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Authority, Truth, and Propaganda

2008 January 2
by Julie Clawson

The headlines the past few days have been filled with reports out of Pakistan and the assassination of Benazir Bhutto. I don’t even pretend to understand the intricacies of the politics of the whole thing and I fully admit to ignorance about the Pakistan situation in general. I read what I can, but I don’t understand it all. But one thing that has intrigued me this past week is the lesson in authority and truth it presented us with.

Initial reports claimed that Bhutto was killed by a gunshot or from shrapnel from the attack. Very soon after the incident the government issued an official statement saying that Bhutto hit her head on her SUV and died from that incident. This contradicted eyewitnesses and the reports of the doctors who tried to revive her. The scene was then quickly hosed down removing all forensic evidence, an autopsy was denied, and those doctors are now in hiding. The world grumbles at government propaganda and spin, but in a few months or years whose version of the truth will be believed? The official government statement or a few rabble-rousing supposed eyewitnesses?

A claim to authority generally implies one can control the truth (or more accurately what is perceived as true). Governments know this and have have been twisting the facts and presenting their own version of truth since their conception. Eyewitnesses are few, they can be ridiculed and discredited or made to disappear if necessary. But generally very quickly the lines from the authority become gospel truth which is often dangerous to question.

Some of the spin is generally harmless, serving merely to paint the authority in a good light. I recently read of a incident in the former Soviet Union involving the destruction of libraries. After a local paper pointed out the oddly high number of local libraries that had burned down in recent months (implicating the government), the government went into damage control mode. They issued statements claiming that the most recent library to burn contained only newspaper archives (as opposed to the priceless manuscripts that were in fact destroyed there) so it wasn’t a significant loss at all. The masses believed what they were told. Or look at the severe ridicule (and investigations) eyewitnesses of the 9/11 attacks receive when their description of the events differ from the official government/media interpretation. Truth is not necessarily always true but merely what an authority wants one to believe.

Authorities hold power over us. We can’t or won’t question authority. Most Americans still believe that there were WMDs in Iraq even after it has been denied. Why? Because the government initially told us there were. Similarly, when I discuss a theological point that differs from party-line evangelicalism I often hear the rebuttal of “are you saying that __________ (Colson, Piper, Osteen, or other favorite radio preacher or writer or pastor) is wrong??!!! They said this was true and I believe them.” Seeking the truth doesn’t matter if the authorities have already told them what to believe. (and may I point out that using such lines is very different than reading an author with an engaged and critical mind. Learning from others is different from buying into a personality cult).

So yes, truth will always be relative to our situation. How it is presented and who gets to present it matter. The louder the voice and more powerful the authority, the more people will buy into it. Even when we are critically engaged truth is still a matter of choice (logically, emotionally, or spiritually informed though they may be) It is all about whose presentation of the facts we choose to believe.

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4 Responses leave one →
  1. January 2, 2008

    I think we misunderstand authority in general in our society. Like you said, it is a choice who we believe. Given all motives being good, it is still possible for error of fact. I hate that life is this messy, but I like your challenge in reminding us we have a choice.

  2. January 3, 2008

    Now, let’s stretch this back 2000 years. Hmmm … just how authoritative ARE those scriptures? You know, those pages that we don’t even have an original codex of …

  3. January 3, 2008

    Great post. The arguments you make for truth as power often are used to call the Scriptures into question because of the authority of the Church. However, what makes the Gospels so different is that they are eyewitness accounts of Christ, and as such carry the weight of the “event,” as Derrida might surmise. The Gospels are not pandered and controlled, they are raw and sometimes don’t make sense together, which, as N.T. Wright points out, is actually a good thing—it means this was an “event” and different people were trying, to the best of their ability, to make sense of it.

  4. January 3, 2008

    As I see it, trusting the Bible comes down to a matter of belief as well. There are many things that support that belief (eyewitness…), but one still chooses to believe the stories in the Bible. And to me the idea that they were written with biases (to tell a certain story) does not make them less true or believable.

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