Tag Archives: Truth

Propaganda is in the eye of the beholder

What is the difference from selling truth to a population and selling propaganda? A razor’s edge so it seems. I suppose another response would be, “I know it when I see it”–the response made about pornography. But what may be truth to you is propaganda to another.

Why am I thinking about this? My recent trip to DC included a trip to the holocaust museum. There, the curator of the new propaganda exhibit took us through his amazing assemblage of Nazi propaganda. Let me give you a flavor:

Propaganda as defined in the museum is, “biased information designed to shape public opinion and behavior.” They go on to say that propaganda is identified as that which

  • plays on emotions
  • uses a combination of truths, half-truths, and lies
  • omits information that might counter its contentions
  • simplifies complex information into a slogan
  • Attacks opponents (blames them for all problems; negatively portrays them)
  • Advertises a cause and uses righteous approach to give the cause meaning
  • Targets desired audiences through contextual material

As we went through, here’s what I noticed as well. A propaganda machine works to re-write history; makes the enemy comical (caricatures of Jews evident); emphasizes oration skills; uses media, fine arts, art, color, pictures, emphasizes a logo; targets different audiences in different ways; doesn’t mind opposition but builds on it; keeps people terrified; encourages even demands grassroots involvement; gets the youth involved; portrays self as victim and minority; creates fictitious events (e.g., calls war by another name (retaliation for prior aggression); connects with known trusted and wise individuals or labels (Hitler was alluded to as the Great Physician!); encourages passivity so that the inner circle may act in their stead; and encourages skepticism and cynicism about the criticism they will receive (the Nazis told the people near the end of the war that the Allies would say evil things about them that were going to be untrue. Such activities plant seeds of doubt to encourage those to believe that the holocaust didn’t really happen).

Now, let me tell you about the reactions we had as we went though the exhibit. The Rwandans with us gasped and gaped at times. They realized that someone(s) masterminding the Rwandan genocide must have read the Nazi playbook. They reminded us that one such mastermind in Rwanda was a PhD in history and was behind the use of the Radio propaganda. They repeated over and over, “this is what happened to us.” Several of us also realized that in child sexual abuse, many of these same behaviors are used (whether consciously or not) to avoid detection. The perpetrator grooms the victim, rewrites history, tells half-truths, makes themself the victims, and even may try to plant seeds of doubt about the truth.

One more thought? Could we also say that sometimes Christian organizations use some of these tactics. Scare a population by making a caricature of the government, report only half the truth, make self as victim, excuse unchristian behavior as necessary.

While I don’t think the answer is that we ought to all become horrible skeptics in order to avoid propaganda, I do think we ought to be highly sensitive to those behaviors and attitudes that do not reflect the proper character of Christianity. We must not use tactics unbecoming of Christ–even if for a good end.

I leave you with this thought: Isn’t there a good use of propaganda? I believe so. Can you give some examples where you are getting “good” propaganda?

Leave a comment

Filed under Abuse, christian counseling, Cognitive biases, deception, Rwanda

When your brain lies to you

Ever were sure of some “objective truth” only to find out that you are wrong?

My dentist told me this week that my brain isn’t telling the truth. After installing a crown on a lower tooth, he asked me how it felt. I stated that the crown was too high and was touching first in my bite. He checked it, concurred, and made some corrections. Then he asked me how it felt. It was better, I thought, but still too high. He checked again with something that tells him how my bite is coming together and that is when he told me my brain is not telling the truth. He stated that the the nerves are sensitive around this newly rebuilt tooth and so it pays attention to that feeling and ignores the rest of the bite sensation.

I’m not surprised. Our brains don’t always tell us the truth. People have phantom pains on amputated legs. Our eyes play tricks on us and so we “see” what isn’t actually there.

Isn’t it hard to accept that some of what we think or perceive isn’t real? It can be quite unnerving.

What about our emotions, assumptions about others, about what God wants us to do? What about our ability to correctly perceive these things? Does our brain/heart lie to us here as well? Have you ever thought someone was mad at you and found out later that it wasn’t the case? Did you ever experience panic over something that turned out not to have happened?

Where are you inclined to hear and believe lies? How did you come to realize you perceived wrongly? What have you done to try to counter these lies, to train yourself to hear the truth?

As to my tooth, I want to believe my dentist. He has a good track record for being right. But right now my mouth says something is wrong. I’m going to make an effort to either ignore the sensation or be mindful of the interesting way the brain works with new information. In a couple of weeks I may change my mind. Maybe my bite is different AND the crown isn’t too high.


Filed under Psychology

The problem of embellishment: Not just the work of fishermen and politicians

Many people, myself included, had a little chuckle when yet another politician is caught by good ole videotape. Senator Clinton turns her trip to Bosnia in 1996 into something designed to play up her experiences with foreign diplomacy. She made it seem that she had to dodge sniper fire on her way from the plane to a waiting car. Now, the country wasn’t a picnic at that time, but neither did she have to dodge bullets. After first defending her account she now admits mis-speaking (notice she didn’t say she mis-represented the fact). 

But Senator Clinton isn’t the only one who does this. In fact, I would suggest that we ALL embellish every day. We just don’t have video to catch us in the act. Here’s some possible examples for you to consider:

You leave for an appointment late and the “traffic was bad.” It may have been heavy traffic but the emphasis on the traffic deftly misdirects to a different (and wrong) cause and effect.  You were late because you didn’t plan well.

You tell someone that you are friends with _____ (someone you look up to and met once or twice but only on a superficial basis). You do this in order to sound more important.

You tell someone you spent all day cleaning. In actuality, you cleaned at several times during the day but you also watched a movie and surfed the web for an hour. You play up your work in order to make your point. Sadly, when we do it enough, we actually believe what we are saying.

Sometimes, embellishment just helps us make a point or tell a story. I’m not sure it is sinful. It may be that some of the OT numbers are there for story and point-making more than an exact headcount. But, of course embellishment is a problem when we do it to avoid the reality of the truth or to gain something that does not rightfully belong to us. So, let us endeavor to tell the truth and worry less about what others think of us.

Oh, did I tell you that Sen. Barack Obama sent me an email yesterday. Really, he did. 😉 


Filed under Cognitive biases, News and politics, self-deception, sin

How much does personality influence views on theology?

My last two posts cover the effect of personal stories on the positions we take in areas of controversy. One particular controversial area for our seminary has to do with “the missional turn” we are taking as an institution. For those not familiar with this idea, you can explore more by going to our president’s Missional Journal. But here’s the controversy in short. Bible-believing, Jesus-loving, theologians disagree about how the church should reach this generation and the next. Some see evangelicalism as highly deficient in its understanding of the Gospel, of community life and our purpose in the world, and our relationship to God. The system is broken and needs complete overall. Others acknowledge that much of the church is “me-driven” but that our theological systems are just fine even if we need to refine their application to everyday life.

Enter personality differences. Continue reading


Filed under Doctrine/Theology, missional, Missional Church, personality

Personal stories and the art of intellectual inquiry

Our personal stories are far more shaping of our views on things than most of us care to admit. In most academic settings we love to discuss and debate matters and show our intellectual prowess. In these settings, to think emotionally, or to be biased by past experiences usually kills our chances of winning a point. No, we must stay logical and stick to the facts. Consider what happens if a person arguing for abortion rights reveals that they had an abortion. Consider what happens if the person arguing that the Scriptures do not teach that homosexuality is wrong reveals their own failed efforts to change their sexual orientation. Put yourself on the other side of each debate. What do you think? Well, their bias is obvious. But if you haven’t had an abortion or if you haven’t experienced homosexual desire, then your bias is obvious as well. So, to avoid these point-killing experiences, one sticks to their intellectual defense of a particular belief.  

By the way, personal anecdotes are not the only non-factual influencers of our beliefs. Personality styles also weigh heavily. I have a friend who loves a good debate. They energize him. To make a point, he willingly uses hyperbole. He takes risks and tries on ideas he hasn’t fully considered. I have another friend who weighs every issue ever so carefully. He tediously considers each and every point and methodically explains his position. He rarely speaks out of impulse and so hardly ever moves from a previously decided position. In both cases personality influences my friends and influences their conversation partners. 

I have noticed that in quasi-intellectual settings (e.g., blogs, class discussions, etc.) personal stories are very common, even encouraged. The story enriches the reader/listener’s feel for the subject. And once a story has been told, it seems to kill any chance that another might present opposing thoughts and ideas critical of that experience. To critically evaluate the story-teller’s position is to disrespect that person’s life and value—so it would seem. A friend of mine recently bemoaned that it seems impossible in the public domain to call a dumb idea by its rightful name (unless the person is taking a conservative view of things).

So, what do we do with personal stories? Though they shape our ways of seeing the world and deciding what is right, it does not mean that we are incapable of intellectual inquiry and arriving at beliefs that counter our own experience. But it does beg the question as to how we should weigh personal stories in our dialogs about truth claims.

What if we dispense with personal stories? What would be lost? Gained?

“Just the facts, ma’am” isn’t really possible. Everything we believe is attached to experience and personal bias. But what if we could curtail the use of personal stories and anecdotes—would it help? Consider the debate on homosexuality. If we eliminated “I had a friend who…” stories, what would happen to the discussion? We might also eliminate conversations that start and end on fringe matters. This would be helpful since conversations starting with extreme situations rarely return to core issues. We might be able to look, in depth, at the key issues: (i.e., interpretation of key biblical texts, pastoral responses to those with same-sex attraction, exploration of sexual identity development and whether identity is immutable or not, etc.) without distraction by stories of abuse and misuse by the various parties.

But what would be lost? Compassion. Understanding. Practical responses. It seems that narratives humanize issues. We see the facts as connected to real people. Stories give context that help us to understand the experience of another. Anecdotes spawn creative responses that have real-world impact and avoid one dimensional “easy” answers. When I was in seminary, one of my professors had a sign that said, “for every complex problem, there is an answer that is clear, easy, elegant, and wrong.”

Wedding Intellectual Inquiry and Experience 

So, how do we thoughtfully, compassionately, critically explore a controversial topic in a manner that leaves us more loving than when we started, more understanding of its complexities, more aware of (and willing to challenge) our own biases, more aware of our chosen bases for our belief systems, more capable of differentiating dogma from opinion, and more clear (and willing to state so) on what we do and don’t believe?


Monday I will present some possible ways to wed both our stories and the pursuit of the truth. 


Filed under Cognitive biases, Communication