Fear is the name of the game. Stop playing.

The year was 2001. When we hear that number, our mind automatically goes to 9/11. However, in the 8 full months preceding 9/11 there were a number of major news stories from the year that have been largely forgotten. You may remember how that summer featured a constant stream of shark attack reports. I have memories of watching story after story on shark bites, typically accompanied by helicopter footage of evacuated beaches. It was a major talking point that had a tangible impact on the livelihood of coastal businesses that rely on tourism. Government agencies scrambled to distribute information on the slim likelihood of shark attacks, and how to take steps to avoid them. Summer 2001 was and is widely referred to as “The Summer of the Shark” as a panic swept the nation.

The truth of the matter was, there was nothing unusual about shark attacks in 2001. The numbers of attacks and deaths were actually lower than the year before, when little attention was given to the matter. But out of nowhere, and for seemingly no reason, the power of the media led America to believe we were experiencing an unprecedented string of shark attacks. It was wildly irresponsible, with real life affects on real people, but they did it anyway.

I led with that because in order to rightly observe the world, you need to understand things like this happen. Many people don’t realize they happen. Others refuse to believe it when they do. Others know it happens and still fall for the trick from time to time (guilty – JW). But it’s simply a fact that the media can and does drive fear whenever they want. They’ve done it over and over again this year.

Since the start of the outbreak, we’ve had fear-inducing headlines like:

And if the virus fears weren’t enough, we can throw on:

In reading that list, you might have thought “Oh yeah, I forgot about that” with regard to a couple of the entries. They come so quickly that it’s hard to keep up. But are you seeing the pattern here? These kinds of stories get rushed to print/post immediately because they drive all kinds of interest, and yet the corrections and retractions get a fraction of the coverage. With many of these, it’s pure speculation rather than actual reporting.

The other tactic at play in these stories may be the more nefarious of the two. To quote a Michael Malice catchphrase, they are factual, not truthful. For example, it was factual to say that sharks were attacking people in 2001. But it wasn’t truthful to report in such a way to imply that we were facing a never-before-seen spike in shark attacks. It is factual to say there is another swine flu strain in existence, but it’s not truthful to run that as a headline and lead people to believe we’re in danger of it.

The media’s gross misconduct is only half of the issue, though, because without our tendencies to overreact, to talk down to our neighbor, and to want to be the first of our friends to post the latest news, their headlines would do little to spread panic. If we weren’t lapping it up and running to Facebook and Twitter to lecture other people about paying attention to the latest headline, these things wouldn’t spread. In our hurry, though, fact-checking and waiting for confirmation are left totally in the dust. Our critical thinking skills are often the first casualty of panic. Take, for example, this fabrication that was shared far and wide on social media.

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To start with, the first line is wrong. The death rate is well below 1%. But it gets worse from there. For example, there’s statistically no chance that every person in America is going to get the virus. The idea that 1 out of every 5 Americans will come out of this with permanent heart damage should have gotten this person laughed off the internet. With wildly exaggerated claims like this we’ve stopped just short of having Andy Dwyer declare “THE VIRUS IS SHOOTING AT US!”

Yes, the coronavirus is very real. I am not saying it isn’t, and I’m not saying we should throw caution to the wind. I’m not saying any of those things. But one can acknowledge both the reality of the danger and the reality that the constant attempts to drive fear are out of control (unless one is a binary thinker, of course). Yes, it is dangerous – but we know who to protect, we know what is safe and what isn’t, and we know the hierarchy of risk by age and health status. Just making up scary claims out of thin air or running with the first hint that things might possibly get worse is irresponsible and dishonest. Why do they do it, then?

Why was Neil Ferguson’s model that predicted 2.2 million American deaths the only one reported at the start of the outbreak when the man has a track record so bad he should have been banished from the industry years ago?

Why is Sweden being condemned but New York being commended?Isn’t the place with the lower death rate and the intact economy the one who was right?

Why did major outlets run a headline telling us not to celebrate a lower death rate? Shouldn’t we be happy that fewer infected people are dying?

Because fear sells, and apologizing for being wrong about the fear is out of the question.

So, knowing those two principles, we can know for certain how we should act going forward.

#1. Stop giving them attention, and stop spreading the panic on social media. Turn the TV off, and ignore the headlines to the best of your ability. Thankfully they’ve played their hand too far and many are beginning to do just this.

#2. When you know the tactics, notice when they are being used. When you see the next shock headline (because total disengagement is almost impossible), take it with a gigantic grain of salt. Don’t post the speculatory articles, but rather wait for the actual research behind the speculation to surface.

#3. Learn to comb through the mounds of garbage, gather the information you need, and walk away. Use your critical thinking to sniff out those stories that seem too perfect to be true.

When you save all that time by shutting off the TV and staying off of news sites and social media, you’ll find extra time to spend in prayer, Bible study, exercise, reading old books, and connecting with friends via phone call or video chat. Which option do you think will leave you better off?

Please – I beg you – don’t be a binary thinker

One of the worst aspects of social media is the reign of binary thinkers. Binary simply means “something made of two things or parts” (Merriam-Webster). A binary thinker, then is someone who thinks there are only two ways to see an issue. This method makes everything an either/or proposition.

Whether you realize it or not, we’ve all been trained to think this way for years. Two minutes of social media consumption shows just how wildly successful the training has been. How did we get here? By two steps of a kind of social peer pressure.

First, the options are prepared for us. If a large group of people are all going to be binary thinkers, they can’t just all be making up their own options. They are being presented to us through the press, education, and popular culture. You have Fox News and you have MSNBC. You have Vox and you have the Daily Wire. You have The Young Turks and you have Prager University. You have Republican and you have Democrat, and so on. Imagine going to a restaurant and being told they only serve two items. You can either get a Hawaiian pizza (ham and pineapple toppings) or a mushroom and swiss burger. I hate both of them.

We are told, though, that in our political and cultural discourse, we’re either on team Hawaiian pizza, or team mushroom swiss burger. These are the options from which you must choose. There are variations in the options we are presented, but only slightly. You can find Tea Party-ish and libertarian Republicans, and you can find socialist Democrats. It’s like being able to get extra pineapples or extra mushrooms. It’s different, but only by degree.

Part two of the programming is the truly nefarious part. Not only are you led to believe you have to choose a side from pre-selected options. Once you’re entrenched on that side, you are led to view anyone on the other side as opposition. You don’t like Hawaiian pizza, but you absolutely hate mushroom swiss burgers, so if you only have the two options then Hawaiian pizza it is. The only problem is, the restaurant is going to tally up everyone’s orders and whichever item gets the most orders will be served to everybody.

Now you’re obligated to despise the mushroom swiss fans, regardless of whether they actually like the sandwich or not. Maybe they dislike it just a little less than you do, but it matters not. You are now at odds with them and must defeat them. If Hawaiian pizza wins, they’ll hold it against you. If mushroom swiss wins, you’ll hold it against them.

Real life simply does not work this way. A restaurant wouldn’t last a week with such an absurd setup. You’ll just drive to the restaurant down the street with 40 items on its menu and unlimited substitutions. Because it doesn’t have any competition, a government can make the game last a little longer. Its fate will nevertheless eventually be the same. Collapse is inevitable…unless people stop playing the game.

I’m going to give you three reasons why you should stop playing the game, and then I’ll show you how.

Binary thinking accepts false dichotomies.

I want neither ham nor pineapples on my pizza, but I like the crust, sauce, and cheese underneath them. I can’t stand mushrooms, and though I can live with swiss I would much rather have a different cheese. So, I make substitutions. I choose what I like, and I leave off the rest. Here’s the secret: you can do the same thing with your political views. You are under no obligation to accept the whole of what is offered to you. You can make substitutions whenever you want.

If you don’t pick and choose on a case-by-case basis, you will unavoidably be stuck with rotten options at some point. The obvious current example is the implicit question presented to us on social media: “Who are you with – the police, or black Americans?” You do not have to choose between those two. There is room for all kinds of nuance on this issue, yet every single day I see my Facebook friends accepting the false dichotomies and choosing one side or the other.

Binary thinking dehumanizes people.

You rob people of their humanity when you lump everybody into Team A or Team B. The greatest example you’ll ever see occurred in January 2018 when English journalist Cathy Newman interviewed Jordan Peterson on Britain’s Channel 4 News. The interview went viral both for Peterson’s calm, composed, answers (20 million YouTube hits to date – you can watch it here) in the face of Newman’s repeated attempts to assume Peterson’s beliefs. The image here captures the kind of back and forth that occurred over and over throughout the interview, as Peterson would state a finding from his research only to see Newman attempt to sum it up with a wildly different conclusion, led by the phrase “So you’re saying…” (a line that was memed for months).

25 Memes That Sum Up Jordan Peterson vs. Cathy Newman

She assumed she knew everything he believed. As a binary thinker, she thought that she believed one way, and people who disagreed with her believed the opposite. Because of this she showed no interest in listening to what he actually said – in her mind, she already knew.

How often do you see this same interaction on Facebook? “Well, I think A.” “Oh, so you’re saying you hate B?” That’s not how humans work. Sometimes people who are on team mushroom swiss aren’t actually that big of fans of mushrooms, and maybe you could find common ground with them… but because they aren’t on team Hawaiian pizza, you assume you already know everything about them and their preferences.

“So you’re saying…” casts a person as you want to see them, not as they are. But every single human is a unique individual. To assume you can know everything about them and how they think without taking 2 minutes to learn their perspective is incredibly dehumanizing. It’s why we don’t listen to each other, and it’s a big reason why we don’t respect each other. Don’t dehumanize people by assuming you know them just because they aren’t on your team. You wouldn’t want someone to do that to you, so don’t do it to them (Matthew 7:12).

Binary thinking ignores truth.

When you are led to believe you have to choose between one of two options, neither of which are particularly pleasing, you eventually start overlooking flaws in your option and strengths in the other option. Because your goal is beating the other option, you think you have to do this. You may know deep down that pineapple has no business being on pizza, but when you get in the trap of binary thinking you suddenly forget this, because to admit it would be ceding ground to the mushroom swiss crowd. Similarly, you may know deep down that people on the other side of a cultural issue have some valid points, but it can be incredibly difficult to be honest enough to admit that.

Everybody can nitpick the tiniest flaw in the other side’s argument while turning a blind eye to the problems on their own side of the fence. Again, we are trained to do so. And, again, Jesus tells us not to do that (Matthew 7:1-5). It does not make you weak to call out the flaws of your side. It makes you truthful, which makes you far stronger.

Beyond that, binary thinking by necessity has to put a stop to any truth that does not fit the narrative. Traditionally, people have ignored or explained away truths that don’t fit in with their team’s narrative. We’re now entering an era in which a discussion of facts is not allowed and is grounds for “cancelation” if the facts don’t support the narrative. That’s a dangerous place to be, and every Christian should have a problem with such tactics.

 

You are allowed to create your own menu. In fact, it’s incredibly important that you do so. It’s the only way to stop playing the game, start focusing on truth rather than sides, and start viewing people as humans. Here are a few practical examples.

You can believe that both Donald Trump and Joe Biden have questionable histories with women. You can admit that both Donald Trump and the Clintons had ties to Jeffrey Epstein. Binary thinking leads people to defend their team’s guy at all costs while attacking the other team’s guy. Reject such thinking.

You can acknowledge a valid criticism against your politician or ideology without immediately jumping to “Oh yeah? Well the other side…”

You can believe that much of the COVID-19 response was mishandled based on bad or premature conclusions without buying into the idea that it’s a hoax. Conversely, you aren’t throwing all caution to the wind if you admit that the CDC and WHO have been wrong on a thing or two. You may be more cautious, or you may be less cautious. That does not mean everything the people on the other side believe is wrong.

You can believe the media exacerbates many of the problems in our country and still believe the problems exist.

You aren’t inherently condemning every police officer or accepting the entire agenda of critical theorists when you say that there is a widespread problem in the way black individuals are policed in our country.

You can evaluate each police killing case on its own merits. The George Floyd case was not the Rayshard Brooks case, which was not the Tamir Rice case, which was not the Michael Brown case, which was not the Botham Jean case. Binary thinkers (on either side) come to the same conclusion about nearly every single case, proving that it’s not about siding with truth but siding with a team.

You can be against racism and still think that the violence and destruction of property caused by the rioters was not acceptable, and you can think that the violence and destruction of property caused by the rioters was not acceptable and still be against racism. You don’t have to choose which one you think is wrong. Honest people simply call bad actions bad, period. Binary thinkers give a speech as to why bad actions aren’t as bad when their team does it.

You can be patriotic and still understand the point Colin Kaepernick was trying to make.

You can be strongly against racism while still strongly rejecting the world’s framework for correcting it, and you can question and reject that framework without giving up your status as an anti-racist.

 

The best thing you can do any time a new issue arises is to reject the menu that is handed to you. Do not accept the box Fox News, MSNBC, CNN, or social media want to place you into. Don’t order the Hawaiian pizza or the mushroom swiss burger. Choose a “build your own” meal, in which you get to parse out the issues that are right and wrong without accepting all of the things you don’t like from Team A or Team B.

People will dislike you for it, but your primary obligation is not to be liked. It is to be lovingly truthful. Love people enough to kindly tell them the truth and you’ll make the kind of difference we all want to see in the world.

Racism is real, and it isn’t what you think it is

What most people think when they hear the term racism is someone saying “I hate you for your skin color” or “I’m inherently better than you based on the race I was born into.” Charlottesville showed us that that attitude does exist in America, but as many (correctly) pointed out, the percentage of people who truly think and talk that way is very small.

So, they insist that the racial problem in America is overblown. They post things like the following on Twitter and Facebook – an image that has been shared thousands of times

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That’s great, it makes a perfectly fine point, but it completely misunderstands the issue. It’s an oversimplification. Those types of posts are held up by many, many people as if to say, “SEE, racism isn’t a widespread issue.”

Ask minorities if they agree. Ask them if they think those pictures signal an end to racism. You’ll often get a different answer. When minorities in America talk about racism, they use a much broader definition, one that means the kind of racial division that leads people to openly hate others but also includes a deeper, less directly obvious racial injustice.

I wasn’t sure how to explain this deeper racism until a Utah police officer recently provided the perfect example of what the REAL problem with racism is in this country.

What the video depicts is a police officer who grew frustrated with a nurse for enforcing hospital policy to the point that he literally dragged her out of the hospital and illegally arrested her. After watching this, I had a hunch what the response would be if the racial problem exists as I think it does, and a scan of people’s comments on various news sites confirmed exactly what I expected to see: the majority of people were calling for the officer to be disciplined.

They responded with comments like “I back police officers as much as anybody, but this guy needs to lose his badge,” and “There aren’t many bad cops, but this is one of them.” And they’re absolutely right.

You probably see where I’m going with this, but let’s talk about where race comes into this discussion. You and I know for a fact that every time a black person is shot by a police officer, regardless of the circumstances, and without variation, those exact same comment boards are filled with the exact same people insisting that if the person just obeyed the officer it wouldn’t have happened and that if the officer felt the use of force to be necessary than it must have been and that the person probably deserved it. Not only do they immediately decide the police officer was in the right, they start finding reasons to justify the killing. “Well, the suspect had been busted for marijuana possession 3 years before.” So he deserved to die? “Footage shows that he ran from the police.” So fleeing is now a crime worthy of the death penalty?

The policeman in Utah was clearly in the wrong, but so was the policeman in Cleveland who pulled into a park, jumped out, and shot 12 year old Tamir Rice, who was carrying a toy gun… and then neglected to give Rice medical attention… and then lied about the shooting in his statement.

If you find yourself drawn to criticize the police officer for mishandling the situation with the nurse but have never once seen a police shooting video and felt compelled to question the officer, ask yourself – why do I do that? 

Minorities want to know the same thing. For them, the only answer they can think of is racism. Not an active hatred of a person, not the kind of racism that would keep you from helping someone of another race, but a mistrust for other races, denying them the benefit of the doubt and ultimately treating them with a warped sense of justice. Racism isn’t hatred – it’s unfairness. It’s treating somebody differently than you would treat a person of a different race. You can say “I’m not racist” because you don’t hate people of other races, but you can still be guilty of racism if you don’t afford them the same trust and rights (such as innocent until proven guilty) as you do people of your own race.

But most people don’t take the time to listen to the nuances of the discussion. Most want the comfortable, easily-packaged answer to racism they see in the Facebook post above. Do you care enough about your fellow man to ask the hard questions about deeper, underlying racism, or will you be content with the superficial, easy to digest answer? Your choice will go a long way toward either fixing the problem or furthering it.