Of blind spots on the left and right
“The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light, but if your eye is bad, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness!” [Matthew 6:22-23]
The worst thing about blind spots is that by definition they can’t be seen. Of course, for simple physical blind spots – like those encountered while driving a car, for example – there’s an equally simple remedy. Turn your head. Move your eyes. Gain a better perspective.
With blind spots of an ideological nature, however, there’s an added wrinkle. It turns out we can see them just fine after all – only in others, not in ourselves. It’s why buzzwords like “post-truth,” “fake news” and “alternative facts” have become favoured rhetorical weapons of late. People on every side of any issue can readily aim them at each other, all the while convinced of their own essential rightness.
How refreshing, then, to hear popular voices on both the left and right, willing to address the blind spots within their respective camps.
On the left: Cultural arrogance
Progressive liberalism has come to be the predominant cultural view in Western society, particularly in North America. It’s the prevailing voice in academia, journalism and entertainment, and through these institutions, in the popular mind as well. As with all dominant cultural expressions, it’s also rather uncritical of itself, taking its own beliefs and assumptions for granted, like a fish might do with water.
It was remarkable, therefore, to discover a pair of articles by Nicholas Kristof in the New York Times, with the titles, “A confession of liberal intolerance” and “The liberal blind spot.” Kristof is a noted progressive with no great love for social conservatism or evangelical Christianity. Yet here he was, upbraiding his fellow liberals for preaching tolerance while denying it to those who disagree with them.
“We welcome people who don’t look like us,” he wrote, “as long as they think like us.”
He urged progressives to embrace true diversity at an ideological and intellectual level. Otherwise, he warned, “When perspectives are unrepresented in discussions, when some kinds of thinkers aren’t at the table, classrooms become echo chambers rather than sounding boards – and we all lose.”
Kristof went on to admit that his liberal readers had made his point for him with their smug reactions to his first article and earlier social media posts. “You don’t diversify with idiots,” wrote one. “The truth has a liberal slant,” claimed another. “Much of the ‘conservative’ worldview consists of ideas that are known empirically to be false,” said a third.
In the end, Kristof himself wound up qualifying his own position to a degree. “I don’t think that a university should hire a nincompoop who disputes evolution,” he offered by way of example. Evidently some blind spots are easier to identify than to forsake. Still, recognizing that they exist at all is a sure step in the right direction.
On the right: Cultural paranoia
One of the most persistent – some might say pernicious – trends in popular entertainment over the past few years has been the subgenre of the so-called zombie apocalypse. A dwindling band of survivors, holed up in a farmhouse or shopping mall, fights a bleak battle against extinction at the hands (and slavering jaws) of the encroaching zombie hordes.
This siege mentality has uncomfortable parallels with the way many conservatives – and some evangelicals – view the world. In the face of growing liberal cultural dominance, they’ve retreated to their own safe spaces, surrounded only by those who agree with them. Like the liberals, they prefer the comfort of their echo chambers to the sounding board of genuine public discourse. They see themselves as a beleaguered minority, holding out against a hostile culture that’s ever conspiring to bring them down. As a result, they’re deeply distrustful of sources from outside their tribe, while embracing uncritically any snippet of opinion that affirms their position.
Trevin Wax at the Gospel Coalition addressed this phenomenon in a recent blog post. “Too many Christians these days are ‘gullible skeptics,’” he explained. “Skeptics toward establishment type media outlets, and gullible toward other websites or toward political spinmeisters who already line up with their pre-existing beliefs or worldview.”
To be sure, Wax also pointed out how Christians (and other conservatives) have reason to approach the mainstream media with a healthy, balanced skepticism. However, such skepticism mustn’t devolve into all-encompassing paranoia. Christians are aware they’re in a war zone, combatting spiritual forces of evil in high places. Nevertheless the Scriptures likewise assert that God is sovereign, not just over human affairs but over those same spiritual forces. In fact, the book of Job portrays Satan as essentially on a leash, his scope of activity restricted to what God will allow.
In other words, this present age isn’t a Star Wars world in which good and evil are equal opposing forces, nor (thankfully) is it a zombie apocalypse. Far from being in a defensive holding pattern, believers are engaged in a kingdom offensive, taking every thought captive as they seek to redeem the culture for Christ. They’re free to pursue truth wherever it’s found, confident that it’s all God’s truth, even when it comes from an unexpected source.
Sarah Pulliam Bailey, in an article for the Washington Post, expressed a similar sentiment: “As a reporter who also happens to be a Christian, I believe that truth exists and can be ascertained, even if imperfectly and the fact that we understand it imperfectly heightens our duty to pursue it diligently. . . . Abandoning mainstream media sites for opinion sites you already agree with is not the answer. The ‘mainstream media’ is collectively valuable because it presents a range of information and viewpoints, while the Breitbarts of the world present a singular voice to a targeted group of people.”
Whatever one may think about the merits of mainstream media versus “the Breitbarts of the world,” that’s a wise challenge worth taking to heart.
Trevin Wax concurs: “[T]he plague of misinformation infects conservatives and liberals alike, and Christians and non-Christians as well. But surely Christians are called to show a better way.”
The pursuit of truth
Truth is truth. It’s not my truth or your truth, but simply the truth that accords with reality as God has ordained it. But truth is also complex and multifaceted. Just as God cannot be reduced to a simple set of propositions, neither can His truth. Indeed the created order, both spiritual and physical, is brimming with mystery and wonder.
Of course that creation has fallen, which means that blind spots are inevitable, none more so than spiritual ones that fail to recognize or worship the Creator. Ultimately these can only be remedied through the gracious intervention of God Himself.
Jesus said as much to the church in Laodicea, complacent in their belief that they had it all figured out: “For you say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing, not realizing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked. I counsel you to buy from me gold refined by fire, so that you may be rich, and white garments so that you may clothe yourself and the shame of your nakedness may not be seen, and salve to anoint your eyes, so that you may see.” [Revelation 3:17-18]
In the meantime, God’s image bearers have a responsibility to pursue all truth – spiritual, cultural, historical, scientific – and to share it with others for their good and the glory of their Maker.
Trevin Wax sums it up: “If we are to be faithful in a world of ‘fake news,’ ‘alternative facts,’ and biased sources, we are going to need to be more careful with the statistics we share, the news stories we read, and the sources we trust. Gullible skeptics, either on the right or left, don’t stand out from the world. And what we need today is for Christians to care about getting the facts straight, whether or not they’re useful or beneficial to ‘the party line,’ because we believe in a God who tells the truth.”
Sources and further reading
Michael Cieply, “Stunned by Trump, the New York Times finds time for some soul-searching,” Deadline.com, November 10, 2016.
Nicholas Kristof, “A confession of liberal intolerance,” New York Times, May 7, 2016.
Nicholas Kristof, “The liberal blind spot,” New York Times, May 28, 2016.
Marvin Olasky, “Fake news: the bigger culprits,” World Magazine, December 31, 2016.
Sarah Pulliam Bailey, “Evangelicals, your attacks on ‘the media’ are getting dangerous,” Washington Post, December 8, 2016.
Trevin Wax, “‘Alternative facts’ and Christians as gullible skeptics,” Gospel Coalition, January 23, 2017.