Long before the rise of social media or the term “fake news,” I observed an impulse among people to bend history to suit our biases.
I was working in the regional office of a faith-based organization — the Episcopal Church in Central, Eastern and Northern Kentucky. The diocese, as it is called, is more than 100 years old, and has been served by seven bishops. Think CEO, board chair, the honcho in charge, most often identified by a purple shirt and stiff, backward white collar and some handsome robes and a tall hat for ceremonies.
Most of the churches have been around a while, long enough for some members to recall that the third bishop took the train to Lexington for his annual visit (very pre-interstate). Because he was dependent on the somewhat spotty train schedule, he arrived on Thursday and left on Monday. Over the years, the view of the train-dependent bishop morphed into “he loved to spend time with us” while more contemporary bishops who drove to and from on the same day were deemed to “not like us as much as Bishop No. 3 did.”
Having worked for bishops four, five, six and seven, and having done a great deal of writing about the diocese, I was always interested to hear in the middle of current business that the bishop who was in office and his immediate predecessor were somehow responsible for actions and decisions made prior to their tenures.
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“The purple” — the term none too fondly applied when discussing unpopular decisions — was responsible for lots of bad things. “That great bishop” was responsible for the good stuff. No question. It didn’t matter that official files showed otherwise. Copies of letters and other documents were quickly dismissed or ignored as if they didn’t exist. Predecessor of fake news?
Why do we refute documented facts when we’re given them? Are we that stubborn? That unwilling to see the good in someone with whom we disagree, to acknowledge clay feet when our hero stumbles?
I have to ask myself regularly about my own biases — whether I am willing to listen to positions with which I disagree, willing to look for strengths in an argument that expose weaknesses in mine or at least ask me to consider information that I might have ignored before.
What is in it for me to hang onto something that is simply not true — except in my own mind, and the minds of those who agree with me? What old bias or personal privilege will I have to let go if I recognize a truth that differs from my chosen position? Or is there just some strangely rebellious aspect to the American psyche that is going to fight, regardless?
Maybe the issue in a larger sense has to do with all of the personal experiences, privileges, hurts and disappointments that make up our stories and our biases.
The critical issue before us is what we’re willing to do now to look beyond the biases that are controlling our ability to even talk rationally together, much less work with each other. Are we willing to consider collaboration rather than bitter competition, willing to acknowledge that to do so we might have to start looking facts in the face, historical and otherwise, willing to lay personal biases aside?
A fable tells of a man who spread a nasty rumor and, when he confessed it, was told that on his way home, he was to pluck a chicken, dropping its feathers as he walked. Then he was to retrace his steps, retrieving the feathers. “That’s impossible!” the man gasped. “They’ll have blown far beyond where I can find them and pick them up.”
Facts don’t always suit us. But whether the subject is presidents, religious leaders, statues or any of the subjects on which we hold opinions so strong that we’re willing to bend history to suit our bias, they are important to an orderly, functional common life.
Kay Collier McLaughlin is an author and leadership consultant who lives in Nicholas County. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.