St. Paul warns the Ephesians against letting themselves be “blown around by every wind of doctrine.”
Another danger these days is letting yourself be blown around by every false headline. Or every true headline. It hardly matters. Whether the journalists are lying or not, the game is to get you to imagine yourself an informed consumer of information, a connoisseur, not a human ping pong ball, bounced forever back and forth by the force of your own predictable reaction to their stimuli.
My grad school roommate Agnieszka once explained to us how journalism operated in her native Soviet-controlled Poland. The government would accuse a completely innocent man of stealing, say, $100,000 (or the equivalent in zloty). The newspapers would report he was guilty. Maybe a few people believed it. But most of them realized that you can’t trust the newspapers.
Thosse who prided themselves on seeing through the charade would shrug: It’s all a bunch of lies. You can’t believe a word they say. I bet he didn’t steal more than $50,000.
But he hadn't stolen anything.
The news these days is so alarmingly bad that I’m not going to make the tired old point that good things are happening, too, that it's just less profitable to talk about them.The media lives by "if it bleeds, it leads," and you can get a skewed view of things, falling into unwarranted discouragement and despair.
That’s all true. But things are bad. I can see that, even from my sheltered and privileged perch here in Michigan farm country.
So I’m not urging optimism, this time. But I am going to say: please don’t let yourself be manipulated. Please don’t be a human ping pong ball. Please don’t be baited into “Let’s you ‘n’ him fight.” And please don’t take it out on the pawns.
The border crisis is no longer on the front page. That was handy for dividing us into compassionate humanitarians and hardhearted xenophobes. (Or bleeding-heart liberals and commonsense patriots, depending on how you look at it). Then there are the Christians being tortured and exiled or murdered in Iraq. But they're yesterday's news by now. The ebola epidemic, too, is useful for playing on people's worst fears and prejudices. You can be manipulated according to your fear of death, your ideas on immigration, or your pity for the victims. Or by your determination not to be manipulated by your pity for the victims.
Now the front pages are all full of Ferguson, Missouri. It’s far from clear what happened when Michael Brown was killed, but that’s not stopping the media from dividing us up into the Michael Brown team and the Darren Wilson team. Once you’ve been assigned to a team, you can join a subgroup of those who see every protestor is an innocent lover of justice or those who know they’re all just looking for an excuse to do some looting and pillaging.
Either way, you'll find your evidence. You can point out that the KKK is on the side of the police, or you can chortle grimly about "looting tourism": people with no connection to the tragedy, showing up to do a little theft and mayhem under cover of love of justice.
I don’t mean we shouldn’t discuss borders or public health or racism. We need to. I'm all for a serious effort to uncover the facts. That would be great. But we also need to make a conscious effort to respond like a free person, not a ping pong ball that's oblivious to the hand that holds the paddle.