THE REPETITION OF PALATABLE LIES
As the word of God slips from shared memory, shriller voices hold sway. Truth is becoming a commodity, favouring the powerful.
2016 has been the year of the soundbite. Two seismic jolts to peaceful democratic polities have been delivered to the UK and the United States. A vote to leave the European Union and another to elect a populist billionaire property developer with no previous political experience to the world’s most powerful office.
Soundbites don’t win elections, but they can shape the debate and lodge in the minds of distracted people like a bad pop song. And there is no doubt which campaigns had the more effective ones: Crooked Hillary; Make America Great Again will remain in memory long beyond Stronger Together. Similarly, We Want Our Country Back resonated emotionally in a way Better Together never could. Stronger Together. Better Together. Is this really the best the two losing campaigns could achieve? But this is not my point.
Malcolm Gladwell in The Tipping Point, the book that made him famous, looked at the reasons why some messages have stickiness and other don’t. There is no simple formula; if there were, every message would stick, which is clearly not possible. However, the Trump campaign won because there was no embarrassment around the endless repetition of basic statements and no shame around the criminalising of others.
If you repeat a simple, easily remembered, negative message often enough, it will stick like sellotape. Just don’t over-complicate things. Trump is good at that. But he should not be under-estimated, for we will see more of this. Many will want to learn from the great disrupter. Nagging has been described as the repetition of unpalatable truths. If so, then political campaigning could turn into the repetition of palatable lies, a disturbing and corrosive effect on public life.
In the first Book of Samuel it says the word of the Lord was rare in those days (3:1). As the word of God slips from shared memory, shriller voices with less affinity to the truth hold sway. Truth becomes a commodity over which people fight, ensuring the most brutal and powerful are likely to win. When possession is won, the truth is moulded into self-serving shape. It is easy to claim the high moral ground on this, when in reality we are all participants in the game when it suits us.
The word of God has a different way. Though capable of spine-tingling power – in Exodus it says Moses would speak and God would answer him in thunder (19:19) – God often allows the truth to be spoken in whispers which people must strain to hear. Samuel hears God in the night, but God has to call four times before the boy gets the message. After his nerve-shattering encounter with the lies of Baal’s prophets, Elijah meets with God not in the wind or the earthquake or the fire, but in the sheer silence which follows.
This voice is subtle, nimble, persuasive. Like water it cannot be contained, seeping into unexpected places. When we erect barriers against it, the word still finds ways to penetrate. When we are receptive, it waters dry souls; as Isaiah 55: 10-11 suggests, God’s word comes like rain to water the earth. When we build our flood barriers against the word of the Lord, there is a pervading smell of dampness around our souls; the water has neither been let in nor are we successful in keeping it out. The damp is a rebuke to our stubbornness.
The polemic of the moment is to pound people into submission; to turn your ‘truth’ into ‘their truth’ by shameless repetition. We should eschew this in the Church; as Paul said: ‘we refuse to practice cunning or to falsify God’s word’ (2 Cor. 4:2). The word of the Lord may be rare today, but it has fleetness of foot. Isaiah 52:7 exclaims: ‘how beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of the messenger who announces peace’. Like an Olympic long distance athlete used to training at altitude, the word of God glides across hard terrain, leaving other words panting clumsily in its wake. Our prayers are the wind at its back.
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