch:

….there are nonetheless enforcers within the group who build their personal power and reputation by policing the group and condemning those who break the group code. Social media can be vicious to those who don’t fit in. Twitter can erupt in instant ridicule for anyone who stumbles.

This is not to say that a guilt culture is better than a shame culture (and Brooks distinguishes the shame culture of the current discussion from historic Asian shame cultures), nor is it a push to return to the old. But what is worthy of taking note is that many of us do not know how to navigate these new territorial lines of shame. Perhaps semi-related is The Atlantic article by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt on trigger warnings and how over-sensitivity, tolerance, a lack of standards, and whatever else has stunted not only our education system but the American ability to discuss, civilly argue, and learn. The art of listening has long left us and all we know how to say in place of it is, “I’m offended.”

These suggestions about the shift in culture is perhaps very illustrative in the current presidential campaign with Donald Trump and his rhetoric. The inclusion and exclusion lines are being drawn, the presidential debates have devolved to shouting matches with no

"Somehow I thought it would be different up here."

“Somehow I thought it would be different up here.”

inkling of civil discussion, and the moral lines seems to be drawn and shifted to the likings of Trump’s daily emotional forecast (i.e. the police with power). But once again, shame culture, the concepts of inclusion and exclusion are not culpable here for the chaos or confusion (and violence), it is our unfamiliarity and misuse of such ideas that have perhaps placed the American political process where it is today.

Is there a solution then? If I could have it my way, I would bring modernity back, but as a realist (or pessimist), it is obvious that’s not going to happen. Perhaps, one possible way forward in the right direction, is to start understanding what exclusion really is, and to understand what real inclusion is without denying exclusion (like post-modernism used to say). A good place to start is, I suggest, Miroslav Volf’s Exclusion and Embrace. Though he presents much to mull (and act) upon, one helpful suggestions he speaks of is the “drama of embrace” divided into four stages. One, ‘open arms’ equivalent to vulnerability. Two, ‘waiting’ speaking of providing time for the other to embrace. Three, ‘closing of the arms’ which is self-explanatory. Last, ‘opening of arms again’ where he means that you have been enriched by the presence of the other. Very practical, but sounds a bit cheesy, but cheese or not, most of us are so unwilling to even begin step one. We are fearful of what others will see in our vulnerability, we are arrogant in our impatience, and perhaps, sadly, it is frighteningly inconceivable to imagine ourselves changed or molded by someone so different from us.

What then shall we do with such fear?

I know of only one place where that answer lies, and it is not of humanity.

Same-Sex Marriage, Obama, and Christian Justice

10 05 2012

This past week was a milestone for same-sex marriage, both bad and good. On Tuesday, May 8th, voters in the state of North Carolina passed a constitutional amendment (called Amendment One) that bans same-sex marriage. Then yesterday, May 9th, the President of the United States announced that he endorses same-sex marriages. Among other things, the reasoning he gave was religious:

The thing at root that we think about is, not only Christ sacrificing himself on our behalf, but it’s also the golden rule — you know, treat others the way you would want to be treated, and I think that’s what we try to impart to our kids, and that’s what motivates me as president.

A plethora of blogs and articles on both sides of the debate gave attention to these developments and I am sure more will come. As the debate (some would call it a battle) rages on, it is interesting that the conservatives, predictably, evoke the language of biblical authority. Some more nuanced conservatives, like Collin Hansen in “How to Win the Public on Homosexuality“, would point out that the issue isn’t merely homosexuality being a sin, but that it is idolatry, that is, fulfilling our desires inordinately is displeasing to God. Another conservative pastor, Kevin DeYoung, blogs “Five Reasons Christians Should Continue to Oppose Gay Marriage” to enumerate the reasons why Christians should continue to contend the legalization of gay marriage.

On the other side of the debate are Christians who evoke the language of love and peace. It may seem at first glance like a watered down argument of tolerance, but there are those who have very thoughtful, biblically legitimate positions on the issue. Jared Byas blogs “I Still Stand as an Evangelical for Gay Marriage” with some very compelling points to which the conservative side should at least give ear. Others who fall in this camp claim that the culture wars themselves are harmful to the Christian witness. Rachel Held Evans writes the very read-worthy blog entry “How to Win a Culture War and Lose a Generation” claiming the negative affects of politicizing the issue of homosexuality, she writes:

We are tired of fighting, tired of vain efforts to advance the Kingdom through politics and power, tired of drawing lines in the sand, tired of being known for what we are against, not what we are for.

And when it comes to homosexuality, we no longer think in the black-at-white categories of the generations before ours. We know too many wonderful people from the LGBT community to consider homosexuality a mere “issue.” These are people, and they are our friends. When they tell us that something hurts them, we listen. And Amendment One hurts like hell.

The danger that this second camp falls into is to argue from the lines of emotionalism (which Evans almost does), that is, to say opposing same-sex marriage is mean and mean people are never good Christian witnesses, so we should stop opposing same-sex marriage. As good as it sounds, this is a flawed argument, as opposing most culturally normalized sin is inevitably mean but necessary, and Hansen is right in that this line of argument replaces biblical authority with our very volatile emotions. But as much as I understand Hansen and DeYoung’s wariness and point that homosexuality is a sin, they do not understand that legalization of same-sex marriage is not exactly the same. And thus, I must personally side with Evans and Byas, but not because it is mean to be anti-gay marriage. But because of what Byas hints at, concerning Christian justice, in point one of his current blog entry:

I know it is hard to grasp, but this matter has nothing to do with whether or not homosexuality is a sin. If it does, then you are probably being inconsistent since there are lots of things that Christians consider “sinful” that they do not legislate against. For instance, if God wants us as a nation to live by his laws, why are we okay supporting the freedom of religion? Shouldn’t we be out trying to ban other religions? If we are okay with freedom of religion,which is a law that basically mandates that our country allow for idolatry (according to the Christian), aren’t we being hypocritical?

I am still not for same-sex marriage, but I am not for Amendment One. If I could have it my way, I think it is wrong to put into law either banning or legalizing of such a notion. In a sense, the government should stay out of it, but as we do not live in an idealistic world, I think that Christian justice calls for allowing same-sex unions (I am still uncomfortable of calling it marriage). Christians are not only called to evangelize, but our actions are to seal, in a sense, our message. Our actions are to viscerally convey that our message is true. How to do that is not homogeneous, but I know it is not marching to vote for a gay marriage ban and celebrating it. The co-existence of diversity is possible because of justice, and justice requires, like Evans says, the washing of feet, the feet of our friends, the feet of our so-called ‘enemies’. Because isn’t that what our Lord did for wretches like us?

Obama, Yogurt, and Journalism

25 04 2012

I have, for a long time, had a secret desire to be a journalist. Travel the world, get paid for writing (short pieces of writing), meeting influential people, but with all the imagined glamour of that career, journalism too has a daily grind involved that I am not so keen on. So I continue vicariously feeding my secret desires by reading and watching the morning news, and today, I sat in front of the tube watching yogurt be split on President Obama’s leg.

My immediate reaction was, “Why the heck are they reporting on this? Don’t they have anything better to talk about?” But then I immediately caught myself, “what’s so wrong with news such as this?” Isn’t a world where we only have to report such incidents the world for which we are striving? reporting? I always remember the line in Michael Moore’s Bowling for Columbine documentary where they compared the docile Canadian news to the violence-filled American counterpart. The line exclaimed by the newscaster still is fresh in my mind, “New speedbumps!”

So I hope that our news is filled more with such reporting, not as a guise to the events that need attention out there, but in hopes that it will be reflective of the realities of the world. It is probably a vain hope, but I think it is better to hope than not. Or better yet, we can combine important news with some levity, which is brilliantly accomplished, impromtu, by another president of these United States.

“Stay Home, Woman!”

13 04 2012

So the supposed ‘War on Women’ rages on. Earlier this week a Democratic strategist, Hilary Rosen, accused Ann Romney for having “never worked a day in her life” and thus was not equipped to advise Mitt Romney on current economic issues. It seems that it wasn’t as malicious as the media discussion makes it out to be (judge for yourself, here’s the video), but regardless of the force of the comment, it has triggered much discussion about the choices of women. It seems that both the Democrats and the Republicans acknowledge that the choice of the women to be a stay home mom needs to be respected. But in the midst of this cloud of political correctness, there was language thrown around about women having to sacrifice career for child rearing, and because such choice is respectable, Hilary Rosen’s comments were condemnable. Mika Brzezinski, the co-host of Morning Joe, made an interesting contribution to the discussion: that the choice to choose career over child rearing is, in a different perspective, a sacrifice, the sacrifice of a choice to have children. So what is the more respectable choice for a woman? To choose career or to choose to be a stay-home mother? Or maybe the more respectable choice is to try to juggle both? I don’t dare offer my opinion. I’ll defer to the opinions of Brzezinski and other nuanced female voices.

But there is one thing that needs pointing out. It is the interesting fact that underneath this discussion, no one really realizes what people are actually doing when weighing between career and motherhood. That is, the question of value is being overlooked. Not the value of choice, America is ultra-sensitive and attentive about that. But America never questions whether it is right that the value of the self comes from what we do, whether we do work or whether we do parenting. And I wonder, maybe that is at the heart of this discussion, maybe it is our inability to recognize one’s value apart from our ‘doing’ that we even get into these discussions. So then then how do we find our value apart from our doing, apart from our choices?

Kony 2012: For or Against?

8 03 2012

So this past week, I was one who was caught up in the viral nature of the documentary video of Invisible Children (IC) titled KONY 2012. If you haven’t seen it, I suggest you take a peek. The film is very inspirational and effective as is show by the many critiques, rejoinders, conversations, and arguments that are flying out there in the media and social media. There are many critiques and rebuttals and I do not want to get bogged down in the slew of information flying out there, so you can decide for yourself. Here are some places you can go: Justice in Conflict blog, Foreign Policy blog, Time Global Spin blog, Invisible Children’s response.

Some of the critique seems valid: that the video is overly emotional without providing enough information, some say the video implies a very “white man is the savior” complex, others say that the methodology that IC is undertaking is entirely flawed, that Kony actually isn’t the worst embodiment of evil and that there are more pressing things to turn our attention and resources to, like the ‘nodding disease‘. I believe all these critiques have merit to an extent, and I have come to agree for the most part that that IC’s efforts could be maybe use better elsewhere (for one, bringing Kim Jong Un, since his dad already died, to justice, I think bring down the leader of North Korea would have more far reaching effects than hunting a criminal who’s a fugitive in the forests). But I do think that the video and especially what the video has created, that is the plethora of conversations, is of some value.

It has value because of what justice is. I don’t mean philosophically, but to the average individual. To the average person who checks Facebook 50 times a day, justice is nothing but an emotional high. I would even say that to all of us who are blogging, writing, responding on the internet in what we think is a constructive or intelligent manner, justice is again merely a thought that gives us good feelings. That’s why the video works so well. It moves people initially. Because justice is always sweet when you bandwagon, and most people do not realize that the rest of the ride is very rarely sweet, that it is hard and sometimes even painful, because most of us jump off that wagon before it starts to hit the rocky road. Then we go back to our computer screens, checking Facebook for the next emotional high that pops up in our news feed. This is why those of us who are not doing any alternate acts of justice cannot be fully critical (of course we can point out errors) against those people who are acting and spending their time and energy, even if it may seem wrongly directed. Because on the individual journey of justice they are ahead of us. They are our teachers.

So I do not think I will be donating to the Kony 2012 Campaign, but I will not be against their campaign. For the average individual, IC is a small part of a life long education process, one nudge, but maybe an important one for that indifferent person to be moved to fight injustice, to actually learn the difficult life of Justice, and not merely feel or rage about it. As Bruce Waltke teaches us the true meaning of justice, “The wise and righteous are those willing to disadvantage themselves in order to advantage others.”