“O SON OF SPIRIT! The best beloved of all things in My sight is Justice; turn not away therefrom if thou desirest Me, and neglect it not that I may confide in thee. By its aid thou shalt see with thine own eyes and not through the eyes of others, and shalt know of thine own knowledge and not through the knowledge of thy neighbor. Ponder this in thy heart; how it behooveth thee to be. Verily justice is My gift to thee and the sign of My loving-kindness. Set it then before thine eyes.” — Bahá’u’lláh, The Hidden Words of Bahá’u’lláh.
One of the primary principles of the Bahá’í Faith (and the revelations that came before) is the independent investigation of reality or truth. Christ, for example, recommends that we judge things (ideas, people, etc) by their fruits or results. This requires investigation and the application of reason.
- On the face of it, it seems like a simple premise that we should, as Bahá’u’lláh says, “see through thine own eyes and not through the eyes of others”. In practice, though, it can be complex and demanding, and its success depends upon other factors such as the capacity of the individual to investigate reality and the tools at his disposal. Hence, Bahaullah’s fundamental principles include universal education and the adoption of a common language to facilitate understanding. All of these things—independent investigation, universal education and a common lingua franca—are themselves prerequisites for world peace and unity. We cannot have common ground if we are unable to convey our ideas to others, and those ideas will only be half-baked if we are unable to get at truth or understand the logic of it when we encounter it.
Knowledge is described, in the Bahá’í Writings, as a light. In fact, the phrase, “the light of Knowledge” is one that appears frequently in Bahá’í literature. Forming opinions without adequate knowledge of reality is like trying to recognize shapes in a dark room. That person in the corner may be your beloved or a zombie. Which of these you think it is when your eyes come upon it in the deep dark shadows will determine whether you respond with good cheer or abject terror. Shedding light on the Thing in the Corner can clarify whether you should run toward it or away from it.
Thus, the independent investigation of reality has huge implications for one’s world view—and by extension, the world view of the functional groups within society to which we one belongs. We find ourselves in dark rooms in many areas of life—it informs (or misinforms) how we react to other people, to causes, to news stories, to institutions, to life experiences.
Nowhere does the independent investigation gap loom quite as large as in social media. Not much of a surprise, there, I suppose, but I believe we underestimate the effects that the Facebook practice of posting provocative graphics with BIG BOLD LETTERED ONE-LINE DENOUNCEMENTS OF <your denouncement here>. These simplistic declarations pretend at being informational, but ultimately only raise emotional responses that bolster dogmatic positions on both sides of any given issue.
Beyond that, there are thousands of links posted day in and day out that are intended to share views, bolster views, and change views. The comment threads for any given Facebook post can swiftly become combative. I could (and may) write a treatise on how one can stay cool, calm and focused in the face of a barrage of bad attitude, but that’s not the intent of this article. What I’d like to get into here is how one can practice the independent investigation of truth in this social media reality, fed as it is, by polarized sources.
First, I think the effort is both warranted and beneficial. I have had to learn how to put the principles of the Faith into practice here (such as Abdu’l-Bahá’s encouragement to use words as mild as milk and his warning to “Beware! Let ye offend any heart!”) This has contributed greatly to my own spiritual growth but, beyond that, I have made friends of other people engaged in or watching the conversation. These new friends are not necessarily people who agree with the issues I’m raising, but they appreciate the manner in which I try to raise them. I have also learned to be quick to apologize if my speech oversteps the bounds of moderation, which it sometimes still does. I have a snark streak a mile wide and ten miles long and it sometimes still slips out despite my best efforts.
But I digress. One of my chief crusades, if you will, in social media discourse is to get people to stop, think, and apply the principle of independent investigation to what they read online.
I have one friend (in the Facebook sense) who usually posts the sort of content-free visually striking stuff I referenced above. He also occasionally posts stories that are extremely polarizing and even bizarre. To give an example: because he favors a particular media outlet, he bought into the Shutdown Myth that President Obama had personally moved to keep a Museum of Islamic history from closing. It caused a multitude of people to comment scathingly about the POTUS and Islam and quickly degenerated into hate speech.
What does independent investigation look like here? Simple. Click the link. In this case, it went to the website of the media outlet, where there was another link that went … to a political satire site that was clearly labeled as a political satire site, but which the media outlet staffer scouring up partisan topics didn’t recognize as such. Turns out that there is no federally run Museum of Islamic History and the President did not personally flag this non-existent institution to remain open.
I try to make it a habit to “source” just about every story I read—whether on social media or no. Some websites make this fairly easy—they give a list of sources on-site (which I applaud). Sometimes it requires a bit more persistence, such as when my friend posted a chart along with a link to an official source he claimed the chart was from. It was not. In fact, the link led to the official source which contained charts that conflicted with the one he had posted. I had to wonder, was he hoping none of his followers (again, in the Facebook sense) would click the link or, if they did click it, wouldn’t understand that the data posted there was telling them something completely different than the chart he had posted? Does this person know that the information he’s posting is misleading? I don’t know. But many of the people he touches clearly don’t. It hardly matters, for the results are the same—a group of people read the posts and become inflamed. They repost, spreading the misinformation and ramping up discord, antipathy, and disdain.
They also often back themselves into an emotional corner from which there is no escape without losing face.
What I did in the case above was comment that I’d followed the link and failed to find the chart my FBF had posted and that what I found disagreed with his chart. I recommended that others click the link and go see for themselves. In other words, I encouraged them to independently investigate to find out what the truth or reality of the situation was.
The simple expedient of following up to find out where a story came from might save people from getting their pixels in a twist and spreading misleading information and negativity everywhere they virtually tread. So, here are some pointers if you decide you’d like to do a little independent investigation of your own.
- When you see a story with links, follow them to determine how credible they are. I give a story credibility if it is covered by respected news sources—plural—such as NPR, the AP newswire, Reuters, etc. I do not give a story credibility if it hails from someone’s personal blog or the blog of a partisan interest group and contains no links to original information (such as reports from independent agencies, or an actual document that is being cited).
- Try to go all the way back to primary sources. If a piece claims that “Mr. So and So said such and such”, root around in the virtual haystack until you find a credible news story that quotes him directly or a video in which you can see the words emerge from his lips.
- Beware of adjectives. As a writer, I’m well aware of how a reader’s comprehension and feelings about something can be manipulated (er, I mean guided) by the skillful application of adjectives, adverbs, and strong verbs. In fact, I’m not just aware of it, I practice it daily … in my fiction.
The use of colorful language can obscure the fact that an article is content-free or that the facts have been “spun” to the point that something good can be made to look suspect. The most famous example of this is probably the old (DHMO) scare—a satirical hoax that employed loaded language to warn of the dire effects of Dihydrogen Monoxide. It came to broad public attention in 1997 when a young man named Nathan Zohner waged a campaign to ban “DHMO”. Dihydrogen Monoxide is the scientific name of (wait for it) water. The campaign was part of Nathan’s science project, which was appropriately titled “How Gullible Are We?”
We can be very gullible. Just last week I responded with resigned dismay to something my above-mentioned FBF posted before I had an opportunity to source the story. It turned out to be a false lead. It purported to be a reaction to a document released by a scientific organization, but when I followed the links, all roads led back to a partisan blog written by a college freshman. The dead-giveaway clue in the article my friend posted was that it contained not one link to a primary source, when merely quoting the alleged document should have been the centerpiece of any article making such a claim.
So, though my goal is to remain independently informed about as much as I can, I sometimes get lazy, and I occasionally forget how important that principle of my faith really is.
Next time: Colorful Word Art