by Mark Gutman
“The commercial success of both Fox News and MSNBC is a source of nonpartisan sadness for me. While I can appreciate the financial logic of drowning television viewers in a flood of opinions designed to confirm their own biases, the trend is not good for the republic. Fox News and MSNBC … show us the world not as it is, but as partisans (and loyal viewers) at either end of the political spectrum would like it to be. This is to journalism what Bernie Madoff was to investment: He told his customers what they wanted to hear, and by the time they learned the truth, their money was gone.” Ted Koppel, Washington Post, November 14, 2010
Koppel is referring to “confirmation bias,” when people selectively associate with, listen to, and remember mainly what will affirm their existing positions on issues. I work as an auditor, and I guess my field gets credit for coming up with the term “opinion shopping” to refer to clients who look for auditors who will tell the world that their questionable accounting practices are allowable. But opinion shopping also applies to people who look for doctors who will give the desired diagnoses, as well as to folks who hunt for the religious prescriptions or guidelines they want.
1 Kings 22 recounts a story of opinion shopping. Ahab called in his prophets to tell him that he would win if he went to battle against two kings. Jehoshaphat was uncomfortable with Ahab’s process, so he asked for a second opinion. King Ahab grumbled that the only other prophet he knew of, Micaiah, never said anything that Ahab liked, but the king grudgingly sent for Micaiah. Sure enough, Micaiah gave the wrong “opinion” – he predicted Ahab’s death in the upcoming battle, so Ahab sent Micaiah to prison and then went off to die as Micaiah had warned.
Since we can’t put those who disagree with us into a prison, we simply refuse to listen to them or read their material or associate with them. We listen to Rush Limbaugh but not Randi Rhodes (or vice versa). Or we watch Rachel Maddow but not Sean Hannity. Actually, I’m not encouraging the watching or listening to of any of those people, mainly because of the way they talk about people who believe differently – snickering, putting the worst possible construction on the intelligence and motives of the other side, never pointing out good in the other side, calling others “morons” and “idiots”, etc., etc. Luke 18 refers to this method of dealing with differing views.
Jesus “told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and regarded others with contempt….The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues … “(Luke 18:9, 11, NRSV). It’s easy to look at others with contempt; it becomes even easier when we refuse to listen to or associate with them.
Dr. Madeleine Van Hecke, in Blind Spots, tells of assigning her students to write a “poles-apart” paper, for which they are to investigate the belief of someone who holds an opinion very different from their own. (She gives examples of public school/home school, born again Christian/Scientology, pro-choice and abortion, among others.) She was surprised to find her students resistant to the assignment. While the students were able to compare and contrast different points of view for lots of subjects, they didn’t want to investigate a differing point of view on something they felt strongly about enough to explain how someone could logically believe that way. “They had the intuition that the more clearly they were able to grasp the pole apart, the more difficult it might be for them to judge that perspective as wrong.” (Page 124)
Perhaps because we fear deception or “the shaking” or the slippery slope, we may be tempted to avoid books or magazines that are not published by “safe” publishers. But we may also be forgetting that we grow – physically and mentally and spiritually – from encountering resistance and learning to deal with it. We shake our heads over people’s prejudice that keeps them from attending Adventist evangelistic meetings that might affect their beliefs, while we refuse to read non-Adventist material (or the “wrong” Adventist material) because it might challenge our beliefs. Then we wonder how people can believe such weird stuff that is obviously wrong. If we’re ever accused of a crime, we will want a chance to defend ourselves, but we often accuse people of wrong (beliefs or actions) without letting them defend.
The Bereans of Acts 17 were commended for listening to Paul and checking out what he said. “But as real spiritual life declines, it has ever been the tendency to cease to advance in the knowledge of the truth. Men [and women] rest satisfied with the light already received from God’s word, and discourage any further investigation of the Scriptures. They become conservative, and seek to avoid discussion." Gospel Workers, pp.297f
Becoming conservative and seeking to avoid discussion and shutting out Micaiah (or, the other viewpoint) can lead us not only to view others with contempt but give us reason to avoid helping them (especially the “down and out”). After all, we figure, they got into their problem because of their disgusting views or practices, so why should we use our time or hard-earned money to reinforce their inferior beliefs or habits? The prodigal son’s brother (Luke 18) wasn’t too happy to see his inheritance used to celebrate the return of his younger brother.
As we limit our investigation of differing viewpoints, we lose out on the richness to be contributed by other perspectives, we stop growing, we look down on those other people, and we come up with a list of reasons we don’t need to help others. Is it any wonder that Ted Koppel lamented the idea of flooding ourselves with only what we want to believe? Or that Jesus told the story he did in Luke 18?
How about if we read some material by “the other side” (I usually search the internet for critiques, other viewpoints, of books I like), associate with people who don’t think the way we do, and look for ways to help people who aren’t our type? How about if we look for the good in those other folks and their ways of doing things? Even if they or their beliefs seem obnoxious to us, we can recognize that they are usually as honest or well-meaning as we are. We might learn something from them, and we might also give others more opportunity to learn from us.