"The End of Truth?" Transcript
Guest: Scotty McLennan
Scotty McLennan: And I think it’s dangerous when there is no truth except from the mouth of power.
Betty Teng: Welcome to another episode of Mind of State. I’m Betty Teng.
Michael Epstein: And I’m Michael Epstein. And together, we’re your hosts for Mind of State, a podcast for both political junkies and armchair shrinks. Hi, Betty.
Betty: Hi, Michael. So our guest this week is Scotty McLennan. He is an ordained Unitarian minister, a lawyer who has specialized in poverty law, and a lecturer at Stanford University and the Stanford Graduate School of Business, where he teaches in the areas of ethics, spirituality, and business. From 2000 to 2014, he was the Stanford University Dean for Religious Life and before that, he was the university chaplain at Tufts University for 16 years. He is the author of several books, including Jesus was a Liberal: Reclaiming Christianity for All. Welcome to Mind of State, Scotty.
Scotty: Thank you so much.
Betty: You teach a course at Stanford with a colleague on the ethics of truth in the post-truth world and from the point of view of a minister and a lawyer and a professor, you look at truth from a lot of different positions. There’s a lot of talk about post-truth and alternative facts. Can you tell us some of your positions on truth or what do we mean by truth?
Scotty: Sure. Well in the course, we look at truth through a number of different lenses, journalistic truth, scientific truth, law and the way truth comes out in the courtroom, religion claims to have the truth, and personal authenticity. What does it mean to be true to yourself? And in the process, we realize that we live in a postmodern world where, putting aside for a moment all the things we hear on the news about fake news and alternative facts and is there any truth anymore, it really is quite difficult, in a postmodern world, to talk about truth, since it really tends to be in the eye of the beholder. So if you’re talking history, for example, what is the historical fact or reality that you might be looking at? Well it depends, in a postmodern perspective, as to whether you’re low income or high income, what your race is, what country you come from, and so on. So it is hard for students to get a grasp on what we mean by truth. And then when you proliferate the arenas in which we talk about truth, it gets even more difficult for them.
Betty: And you put aside the realm of news and journalism and politics, which is what we’re about, in part, and mind is our other half. But in the news and in journalism and in politics, truth is something that’s really up for grabs these days. I’m thinking at the point of our recording, the example of Jussie Smollett in the news, the actor for Empire who allegedly was attacked, he said, by MAGA supporters because he was black and gay. And now it has allegedly come out that he has faked this attack and it’s created–
Michael: Well, it’s allegedly come out. He’s been charged.
Betty: Right. He’s been charged. He’s been charged now.
Michael: And he has not been adjudicated so–
Betty: Correct. So with your perspective as a lawyer, Scotty, you can weigh in on this on on a lot of different levels, like this issue of whether Jussie Smollett was telling the truth for the last couple weeks, at the time of this recording, has been really on the front pages of a lot of the major news organizations. And so how do we traffic in truth online when, you know, social media has many, many opinions? Everybody’s got an authority. Everybody’s got an opinion on Twitter on this. Everybody takes what they hear and runs with it. What do you think of all this in terms of how we manage the truth?
Scotty: Well, at the first level, you’ve already distinguished between journalistic truth and legal truth. So I appreciate you using the word allegedly. And then, Michael, pushed back a little bit to say, well wait a minute, what’s alleged and what is not? The fact is that in this country, you’re presumed innocent until proven guilty in a court of law. So I think from a legal perspective, it’s very important to use the word allegedly and to not prejudge how something is going to come out at trial when somebody has been criminally charged. On the other hand, in terms of journalism, we need to be careful to report what we know and to be, when it’s not entirely clear or when there might be a counter perspective, to make sure that’s presented. And I do worry about opinion being confused so often with journalistic integrity in reporting facts. So a lot of our students don’t often know the difference between opinion and factual reporting.
Michael: What do you mean by that?
Scotty: Well, take The Wall Street Journal, for example. It’s often seen as a very conservative newspaper because if you look at its editorial pages and its opinion pages, you’ll get a conservative perspective. But they have some of the best investigative journalism, I think, in the country where they really dig in and make sure that they’re presenting what’s true factually, regardless of what one’s opinion may be of those facts as presented.
Betty: And when you say dig in, they back check and they confirm and they make, they don’t take one person’s opinion on a reported situation. They–
Michael: And you also try to figure out what your bias is when you’re reporting, all of the things that you don’t do when you tweet, basically.
Scotty: Exactly. And so you do need, you know, there are journalistic ethics, which people used to take seriously when they called themselves journalists. And you make sure that you have, you know, more than one source, that your sources have been checked, that you have, ideally, other kinds of evidence available to you than just what somebody might say. So if you are reporting as a journalist and complying with traditional journalistic ethics, you wouldn’t just be, as you say, tweeting out something that you like or don’t like based on your bias.
Michael: Yeah. But it’s interesting too, you’re saying all this, because I think inherent in the presumption is that journalists, filmmakers, I’m a documentary filmmaker, I teach documentary journalism oddly enough, and people tend to see themselves as advocates. And, you know, that’s a slippery slope sometimes because when you advocate, you’re not–
Betty: You have a bias.
Michael: You have a bias. And you start having a calling to, what some of the people in my business call, a higher truth, which is, I think, a very dangerous proposition. But, Scotty, I’m also curious, you know, it seems to me that this malleability of there not being truth is in many ways a product of the New Left, mostly out of the 60s, right, that attacked the, sort of, order of that day, the academia, the Michel Foucaults of the world. They said you can’t really know anything, right. And you can’t really judge other cultures, right. Your truth doesn’t extend to somebody else’s truth. And all of this relativism, both in terms of moral relativism and moral truth, I’m starting to sound like a Fox News commentator here–
Betty: Go for it, Michael.
Michael: –has in some ways come back and boomeranged on them, right. And so now you have folks like Donald Trump or Kellyanne Conway saying, hey there is no truth, there’s my truth, and truth is a function of power. And therefore, I just look at the left in academia as having eroded the notions of truth for generations. And this is Jill Lepore’s point.
Betty: Who’s a historian.
Michael: Who’s a historian out of Harvard that, you know, we’ve spent a generation saying, you know, it’s all your truth, it’s not, you know, you can’t take your Western culture and impose it on someone else and so on and so forth. And then you’re sort of left with no center of gravity.
Scotty: Right. And if we go back to your earlier point about advocacy and that being journalism, we have the problem that I, as an attorney, see all the time, which is you need two sides when you walk into a courtroom. You can’t just advocate for your own client. There’s the other perspective. And you have a neutral fact finder in the middle, a judge or a jury. Now, they don’t necessarily come up with the truth, but they try to get the truth beyond a reasonable doubt or by the preponderance of the evidence or by clear and convincing evidence. I mean, there’s rules as to how to do that. So that’s quite different than, take another realm for a moment, religion. Most religions think they have the capital t Truth and that this whole postmodern way of looking at truth is fundamentally flawed because it doesn’t understand the real nature of reality, which is capital u Ultimate capital r Reality. So yeah, there’s these different ways of coming at it. And I think it’s dangerous when you begin using words like advocacy or pure postmodern analysis where there is no truth except from the mouth of power. And we lose our legal notion of truth. We lose our religious notion of truth. And let’s go to another area, science. What is scientific truth? And that’s one area where I think my students usually are clearest. They say, well, if we can’t find an absolute truth anywhere else, at least we can find it in science. You know, there are these natural laws that are discoverable. If you jump out a 10 story building, you know, there is a law of gravity and you’re going to die and you just are not going to argue about that. So that’s the one arena really, and, of course, now that gets undercut too, because–
Michael: Climate science.
Scotty: Scientific, yes, science keeps progressing and there’s new theories–
Betty: And you have no Newtonian physics.
Scotty: –and so we go from Newton’s gravitation to Einstein to quantum theory and so on.
Michael: If I can, can I go back to Betty’s comment or query earlier about Jussie Smollett and that whole thing, because it seems to me, however that ends up playing out, and we should frame the conversation by saying you are always innocent in this country until proven guilty and accusations are not the same thing as guilt.
Betty: But a lot of things get adjudicated on the newspapers.
Michael: Well, that’s the point.
Betty: That’s what I think happens.
Michael: That’s exactly your point. And I think that this whole narrative, right, now is from different facets, fascinating to look at. You have the Trump supporters who now are asserting a truth that you, the left, rushed to judgment. I’m vindicated. This is also part of the Covington High School drama that also blew up on Twitter before people knew the facts.
Betty: These are the teenagers on the Mall in DC.
Michael: The teenagers from Covington High School, correct. People were asserting specific truths, mostly in social media, but also in newspapers like The Washington Post. Certainly many people covered the Jussie Smollett case as fact, presidential candidates like Kamala Harris and Cory Booker came forward, and now a subset of the United States, those people who support Donald Trump, feel vindicated in their truth. Similarly, people who are victims of real hate crimes, genuinely victims of hate crimes, you know, quite often transgender community is uniquely prey to violent hate crimes, especially black transgender community, feel uniquely vulnerable now in the aftermath of this revelation that their legitimate claims won’t be listened to. Their truth now gets denied. What I find disturbing and fascinating in all of this is the speed with which we determine truth and then the danger, for all of us, when that rush to judgment turns out to be–
Betty: Precipitous. Too fast.
Michael: And that’s a kind way of saying it, you know.
Betty: And maybe we’re talking truth, we’re saying the word truth, but we really don’t mean truth. We mean opinion.
Michael: Well, we’re using the word truth as a club to beat other people. That’s what we do. And that’s where I get to the advocacy. We’ve been talking a lot. I’m curious what you’ve been thinking about all that.
Scotty: Well, it comes back to, we’ve said a lot of it, it’s opinion versus fact, et cetera. But when it’s all being claimed to be facts, all claimed to be truth, it’s important to use words like alleged again, to say that. And Mueller investigation is doing quite a good job of this, you know, everybody keeps saying, well we don’t really know yet. We’ve got to be patient. We’ve got to hear how this comes out. So I think that’s a really important thing for us to keep reminding ourselves of. We don’t have the whole story yet. And another thing that we need to do more of, because we’re so siloed in our partisan worlds, is to genuinely listen to each other and to empathetically listen to each other and to not be so quick to shut each other down.
Michael: We can’t even do that on this podcast, Scotty.
Michael: I said we can’t even do that on this podcast.
Betty: We struggle, we struggle. We try, though.
Scotty: I mean, I find it really astounding, given that we don’t have Walter Cronkite anymore to tell us, you know, both sides out of one person’s mouth, how anyone can watch the news at night and not watch both Fox News and MSNBC or CNN or whatever, if they want to have any possible understanding of what’s going on.
Michael: Yeah, I’ve stopped watching all together.
Betty: Well, and I think–
Michael: Betty, do you watch the news?
Betty: I don’t. I admit that I don’t.
Michael: Scotty, do you?
Scotty: Yes, I do.
Michael: How do you watch it?
Scotty: I do exactly what I said. I watch Fox and I watch MSNBC and I watch PBS. And I’m hoping that somewhere in that, I can sort it out and find something close to the truth. But you’re not going to get it.
Michael: When you tell people you listen to Fox, what do they say, in your community?
Scotty: A lot of people, because I’m on the left, a lot of people are appalled. They can’t believe it. And I go the other way and say, I can’t believe you’re not listening to Fox. How can you possibly, you know, live in this country where somewhere close to 50 percent, we’ll call it 30 percent, call it whatever you want, you know, this is the way they look at the world. And, by the way, MSNBC has all of its own biases. So how can you possibly speak to our reality without watching both? Would we had Walter Cronkite again, but we don’t.
Betty: I think, Scotty, what you’re pointing to is that you’re going to both sides of the news spectrum to get to the truth, but a lot of people are going to the news to reaffirm their tribe or reaffirm their identity, reaffirm their belief systems. And so they gather around Rachel Maddow or they gather around–
Michael: Sean Hannity.
Betty: Sean Hannity. Thank you.
Michael: You’re so Fox illiterate.
Betty: I really am.
Michael: Tucker Carlson.
Betty: Thank you.
Michael: It’s okay. Shep Smith’s really good.
Betty: Shep Smith.
Michael: He’s really good though. He’s a really good journalist.
Betty: I would fail that quiz.
Michael: I like him a lot.
Betty: And I would pretty much fail the MSNBC quiz, although I do have a fan girl feeling for Rachel Maddow. But they are going to these news sites and channels to affirm themselves, to find their group, to gather around these coasts, to reify their belief systems and their values in this sphere. They’re not looking necessarily for the truth. They’re looking for a way to feel better about what’s going on, to hear their side of it on a national news channel, be it cable news. And no, we don’t have a Walter Cronkite or a three channel system anymore where we’re getting all of our news from very specific and centralized sites. So you’re talking about a centralized versus a decentralized perveance of or dissemination of information. So how do we ground ourselves in this spin, which happened organically?
Scotty: Well, we’re forgetting democracy. We’re forgetting our civics lessons from fifth grade. We’re forgetting that we put our hands over our hearts on a regular basis and pledge allegiance to a flag and talk about a republic, one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.
Michael: You forgot God.
Scotty: How do we do that–
Michael: You forgot God.
Scotty: –at one point and then forget that that’s what we’re all about. We’re all Americans. You know, Obama said that back in the 2004 Democratic convention. You know, we’re not blue states and red states, we’re the United States of America where our national motto is E Pluribus Unum. Out of many, one. We know all that stuff from our revolutionary history of, you know, united we stand, divided we fall. What’s happened to our understanding of democracy in this time that we need to just stay with our own tribes? We know that’s a recipe for disaster. We know that’s a recipe, ultimately, for revolution.
Michael: You know, but it’s interesting, Betty, as you were talking, Scotty, as we’re listening to you, Betty, you’re talking about listening to MSNBC as one piece of a truth or Fox as another piece. I don’t think either of them traffic in facts or truth.
Betty: No, I don’t know if–
Michael: You know what I mean, let me just say, look, I’ll listen to Rachel Maddow and it’s just her–
Michael: Yeah. Well, but couched as news reporting.
Betty: Right. There’s–
Michael: That’s the thing. So Mueller has not come out with anything. He’s had some indictments. Those indictments are very specific. And yet, every time there’s an indictment, people get on the news, CNN as well, and pontificate about what it all means and they don’t know.
Betty: And I think you have to, what you’re pointing to, Michael, and something for you, Scotty, to comment on is the form in which truth gets packaged or opinion and truth gets packaged because you see a Walter Cronkite-ish person, a host of a TV show on a major news channel that gets blasted all over the world and they’re saying something. Or you see the printed word on a website or on, in the old fashioned sense, on a newsprint journal. And we lend those things a certain kind of authority. But is that something that we need to be careful about now, given that there are many, many, many of these journals and many, many, many of these websites, some of them we know where their information comes from, like The Wall Street Journal does a deep job of it, their investigative reporting, but not every journalist, not every news organization does this.
Michael: Well, they do. Journalists do it. And I think that that’s one of the problems with Trump, right. That he’s attacked the news so spectacularly that we don’t even have faith in journalism anymore. But journalism is not the same thing as opinion.
Betty: No, it’s not. But it stands next to, now that people are thinking what they get on Facebook is equivalent to–
Michael: That’s Facebook’s problem.
Betty: Well, it’s our problem too, that we buy that. We buy what we’re seeing.
Michael: That’s why everybody should go off Facebook.
Betty: You’re in the minority position there.
Scotty: And it’s not just Facebook. It’s Google. It’s Wikipedia. It’s wherever you’re going–
Scotty: –and you’re not digging down to the sources that underlie what you’re getting. And it’s this confusion between opinion and journalism. And I think part of it is, for journalists, to remind us, and schools of journalism and everywhere else, about journalistic ethics. What is a journalist? Why is it a profession and not just a business to make money off of? What does it mean to be a profession? What does it mean to have a code of ethics? What does it mean to care about your clientele? Who are your readers, as your number one constituency, not yourself, not your business. So I think we need to return to a real understanding across the board, not just with journalism, professional ethics is having a hard time these days for lawyers, for physicians, for journalists. And we need to get back to that center and then have people respected because they actually are professionals.
Betty: I mean, you identified basic American values of democracy and E Pluribus Unum. And I have recently cited the Declaration of Independence as these, perhaps, grounding principles and grounding central documents that we can return to as ways to center ourselves as what we’re all about. But they seem to be getting drowned in this signal-to-noise situation, that there’s a lot of noise. And so how do we clarify? How do we focus ourselves and remind ourselves of democracy when even our president sitting in the office of the United States, you know, Oval Office, taking on the form of the leader of the free world, is advocating things that are very much against the principles of democracy?
Scotty: We need to defend our institutions. We need to make sure that courts are courts and have somebody like Chief Justice John Roberts say, when the president talks about Obama judges, we don’t have Obama judges. We have judges in an independent court system. We need to defend our, I mean, I never thought I’d say this having been on the left for my whole life, but, you know, we need to defend the CIA and the FBI and their ability to do a thorough and neutral investigation. We need to defend our institutions like Congress and realize we have a separation of powers and Congress needs to exercise its duties to make sure that it has the power of the purse and not the president. So I think ultimately, this country is only an idea. It is the Declaration of Independence, that really is our creed as a nation. And we’ve had some good leadership in the past.
I think of people like Martin Luther King Jr. who was able to both advocate for his tribe, if you will. That is, you know, talk about people who were oppressed and talk about racism and poverty and so on. But at the same time, always tie it back to our common connection to the Declaration, you know, that there’s certain self-evident truths that all people are created, it actually said men originally, but all people are created equal, you know. And there is somebody who is able to say, yeah it did say men originally, but we mean women, we mean not just white men, but go back to those original documents, to those original vision, because otherwise America has nothing. I mean, we’re not in ethnicity, like a lot of countries are. We’re not a religion, like a lot of countries are. But we are an idea.
Michael: We’re an aspiration. And I think that the thing about King is that he was a genius. And he was consistently asking us as a country to hold ourselves to our own standard. That America, in King’s vision, was redeemable to live up to its own words and that it had failed, but that it could succeed in its promise of, as you say, you know, ensuring human rights and dignity to each of its citizens. What I think is so fascinating, and Betty and I have talked about this in the past on the show, is that we’ve lost that vision and we’ve lost that articulation. And that we are now telling two very competing stories. That on the right, make America great again may be the best example of it. The right tells a story in the past tense. Looking back, we once were glory. We have to get back to that. And then, you know, obviously, when you do that, you don’t include immigrants. You don’t include equal rights for women. You tend to also, that means, you know, going back to the era of Jim Crow, when you think about the past tense, it’s by its nature, when you talk about America, exclusionary.
Betty: Right. It’s past tense, defined by those people who want to define it in a certain way.
Michael: Right. But the left has lost its voice and the left does not tell a story about America that has any hint of redemption in it. The left’s vision, I think, of America is one where America is implacably evil and can’t be redeemed, right. It’s always going to be racist. It’s always going to be sexist. It’s always going to be something.
Betty: Well, I don’t know if that’s exactly the argument on the left, but–
Michael: It feels that way. Sure feels that way to me.
Betty: I mean, I think the left wants, as you put it, Scotty, a plurality and a recognition of all different voices. I do feel like in that way, it’s lost an ability to unify those voices.
Michael: I think that’s because there’s no redemption in its narrative.
Betty: I think there’s no link. And it goes back to an interesting point about Jussie Smollett, if I may. There’s another interesting point about that story, which is underlying the actual actions and the actual opinions that are swirling around it, which is that here is a black gay young man who was walking the street on his own. And there’s obviously, if he allegedly created this situation, what in him created that narrative? Why did he need to tell this story of being subjugated by people who were MAGA supporters?
Michael: Well, that’s the worst part of it. He did it for his own selfish reasons of trying to get more money, supposedly, right. This is the allegation at Fox.
Michael: Yeah. Allegedly. This is the allegation that the motivation was simple–
Betty: For attention.
Michael: –greed. He was not getting the part he wanted and he didn’t get the money he wanted and that’s why he did it. That is the nightmare of this thing.
Betty: So to clarify, he wanted to create a greater celebrity around himself so that he could be more valued on the TV show?
Michael: Correct. That’s the allegation. That is an unproven allegation. That is the, again, allegation. That is not the truth. That is an allegation. But in theory here, the motivation is a deeply selfish one and destructive one. And that’s the danger in all of this. And we’re trafficking in, and we’re spending all this time talking about it, because it causes real harm to a lot of people. But chief among them, those people who are genuinely the victims of hate crimes in this country. But, you know, not in a similar way and not in the same way, but those people who are tarred and feathered then with the notion that they, because they support Donald Trump, are complicit in hate crimes. And that’s what Twitter went crazy with when this story broke. And those people are now feeling not just vindicated, but triumphant. And what we end up with is zero truth, right. Nothing to hold on to. No, it’s all sand that you pick up and just runs right through your fingers. And now everybody using whatever piece of that narrative that they want–
Betty: For their own ends.
Michael: –to club the other person.
Betty: For their own, well, it’s also to gain more power.
Betty: What do you think of all this, Scotty?
Scotty: Well, I’d like to go back to what Michael said about redemption and that we don’t have a vision of redemption. I think that’s a really important point. And it moves me to another realm of my life, which is religion. I mean, Obama came in with a redemptive vision of how America might be. Not only that unifying one of no blue states and red states but only the United States, but a message of hope and a message of, you know, a vision of an America that was grounded in these founding documents, but also is not yet realized. And for a moment, I want to say something positive about identity politics, which we’ve been talking about, which is, you know, you move from the realm of selfishness that we’ve been talking about to a group and you feel the pain of other people, and the hope and the aspirations of other people in your group. If you can keep building those concentric circles out, you know, and not circling the wagons, ultimately, you can get a vision of the whole and you can get a redemptive vision.
And that’s what religions have historically done. They’ve done a lot of harm. I actually used to preach a sermon every year, does religion do more harm than good. And obviously it does a lot of harm in terms of its divisiveness and its violence and holocausts and pogroms and holy wars and so on. But it also, a lot of the founders and a lot of the communities talk about some vision of the next world, whether it’s Christian ideas of redemption or Jewish concepts that we’ve been exiled but we will return to some kind of a promised land, whether it’s a Muslim notion that if you get beyond your own pride, I mean, that’s sort of the centerpiece of Islam, you know, that the great sin is pride and selfishness, and submit to God, to a larger vision, there is a very different kind of hope. And, you know, we can keep ticking through all the religious traditions. You know, Buddhism also sees as its centerpiece, as the problem of human suffering, ego and selfishness. And you need to, ego attachment is the big issue. How do you get beyond that in a vision of compassion and a vision of bringing all living beings, all sentient beings, together as one?
So we just need to build these circles out and keep building them out with messages like Jesus did of, you know, obviously, you need to love your neighbor, you know, as you said, with the Hebrew Bible on his lips. But then he went on to say, you know, you need to love the stranger, which is also a Jewish concept. But then beyond that, you need to love your enemy. Really, you need to love your enemy? Yeah. Because the blessed community includes everyone. And that vision of redemption is one that, you know, King used to talk about, Martin Luther King Jr., used to talk about all the time.
Michael: Right. Well, he was a minister and he understood, I think, he felt, you know, the power of redemption. And if you deny yourself or others redemption, you deny the other person humanity. And that ultimately is where we have gone. We don’t see the humanity in the other anymore. And, you know, it’s funny, as you were talking, Scotty, I was even thinking of, you know, just in terms of pop culture, Star Wars, right. It’s a very powerful story, but, you know, look at the end. Darth Vader, who we’ve learned, you know, is a mass murderer, right. He killed all of the padawan children at the end of, you know, I mean, like, you go through the story–
Betty: He’s a genocidal despot.
Michael: Right. He is redeemed. He is redeemed at the end. And that story works because the worst can find redemption. Now, we, I think that among the things that we’ve lost, and we sort of strayed somewhat from truth, is the fact that right now what we need is, as you say, Obama is a good example of that as a politician, as any in the modern era, someone who offers us the power of hope and the power of redemption. And I think personally, the country is just desperately hungry for that voice. But it’s not there right now. At least I don’t feel it.
Betty: I mean, I think something that you mentioned, Michael, about Jussie Smollett and something that you mentioned, Scotty, about the redemption and what the basis of multiple religions are in seeking redemption, is the dialectic between materiality and spirituality. And when we talk about Jussie Smollett, he was doing this, allegedly, for personal gain and trafficking in all of these symbols of the MAGA supporters, of being gay, of race, of being a young man who is subjugated and alone walking on a street, a black young man. And now there’s this extra added issue of celebrity, which is money and materiality–
Michael: And paying with a check. Can we talk about it? If you’re going to stage your own attack, use cash. Can we just, right? Use cash.
Betty: Well, you know, and we follow the money. We follow the money just like in Watergate.
Michael: If you’re listening in and you’re trying to figure out like, how am I going to stage my own, like, now? My big takeaway is use cash and did you hear–
Betty: Just like the mafiosos. But to hit to the point of materiality and spirituality, I mean, I think, you know, this information age where everything becomes click bait. So we’re talking about truth, we’re talking about words, we’re talking about words mattering, but every word becomes possibly something to garner yourself a million likes. And that becomes translated into power for politicians because they’re trying to tweet something that everybody will pay attention to. And that gives them the spotlight. But there is a lack of spirituality which doesn’t traffic in the material, doesn’t have a dollar sign next to it, and yet is something that we need desperately to transcend. We are limited creatures on this earth. We’re gonna die. And, as one of our first interviewers, Sheldon Solomon, said, the thing that carries us across this anxiety of death is the meaning in culture and art. And really, these are elements of spirituality. Would you agree with that, Scotty?
Scotty: Every word. I mean, this is the beauty of not having to preach if somebody else can do it for you. Just beautifully stated.
Betty: From therapist to the pulpit. I’m moving on up, Michael.
Michael: Reverend Teng.
Michael: I mean, I think that, Scotty, how do you see the role of religion then in our society right now? I think that there’s a great deal of skepticism in it. And I think that one of the things that has unfortunately happened is that those people who are deeply religious, who really do believe and for whom it is an integral part of their life, especially those Christians in America, feel as though they have no home on the left. That there is a skepticism, there’s a sort of condescension.
Betty: Yeah, we’re deeply divided along religious lines.
Michael; Well, but also because I think that, well, one, I think religion’s been politicized, right. But I also think that the left has, they look down on it, like you must be–
Betty: Not educated.
Michael: –stupid, frankly, right. Yeah. Not educated is a nice way of saying it. But I would say stupid.
Betty: Well, Scotty, you told me a story about when you were a chaplain, I don’t know if it was at Stanford or if it was at Tufts, of all the groups that came to you. I mean, I think that that’s an interesting metaphor for what we’re going through right now. Could you give us, give me, Michael, and our listeners, like some of that story of the groups that came to you while you were a university chaplain?
Scotty: Well this happened both when I was a chaplain at Tufts for 16 years and the Dean for Religious Life, or chaplain, at Stanford for 14 years. So 30 years of having several dozen different religious groups on campus from, you know, Christian evangelicals, Orthodox Christians, Roman Catholics, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Baha’is, you know, it just goes on and on. And then at Stanford, we had this wonderful group called AHA!, with an exclamation mark, for atheists, humanists and agnostics.
Betty: That’s awesome. I want that T-shirt.
Scotty: So every one of those groups would come through my office door, we’d close the door, they’d sit down, and they would tell me how discriminated against they were and how much they felt at risk and how the whole community thought they were, some of the things that Michael was just saying, you know, I’m an Evangelical Christian and nobody thinks that I have any intelligence. I’m a Roman Catholic and Catholicism has always been attacked within the academy. Or I’m a Jew and let me tell you about the levels of anti-Semitism that are rife in this university. Or I’m a Muslim, you know, and I’ve actually had death threats and people say, how can you wear that headscarf and how can you, you know, be a woman, a modern woman in a university and, you know, one after the other. They all came in and they all told me how discriminated against they were and how they tended to not know that everybody else was coming in and saying virtually the same thing.
And then one thing I really used to love was having all these groups that are religious talk about it being a secular university and how you can’t talk about religion in the modern university. It’s all rational, it’s all anti-religious, it’s all science and so on. And then I would have the AHA! group, or its equivalent, humanists, you know, other groups that I’ve had over the years, come through the door and say, the problem is you cannot be an atheist at a university. It is so religious. It is so spiritually oriented. We have this church sitting at the middle of the campus. And by the way, when I graduate and I want to go into politics, I can never say I’m an atheist. There’s no way you can go into politics. You would not be accepted in America as an atheist, you know, 95 percent of people consistently in this Gallup poll say they believe in God. And so they felt so discriminated against and they said, you know, it’s basically a religious environment that we exist and there’s no room for secularity. So how do you put all that together?
Betty: Yeah, so from your position as university chaplain, like, and sort of seeing all this happening under your umbrella, did each of them have a legitimate claim to feeling so subjugated?
Scotty: Absolutely. Every one of them had a factual, I’m going to say that again, factual basis for their claims. And they could point to evidence and to experience, which, you know, backed up what they were saying. Absolutely.
Betty: So that kind of speaks to the identity politics that is happening on the right and left here in the United States. Everybody has a legitimate claim to their feelings of being subjugated. Even those, we were talking just last week to a political scientist about white identity politics. So everybody has a legitimate claim and what is your answer to these groups? What did you say to them?
Scotty: Well, part of my answer is to just let them know that, by the way, five minutes earlier or, you know, five weeks earlier, you know, the exact opposite person from who you say is oppressing you, walked through the door and told me how oppressed they were. So this is just a generalized phenomenon of, whatever you want to call it, religion, identity politics, a sense of community identity. It goes on, but, so that’s one thing, just to let people know that. The second thing is to say, gee if you would actually listen to each other, if you would have environments, and I tried to create some of them artificially like having people in discussions over very controversial subjects where you could not speak until you’d summarized what the previous speaker had said in such a way that they accepted it. So you would summarize it and they’d say, no you didn’t quite hear what I said. I said this. Then you’d have to try to summarize again. Not until you could adequately summarize what had just been said could you speak.
That helps people really listen to each other and listen empathetically. And you begin to see how much similarity there is, how much shared pain there is, but you also see the uniqueness of every group’s issues and how it really is. Anti-Semitism really isn’t the same as anti-Muslim sentiment, Islamophobia, and it’s not really the same as what Evangelical Christians experience by being denigrated in the academy, etc.. So that’s, you know, just being able to figure out how to get people to empathetically listen to each other. And then at the far end of it, you say all of your traditions talk about a vision of unity. They all talk about the commonality that we’re all creations of the same God. You know, we have this fundamental document in the U.S. that these are truths that we’re all created equal and we’re endowed by a creator, by the way, with certain inalienable rights. And that’s it.
Michael: Not the atheists.
Betty: So people could only earn the right to speak if they had proven they truly listened to their opponent or the person that came before them. This is something that they should do in Congress.
Scotty: You know, one exciting thing in Congress, I think, is there’s begin to be some of these groups, there’s a veterans organization called With Honor that I’m trying to follow a little bit, which is putting money up both for Democrats and Republicans who have come out of the military and who have a sense of America, a nonpartisan America, and who have a sense of the basic values of being an American and of the importance of talking across the aisle. And they sign a pledge to do a number of things that are kind of abstract, but then some concrete things like sponsor one piece of bipartisan legislation a year and co-sponsor, you know, several, to have a one on one meeting with somebody from across the aisle on a regular, I think they say, a weekly or monthly basis, et cetera, et cetera. I mean, we need to be able to have us return to these underlying Pledge of Allegiance, Star-Spangled Banner, Declaration, America the Beautiful values that we all talk about, especially in Congress. I mean, they’re our lawmakers.
Betty: Yeah, I mean, something that you were talking about earlier about E Pluribus Unum. We have lost, it seems, the Unum or we’re losing sight of Unum.
Betty: We have a lot of diversity and increasing diversity. Things are heating up in our arguments with each other over our different groups and our different voices. In a certain sense, this is a reaction to what the MAGA supporters say was what made us great, that we were one, maybe one race, one religion, one creed, and one kind of people. And we are–
Scotty: We’re all wasps.
Betty: We’re all wasps.
Scotty: We’re all Anglo-Saxon Protestants.
Betty: Right, that ate apple pie.
Michael: Only, we never actually were.
Betty: Yeah, we never actually were.
Scotty: Of course not.
Betty: I mean, we were founded upon a system of slavery and that was a hidden history, so to speak. And–
Michael: We fought a civil war with 800,000 deaths.
Betty: Yeah, but to say that there are people in the country that think racism is nonexistent, that denies that war and denies that history. But–
Michael: I don’t know. I listen to all this and I just think to myself, we have yet to come out of the correct upheaval of the second civil war, which was the civil rights movement, a largely peaceful civil war that remade the country. And yet, and when we lost King, we lost a visionary. He was murdered for his actions. And let’s not forget that. That we have, in the generations since his death, not been able to find a single individual man, woman, doesn’t, you know, whomever it is, who can articulate a narrative like Lincoln did at Gettysburg, you know, of the people, for the people, by the people. Or whatever, I don’t know if that’s the right order, but close.
Betty: Good enough.
Michael: Good enough. Or, you know, to be judged by the content of your character. The dream of being judged by the content of your character and not the color of your skin. Those are forward thinking visionaries. Jefferson, flawed though he was, you know, that–
Betty: Articulated the all men are created equal.
Michael: And Ben Franklin made those truths self-evident because they were originally written as sacred. They were, right. That was the first draft.
Scotty: That’s right.
Michael: They were sacred truths and Franklin came in with his black pen and turned them into self-evident. Thank you, Scotland for the–
Betty: Thank you Enlightenment.
Michael: Scotland. David Hume. So but, you know, I think what we’re missing is a visionary and we’re hungry for a visionary. And I think we are lost in the wilderness without, if you’ll excuse, the religious metaphor, a Moses to lead us forward.
Scotty: That’s so true. Yet, on the other hand, we can’t just wait around for Moses. This is really on each of us. And, very much on a daily basis, it’s on each of us. And I think this should be a citizens matter. This should be civics, one on one. This should be citizenship. This should be what we stand for with our neighbors, who we have over to dinner, what news we watch each night, as we were saying earlier. This is on every one of us. And we can’t just look for the visionary leader.
Michael: Well, one of the things I do think, when you were talking guys earlier about the news, I mean, I think one of the realities is that we lost legislation, the Fairness Act, the FCC removed that. One of the reasons why Cronkite was Cronkite was there was a time when we legislated fairness on the public airwaves and we got rid of that. And the consequence of that is what you were talking about earlier. So one way to solve the Rachel Maddow Sean Hannity bifurcation is to re-legislate fairness. I also think–
Betty: And also maybe put journalism in the realm, not of capitalism.
Michael: For sure.
Betty: To not put it in the hands of profit.
Michael: Well, Scotty, why do you listen to PBS, right? I mean, there’s one place in America that’s not driven by profit, NPR.
Michael: And PBS being the other. They have to survive with our good grace as well as our tax dollars. You know, they can’t just live alone on the public toll, so we, you know, they’re constantly fundraising.
Scotty: That’s why I give them money all the time.
Michael: Yeah, well. But, you know, I think that the model, I think, Betty, you’re right. The economic model of news and truth needs to change. I think the legislative model of news and truth needs to change. But I also think, and this is my own bugaboo, which we have never talked about actually, I don’t believe in STEM. Like all this thing, like everybody should learn how to code and all this arts education, I don’t believe in either. I don’t believe in arts education or STEM.
Michael: Because we don’t have civics. I believe in humanities.
Betty: Well, they need both.
Michael: No, no. There’s only so much time in the day.
Michael: And honestly, I think that we as a country, like the fixation on coding, everybody should code, is idiotic.
Betty: But arts education is a spiritual education.
Michael: No, it’s not.
Betty: Yes it is.
Michael: I don’t believe that. I’m an artist and I don’t believe that.
Michael: Artists are assholes. Artists are assholes.
Michael: And so the truth–
Betty: The artist in this room is the asshole.
Michael: No, but Picasso’s an asshole.
Betty: No, no. But if we go back to our original, our first podcast, which we cite often, is that social psychologist, Sheldon Solomon, who we love dearly–
Michael: We look for meaning in art–
Betty: We look for meaning in art–
Michael: –but that doesn’t make you a better person.
Betty: Art is meaning.
Michael: No it’s not.
Betty: Art is meaning and arts education–
Michael: Art can be, but art doesn’t–
Betty: It’s not zeros and ones and it’s not–
Michael: I don’t buy that for a second.
Betty: –logistics. It’s not logic.
Michael: I don’t think that arts education makes you a better person.
Betty: I disagree.
Michael: What’s missing is fundamental civics. People don’t know the Constitution. People have not read the Declaration of Independence.
Betty: It doesn’t have to be exclusive.
Michael: People don’t know, there’s only so much money and time in a day. They still have to learn math and they still have to learn to read and write. And we don’t teach ethics. We don’t teach ethics.
Betty: No, we don’t.
Michael: How can we not teach ethics? You want to know what happens when we don’t teach ethics? Walk outside your door or pick up the newspaper or go on Twitter or Facebook. That’s what happens to a society that chooses to not teach ethics. The Greeks knew that their society couldn’t function without ethics and rhetoric. And we’ve just completely decided there’s no value in the humanities.
Betty: Which includes art.
Scotty: You’re the preacher. You did a great job. Here he goes off, you know, as the philosopher. He’s doing terrific work, you know, on ethics and civics.
Betty: On ethics. I don’t think that things have to be parsed out like this.
Scotty: No, I agree.
Betty: I don’t think we need to cut things off. I totally agree that we need ethical education. And I totally agree we need civic education. I mean, I think part of the disappearance of these principles of the Declaration of Independence and E Pluribus Unum and Bill of Rights is disappearing because we lack the civic education. But I don’t agree that we cut out arts education. I believe that there is a deeper meaning to the arts, assholes notwithstanding. That arts are, what we call in psychoanalytic world, transitional objects in object relations. They hold us together across the gaps, you know, the gaps being maybe the fear of death, the gaps being separation from the other. You have a piece of art or piece of music, The Strokes, Michael.
Michael: Yeah, listen, I’m not–
Betty: These carry you across.
Scotty: Aesthetics. Aesthetics, Michael.
Betty: Aesthetics. They unify you to other people.
Michael: I’m not arguing against the role–
Betty: You know, you could love somebody, I don’t know, a MAGA supporter, because they love The Strokes.
Michael: I’m not arguing against the role of art in society. What I’m saying is not everybody is an artist.
Betty: No that’s not–
Michael: And we are living in–
Betty: That’s not what it’s saying. You don’t teach art to make an artist. You teach arts–
Michael: Well that’s exactly what we’re doing.
Betty: Well, that’s–
Michael: That is totally–
Betty: Well that’s about–
Michael: That’s totally what we do in high school.
Betty: Well, we’ll get some educators in here when we talk about that.
Michael: That’s totally what we do in middle school. Everybody’s going to be an artist. All these kids think they’re going to be actors or they’re gonna be painters or whatever.
Betty: I took dance as a kid. I wasn’t going to be a dancer. It causes me to understand dance from the inside.
Michael: Right, but the problem is we have limited resources. And so when all of that resources goes into, everybody’s going to be an artist–
Betty: Well, everybody learning coding is not going to be a coder.
Michael: Well, that’s the whole point of it, right. You’re teaching them coding so that they can get a good job. Meanwhile, you have people like Mark Zuckerberg who never took a humanities class and you end up with Facebook that has no ethical core.
Betty: Well, I think we go back to my original sermon, which is the spirituality and the materiality. You go one to one. You teach coding to get a job. You teach civics to understand how to better become a politician or manage yourself in the world. That’s great and that’s useful. But you also have to tend to the spiritual, which is a part of the mind. And we are mindful creatures who have spirituality, who need to know that there’s, otherwise life is boring. If you just mind your to do list, you mind your bottom line, you mind your bank account, it’s deathly dull. And this is what people in the rat race suffer from. They don’t have anything that connects them to a different, a higher order. And it’s something that’s more idiosyncratic to them. Everybody looks at a color differently. Everybody sees and tastes things differently. And if you can explore that through aesthetics, then you come to a better understanding of yourself and ground yourself in this.
Scotty: Why can’t we see education as having a number of different objects, including, obviously getting you a job someday, but so much more. That’s critical. And certainly civics is critical to be a citizen. You’re being educated not only to get a job, but to be a citizen, and you’re being educated to be able to relate to other people. So talk about psychology or whatever, you’re being educated in order to have an aesthetic dimension to your life, to be able to appreciate, to smell, to taste, to be able to understand music and drama and literature and so on. So there’s a lot of reasons why we educate. And it’s, we’ve got to be careful to not just limit it to one. And that’s why we have universities, ultimately. We’re supposed to take all of this and turn it into one. We don’t want to have somebody graduate from a university and had a, you know, a Multiversity experience where all they did was, you know, get these–
Scotty: –various topics that they, you know, silos that they lived in, like computer science, and not understand its connection to all the rest of human knowledge.
Betty: Or a confusion of subjects that don’t link together into one unified.
Scotty: Back to E Pluribus Unum.
Betty: I mean, I think, you know, we’re talking about another podcast, Michael, on education. Scotty, our time is up, but this has been wonderful. Thank you so much.
Michael: Thank you, Scotty.
Scotty; Thank you for what you’re doing. It’s really important and I appreciate it. I hope everyone in the world hears what you’re saying out here.
Michael: Well, we have reached the end of yet another session. And as my analyst likes to say to me, time to take your problems home with you. Mind of State is a production of Mind of State Media LLC and Hangar Studios NYC. Our crackerjack producer is Caroline Kwash. Our engineer is Jack Dixon. Mind of State’s music is composed by Joel Goodman, courtesy of Oovra Music. I’m Michael Epstein.
Betty: And I’m Betty Teng. You can connect with us on Twitter at Mind of State Pod, on our Facebook page, and at our website, MindofState.com. You can also subscribe to our show at Apple podcasts or wherever you get your podcasts. Thanks for listening. And we’ll see you next week.