“All information is misinformation.” I have been fortunate in my ministry to receive excellent training in conflict mediation, but the best I ever had came from FBI hostage negotiators from Quantico. This is where the quotation comes from – all information is misinformation. Unpacking this a little, there is some helpful wisdom that I believe could be a helpful tool in our adversarial and prickly current cultural milieu.
First, no matter how much you know, you don’t know everything. And when the human mind doesn’t know something, it tends to draw inferences and make assumptions to fill in the blanks. And this is dangerous. We may hear a statement or hear a message that irritates us. It is a very short leap from “that irritated me,” to “you irritated me,” to “you meant to irritate me,” to “you must not like me,” to “I don’t like you.” This happens all the time, often in the blink of an eye, and it can define entire relationships, especially when emotions and values are involved. Our culture is currently engaged in misinformation about race, sexuality, theology, ecclesiology, economics, education — well, just about everything. We know what we know; we think we know – and understand – more than we actually do; and we don’t know what we don’t know. This is a shaky foundation upon which to base certainty.
Second, just because something makes sense to us, it doesn’t automatically mean it makes sense to everyone else. Think about our politics in the United States today. How often do we see something framed as “news” and our first thought is, “how can anybody actually believe that?” Well, conspiracy theories stick because they strike a chord of reason or rationality (or acceptable irrationality) in someone’s thinking. These theories take on a life of their own when the chord resonates across societal lines. We want to believe the best about others, but who defines what is best? And the reality is that we tend to ascribe the very best of intentions to ourselves and those who agree with us, while ascribing the very worst intentions to those who think differently or oppose us. In my experience, I have never met someone who defended a position they thought was wrong, stupid, evil, or irrational (unless participating in a debate exercise). For many, misinformation includes anything and everything that flies in the face of what they already know and believe.
Third, binary thinking is very normal and natural, but limited and biased. When everything is right/wrong, good/evil, holy/sinful, either/or, we are forced to reduce complex issues to simplistic solutions and choose sides. Binary thinking is polarizing and difficult to defuse. It erupts in disagreements, arguments, fights, and often violence. The truth underlying all complex issues is that there are simply no simplistic answers available. But even this information is misinformation to the extent that we seem to go out of our way to make things more difficult than they need to be. When we define the world in opposites and dichotomies, we see those who think differently as adversaries or enemies. When we think holistically, we see ourselves as all in this together and our differences as opportunities to move from conflict to collaboration.
Fourth, when we humans believe that the solution to every problem is information, we sabotage the power of relationships, communication, compassion, and emotion to contribute to the solution. Reliance on information promotes the false valuation of intellectual expertise. Thinkers think they can think their way out of any situation. Formation and transformation are radically connected to information, but they are not the same thing. Experience, reasoning, practice, engagement, culture, and humility are also essential elements of problem solving and the resolution of complex problems.
Fifth, we use information to dismiss as much as we use it to accept. We tend to do this most frequently by labeling, by putting a negative label on someone or something we don’t like. Name-calling is fast becoming an art form; the quicker we can slap on a label, the quicker we can mock, insult, dismiss, or attack. We see this going on in our country and in The United Methodist Church. An offensive label allows us to assume a position of superiority, and to put “those people” in their place. Each time we do this, we create a stronger dividing wall that separates us from the rest of the children of God.
Sixth, (and probably last, though I could go on and on…) human beings too often give all forms of information equal value and we don’t always distinguish the difference between knowledge and opinion. I am spouting off about information, and while this may contain some helpful information, it is purely and completely my opinion. I am sharing learning that made sense to me that I want to share with you. I am filtering that which is meaningful to me and I am implying that I think it should be important to you. This tight weave of truth, belief, facts, opinions, experience, and interpretation reveal the reality that objectivity and subjectivity are rarely separate realities – they are yin/yang partners in a larger complexity. So, all information is misinformation to some degree.
Why am I going on about this? Because I believe that we cannot unravel the horrible tangle we are in culturally, politically, and denominationally unless we can step back and admit that we don’t know as much as we think we do, we are pretending to be more right than we have a right to be, and that we really aren’t enemies, we are just confused. I find that people who are honestly and authentically seeking solutions are willing to render a little humble compromise to allow space and energy for true collaboration. Because I also believe that we are taking the easy way out by polarizing every disagreement, acknowledging that real collaboration and community are hard, demanding, and time consuming.
Certainty is poison to beloved community. Humility, so essential to the teachings of Jesus and Paul, has all but disappeared from the Christian spiritual leadership of today’s church. We can be a whole lot better. We can reintegrate intellectual reason with emotional engagement, relational development, the breadth of personal experiences, and our spiritual practices. We can recognize the areas of misinformation that are driving so many of our poor decisions, and we can adopt a position of “we’re all in this together.” When I return this Thursday, I will continue my reflections, looking more closely at the relationship of truth, reality, and opinion. But I do this with the free admission: I don’t know everything and I could be wrong…