Information, Belief and
Keith Rankin, 4 October 2002
The Internet has made it possible to disseminate untruths more widely and more quickly than ever before. This is not necessarily a problem. Most of us have a portfolio of beliefs which include some items that are verifiably untrue. The remainder of our beliefs may or may not be true. Even scientific knowledge is provisional; hypotheses waiting on knowledge's death row, waiting for the day that they will face scientific disproof. However, of those many beliefs which can neither be labelled 'proved' nor 'disproved', some are much more likely to be substantially true than others.
Our beliefs are amongst the truest of truths in one sense, and among the weakest of truths in another sense. Almost all of us believe that the Ku Klux Klan believe that black-skinned people are inferior. But few of us believe that black-skinned people are inferior. In this context, we are rational, and the Ku Klux Klan is not. Our beliefs are grounded on a mixture of evidence and morality. The Ku Klux Klan on the other hand, we rightly believe, are subject to irrational prejudice. Yet many Afro-Americans lost their lives on account of those beliefs.
The biggest problem, therefore, is that untruths - especially shared untruths - lead to collective actions of cruelty that is unimaginable to most of us. Here the Internet is more saviour than culprit. At least in principle, the Internet offers a means of truth verification. Well-constructed dialogue on the world wide web offers more than bibliographic source referencing and/or footnotes. It offers hyperlinks which take us directly to the source of information on offer. Normally we choose not to follow such links. But, if the information will affect the way we will act - and especially if we are contemplating acting in a way that will hurt someone - we are morally obliged to trace that information back to its source, so that we can assess its credibility.
[As a person who publishes opinion-pieces both on-line (especially via Scoop www.scoop.co.nz) and in mainstream newspapers (mostly the NZ Herald www.nzherald.co.nz) I am acutely aware that when responses come (eg via letters to the editor) that readers of those responses are likely to believe that I said what the letter-writer said I said, and that very few readers will have the will let alone the means to check what I actually said. Scoop is usually very good on this matter; its feedback items usually refer back to the original article, via hyperlink. Unfortunately this opportunity to 'follow the link' did not happen recently when one Neil Morrison accused me of attributing "moral equivalence" to George Bush and Saddam Hussein (ref A Brief Reflection). Whatever, it’s a fact of life that all people who present their views in a public forum must accept. The public view of what any public or semi-public figure believes is formed as much from what others say that person says or believes than from what that person has actually said or written.]
Beliefs of others are part of the truth of our universe, whether of not those beliefs are true. One truth appears to be that the majority of the Muslim population of Southwest Asia believes that, on 11/9/2000, 4000 Jewish workers were advised not to go to work at the World Trade Centre. They conclude from that belief that the 11 September attacks on New York and Washington were perpetrated by the Israeli equivalent of the CIA, and not by Osama bin Laden's Al Qaeda organisation.
The truth of what many Muslims believe about '9-11' is easily verifiable. The rumour of the 4,000 Jewish absentees is easily refutable. But the believe does not exist is a vacuum. It is exists in a world where many people attribute things that go wrong to one or other 'Great Satan'. For Southwest Asian Muslims, there are at present two such Satans: Arial Sharon and George Bush. For most Americans there are two other great Satans: Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein. It's completely irrelevent as to who of these four men is the wickedest. What matters is that substantial numbers of people believe that each of these men is evil, and they make decisions based on those beliefs that have the potential to affect all of us.
Of those four alleged Satan's, the one closest to us, in New Zealand, is George Bush. Any organisations devoted to the security of the United States and its western allies would do well to understand that the worst thing that the American President can do is to fuel or otherwise reinforce the perceptions of Muslims that he is Satan. The best that can happen is that, through their actions, the American authorities do all that they can to defuse this dangerous belief. No, I don't mean that Americans should wage a grand PR (public relations) campaign. The Americans can only win the hearts and minds of Muslims (and the many others who they have treated with crass insensitivity) through their actions. It will take a long time, though, to turn around the entrenched belief systems that prevail in the Middle-East. Maybe two generations.
If these 'Great Satan' belief systems are allowed to fester, they may fester for millennia. In the worst scenarios, various ethnic groups are caught in a web of hatred and suspicion that goes back millennia, such as those of Zionism and anti-semitism. Or, in the case of Serbs and Albanians in Kosovo, a mere 700 years.
I'll finish with one that still affects us, though it has been defused (although only recently) in most of Christendom. It relates to the Spanish Inquisition.
About five years ago, I watched a BBC Timewatch programme about the Spanish Inquisition. Actual research - done by a team of Spanish economic historians - shows that, in the 250 years that it existed, only about 50 people lost their lives on account of being adjudicated as heretics by the Inquisition. And torture was used far less often by the Spanish Inquisition than we continue to assume today. In fact, Spain appears to have had just about the best human rights record of any Western European country in the 15th and 16th centuries. (General Franco - in 1938-40 - perpetrated far worse human rights abuses in Spain in 2½ years than the Inquisition did in 2½ centuries.)
(These Spanish economic historians - or the BBC - may of course have had their own agenda. Nevertheless I judged the programme and its sources to be credible, without checking the sources.)
The myth of the Spanish Inquisition - as alluded to, for example, in Monty Python's Flying Circus - was apparently perpetrated in the 1560s during the European counter-reformation when Catholicism appeared to be regaining some of the ascendancy that it had lost to Protestantism in the first half of the 15th century. The various anti-Spanish pamphlets circulating in Germany and England were as effective (probably more effective) as the Internet today in reinforcing an anti-Catholic belief system in Protestant Northwest Europe. And it was in Protestant Northwest Europe that by far the majority of torture, burnings and executions of heretics and witches took place. And of course the British foreign policy - which amounted to looting Spanish ships wherever they could be found - could be justified by their ant-Spanish anti-Catholic belief system.
Of course, at the time, the Spanish held different beliefs. I read once (probably apocryphal) that, in the late 16th century, the mothers of Cadiz used their anti-English belief system to their advantage, keep their children well-behaved. They told their children, so it is said, that if they don't eat their curds and whey and go to bed on time, then el draque (Francis Drake) will get them.
One incident from that earlier time of religious warfare and intolerance remains with us. The Americans do not commemorate it, but we in New Zealand do; if the Americans did it would be called 11-5.
On the fifth of November 1605, a terrorist act was perpetrated but, unlike 9-11, was not successfully executed. A group of English Catholics attempted to blow up the Parliament of a country that had all the trappings of an Anglican theocracy. To this very day we still make fun of Guy Fawkes every year on 11-5. And, as recently as early last century, the belief system arising from Catholic-Protestant enmity caused people in New Zealand and Australia to openly discriminate against people who adhered to the denigrated form of western Christianity.
What will either Arab Muslims or Americans be doing on 11 September 2501 (and every other 11 September)? My guess is that one of them will be building model twin towers (instead of bonfires) and throwing projectiles at them. If Americans do it, it will be a prelude to some kind of ritual which casts Osama bin Laden as some kind of Guy Fawkes figure. If Arab Muslims do it, I can imagine the pyrotechnics that would follow.
Do we want this kind of Great Satanism, between Muslims and Western Christians, to last for centuries or longer? (OK, it's already lasted on or off since the seventh century AD.) Now is the time to defuse this particular threat to global security. It's never too late to learn that human beings can live together in a planet that is big enough to support pluralistic religious belief systems.
and 'me good - you bad' thinking are best countered before
they spread too far. It is from such small beginnings -
unquenched rumour, disinformation, misinterpretation - that
the real Satans, war and terror, begin. The Internet can
spread rumours quickly. It can help to stifle them more
quickly than they have ever been stifled before.
© 2002 Keith Rankin