Michael A. Covington    Michael A. Covington, Ph.D.
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Ichthys

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Weaponized stupidity, post-truth, and false religion

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2021
February
20

The Ravi Zacharias scandal

As if recent political scandals were not enough, many American Christians are also reeling from the sad revelation that the late Ravi Zacharias, prominent Christian philosopher and speaker, was a sexual predator.

This is not a wild accusation; it really happened. Zacharias' organization commissioned a detailed investigation which you can read here. Of course, I have no first-hand knowledge, but even Zacharias' own organization now admits it.

I don't mean Ravi Zacharias fell into temptation on the spur of the moment, as other prominent ministers have occasionally done; his behavior was long-term and systematic and involved unwilling victims.

This raises two issues for every Christian organization: how to prevent such things, and how to respond to accusations. In this case, neither one was done well.

How could it have been prevented?

My good friend Donald Williams, who was a classmate of Ravi Zacharias, made some apt observations. With his permission, I want to sum up, in my own words, what he recently said to a study group:

My first thought is, "I could never have done that." It's outlandish and bizarre. If good sense didn't prevent me, sinful pride would — I couldn't live with myself after making such a mess.

But wait a minute. Ravi Zacharias probably didn't fall into it suddenly either. For a long time he most likely was as far from it as I am. What probably happened is that he gradually lowered his standards, one compromise at a time, until he could do it and was doing it. We need to remember that we are all sinners; no one is immune. There but for the grace of God go I.

Everyone is pointing out one big element in how it happened: lack of accountability. The leader of a one-man ministry isn't accountable to anyone who can sternly tell him to stop doing something, or even gently counsel him that a situation is getting risky. Instead, he is surrounded only by supporters. And this points to a major need: Prominent Christian ministers and speakers should function as part of Christendom, as members of churches and organizations, not as the sole leaders of their own organizations.

They should be given good advice long before they get to the point of serious sin. One principle I've always lived by is that there should be several obstacles between me and serious sin in any situation, and if some of the obstacles go away, others (which can be minor changes in procedure) should be set up. Some of what looks like prudishness is actually reasonable protection against three things: sin, someone else's fear that they might be victimized, and the possibility of false accusation.

It goes further. A key element in the way the scandal snowballed was people thinking, Let's hush this up because if it gets out, it will harm the ministry. It's easy to rationalize that the message will be impaired and souls will be lost if there's even a small scandal — so hush it up, discredit the complainers, and harm the victims rather than the ministry. To which I hope you are saying, "Yuck!" We need godly people with the good sense to recognize this kind of thinking and object loudly.

That is of course an even bigger issue if the ministry relies on bringing in lots of money, which would diminish if people became suspicious. At that point, if you are the least bit dishonest, you are over the line into financial fraud, soliciting money under false pretenses.

Going even further, a large part of the problem is that Christians are often enablers, cooperating to at least keep sin hidden, if not to actively facilitate it. They are amazingly good at keeping themselves unaware of it, even when credible accusations are brought. They tell each other to ignore warning signs. And that is not godly or virtuous. It brings us to the next point.

How should complaints and accusations be handled?

When the first accusation came out, while Ravi Zacharias was still alive, he convinced his organization that the accuser was a lying extortionist; he did not level with them about what actually happened; and as a result, further investigation was not performed. Admittedly, the accuser was asking for a rather large settlement, but I wonder if the reason is that she wanted to prod the organization into spending enough money on an investigation instead. It didn't work. She was lied to and falsely accused. The case has now been confidentially settled.

Something I learned while handling computer network abuse incidents for UGA, and something I hope a lot of people know by now, is that false accusations are frequent, but so are true accusations. We have to strike a balance between believing too much and believing too little.

One thing that affects the balance is whether someone has responsibility for handling accusations and suspicious incidents. We naturally and wisely do ignore potentially malicious gossip about things we're not involved in. But if we have responsibility, we can't dismiss warning signs just because we don't want to believe them. We have to check things out.

That might be part of the problem — nobody in the organization felt it was their job to investigate. Their job was to take Ravi Zacharias at his word. That is where a larger organization, not centered on one man, would have done better. Maybe every such organization needs an ethics officer or incident-handling officer. Or even an outside organization to do the initial fact-finding while maintaining confidentiality (just as the University has an incident handling team that is not within any department).

Another thing I learned while handling computer incidents is that false and true accusations are often fairly easy to distinguish. Often, the false accuser wants action taken immediately and balks at further investigation. The true accuser welcomes investigation, provided it doesn't turn into a trial or character-assassination of the victim. A further difference is that true accusations are usually more specific. Unusual accusations — provided the dates, times, and physical details are possible — may be more credible than stereotypical things that people would make up for gossip.

So the picture that emerges is of an organization that trusted its leader far too much.

What happens next?

The responsibility of all Christians involved in the scandal is to minister compassionately to the victims. Right now they haven't even all been identified, much less apologized to, or compensated in any way. The biggest thing they need is for everyone to admit that sin is sin and not demand denial or whitewashing under the guise of "forgiveness." You do not glorify God by hiding or excusing misconduct.

And that happens. Within the past 24 hours someone has commanded me, "Don't believe these demonic lies," as if it were a sin to believe that the Ravi Zacharias scandal is real! No... no...

It is inevitable but sad that Ravi Zacharias' organization is collapsing and his books are being withdrawn from the market. The books are as good as they ever were; they aren't based on any claims about his character or special gifts; they're not about him at all. But now he has given a whole field of study a bad name. People are always going to wonder whether he was sincere — whether, perhaps, he knew of logical flaws in his reasoning that he was not honest enough to reveal. A person who is untrustworthy about some things is an untrustworthy person.

And I am saddened by the damage to the cause of Christ. Let us all resolve to be better Christians.

2021
February
16

45th and 50th

There were two years in my youth when an unusual number of important things were set in motion: 1971 (the first full calendar year of high school) and 1976 (when Melody and I became a couple).

That means the 50th and 45th anniversaries of a lot of important events are coming this year.

I've already noted the 50th anniversary of starting at Valwood, beginning my study of Latin, and getting my first good telescope (Sept. 1, 1970). Melody and I have also commemorated the 45th anniversary of our meeting (Nov. 8, 1975).

More is coming. I kept a journal from 1971 to 1977, so we are now in the period where it gives the details of what was happening 50 and 45 years ago. Recently I got it out and extracted some material. I also found my astronomy notes from 1969 to 1973, which had been misplaced. With this new material in hand, I will note important dates as they come up, although there won't be any for the next few weeks.

Everyone will understand why I'm commemorating 50th anniversaries, but why 45th anniversaries also? Partly because they're too good to miss, and partly to prepare for bigger commemorations on the 50th, and partly because 90% is good enough for an A, as everybody knows who has taken my courses.

2021
February
14

Happy Valentine's Day, Melody!

Picture

Forty-five years ago today, Melody and I were still just friends, writing letters to each other while she finished high school and prepared to enter the University of Georgia. I was looking forward to welcoming her into my circle of friends there. But as we got to know each other, we each quickly realized we had found our nearest and dearest. In the coming months, we'll mark the 45th anniversary of our early courtship.

I've already told the story of how we met, but only recently did we realize the imporance of one big thing: Right from the beginning, each of us knew exactly what kind of person the other was. We were forthright, straightforward people. And we liked each other very much.

Each of us has remained exactly what we had been. I don't mean we were inflexible; I mean that at the time we met, we already knew ourselves. And that was a perfect foundation for starting a relationship, and we lived happily ever after.

The picture above is a self-portrait that Melody did in the summer of 1978, while I was at home in Athens, after Cambridge and before Yale, and she was working on her art degree. It is a silk-screen print with cyan, magenta, yellow, and, if I'm not mistaken, no black. It's based on a photograph I took; the stained-glass window is in the chapel of the Baptist Center (now BCM) at the University of Georgia.

This particular print has been hanging on the wall for a total of at least 27 years with no glass over it, first in my Yale dorm room, then my Yale apartment, and then, later, in my UGA office (in Boyd GSRC). The paper has yellowed so much that it is hard to distinguish from the yellow ink. I photographed it a couple of days ago, but this is not the definitive digital rendering. We are going to look for a better-preserved copy of the print, and also for the original color slide.

2021
February
13

More about computer security during an epidemic of foolishness

A couple more observations about computer security in a time of weaponized stupidity (scroll down to see what I already wrote), and then I'll stop.

Correspondents have brought up two more points.

(1) People must not be punished for curiosity about strange movements. Reading crackpot web pages does not make you a crackpot. Some of us genuinely want to know how other people's minds work.

(2) People can be recruited into intentionally destructive acts. If people can be radicalized, what's to prevent a radical organization from getting them to destroy computers and networks rather than buildings?

Last time (below) I wrote about acts that were damaging but not malicious. There is also plenty of potential malice out there.

2021
February
8

Weaponized stupidity is a computer security hazard

[Revised.]

This morning I viewed a brief computer security course, as required periodically by one of my clients, and noticed something new on the radar: social media disinformation.

They mentioned it only in passing, but let's think it through.

If a person will obey when a total stranger, giving no reasons, tells him to believe that COVID is a hoax, that the Capitol riots never happened, or the like, then maybe that same person can be persuaded to follow instructions to damage their employer's computer.

Computers are now so secure that almost all computer crime requires a cooperating victim. And it's amazing how many people will cooperate. Someone phones or e-mails asking for their password, and they give it.

More importantly, there are people who cannot question anything they read. If the words appear on their screen, they swallow them.

I think there is a risk that these same people will follow bogus computer instructions sent to them by a total stranger. After all, the thought process is the same — uncritical acceptance.

I am not talking about unusual beliefs. Plenty of people hold unusual beliefs with considerable thought behind them, and will say, "I know most of you don't agree with this, but I think I can justify it."

That's not who I have in mind. We must be careful not to impose political or religious tests as job qualifications.

I'm talking about the ones who don't seem to realize that when something is asserted without evidence or support, it shouldn't be swallowed. You can recognize them because, on social media, they share what they've swallowed, often loudly and emphatically, seemingly unaware that they're not giving people any reason to believe it.

The lesson? Some people do not have the good judgment necessary to hold a job that requires responsibility. And they are often proud of their impairment, and eager to advertise it!



Calling something a fantasy or prank does not make it not real

There was a tragic instance of foolishness in Tennessee last night. More facts may come out, but reportedly, two young men armed with knives approached and threatened to rob a group of people. They were supposedly making a "prank video" and were not really going to rob them.

Well, one of the victims shot one of the perpetrators dead.

The shooter will not face charges because it was legitimate self-defense. The threat with the knives was real. I rather hope the second perpetrator faces charges for that.

The point is, putting something in a compartment in your mind does not remove it from the real world. The victims had no way to know this was intended as a "prank."

I wonder how many people involved in the Capitol riot had a similar mindset. They were telling themselves, "This isn't real, it's part of a fantasy world."

That is not how reality works.

2021
February
4

Weaponized stupidity, post-truth, and false religion

Based on recent discussions on Facebook.

It is still an uneasy time to be an American. There are, however, two reassuring things about the Biden presidency. First, Mr. Biden is simply ignoring the Loony Right and getting on with business.

Second, nobody is gaga over him. He doesn't have "fans" the way Trump does. He had a campaign but did not put his name on a mass movement. People are not fawning over him like little girls watching Elvis.

This is not an endorsement; on many points I disagree with him. The point is, disagreeing with him is OK; nobody thinks it is unpatriotic not to be "loyal" to this politician. He's there to do a job.

Now to the three points I want to address. I think part of my civic duty in times like these is to try to keep my fellow citizens sane, so here goes.

Weaponized stupidity

The sad thing about our multi-year epidemic of national foolishness is of course that it wasn't random foolishness. It was manipulated, weaponized, by people who wanted power and saw a way to take it away from vulnerable citizens.

The tactic was to tell people, "Don't believe the news media [the medical establishment, etc.]; they're all controlled by the Deep State [Big Pharma, etc.]. Instead, believe this."

And then say something wild giving no reason at all to believe it.

And people believed whatever they were told. Some people will swallow anything when someone has just told them not to trust reliable sources of information. And then they're totally under the control of the people whose poison they swallowed.

I've had many conversations in which I had to say, "Is there any reason at all why we should believe this? Just because you're running your mouth?"

Post-truth

An indispensable plank of weaponized stupidity is the post-truth mindset, the notion that although objective truth exists, you have no duty to believe or speak it. Instead, say anything you feel like saying, or anything that gets you what you want.

An example is calling any unwelcome fact "fake news." That is quite distinct from claiming that some reported news story is actually false. "Fake," to such a person, doesn't mean "fake," it means "I am commanding you to ignore this."

Someone who I think suffers from a bad case of post-truth is Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R., Ga.), newly elected by a gerrymander-shaped district in northwest Georgia that seems to have been crafted to avoid densely populated areas. The largest town in it is Dalton. It's a long way from where I live and I wish it were farther.

Ms. Greene is of course a loyal Trumpist who still believes the election was "stolen" despite lack of evidence. But it gets stranger. She has "liked" Facebook postings that call for some of her colleagues to be assassinated. She reportedly claims at least one school shooting was a fake or "false flag" operation and has harassed a victim's relative. And she has reportedly said something about "Jewish space lasers" causing forest fires. (Not her exact words; details here.)

(No pink elephants, at least not yet, but she's almost on that level.)

I think what's going on is that she doesn't have beliefs the way the rest of us do. I think she lives in a fantasy world in which her words need not be checked against reality. How long she will last in the House of Representatives, I don't know. So far, quite a few Republicans want her to stay in, presumably because they can tell her how to vote. But I can imagine conversations on the House floor: "Esteemed colleagues, please bear in mind that the honorable gentlewoman from Georgia has advocated assassinating me."

False religion

As we get ready for the second Trump impeachment trial, I continue to hear odd things being said by and among some of my fellow Christians. Remember that evangelical culture doesn't mainly exist in church services and programs; chit-chat among individuals is, for many people, at least as important.

And right now I'm hearing various statements, some more vague than others, that God is going to make some kind of move very soon, and that it will involve American politics.

A few go further and say explicitly that God is going to put Trump back in office soon (much sooner than the next election). QAnon, which is not a Christian movement but will claim anything in order to manipulate people, says explicitly that he will be re-inaugurated on March 4.

Now the first thing I would ask is how you know God is going to make a move. Matthew 7:15 is still in the Bible. I've been warned about people who claim to have a message from God.

In some people's minds there has been an ugly mix of Trumpism and Christianity for years. Of course, I can understand Christians supporting Trump's policy platform if they agreed with it and thought he could be relied on to implement it. But in some people's minds, Trump was much more than just a politician who might do some things that need to be done. I've been told I was a bad Christian for criticizing things about him that were obviously faults. Harumph.

Behind this, for perhaps 200 years, and certainly ever since WWII, we've failed to properly distinguish Christian faith from American patriotism.

Has God blessed America generously? Yes.

Does the American system of government incorporate some important Christian values? Yes.

Does God love America more than He loves the rest of the world? Wait a minute...

Are promises such as 2 Chronicles 7:14 specifically directed at America?

Is American patriotism a Christian virtue? If so, what about Christians in other countries?

Should we believe that America has never done anything seriously wrong?

You see where I'm going. Yes, let's thank God for His blessings and for everything that is good about our country. And yes, let's give our country the loyalty it deserves — but keep it in second place, ranking far below loyalty to God. And let us be free to criticize what is bad about it. That is not disloyalty; it's moral responsibility.

Let us never imagine that America is God's chosen nation. There is simply no reason to believe that.

And let us never imagine that being American makes us superior in God's eyes. That is spiritual snobbery.


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