Friday, August 03, 2012

On Believing the Worst of One's Opponents

Perhaps you've seen this picture floating around Facebook lately. As one might expect, I myself found it when it was posted by a friend who leans conservative when it comes to issues of politics and religion. I was immediately suspicious, not only because I am disinclined to think of Obama as this stupid, but because I've seen this happen before.

A few years ago, this image was making the rounds on Facebook, instead, depicting former President George W. Bush in a similarly embarrassing light.

In case it's not already clear from my tone, both images are fake. You can read the evidence for yourself here and here (for Obama and Bush, respectively).

It's disturbing enough that these images are created in the first place, but even more that so many people so readily believe that they're true. The Obama image was shared with the comment, "Wow. Really??? Can he truly be that bad??" Now, maybe I'm reading too much into things, but that's the kind of comment that says to me, "This is pretty unbelievable, but I'm ready to believe it, nonetheless." My friend was prepared to believe that Obama would be so stupid as to pose for a picture with a phone held this way. Have you ever tried to hold a phone the wrong way? Sure, it can be done, but you really have to think about it. If you're like most people, you've actually spoken on phones so many times that when you pick up a receiver, you naturally hold it the right way, even if you're not actually talking on it. People just don't hold phones the wrong way without trying to, unless there's something so seriously wrong with them that it's inconceivable that they could have conducted a successful presidential election campaign, no matter how much help they got from their staff.

But if that's not enough, well, there are still the facts, which I was able to find in less than 5 minutes of searching on Google.

I'm reminded of a C.S. Lewis quote that came across my computer screen a few weeks ago:
The real test is this. Suppose one reads a story of filthy atrocities in the paper. Then suppose that something turns up suggesting that the story might not be quite true, or not quite so bad as it was made out. Is one’s first feeling, “Thank God, even they aren’t quite so bad as that,” or is it a feeling of disappointment, and even a determination to cling to the first story for the sheer pleasure of thinking your enemies are as bad as possible? If it is the second then it is, I am afraid, the first step in a process which, if followed to the end, will make us into devils. You see, one is beginning to wish that black was a little blacker. If we give that wish its head, later on we shall wish to see grey as black, and then to see white itself as black. Finally we shall insist on seeing everything — God and our friends and ourselves included — as bad, and not be able to stop doing it: we shall be fixed for ever in a universe of pure hatred.

— C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (Chapter 7: Forgiveness)
Now, when C.S. Lewis was writing about forgiving one's enemies, he was admittedly talking about our belief that they are evil rather than stupid, but I do think that something similar should apply here. When confronted with the facts about the hoaxes, the proper response should be an apology, not to say (in essence) "Oh, well. It's still funny." Such a response potentially propagates the image's intended message that our political leaders are unbelievably stupid, to say nothing of deepening the divisions between those of us with different political leanings. Even when we disagree with certain politicians (as has undeniably been the case for both Obama and Bush), we should expect that they are competent human beings trying to do what they think is best for the people they represent. If presented with evidence to the contrary, that's one thing, but when that evidence (whether of malice or stupidity) is refuted with better data, we should go back to that basic assumption of good will. If we can't even manage that much, then there really can't be any way to reason with each other.

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