Sleight of Hand, Sleight of Mind

Lessons on truth from Jesus, Chaucer, and Gump

In this age of digital media, photo and video manipulation have become technologically routine. Images now can be superimposed on another object, or even totally manufactured digitally through what is called morphogenetic creations that use computer graphics to create not only static, but dynamic, 3D images . And with available technology and software, video images can now literally be manipulated to produce an entirely fabricated digital recording of a subject. This kind of manipulation utilizes a combination of traditional video processing and video editing techniques using other nascent digital methods like artificial intelligence (face recognition software, etc.). With these video manipulation techniques, facial structure, body movements and gestures, and voice of the subject can now be mimicked and replicated. There are clearly beneficial applications of these tools such as in multifarious educational videos. But, unfortunately, in every benevolent use of a new discovery, humans always have a proclivity to find a way to use it malevolently. What digital manipulation has enabled in photography, it has enabled in video. In both instances, digital and video manipulation are now also used in propaganda and disinformation.

What has made social media and digital technology such powerful communication platforms in our culture is evidenced by the emerging debate between the social media behemoth, Facebook, and US regulators who now seek to require Facebook to monitor and edit its paid advertisement content of false information. This debate right now is heightened by an upcoming national elections, during a time of profound political and cultural polarization in America. But advertising money is the lucrative currency of Facebook, and political ads are aplenty these days. It doesn’t matter at this point, as proponents of Facebook argue, whether the ad is spreading false/misleading information or not because such is protected under free speech. So, with an army of lobbyists and lawyers, Facebook is resisting regulatory efforts on the grounds that it is not a publisher and, therefore, is not subject to the same editorial and ethical responsibilities that govern other publishers. This belies the reality that the vast majority of people on the planet consume information and news from social media platforms.

Like what the invention of the moveable metal type did to revolutionize the spread of written information, the Internet has revolutionized the spread of not only the written document, but also accelerated into nanospeed the oftentimes covert, and deliberate spread of false information in order to obscure the truth and influence public opinion. The reality is that our public sphere is awash with disinformation not only from malicious foreign actors, but such disinformation is also being conducted by Americans themselves. To put this urgent problem in bold relief, digital and social media platforms propel their spread like a dry bush wildfire.

False information and the spreading of propaganda have become very easy in our digital world. Weaponized disinformation is a veritable sleight of hand. Its effects are insidious and largely undetected because they are designed to confirm, and easily fit into, preexisting biases. It’s a sleight of mind because they are designed to mentally relocate our vantage point, so that our perspective of reality is also changed. Neuroscientists have empirically demonstrated for a long time now that the perception of reality by the brain’s prefrontal cortex is toyed with when a complex problem is introduced in front of it. The encounter with the complex problem creates an unexpected event in the prefrontal cortex that steals attention away from prevailing reality. The brain then lights up with distraction. When you change the frame of the brain’s perception, you change its perception of reality. Diversion in order to deceive, diverts us from the truth. That is the objective of the magician.

In these days of toxic partisan politics, magicians are aplenty. As each political tribe casts aspersions against the other in the ideological arena of contested power, how can the truth seeker navigate through the sea of moral casuistry when each antagonist in this power struggle claims to have the truth?

Is truth really that hard to find? It has occurred to me, more acutely now than at any other time that I can remember, that in this post-truth season of “alternative/contrived realities”, people are being cast adrift from the moorings of a moral center. How do we stay centered in these days?

Jesus spoke of “truth” many times. In John’s gospel in particular, chapter 8: 31-32 (NRSV), understanding that Greek was the language in which the New Testament was written – Jesus is heard saying to those who believed in him, “…and you will know the truth, and the truth will will make you free”. In the Greek, the language in which the New Testament was written, the word from whence “truth” is translated is aletheia – literally, the “absence of walls.”

So what does Jesus mean about knowing the “truth” that sets free? What does this place – where walls are absent and unconcealed – look like, and where the very essence of being alive and human is not hidden? Is there such a place? Consider the antecedent to Jesus’ statement, which qualifies what “knowing the truth” entails: “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples…”. The truth that Jesus speaks about is not accumulation of more knowledge or information. The truth he speaks about is redemptive, saving truth rooted in obedience to the concrete ethical demands of his teachings and instructions. In submitting ourselves to the practice and appropriation of his ethical demands through obedience, our lives are thrust into the possibility of entering the presence and reign of God on earth and in that, and through that, we are made free. And wherever God is present, truth, aletheia inhabits and indwells. The gospel proclaims that in Jesus, “The fullness of God was pleased to dwell.”

The constitutive and innate condition of what is true is its corresponding behavior. Truth to be truth, requires the validation of concrete, demonstrable, and corporeal commitments to what is good, beautiful, and true. “For no good tree bears bad fruit, nor again does a bad tree bear good fruit, for each tree is known by its own fruit. For figs are not gathered from thornbushes, nor are grapes picked from a bramble bush. The good person out of the good treasure of his heart produces good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure produces evil, for out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks (Luke 6: 43-45, NRSV).”

The gospels are full of Jesus’ teachings focused on the conduct and public witness of his disciples. One need only to study the Sermon on the Mount to be reminded that the authentic follower of Jesus is recognized not by what they say, but what they do. Another imagery that Jesus uses to emphasize the non-negotiable requirement of faithful behavior as quintessential to what is true, is the warning he offered to his disciples as contained in the Sermon on the Mount: “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will recognize them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? So, every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit. A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus you will recognize them by their fruits (Matthew 7: 15-20, NRSV).”

I hazard to say that these eternal teachings of Jesus on the inseparable link between truth and corresponding behavior has made it through the civilizations across the years. Geoffrey Chaucer, famed author of the Canterbury Tales, a 14th century collection of 24 stories written over a period of 13 years, coined the phrase, “Handsome is as handsome does” in one of the 24 stories, “The Wife of Bath’s Tale”, which is to say that good deeds are more important than good looks. A version of this adage was later popularized by the blockbuster movie, Forrest Gump. The main character was asked several times in the movie if he was stupid. Forrest always responded by way of what his mother taught him when he was young, “Mama says stupid is as stupid does”, appealing to the questioner not to judge him by his appearance, but by his actions.

Some of the salient characteristics of truth are its constancy, verifiability, and its universality. While there are still many magicians out there who are quite adept at diverting us from the truth through sleight of hand and sleight of mind, it is, without question, possible to stay centered even in a time of moral casuistry and capriciousness. For example, a tectonic political event in America – and because of its global prominence, perhaps the world – is now defining the inner spirit of our time. The historic impeachment hearing taking place right now is more than just a display of an epic partisan struggle for contested power. The centrifugal social and political force that the impeachment hearing is generating in our society, is throwing all of us into a profound reckoning of our fundamental understanding of truth, and a foundational moral reinventory of our notions of right and wrong.

So, if nothing else, and if you are still in doubt whether there is truth out there that can be apprehended, plan to rise one morning to greet the sunrise. Observe and discern where the sun breaks into dawn. The constancy, verifiability, and universality of truth will present itself – the sun always rises in the East, no matter what the magicians say otherwise.

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