Bill Schmitt wants to contribute to a renewal at the intersection of three of our society’s most crucial questions: How can we reduce the polarization in our culture in order to solve urgent policy problems? How can we reinvigorate inclusive, civil and well-informed conversations in the public arena about the things people care about most? Are there changes in journalism–and in the generation and consumption of news–that could help achieve the first two goals, building on faith-based values and professional standards?
This is a collection of apolitical commentaries written by Bill Schmitt in his OnWord.net front-page blog and other media channels over time as he carves out a thought-leadership role in answering the three questions above. Many of these pieces are directly related to his book, When Headlines Hurt: Do We Have a Prayer? — The Pope’s Words of Hope for Journalism, published in 2018. Bill has discussed the book and his updated insights in a number of radio/podcast interviews; he invites media inquiries and public presentations. *
2019 World Communications Day Message: 4 New Ideas
January 28, 2019
World Communications Day 2019 won’t be officially celebrated until June 2, the Sunday before Pentecost. That’s part of the tradition behind this annual opportunity for reflection, established after the Second Vatican Council to generate insights about how we’re all getting along with each other via the mass media.
Pope Francis has once again allowed us to open this gift early, thanks to the online preview of his 2019 World Communications Day message posted on January 24. That’s the feast of St. Francis De Sales, patron saint of media, writers and journalists.
Here are four useful quotes from this year’s message, titled “We Are Members One of Another: From Social Network Communities to the Human Community.”
- “The net works because all its elements share responsibility.” Pope Francis praises the power of the digital media to spread an abundance of information and bestow a sense of vast, interactive community. But he cautions that too much of the information we share is used to defame others, spread untruths, violate human dignity, and affirm our narcissistic identities by defining our social-network communities in terms of whom we exclude. Real communities, in physical places or in virtual “social media,” require us to build connections of trust and interdependence, he says. The most resilient communities contain networks we form with others not because they are “the same” as us, but because they are unique, bringing different perspectives.
- “Therefore, putting away falsehood, speak the truth, each to his neighbor, for we are members one of another.” This quote (Ephesians 4:25) extends the community metaphor to the idea of a body and its many parts, a powerful mirror of the Body of Christ. It echoes the Epistle reading (Corinthians 12:12-30) from the Sunday Mass of January 27, where Paul describes for a different Christian community how the eye must not wish it were an ear or a hand. Each member provides something uniquely valuable: “God placed the parts, each one of them, in the body as He intended.” One might say these roles should inspire a sense of empowerment, along with humble truthfulness and responsibility, in each of us. We owe it to each other to be authentic and cooperative, not identifying ourselves by our supremacy or our adversaries. Our community strength comes from our otherness, Pope Francis says, as well as “the connections between that otherness.”
- “God is not Solitude, but Communion; He is Love, and therefore communication, because love always communicates.” The pontiff extends the network and community metaphors to God as Trinity, a relationship between the lover, the beloved, and the very act of loving. We humans participate in that trinitarian love in our life-giving encounters with others. We must always communicate love, thinking not in individualistic terms—as the media often encourage us to do—but in personal and interpersonal terms. If we use “the Net” to share stories of beauty and suffering that build up our best selves and encourage us to pray and learn together, “then it is a resource.”
- “The Church herself is a network woven together by Eucharistic communion, where unity is based not on “likes,” but on the truth, on the Amen.” Our joint “Amen” in worship and thanksgiving, clinging to the Body of Christ, encourages us to welcome others as brothers and sisters, and particularly as “traveling companions” on a purposeful journey toward the Way, the Truth, and the Life.
The Pope has many other inspiring thoughts in his World Communications Day message, and we among the first readers can start now to consider our responses.
He draws a connection between one’s devotion to the love of God and the networking we do through values-informed conversations in everyday life. That recalls what St. Francis De Sales recommends in Introduction to the Devout Life, as discussed in the January 24 post in the McGrath Institute blog.
Francis sees truth, trust, mercy, and justice as essential to the proper use of online media. Otherwise, our huge daily doses of information may be weaponized. We turn against each other in relativistic wars of labeling and lies. Today’s networks can become traps of vulnerability and isolation, as was discussed in this blog’s January 23 post, with reference to insights from the “Higher Powers” conference of the de Nicola Center for Ethics and Culture.
The pontiff’s reference to the “Amen” we give in our Church communities reminds us we can activate good stewardship of real-life relationships with God and our neighbors right where we are. As I comment in a book of reflections on Pope Francis’ 2018 World Communications Day message, our Amen in prayer can gratefully affirm the dignity among imperfect children of God. We’re peacemakers called to stem tendencies toward social polarization. God’s communion of redemption overrides any notion of “me-dia” that spotlight me. We share a journalistic role reaching out to a world hungry for good news.
Bill Schmitt is the author of When Headlines Hurt: Do We Have a Prayer? The Pope’s Words of Hope for Journalism (2018), available from Amazon as an e-book and paperback. See this guide to purchasing the book and linking to resources he used. He is also compiling a growing list of resources to support collaborations focused on the three questions listed at the top of this blog page.
An independent journalist, author and marketing-communications consultant with clients in higher education, community-building, and faith-based collaboration, Bill is an experienced commentator on the subject of news, social polarization and problem-solving conversation.
- Blog & bio: OnWord.net | LinkedIn: billschmitt-onword Address inquiries and invitations to Bill Schmitt at firstname.lastname@example.org | 574-276-0340
Healing the Culture–and Hearts–So Politics Can Work
February 26, 2019
No discussion at the three-way intersection of our polarized society, our use of news and our faith-based values that can help renew healthy communication will bear fruit without the kinds of insights Bruce Stirewalt recently presented on Book TV.
Stirewalt, digital politics editor at Fox News and author of Every Man a King: A Short, Colorful History of American Populists, served up some important thoughts at the Savannah Book Festival. The most valuable thoughts for the discussion mentioned above come from his answer to the last question, found at the 56:00 mark in the Book TV video.
These are comments that illuminate our exploration of toxins at work in politics and journalism today. They are comments about the human being and about culture.
They speak for themselves, so I present several of them here—perhaps out of order, but definitely “what the doctor ordered” regarding culture-healing priorities to be prized by Catholics and all people of good will:
- “We are a soul-sick, broken-hearted country.”
- “The object of every heart is to be truly known and truly loved.” As we cry out for unconditional love, our insecurities and anxieties prompt us to lash out at each other rather than reach out with compassion.
- “We’ve replaced more precious, more valuable, more meaningful things with the shoddy work of politics.”
- “That soul-sickness will never be fixed by politics.”
- “Politics is what lets us do the right thing. It’s not the right thing or the point of anything.” –attributed to the late Charles Krauthammer
- “Our broken culture is the headwaters of our broken politics.”
- “We need strong social capital to create a culture.”
(video from Book TV, promotional photo from Fox News)
“The Devout Life” as a Conversation-Starter
Initially posted on McGrath Institute Blog, published at the U. of Notre Dame, Jan. 24, 2019
The fine art of conversation, used as an instrument to share hope and advance the common good, has taken a beating. Many Catholics feel inhibited in their discipleship, fearing their beliefs and values aren’t welcome in discussions of crucial public issues. They don’t want to be called “haters.”
Freedom, human flourishing and our eternal destiny are at stake if our faith is set on “mute” much of the day. Polarized societies are unable to solve problems, or see solutions, when there’s no trust, no agreement on truth. Stalemated discussions risk stagnant souls. Jesus—the way, the truth and the life—taught us, “What I say to you in the darkness, speak in the light; what you hear whispered, proclaim on the housetops.” (Matthew 10:27)
St. Francis de Sales, a witness of charitable dialogue
The feast day of Saint Francis de Sales, on January 24, is a good day for us missionaries to recommit as advocates, not administrators. De Sales (1567-1622) is the patron saint of writers, journalists and the Catholic media. As bishop of Geneva, he became an avid writer of books, pamphlets and correspondence focused on lay people. He defended transformative truths simply and gently.
This Doctor of the Church completed work on the final edition of his spiritual classic, Introduction to the Devout Life, 400 years ago, in 1619. But notice how timely his guidance is today. De Sales asserts the everyday pursuit of devotion to our loving God is inseparable from effective outreach to minds and hearts. His Introduction includes a substantial section about virtue in discernment and discussion. Chapters 26 through 30 offer valuable remedies for this coarsened culture.
“Your language should be restrained, frank, sincere, candid, unaffected and honest,” he writes. “Be on guard against equivocation, ambiguity or dissimulation.” Elsewhere, we’re cautioned that jumping to conclusions—so common amid the media’s labels and exaggerations—can deaden devout living and, by extension, toxify debate: “Rash judgment begets uneasiness, contempt of neighbor, pride, self-satisfaction and many other extremely bad effects,” such as slander.
St. Francis de Sales, a model of the personal touch
For De Sales, respect is at the core of communication with God and people. Both connections are deeply personal and yet rooted in relationships and encounters, not pretenses or assumptions. Pope Paul VI updated this message when he said, “Contemporary man listens more willingly to witnesses than to teachers.”
That’s what De Sales means when he describes a devout life. It comprises experiencing God’s profound love, then responding with “ardor and readiness in performing charitable actions.” These are one-on-one actions, not merely an attitude toward mankind in general. De Sales personifies this, addressing his Introduction not to some faceless population, but to a particular person—a woman named Philothea whom he is instructing. “Throughout this entire book,” he explains in the preface, “I keep in mind a soul who out of desire for devotion aspires to the love of God.”
A uniquely Christian form of dialogue
He’s suggesting a uniquely Christian dialogue we can model for others. Speaking to individuals, about individuals, reflects an authenticity the mass media can’t duplicate. We must nurture families, parishes and communities with infusions of truth and trust; focused on others, not ourselves; recognizing real desolations and consolations. Catechists and other ministers can cultivate these qualities, perhaps by writing in visionary Catholic or secular media, not as office-holders but as correspondents pondering and conveying God’s voice in the zephyr.
First, we should let His love remove our own fear of speaking up. Francis de Sales can provide inspiration and practical wisdom. Devout communication is not distracted, disruptive or pro forma. It’s proactive. This saint, echoing Jesus, tells us to keep spreading the word to brothers and sisters, not audiences. If we regard God and His children with joy and ardor, the fine art of conversation can revitalize the fine art of conversion in ourselves and our society.
A Franciscan Call for News from a “Good Place”
Initially posted on McGrath Institute Blog, published at the U. of Notre Dame, Jan. 23, 2019
Setting aside the missteps in virtue one often finds in sit-com scripts, the show “The Good Place” offers worthy insights about good and evil from a quirky perspective of the afterlife.
Promotional photo from nbc.com
In the recent episode “Book of Dougs,” the character played by Ted Danson examines heaven’s files on two deceased “Dougs.” It turns out one Doug, who lived recently, forfeited a lot of scorecard points that could have counted toward his happy destiny. He had unintentionally contributed to environmental damage and exploitative behaviors, among other things. Danson concludes, “Every day, the world gets a little more complicated, and being a good person gets a little harder.”
Living in a complicated, polarizing climate
This scene captured in fiction a wise critique recently made of modern society: In a globalized, information-immersed culture, where unlimited moralism and relativism try to co-exist, the interconnected corruptions we’ve discovered expand the range of our potential moral responsibility and burdens of guilt. At the same time, we’ve sidelined God, losing that ultimate source of forgiveness, resulting in frustration and polarization.*
I’ll amplify and generalize: It sometimes seems we’re blaming everybody for everything, driven to make God-like judgments when wrongs and failures offend our sense of justice. We are all at risk of standing accused, either as individuals or as members of unlikable categories.
At Mass, we admit to serious imperfections and to “my most grievous fault.” But in the secular liturgy of national news media, these deficiencies rise to an even higher threat level. Our cultural discourse adopts labels that go beyond “sinner” to include “extremist” or “idiot” or worse. Weaponized name-calling divides us while we strive to exemplify integrity.
Guidance from Pope Francis on fake news and social media
Pope Francis recognized humanity’s struggle to demand accountability amid massive frailties when he released his 2018 World Communications Day message—“The Truth Will Set You Free”—a year ago this week. Francis criticized “fake news” attacks but also pointed out how we all need to exercise the best journalistic values today because we’re all information gatekeepers when we publish online.
The pontiff cautioned against spreading disinformation that erodes trust and insults human dignity. It is good to seek justice, so he urged rebuilding compassionate communities and cultivating a marketplace of ideas that prizes reality and discerns sharable values. As discussed in a book I published last year, our pope drew heavily upon the healing words commonly called the Peace Prayer of Saint Francis of Assisi.
The humble, sacrificial love in this prayer offers sustainable ways to become instruments of peace. Another aid is the Serenity Prayer, embracing moral diligence while understanding everybody’s limitations. The Holy Spirit’s gifts and fruits, plus redemption through Jesus Christ, help wonderfully!
How to make it easier for people to be good
The Catholic Church is blessed to share this Good News of the Gospel, which overcomes bad news and mad news. I suggest framing it more intentionally to answer the dilemma Doug faced on TV: As social issues become more complex and urgent, can we make it easier for people to be good and counteract wrongdoing?
Be more imaginative – We in the Church can be more proactive in answering yes to the above question. Gatherings in parishes and elsewhere could increase our attentiveness to the pain and fear of people burdened by name-calling and greater evils. We could group-watch news programs and popular culture, then model follow-up dialogues, welcoming many voices—from the pews, including family members, and from the marginalized we encounter.
Seek fellowship and engagement – Our Church is global and local. We can foster fellowship opportunities that cultivate agreement on principled priorities and strategies. We “Dougs” can generate and share news about community consciousness at grassroots levels, pursuing truth in charity. Information about the successes of subsidiarity will engage, rather than enrage, others.
Start small, leave the rest to God – This quest for virtue requires relationship and cooperation with a God who isn’t me or you. Jesus taught, “No one is good but God alone.” Acknowledging and trusting transcendent wisdom brings mercy and understanding, not shame or disempowerment. We can only address the world’s complexity incrementally, in modest but meaningful ways.
Accept your label from Christ – The renewal of news through the Good News does not promise that we won’t be grouped or labeled. But let’s take valid identity from the Lord. “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.”
*For quotes more exact than my notes and deeper wisdom, watch the whole talk by Wilfred McClay. It was part of the “Higher Powers” Conference hosted at Notre Dame in 2018 by the de Nicola Center for Ethics and Culture –Bill Schmitt
Alan Alda Hears Conversations Connect and Change Lives
Janaury 4, 2019
“Love is the answer, but tenderness is the methodology,” says Fr. Greg Boyle when he is interviewed by Alan Alda as part of the thought-provoking podcast series, “Clear and Vivid.” Check out the whole series, but I particularly recommend the Fr. Boyle episode whose audio can be found in the “season one” menu. This Catholic priest, who provides a lifeline to struggling youths trapped in the gang culture of Los Angeles, comments about reaching out to the margins of society–to young people who risk death as gang members.
Boyle’s methodology for connecting with these young people and giving them hope is tough-minded, not soft and mushy, but he speaks about tenderness as a crucial part of authentic encounters. I don’t agree with everything he says (or with everything Alda’s series says), but Boyle has a good point: Transformative conversations require courage because one must be willing to learn from, and be changed by, a person who is suffering. Alda is an important, experienced teacher of communication from whom advocates for the renewal of journalism and engagement in social problem-solving can learn.
Find Fault (or Common Ground?) in the Killing Fields of News
February 12, 2019
The title of Joe Strupp’s recent book reminds me of my favorite editorial cartoon, where the commuter is reading the morning newspaper, which bears the big front-page headline, “Everybody Implicated.” There’s enough blame to go around in Strupp’s title, Killing Journalism: How Greed, Laziness (and Donald Trump) Are Destroying News and How We Can Save It.
This book makes many good points that I summarize this way: Everyone shares responsibility for what’s happening to journalism and news. It’s a mixture of factors, including human nature, business practices, trends in our politics and professions, current approaches in the media, and the personal influence of Donald Trump (and, I would add, a spectrum of other American opinion-shapers). My hope is always that widely shared accountability will bring many people together to seek solutions rather than demoralize people or drive them toward even more polarization and finger-pointing.
Strupp, a veteran journalist who combines grassroots newsroom experience with a background in analyzing the press itself, offers a reasonable list of specific challenges. Placing these on the table for discussion helps establish the horizon for a troubleshooting (if not problem-solving) process that covers much ground—from economics to sociology, from the duties of the citizen to the dignity of the person, from the ethics of corporate executives to the values of individual news generators and news consumers. These points on Strupp’s checklist jumped out at me:
- Personnel cutbacks and reduced resources for the full and fair coverage of all sorts of news.
- Less self-criticism and fewer ombudsman-like assessments among journalists themselves.
- A focus on breaking news, weakening our culture’s short attention span, our rush to judgment, and our surfing on waves of information without making deep dives into real understanding.
- Less local and state news, with fewer and smaller news organizations covering the communities that can serve as reality-checks countering generalizations in the big, national stories.
- Journalists’ increased fear of legal vulnerability—not to mention the vulnerability of their livelihoods.
- Reduced investments in diligent investigation and robust curiosity–the duo of traits that gave many news organizations an almost playful love of all “good stories” alongside a duty to produce “great stories” that can open eyes and change minds.
- And, yes, the demeaning of journalists by politicians—which goes together with society’s loss of trust in both of their professions and the overall tendency to weaponize information for the sake of ratings and campaigns.
What I know of Strupp’s book comes from his presentation recently aired on C-Span’s Book TV. I haven’t read or judged the details, assumptions, and personal viewpoints driving his analysis. But I appreciate the list of considerations he has assembled for us, the voice of authentic concern he has added to the national discussion, and also the general thrust of one solution he has proposed.
His prescription for greater substance and sustainability in the business of news focuses on making it a bit less of a “business.” He invites us to look into models of non-profit news organizations and sources of funding that tap the philanthropy of common-good thinking. This may indeed be one of the answers in some cases.
This entire mix of ideas is a recipe for awareness-raising conversations. I want to read the whole book because I instinctively respect the author but probably would want to season the ingredients in a slightly different way. I favor building upon Strupp’s foundation of human respect and humble commitment, plus corporate restraint and responsibility. But I would add extra helpings of faith-based values and charitable pursuits of complicated truths. One good response to those forces that are “killing journalism” is the grassroots power of communities, families and fairness that brings alive our taste for meaningful information.
“Killing News” was published in late 2018.
St. Francis Saw the Need for Healing: Any Implications?
October 4, 2018
These are days for recognizing fragility. How vulnerable we are to destructive temptations–and to others’ accusations that we are sinful. We tend to let our recognition of sinfulness drive us apart, but it actually should draw us together. We share a desperate need for mercy but too seldom find it among human beings. We too seldom grant mercy to others because we resist seeing our own flaws mirrored in the heartbreaking news of everyday life among institutions and individuals.
October 4 is the Feast of Saint Francis of Assisi. In establishing an order of laypeople, today called the Secular Franciscan Order, he instructed them to be “brothers and sisters of penance” as they follow a Gospel path toward humility, peacemaking, and a love affair with the Way, the Truth, and the Life.
In the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend, Bishop Kevin Rhoades has called for October 5 to be a day of prayer and penitence among all Catholics, recognizing that only a shared understanding of everybody’s need for conversion–for what business consultants would call “continuous quality improvement”–will keep us journeying together.
Otherwise, as seen in current news from the worlds of politics and religion, our fears and resentments threaten to create a “search and destroy” world. Who will defend us? The center will not hold unless we place top priority on seeking God’s wisdom and sharing God’s love, with help from both faith and reason, both mercy and justice.
We need to wake up each morning to two headlines: First, remember the Good News (aka the Gospels) that God is our savior and vindicator, bringing good out of our suffering if we follow him and align with his purposes. Second, as veteran editorial cartoonist Rex F. May (known as Baloo) depicted so well in the drawing above, “everybody is implicated” by dint of our all-too-common flaws. I’m thankful to Mr. May (reachable today) for his permission to use this copyrighted drawing from decades ago because it reminds me of St. Francis’ summons to a life of ongoing conversion.
The beloved saint urges that we keep on walking, humbly but uprightly, once our blithe assumption that “seldom is heard a discouraging word” has been revealed as fake news. When we take a hit in the headlines of life, we must turn to the Peace Prayer: Grant that I might not seek so much to be consoled as to console, to be understood as to understand.
Pope Francis has called for a “journalism of peace” that helps us grasp the full story of our lifetime journeys together. Information media should prompt us to pursue truth, not weaponize it. The Pope wrote about this in his 2018 World Communications Day message, officially presented in May, and I wrote some reflections on that message in my book, When Headlines Hurt: Do We Have a Prayer?
Pope Francis had something else to say in 2018 about recognizing our mutual need for better information alongside personal formation. According to the online publication Crux and its editor John L. Allen Jr., the pontiff had this to say in January at his first General Audience of the year:
“To measure ourselves by the fragility of the clay with which we’re made is an experience that strengthens us. While making us deal with our weakness, it also opens our hearts to invoke the divine mercy that transforms and converts.”
If we read between the lines in the headlines this year, or any year, we’ll be confronted with the “Everybody Implicated” message constantly. That’s a good thing, but let’s face it: these headlines will hurt. Fortunately, we can find an element of humor and hope in Baloo’s cartoon if our values and relationships teach us that the quality of mercy is not strained and healing our woundedness is something we can all work on together.
“Everybody Implicated” could be click-bait for a scorched-earth, apocalyptic drama of mutual defamation. May it lead us instead into a full story that is not pathetic, but empathetic. Like any good headline in any good news medium, it can jar us on our way toward deeper truth. At the risk of hyperbolic misinterpretation, three cheers for a gift of succinct prophecy well-suited to St. Francis’ feast day. Baloo foreshadows a “journalism of peace” that puts humility on the front page where it belongs.
Inhibition in the Air, Creativity in our Hands
January 3, 2019
Don’t miss Peggy Noonan’s Jan. 3 commentary in The Wall Street Journal. She gives thought-provoking reasons why political correctness should not be allowed to stifle conversations, focusing on folks who lean left and progressive, especially artists and entertainers. This argument deserves to be heard by people on all parts of the political spectrum and by news generators and news consumers alike.
“The producers and network chiefs, the comics, writers and directors—so many of them hate the air of inhibition under which they operate,” Noonan writes. “They’ve all been stopped from at least one artistic act by the forces of censorship, in the same way that there is hardly an American the past quarter-century who hasn’t been shamed for saying, doing or thinking the wrong thing.”
Based on the perspectives I wrote about in When Headlines Hurt: Do We Have a Prayer?, I salute Noonan for remarks which I believe arise from a genuine respect for people, their potential for creativity, their hunger for truth, and their appreciation for beauty. This includes the kind of beauty–an epiphany or a fresh perspective that inspires a sense of wonder–which arises from probing, from listening and responding, and interacting with realities, even ugly or uncomfortable realities. As John Keats wrote in “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” beauty is truth and truth is beauty.
But Noonan’s commentary sparks a few additional thoughts. It is true that beauty and truth are inseparable in some sense. In today’s culture, entertainment and news are too often deemed inseparable, as well, and what becomes popular in the entertainment world is too easily deemed acceptable or laudable or, in some sense, true. So it behooves us to be prudent and balanced when we make our latest contributions to the expanding universe of entertainment and information.
In communities on both the right and left of the political spectrum, undesirable censorship is rising partly because there is some need for what might be called self-censorship, or inhibition, or at least a desire to serve the good–the common good. Undesirable shaming is rising partly because there is some need for what might be called shame, or a personal sense of accountability to ideals of the true and the good. Calls for political correctness are rising partly because their is some need for what might be called compassion or sensitivity or a personal sense of wonder that draws us closer to the other. Unique persons are so darn interesting, important, and inseparable from our pursuit of the beautiful and true.
When we sense our conversations and contributions (related to news, entertainment, and thought) being stifled, perhaps the first step to combat that stifling is an inward review of the goals and methods underlying our creativity. People from all walks of life and all parts of the political spectrum need to fight censorship on various fronts, but one of those fronts is the personal exercise of accountability for the common good, of self-restraint according to the golden rule.
Yes, we need to be concerned when we’re stopped from an artistic act. But we also need to be concerned about the artistic act itself, or the contribution we’re about to make to that universe of entertainment and information. Whether we think such an act is too edgy or not edgy enough, we’re gifted when we learn that there is an edge–an edge implicit in our respect for the common good and for all the individuals whose good is held collectively in our creative little hands. Is our act really going to contribute to authentic conversation and productive engagement? As Ralph Waldo Emerson put it, “Beauty without grace is like a hook without the bait.”
3 Resolutions for Journalists: Toward a Truthful 2019
Dec. 31, 2018
Thought-leaders in the journalism community are starting to talk more openly and urgently about the need for practitioners of the craft to recognize their need to stand tall for truth. Since so many people today are journalists or other purveyors of facts and interpretations, it’s a good New Year’s resolution to consider at least three rallying cries we all should recall from 2018.
Alan Rusbridger, author of a new book titled Breaking News: The Remaking of Journalism and Why It Matters Now, warns that “the traditional role of journalists has been weakened in all kinds of ways” at a time when “we need journalism more than ever.” Interviewed by Washington Post executive editor Marty Baron, Rusbridger, a distinguished former editor-in-chief of Britain’s Guardian news organization, said his country’s “Brexit” vote and the issue of climate change are examples where too many professionals have failed. Some media have shouted and oversimplified, giving news consumers less than comprehensive, fair, reasonable information to sufficiently allow democratic institutions to confront those complex areas of policy well.
“I wanted to make some kind of case for journalism and for journalistic institutions,” Rusbridger added at the December 7 National Press Club event, because he senses “some kind of precipice ahead”–a turning point where the quality of news and the public’s diminished trust in news might no longer enable societies to tackle their urgent crises in a collaborative, effective way. See his prediction early in this video provided by C-Span.
Speaking at a different National Press Club event on November 29, Baron warned of an even more severe problem–a challenge he said has grown outside the media and has been promoted even at the highest levels of the U.S. government. “The goal is evident and it is cynical,” he commented: “Obliterate the very idea of objective truth,” sewing the seeds of distrust, aiming to “disquality the press as an independent arbiter of fact.” See his declaration that “there is such a thing as truth” starting around the 1:40:00 mark in this video posted by the Press Club.
Also consider reading the 2018 World Communications Day message in which Pope Francis assessed disinformation and “fake news” as crucial moral issues of our time. A book containing my reflections on this message is described in my OnWord.net blog, including this post. The pope reminds us that “the truth shall set you free,” and he warns that a society embracing untruth slips into arrogance and hatred–the polarization that has continued to divide many institutions and individuals.
These three predictions are galvanizing enough to keep us all on our toes for the whole of 2019–because they apply not only to news media employees but to countless communicators who read and spread content on social media. But any journey begins with a few steps, and the sobering messages are suitable for New Year’s Eve, when we’re still looking back at lessons learned. Should old acquaintance be forgot?
A News Media-tor for a “Peace Movement”
July 8, 2018
Riffing on the recent news that Jerry Springer is ceasing his violence-prone TV show after some 4,000 episodes, Greg Gutfeld of the Fox News Channel joked that, nowadays in our contentious political culture, “every day is the Jerry Springer Show.”
Gutfeld, in the monologue for his own program on July 7, went on to put that joke in a context echoing Pope Francis’ message for the 2018 World Communications Day (at least a little, if you take out the off-color remarks and humorous hyperlinks). He suggested that our society work harder at understanding and managing its contention.
“Politics always causes friction,” Gutfeld pointed out. “We just have more places to see it,” such as round-the-clock cable news and social media which seem to hold captive our thoughts and conversations. “We get it. The country is divided. But that’s actually good: It’s better to have two sides than one.”
He acknowledged that we see more friction because journalists’ cameras are attracted to it. Among news consumers, annoyance comes naturally because we think we’re right and the people who disagree with us think they’re right.
“We should admit that we see things through different filters” and temper our own discussions with politeness, compromise, and forgiveness, Gutfeld said. You can hear the noteworthy monologist say it in this video. He called for a “conservative peace movement” where those toward the right on the political spectrum proactively “take the high ground.”
This proposal might have been directed more toward the consumers of media content than toward the generators of it–after all, a lack of friction in the world could translate into a lack of viewers for Fox and all broadcasters.
But, as Gutfeld knows, and as Pope Francis pointed out in the message (plus accompanying prayer for journalism) he officially released on May 13, the line between producers and consumers in today’s information world is practically invisible. There are millions of self-publishers. Alas, I’m one of them.
All along the media spectrum, and the political spectrum, we do need to collaborate in a movement informed by the pope’s call for “a journalism of peace.” Cheers for Gutfeld–and perhaps for Springer!–as they contribute in different ways to this movement, which can benefit from the pope’s paraphrase of the Peace Prayer of Saint Francis of Assisi.
That’s the widely honored prayer which, in both its original and paraphrased forms, envisions all of us as “instruments of peace.”
The notes of wisdom in Gutfeld’s monologue made a sweet sound.
(With this post, I am beginning an additional blog at this site–intended as an ongoing expansion of the reflections in my book, When Headlines Hurt: Do We Have a Prayer? — The Pope’s Words of Hope for Journalism. Find the blog title as part of the main navbar at OnWord.net.)
No Civil War, but a “Civility” War?
July 9, 2018
“Civility, whatever that is.” That’s a phrase used in a recent post I found at the Columbia Journalism Review online. The June 27 piece by Matthew Ingram is an important, carefully considered collection of news and commentary where the use of the word “civility” is scrutinized. In some cases, the concept of “civility” as a value, or even as a thing, is called into question.
Is the term being manipulated, and perhaps weaponized, as society discusses whether our conversations in the pubic square–or, more typically, in the news media–have lost a sense of civility? Is it time to cast doubt on the meaning of civility, even though one can find many reputable online definitions, which usually include important ideas like politeness, courtesy, and respect? Should we stop using the word because it is starting to make some people uncomfortable or skeptical? I myself have heard “civility” criticized (perhaps in jest?) as an over-rated virtue or a display of false gentility that allows a speaker to sidestep questions or avoid reality. But where does the blame lie–with the word or the speaker, the meaning or the intent?
This makes me think of Marilyn McEntyre’s book, Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies, which I understand to be a call for honoring and preserving perfectly useful, time-tested words which can enhance everyday conversations among common folk. I don’t know how McEntyre would react to an attack on the word “civility,” but I’m guessing she would deem it uncivil to rob people of a way of expressing their thoughts or to confuse people about whether a word–and therefore a thought–is good or bad, socially acceptable or intellectually ridiculed.
Pope Francis, in his message on journalism for the 2018 World Communications Day, does not appear to use the term civility (at least in the online English translation of his remarks) when he is calling for a journalism of peace or rebuking rhetorical trends toward defamation and prejudice. He uses the term “respect” a few times, including in his Peace Prayer of Saint Francis (version 2.0), when he says, “Where there is hostility, let us bring respect.” Words and news will thrive when they are used with good intent.
Well, “respect” may be a better, less ambiguous word than civility, but I for one hope we do not start a war against that latter term. Let it be. Let us ponder it. It has profound connections to words like “civilization,” terms like “civil society,” and fearful events like a “civil war.” To start challenging a valid word is dangerously close to challenging a valid idea. There will be substitute synonyms, like “respect,” but if advocates or opponents of something or other can come against one word, they can come against other words.
Remember George Orwell’s warning about the “Newspeak” language used in his novel 1984. He said it was “designed to diminish the range of thought.” A world where the range of thought is diminished is good neither for news consumers nor news generators–only for “newspeakers.”
All Politics is Local? That’s News to Me!
July 26, 2018
I grew up reading the New York Daily News and other local papers available on Long Island. Perhaps the biggest take-away message from my newspaper habit–and the most influential message, since I wound up becoming a journalist–was that local news is fun.
The clever headlines were fun. The mix of content, from serious to light-hearted, from dense text to compelling pictures to so many other eye-catching elements, was fun. The flow of lively local news–on TV and radio, too–helped to convince me that New York City was a great place, despite all its problems (from which I was isolated). There was energy in the air, some of it foul-smelling but always ripe for communication and conversation.
I came to believe the policies and politics which kept cities vibrant, as well as the civic life of everyday citizens whom I met vicariously, were things I could and should learn more about. The essay I wrote as part of my successful application for graduate study at Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs comprised my reflections on a Newsday special report critiquing Long Island’s local governments.
Many aspects of my life were steered by the good news and the bad news I digested in a local context, feeding my imagination and aspirations to empower me for the world. No less a leader than Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill assured me that “all politics is local,” so it made sense.
This came to mind recently when I read about the slashing of jobs at the Daily News, with something like a 50 percent cut in the newsroom staff and an expected re-focusing on “breaking news.” It doesn’t make much sense. From my new vantage point in Indiana, it seems there’s a glut of “breaking news,” and much of it is actually predictable and repetitive, or distasteful and disempowering. Much of it comes from Washington, where the news is often broken–in more ways than one. (Earlier in my career, I loved covering government news in Washington, so you might say today’s brokenness breaks my heart.)
Some breaking news is wonderfully exciting to report and to read, but that occurs more at the local level. This breaking news comes with context, prompting intelligent conversations and challenging us to take intelligent actions as a community.
I expect this kind of breaking news–and local news in general–are going to keep shrinking because cities have fewer local reporters and the national media prefer national stories, commented upon by national celebrities, on shows featuring national advertisers with big budgets. Newspapers like the Daily News will have their distinctive voices further overwhelmed by remotely activated multimedia megaphones that either make information all sound alike or make it sound astoundingly different from one network to the next, leaving audiences and communities unsure what to say or do.
This reminds me of the principle of subsidiarity, a key component of Catholic social teaching, which says higher levels of government ought to let lower levels of government handle the situations that can best be handled locally. This allows for exceptions when larger crises demand the support, or subsidies, that only larger organizations can provide, but it celebrates the empowerment of civic life that more directly engages individuals, families and communities to get them talking and acting together. The local level is where Pope Francis sees much of the missionary work of the Church taking place, where people leave their pews to go out to neighborhood peripheries and accompany their brothers and sisters on complex journeys of joy and sadness, sin and saintliness.
Journalism and news organizations would benefit from applying the principle of subsidiarity more often, with locally owned media covering local events and supporting the processes by which families and community organizations work together to encounter the problems, pleasures and people they can understand best.
As section 1879 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church states, “The human person needs to live in society. Society is not for him an extraneous addition but a requirement of his nature. Through the exchange with others, mutual service and dialogue with his brethren, man develops his potential; he thus responds to his vocation.”
That resonates with me. In a sense, I found my vocation in the newsstands, newspaper racks, and local news shows of New York. There, I sensed society and social cohesion were being celebrated. Even during those years of my youth when society’s cohesiveness was said to be breaking down, the message in the media–at least in a Marshall McLuhan kind of way–honored the goal of social cohesion, the fact that life goes on, the idea that it’s a crazy, needy, newsworthy city in which we all should get along.
At least some of the breaking news suggested that conversation was still possible, thanks to first-hand evidence that a critical mass of folks embraced the goals of truth and trust. Journalists cultivated big ideas with big possibilities when they covered local news–and when we read it. They were having fun, and so was I.
Let’s Make Our Peace with Paradox
August 12, 2018
One contribution the Catholic faith can make to the flow of information and conversation in our polarized society is the ability we can show, when we Catholics are at our best, to accept paradox.
I learned a lot about paradox from the great British writer G. K. Chesterton, who lived early in the 20th century. Some of what I learned came from reading his books, which are chock full of paradoxes that often make the reader stop and think, and even smile. I also learned a lot from the series that ran for several years on the EWTN Catholic TV network, “G. K. Chesterton: The Apostle of Common Sense.”
Many people in our country, starting with opinion leaders, need to “chill” and accept the fact that reality is packed with apparent contradictions. Human beings themselves are packed with contradictions; they sometimes behave well, sometimes badly. They are flawed, even though they spend much of their time making themselves look perfect on Facebook. Paradoxes arise in the world because two statements can both be true—that is, accurate reflections of reality—and still be contradictory.
The TV show about Chesterton, hosted by American Chesterton Society president Dale Ahlquist, points out that their hero’s writings are filled with hope-filled, wonder-filled paradoxes, and so is the Bible.
In the case of the Bible, we see such paradoxical situations as a virgin giving birth, Christ’s promise that the dead shall rise, those who are persecuted being called “blessed,” and accepting trials and persecutions with joy.
In the case of the British journalist, who was also a poet, essayist, book author, illustrator, and playwright, we are given paradoxical statements that stop us cold but also brighten our darkness. Chesterton says things like:
- Man is superior to all the things around him, but is also at their mercy.
- Men can always be blind to a thing so long as it is big enough.
- The mere pursuit of health always leads to something unhealthy.
- “We cannot imagine courage existing except in conjunction with fear.”
- Men tire of new things, such as fashions and products that are, as they say, “new and improved.” But old things “startle and intoxicate,” the legendary author points out.
Truth is strange, improbable, and paradoxical, Ahlquist points out in his program’s “Riddles of God” episode, echoing Chesterton’s insights. (The insights are repeated in Ahlquist’s book, Common Sense 101.)
I would add that St. Francis of Assisi, as evinced in the original “Peace Prayer of St. Francis” (which he actually did not write although it is a good mirror of his viewpoints), also saw reality as paradoxical. Indeed, he saw Jesus Christ—the way, the truth, and the life—as a paradoxical figure. Certainly, the prayer suggests that peace will come from our emulation of Christ, which requires us to be contrarian and contradictory (or, as I would argue, disruptive in the best sense, bringing a complementary counterforce to a situation in a surprising, salutary way.
- We pray that we might sow love where there is hatred;
- We pray to bring hope where there is despair, light where there is darkness;
- We quell our natural desire to be understood so we can focus on understanding others;
- We acknowledge that it is in giving that we receive, in dying that we are born to eternal life.
My whole point here is that conversation often gets shut down today because participants can’t imagine that two seemingly contradictory things can both be true—whether they might be observations of people or situations or society at large. Some people see the addition of a contradiction or a question about one’s argument as an obnoxious act, as a violation of today’s rules of non-engagement.
Perhaps opinion leaders feel too much pressure to be clear in their soundbites and to conform to labels or truisms or “party lines.” In these cases, they act more like opinion followers, and those “news consumers” who embrace (and perhaps re-tweet or otherwise spread) oversimplified statements continue in the “follower” mode. No one is really leading by simply observing and pointing out a more complicated reality. These complexities—or overlooked points of possible agreement about truth—may be the very points where conversations can be sustained and can even yield solutions to today’s problems.
So, here’s to paradox. We may not be comfortable with it if we are determined to be seen as completely, immediately correct or certain or in control of a situation. But Chesterton knew that our human flaws and our fallen state require us to be humble, more willing to learn or at least discuss. That helps explain the quote from him in Chapter Six of my When Headlines Hurt book, where he defines journalism as the art of “pretending to know.”
The pleasure and the potential of discovering paths toward solving problems and unlocking mysteries may be found in the paradox of a situation, in the “rest of the story,” as radio journalist Paul Harvey used to say. Acceptance of this fact will often preclude our society’s current love for the simplified shortcut through an argument or the prefabricated understanding readily consumed and regurgitated. Recognition of paradox will make news consumption and conversation more challenging. But, as Chesterton proved a century ago, it will make for good reading, good writing, good exchanges of insight, and good hope.
Echoes of Hope from a Journalistic Legend: Seymour Hersh
August 22, 2018
No action-hero scriptwriter in Hollywood could set a pace as fast as Hersh’s mind, which can hyperlink from idea to idea a few times in the space of one sentence. His memories deliver a human context behind major national headlines. He clearly cares passionately, still today, about the news he’s describing. At one point, interviewer Paul Holdengraber, director of public programs at the New York Public Library, notes that Hersh described himself as an “aggressive learner,” and that fascination with facts definitely comes through. Also, part of the energy and suspense Hersh provides is his refreshing unpredictability, in which he criticizes President Trump sharply but also pulls no punches in critiquing the past behavior of Democrats and non-politicians. #DRIBDRAB *
The other riveting feature of this video comes from occasional quotes Holdengraber occasionally throws into the mix. An excerpt from early in the memoir reminds me of Pope Francis’ May 2018 message about journalism, about which I reflected in my recent book, When Headlines Hurt: Do We Have a Prayer? Hersh is recalling the different journalistic environment in and around the 1970s, when his editors allowed him to invest time and corporate money in digging for interesting, important stories and there was less competition from the endless punditry and round-the-clock news cycles of cable TV.
Today, he comments, “We are sodden with fake news, hyped-up and incomplete information, and false assertions delivered non-stop by our daily newspapers, our televisions, our online news agencies, our social media, and our president. Yes, it’s a mess.”
Hersh is quoted as recalling that people used to trust The New York Times on the basis of hard work and sound judgment that went into stories–even the stories that disturbed them or with which they disagreed. Nowadays, many news consumers trust only the news providers who hold perspectives with which they agree.
At another point in the discussion, Holdengraber quotes from Thomas Pynchon’s novel, Gravity’s Rainbow. “If they can get you asking the wrong questions, they don’t have to worry about answers.”
Another quote comes from a 1946 essay by George Orwell: “In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible. Things like the continuance of British rule in India, the Russian purges and deportations, the dropping of atom bombs on Japan, can indeed be defended, but only by arguments which are too brutal for most people to face, and which do not square with the professed aims of political parties. Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness.”
A gadfly might say that the “post-truth” era had already begun in Orwell’s eyes.
You can make your own judgments about Hersh based on his reactions to comments like these and the many tales and insights he offers. You’ll find several points of intersection with the insights of Pope Francis from his message for the 2018 World Communications Day, about which I have written. These points include the need for trust and truth, a love of the role of journalism in empowering citizens, and boldness in seeking the truth while not feeling “possession” of the whole truth or contemplating its weaponization against “enemies.
Reporter: A Memoir. * Didn’t Read It, But Did Respect the Author on Book-TV. #DRIBDRAB.
“Farsighted” Decisions and Nearsighted News
September 17, 2018
You’re familiar with Malcolm Gladwell’s book, Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking. Steven Johnson has produced a book that serves as a valuable response to that celebration of spontaneity. Farsighted: How We Make the Decisions that Matter the Most makes more sense to me as someone who has written about our need for conversations in the American “public square,” our use of information to solve problems and reduce polarization, and our responsibilities as producers and consumers of journalism in service to society’s pursuit of wisdom. I plan to ponder Johnson’s book. I Didn’t Read It, But I Did Respect the Author on Book-TV (#DRIBDRAB) when I watched him in mid-September.
Johnson said he sees the irony in the eight-year gestation period this book required after he first started taking notes on the subject. The result is a connection-making resource whose assessment of how we think—and how we should think—incorporates insights from neuroscience, psychology, probability theory, philosophy, and even literature. He suggests every high school student should take a similarly interdisciplinary course covering our thought processes at their best; it’s crucial preparation for what he calls the occasional “full-spectrum decisions” in our lives. We need to know these decisions will take some time and will benefit from a substantial mental toolkit.
This is a secular book. I don’t know whether Johnson would mind this additional suggestion: A Catholic or other faith-based school could expand this course into an exploration of “discernment,” a promotion of one’s spiritual toolkit alongside one’s mental abilities, and a revelation that the sciences, liberal arts, and humanities all belong in our high-stakes syllabus. Students and their families need this reminder today as the tendency in planning one’s college career is to emphasize particular, narrow fields of study rather than the full spectrum of learning that prepares us for those full-spectrum decisions.
Those decisions include such questions as whom one should marry, where one should live, and which job one should take. There are many variables to be considered in each of these judgments whose consequences are profound for oneself and others.
Yet, in many people’s minds, “the science of complex decision-making has been stagnant for 250 years,” Johnson points out. Most people use one form or another of the standard “pros and cons” table of two lists—an approach that is seen explicitly described in writings from more than two centuries ago.
This is where Johnson’s book starts making a world of difference. He notes that decision-making theory actually has become much more advanced in recent decades. Instead of focusing on a “whether or not” choice about one single option, today’s updated scholarship urges us to make “which one?” choices after we have expanded the number of options and made prudent predictions about the directions in which each of them will point.
Importantly, echoing the recommendations in Pope Francis’s message on journalism for the 2018 World Communications Day, this expansion of choices and insights requires welcoming a diversity of inputs from people with different perspectives. It demands a consciousness of future consequences, not merely a snap judgment about what solves the immediate problem immediately. It requires us to think imaginatively and purposefully, perceiving where bad decisions might lead and generating alternatives that can create more freedom and clearly better outcomes. The reading of great novels, Johnson points out, boosts our imagination by helping us see how a variety of characters in different situations handled their life choices in distinctive ways, with a range of results.
We often trap ourselves inside one story, our own self-centered and pre-shaped narrative, he warns, when actually we need to spin many stories that incorporate the possibility of good or bad or even “weird” outcomes. (For a related exploration of maximizing our freedom to choose wisely, sometimes by thinking outside the box, check out the “Ted Radio Hour” program on “Decisions.” That recent NPR show, especially its discussion of “choice architecture,” reveals how careful we should be in managing our decisions and our contexts for making them.)
Saint Francis of Assisi was all about generating alternatives so as to nurture good decisions. He accepted God’s call to “rebuild my church.” At first, he expressed his acceptance in a personal, material-centered, arguably narrow way—namely, by repairing a broken-down church building. But God set him free to view his mission more imaginatively, allowing both constructive sacrifice and contrarian joy, and even a willingness to look “weird” in the eyes of others so as to offer them truly “alternative” information and formation. Embracing the Gospel, with its wealth of stories about good choices and bad choices, and especially about the overriding choice to pursue Christ’s peace and human wholeness, he cultivated “full-spectrum decisions” based on a full-spectrum toolkit.
His litany of remedies is expressed in the much-loved Peace Prayer of St. Francis, which is very Franciscan even though it was not written by the saint. That source of connections between the City of Man and the City of God, with its ability to transcend the instinctive, self-centered “pros and cons” way of thinking, must have influenced Pope Francis in his World Communications Day message on journalism. As I say in my recent book, When Headlines Hurt: Do We Have a Prayer? The Pope’s Words of Hope for Journalism, the Pope concluded his message with a paraphrase of the Peace Prayer focused on news as an aid, not an obstacle, in society’s pursuit of healing and peace.
The flow of news, when it is prudently managed and shared generously, with a love for people and their diverse stories as well as an accountability to past, present, future, and the timeless, with the goal of seeing connections and starting conversations, can be an excellent tool for society’s decision-making. It might even help us realize that more of our decisions are more important to more people than Johnson assumes in his book. Whereas the “Blink” approach is well-suited to the mind frame of breaking news, speed, and excitement, the “Farsighted” approach is the better one for discerning about things that matter—and, more basically, respecting communication because things do matter.
We Have Met the Candidates, and They Are Us
November 6, 2018
Let’s make this Election Day a kind of “Feast of All Saint-Candidates,” following up on the Catholic Church’s recent “Feast of All Saints.” I’ll explain this modest proposal, but first I’ll acknowledge its flaws. They’re found in the candidates we’re voting for—and, of course, in us voters too.
Indeed, there’s some wordsmithing, or “spin,” going on with my invitation to a feast. No liturgist or other common-sense person would declare Election Day to be a “feast” per se; for one thing, it seems our ballot options don’t often give us much to celebrate.
And my use of the term “Saint-Candidates” carries a touch of disinformation. I’m not suggesting that many, or any, political candidates of any party are saints. Alas, we’re still summoned to vote and to set high standards for the people we select, regardless of their creeds or backgrounds or character flaws.
I use the term in quotes to remind us that the Catechism of the Catholic Church says we are a “communion of saints” (CCC 946) insofar as we are a communion “in holy things” and “among holy persons.” (CCC 948) The book says we are “pilgrims on earth,” very much in need of God’s mercy to work through our imperfections. (CCC 962) “All are called to holiness,” (CCC 2013), although we’re not knocking on heaven’s door quite yet. d
I’m not speaking of “saintly candidates” but of “candidates for sainthood,” who need to tap into the graces shared by the entire communion of saints, including those we honored on the Nov. 1 feast. Today, Nov. 6, is a day for the rest of us, called to make the best of earthly systems of politics and governance that are tainted by the Seven Capital Sins. Those sins are clearly named for our state capitals, as well as Washington, DC!
Even with this watered-down definition, I think it’s worthwhile to ponder on Election Day that there is a dignity in being a candidate for sainthood despite one’s flaws. This is a candidacy we share. It’s important not to lose hope on this day, or in its aftermath on Nov. 7, though we have been subjected to a panoply of campaign commercials in which political opponents have condemned each other as liars, and far worse.
Our collective woundedness is on display in a big way these days. We need to remember, for ourselves and for those on the ballot, that God works through our flaws and mistakes even as he works through the moments of grace that raise us higher, so long as we’re receptive and responsive in prayer and action and good will. While the lead-up to elections may be filled with rallies and noise, persuasion and persecution, the moment of voting can be a time of quiet, solitary humility.
The lack of “saintly candidates” shouldn’t deter us from voting for “candidates for sainthood.” Even if it’s hard to work up a lot of enthusiasm for a particular politician, it’s worthwhile to discern how we pilgrims (fellow candidates) can accompany each other through an election. We listen and then exercise our voting power wisely, even as we share hopeful prayers that God will help us keep our respective “campaign promises.” Marching amid the disinformation, distractions, and distrust we’re supposed to shed along the roadside, we journey in search of communion with our higher natures—our faith, hope, and love. We’re seeking holiness that can’t be found in political allegiances, but in trusting the Way, the Truth, and the Life.
If candidates look like they will accompany us, we might want simply to try accompanying them. They are not products to love or hate, and we must not consume them with resentment or rage. We and they are under construction, sure to face challenges that will change us, and we’ll have to get through those messes together. These are powerful calls to solidarity.
As the Catechism puts it apolitically, “We know that in everything God works for good with those who love Him … For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brethren. And those whom he predestined he also called; and those whom he called he also justified; and those whom he justified he also glorified.” (CCC 2012)
Now that sounds like a reason for a feast—a feast fit for non-kings. Enjoy the moment of casting a ballot. It’s our grace before the meal, the humble time we realize we’re hungry. We’re being fed, but the best saint-candidates won’t be satisfied until we all can say, along with St. Paul, we’ve run the race that really matters.
“I Don’t Know” — Music to my Ears
December 19, 2018
A television commentator recently made a remark that has made me think once again about trends in our culture and in the way we communicate. With tongue in cheek, he predicted that, in the not too distant future, the phrase, “I don’t know”—as a natural, low-pressure response to a factual question in a casual conversation—might become obsolete. I don’t know if that’s a good thing.
The commentator explained that nowadays more and more people, when a gap in their knowledge is revealed, simply go to their mobile phones and search for the answer, or they ask Siri or Alexa to play the role of encyclopedic sage. Siri, how old is Paul McCartney? Often, an answer materializes quickly: He’s 76. Perhaps the searcher gets both a jolt of serotonin and an ego boost from evading the stumper. That segment of cocktail party chatter is enhanced and efficiently concluded. Everybody comes away satisfied, feeling somewhat smarter.
I shouldn’t get too nervous about this. After all, robust curiosity and the search for truth and the encouragement of fruitful conversations are all things I believe in. Certainly, no harm has been done by the instantaneous iPhone reflex that yielded Paul McCartney’s age.
But I don’t want that reflex to spread too widely, especially when the questions become more complicated or more akin to the inquiries that used to send me to a book or library, or to a friend or family member, or to an acquaintance with particular expertise (as with the “lifelines” Regis Philbin offered on “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?”), or to a private period of study and thought after I’d departed that party.
Sometimes there’s a healthy humility, or an impulse for action, that comes from saying “I don’t know.” Of course, sometimes Siri or the truth-seeker might make the same mistake all of us have been guilty of—settling for the instant answer or the easy answer or the first answer that pops up from a search engine or an answer without context, or an answer that quashes our instinct to find out more or seek alternative answers. Sometimes there are no alternative answers. Paul is 76. But might there be a helpful answer to an unasked question? When is Paul’s birthday? He’ll be 77 tomorrow!
Siri, is there a God? I tried that one for kicks. She answered correctly: “I’m really not equipped to answer such questions.” However, there’s a part of me that wonders if, someday, the algorithms informing some of our technology might generate bolder, less humble answers, based on empirical evidence from selected journals or from crowd-sourcing among the crowds we prefer, or from determinations of future overseers. Even worse, might users of the technology someday assume that, well, if Siri doesn’t know the answer despite her access to all the world’s databases, is it inefficient or unproductive to search elsewhere—or even to ask?
Some of history’s best conversations, communities and collaborations must have been started when someone asked a question, someone else said, “I don’t know,” and multiple people jumped in and said things like: “That’s a good question.” Or “I’ve wondered that myself.” Or even better, “Let’s look into that together.”
The book I’ve written, When Headlines Hurt: Do We Have a Prayer? The Pope’s Words of Hope for Journalism, is largely about our society’s need to rediscover the joy of looking for answers together. We open the door to that pleasure when we admit to not knowing all the answers, to seeing the complexity of human beings and the influences we face, internally and externally. The adventure is shortcircuited when we think we know all the answers or we exclude whole groups of people deemed to offer nothing that deepens our understanding. We certainly shortcircuit our discovery of answers to questions or solutions to problems if we settle for a Siri one-liner or a label popularized by our favorite media or our own, handy pre-conceived notion.
In fairness, there’s one more danger that must be mentioned. While I’m singing the praises of the phrase, “I don’t know,” I insist we must make it the beginning, not the end, of our interactive explorations. Ignorance is not bliss, and neither is indifference. By all means, we should reach out and ask Siri for her input if the alternative is simply to draw inward. We might say, “Paul Is definitely 52 in my reality,” or “Paul is timeless and that’s enough for me.” We might take shortcuts like, “I’m agnostic on that God thing, so let’s leave it at that,” or even “God is a concept, just like John Lennon said.” Of course, most of the questions we encounter are somewhere between theology and Paul McCartney trivia; we do ourselves an injustice if we evade them by retreating into our separate bubbles of relativism and confirmation bias. We miss the great fun of a multi-faceted discussion or the exploration of an enduring mystery or the acknowledgment of paradox in human experiences of truth.
We can break through our know-it-all bubbles in various ways, sometimes driven by the need to solve urgent problems or by the discovery that “different” people have some compelling similarities and useful insights and multiple backgrounds which defy our application of simplistic labels to them. The all-in, complex experience of day-to-day life in community, in local organizations, in careers of service, in grass-roots expressions of policy concerns or faith-based values, or in the challenging togetherness of family activities, can also break through. Humor, if we can preserve it, is a great cure for the know-it-all syndrome. I’ve also rediscovered that music is one way to promote authentic, productive human connections. Singing builds community. Songs stick in our minds and often come out of our mouths when we hum at the office, making them contagious.
So there’s the solution to my immediate conundrum! How was I going to bring this blog post to an end, to make a point but also to keep the conversation going? I didn’t know. I let that TV commentator’s remark linger with me. Then I Googled “I don’t know” and discovered a kindred spirit on YouTube. I learned Paul McCartney didn’t know either, but he came at it from a different perspective, and he expressed it in a more creative and evocative way. I enjoyed listening to his take on the situation, and I wanted to share his gifts with you. Did you know he’s 76 years old? Anyway, I hope you’ll want to learn more than that. Click on the video above, which is only a start. We’ve all got so many lessons to learn, he points out. But it’s alright! Let’s sing this one together.