TELL ME LIES
Rumours often make people miserable and yet we persist in passing them on. Understanding their structure and power is vital if we are to limit their capacity for damage.
There are few social devices more pernicious and damaging than the rumour mill. We have all been subjected to this treatment at some point in our lives and yet continue to spread rumours about others as if they deserve it more than us. As close-knit communities, churches are particularly susceptible to this social ill, in spite of the many injunctions not to pre-judge others in scripture. The very manner in which we might demonstrate a distinctive way of living becomes our downfall. Yet it does not have to be like this.
We are often willing to accept a rumour when it fits in with our prior convictions. One of the most telling contemporary features of the rumour landscape has been the increasing number of Americans who believe that Barack Obama is a Muslim, up from 11% to 18% in just eighteen months. This poll discovered that Republicans were far more likely to believe this of Obama than Democrats. The concept of ‘biased assimilation’ means we embrace rumours in ways that fit our presumptions about the subject.
People have different reasons for spreading rumours. Some are simply malicious in wanting to harm another person; others are self-interested and wish to draw attention to themselves as the broker of news; others still may have altruistic motives, wishing to expose wrongdoing and promote the public good. As we tend to act from mixed motives, it is fair to say that more than one of these factors is sometimes in play.
We also have different thresholds for accepting rumours. In his slim volume, On Rumours, Harvard scholar Cass Sunstein has identified three types: receptives, who are willing to believe a particular rumour; neutrals, who will believe it with a little encouragement; and sceptics, who will only believe it when the evidence is overwhelming. Like champagne poured into a pyramid of glasses, there is usually a cascading effect where the rumour overflows from one group to another. We may think we can oppose such pressure, but social reality is constructed in ways that lessen our resistance. For a start, most rumours are about things we know little about and so we defer to the crowd. Human beings have an innate capacity to conform to group opinion and even when they have doubts about what is being passed on, tend to go along with others in order to maintain their good opinion.
The emergence of the internet poses an acute problem in dealing with rumours because of its intrinsic ability to spread them quickly and unaccountably. The presence of search engines and ‘most popular’ icons on sites like YouTube means that people hear first about what is trendy rather than what is true. How we develop laws and customs to deal with the phenomenal power of the internet is one of the key challenges of our generation.
In our commitment as Christians, these factors point up three duties. The first is to be aware of our prior convictions when a rumour passes our way. We will feel a certain way about the subject of the rumour and this will shape our response. This will often be for the worse if we do not assess our presuppositions. The second is to know the scope of our influence. Often we pass on a rumour without realising that the person listening to us has a particular regard for who we are and may receive it uncritically as a result. The third is not to conform to group opinion just to maintain our status in the community. We must sometimes risk unpopularity in order to please God.
St. Paul’s encouragement to Christians not to ‘be conformed to this world’ but to be ‘transformed by the renewing’ of their minds is our biggest battleground in an informational age. We assent to these words of Paul without appreciating how easily we fail them by sustaining the rumours that break others.
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