Sorting the Truth in the Inferno
By Debbie Hooper Cosier | 10 January 2019 |
This morning I write from my rainforest home in the Tweed Valley, 28 kilometres from a wildfire. My family and I are safe for now, whilst many other Australians face the inferno. It’s still early, but the sound of trickling water alerts me that my oldest son is refilling the house tank with the meagre amount left in the feeder tanks at the top of the property. From my position at the double-wide glass doors, I notice the ash-coloured sheets still on the balcony handrail and mentally kick myself for forgetting to bring them in after yesterday’s wash. But what draws my eye is the bougainvillea vine beyond. It thrives in the early morning heat, cascading downwards like purple embers falling from the treetops. Light makes the bougainvillea glow a vivid magenta, though the sun is indistinct in the particle-pixelated sky.
You would be hard-pressed to find a single person in this wide brown land who’s not affected by the fires in some way. Roaring across 10.7 million hectares (26.4 million acres) of forestry, farms and townships, beaten back with every last resource from cities that huddle along the coastline like cowering animals with nowhere to run, the air quality index consistently sits somewhere between unhealthy and hazardous, a constant reminder of this enemy in our midst. This hot, thick blanket stretches as far away as our Kiwi cousins in New Zealand—and now, reportedly, Chile.
Under blood-red skies, thousands were forced to flee to the beachfront last week to evade a terrifying firestorm. In one near miss, a whole family was rescued from coastal parklands by local residents in an open aluminium motorboat. Crowded together in the small tinny on the sea, they turned to witness the devastation as ash rained down the way it did in 79 AD on Pliny the Younger, who watched the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius from the Bay of Naples. Last Saturday, heatwave conditions brought a new surge of wildfire. Fires are now so vast and forceful in Australia that they are generating their own pyrocumulonimbus storm clouds containing lightning and windflow that starts new fires and launches ember attacks.
As of today, 8 January 2020, the death toll is 27 people (including three firefighters), with many others missing. Success is measured in non-fatalities, photos, a saved pet…. Stories of hope include the news that a clutch of eggs has recently hatched after the nest was snatched to safety with the hen still sitting on top.
Tragic and irreversible is the loss of at least 480 million mammals, birds and reptiles since the start of bushfires in September last year. With the loss of habitat and food sources, a massive secondary death toll is expected by ecologists. On social media we share photos of koalas begging for water and kangaroos hugging each other against a backdrop of ruined landscapes or looking over their shoulders with large, long-lashed marsupial eyes.
We feel a deep sense of devastation and loss.
The revelations of the apocalypse
Against a backdrop of apocalyptic conditions and the sacrifice, heroism and generosity of people in Australia and around the world, our dark underbelly is showing: we are combatants. Our solidarity is fraying at the edges.
After four months, with no end in sight, Aussies are angry and looking for someone to blame. Prime Minister Scott Morrison is bearing the brunt of much of this anger because of his refusal to acknowledge a connection between global warming and the severity of our current droughts and bushfires, his antagonism to action on climate change, and his persistent ‘fiddling’ (i.e., holidays to Hawaii and sports matches) whilst Australia burns.
Don’t get me wrong; there is plenty of blame to go around. Misinformation and political point scoring abounds and The Truth is slippery. What do you make of the following? If there are not as many human lives lost in this season’s fires as there have been in other fires in Australian history, does it mean that global warming is a figment of our imagination like some people are telling us? Are the Greens (political party) and “lunatic greenies” really responsible for halting backburning in State forests? Have State governments really cut funding to the Rural Fire Service?
Fact checking reveals inaccuracy, misinformation and conspiracy theory. Yet these findings are not instantly obvious and many Australians are divided along political lines, happily arming themselves with whichever ‘facts’ fit their belief system and politics.
Your ideological bunker determines your ‘truth’
Few people are deliberately uninformed or misinformed, although remaining that way is certainly a choice. Ignorance and misinformation thrives in environments that come about as a result of ‘sorting’, a term you will be familiar with if you know the works of author-researcher Brené Brown. We enable sorting because of our natural human impulse to belong, and sorting is accelerated and exaggerated by our tools of choice for staying informed and connected. Consider where you found this article. From your history of reading, viewing, commenting, liking and sharing on social media, the articles suggested to you probably trend towards religious and/or social progressivism. The formulas operating in the background of your social platforms have curated your newsfeed and presented you with this particular title because your prior behaviour indicates you may take an interest in it. And, voila.
A complex ecosystem of push and pull factors leads us closer to the arguments and opinions that confirm our ideas and further away from those that might enlighten and/or confront us. The discouraging thing about this for writers is that we mostly preach to the converted. The ‘good’ thing about it is that it allows us to avoid the worst backlashes that come from those with ideologically opposing viewpoints (a strong pull factor if all we want is for people to agree with us).
So, what does sorting have to do with truth? It enables individuals and entities with few ethical boundaries to manufacture or manipulate facts to support their agenda and influence behaviour. Social media tools allow them to target those of us who are most likely to accept those ‘facts’, and facilitate the dispersion of them. In one article looking at the spread of inauthentic information about how Australian bushfires have started, a university researcher examined more than 300 Twitter accounts that had been posting using the hashtag #ArsonEmergency. He found that one third displayed botlike behaviour (the automated spread of misinformation). The true figures on arson are very different from the number perpetuated by many people sharing misinformation, and the rest is done by bots.
Our need to belong leaves us particularly vulnerable to this. Motivated reasoning enables us to bypass truth and look for information that may comfort or horrify us, justifies our worldview and confirms our belonging to a particular group.
All of this, the mishmash of muckraking, conflicting and ‘alt’ facts, denies us a “shared objective standard of truth”. And then, gradually and then suddenly, we find ourselves “retreating to our ideological bunkers” and “hating from afar”, which is how Brené Brown describes our current behaviour in this social climate.
Does truth matter anymore?
Perhaps the most defining question of our age is not, What is Truth? but Does Truth matter? And if so, how prepared are we to venture out of our ideological bunkers to learn from others and function more fully and authentically in a complex and challenging environment?
This applies to religion as much as to politics: Christianity Today versus evangelical Christians, women’s ordination versus male headship, progressive versus fundamental, Adventist Today versus Fulcrum7. There is little overlap of the people who inhabit these Venn diagrams.
How do Christians navigate conflicting ideas and find a way to apply their beliefs in a modern world? How do they avoid simply hurling their preferred facts and Bible texts over the barricade, then ducking for cover? Let me lob a verse into the mix that we should all agree on:
“And be ye kind one to another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God for Christ’s sake hath forgiven you.” Ephesians 4:32.
This applies to both sides of every debate. It doesn’t mean that my conviction is not important but it does mean that I must be prepared to have it tested and still be kind. It does mean that if I believe so strongly that I decide I must share my beliefs, I must also be prepared to hear the doubts, questions and critiques of other people—and keep reading, listening and learning.
Truth is often that nuanced in-between thing.
In this new territory, the no man’s land between opposing ideological bunkers, we must carry Truth with greater reverence and a gentler touch—much like holding one of those baby chicks that hatched from rescued eggs. Truth is a precious, growing, living thing that requires oxygen and the light of day.
Possible further reading:
- Tips and tools to spot a fake: https://theconversation.com/how-to-spot-fake-news-an-experts-guide-for-young-people-88887
- Braving the Wilderness, by Brené Brown: https://brenebrown.com/blog/2017/07/18/my-new-book-braving-the-wilderness/
Debbie Hooper Cosier is a former teacher, now a content writer, who lives with her husband, Barry, and sons, Jamie and Braden, in the Tweed Valley in northern New South Wales, Australia. Her website is freshwriting.com.au.