Seduction of ‘alternative facts’

In recent months we have been learning about the way that half-truths and outright falsehoods can deceive many people. We are now all familiar with the expressions ‘post truth’ and ‘alternative fact’. What are these new terms telling us? They seem to suggest that many people are content to hear false information which is comforting, in preference to facts which may challenge or disturb. This certainly appears to be the case in the political realm but it is not my proposal to go further into this area in this blog post. Some words come to my mind which occur in a choir anthem for which Joseph Haydn wrote the music. ‘Madly they seek for comfort where it doth not abide’. Comfort and reassurance what people seek above all, especially when they experience challenges or stress in their daily lives.

Recently I have been revisiting the 200,000 word Langlois Report into the events of Peniel church in Brentwood. This is partly so that I can help an individual caught up in the past tyranny of that church. It is also because I believe that this corpus of material needs to be more fully absorbed and perhaps made the subject of a written analysis in the future. One of the striking facts about this report is that the people who gave evidence to John Langlois were highly articulate people. Socially they were all educated, insightful and able to think for themselves. Two things stand out as having made it relatively easy for Michael Reid to exercise undue influence over them. The first was that, in spite of their relatively secure social position, many of the new members were vulnerable in some way. Some suffered from illnesses which they believed could be healed at one of the Peniel’s services. Others were vulnerable through being divorced or widowed. A second group were people who believed that Peniel Academy was the place for their children. These children may have had bad experiences elsewhere; the small classes on offer would have seemed like a harbour after the experience of a storm. Whatever reason had drawn the individual into Reid’s spider’s web, the church proved very hard to leave. While it seemed initially to offer a great deal, it was also extremely demanding and it infiltrated into every corner of the members’ lives. But as in a forced marriage, Peniel would bind you tightly to itself. It would also prove to be extremely expensive in every sense either to belong to it or to break free. The same young people who had joined the church at the primary school stage might well find themselves perpetuating their membership by marrying another young person from the church. This situation of intermarriage was common and certainly was encouraged. It made good sense for the church leaders to hold on to members and their money in this way. After 10, 20 or 30 years many members knew absolutely nothing else.

Reading the accounts of individuals who did succeed in breaking away, one gets a very good sense of the nature of the pressures that were placed on individuals and their families by the church. Those who described the process of enmeshment were, as I have stated, extremely articulate individuals. One is left wondering about the experience of other members who wanted to escape but did not know how to articulate that they were experiencing disillusionment and unhappiness as well as a desire to break free. It was by no means easy for the articulate to leave and it would have been still harder for the less educated to manage this. An immigrant whose first language was not English (and the poor uneducated group which Chris reminds us of) would not have found it easy to distance themselves from the comforting miasma of lies and social pressures. There must still be many people in Peniel/Trinity who may know that there is something wrong but they do not have the discriminating and intellectual ability to know what it is and how to get away. From time to time I have a phone call from an individual who is concerned for a neighbour who has been completely taken over by a cultic church in another part of the country. This neighbour has become utterly dependent on this congregation socially and financially. Physically she is described as looking haunted and hollow eyed as though she is the victim of an abusive marriage from which she cannot escape.

The pursuit of comfort and the resolving of our stress is something that most of us desire. We must however be aware that there are many who offer false answers to such longings whether in politics or religion. In a world which now appears more tolerant of downright falsehood pretending to be an ‘alternative fact’, we need to be vigilant. Those of us who can scrutinise truth-claims must always scrupulously examine what is being put in front of us. I wonder if a commoner acceptance of ‘post-truth’ has been brought about by the way that many people prefer the fantasies of soap operas and so-called reality TV to actual events. The heroes of today for many are so-called celebrities rather than real people who struggle to make the world a better place. The dream world of fantasy and make-believe seems to be a preferable place in which to live than the one which contains the harsh realities of actual living. The way that many people in America have apparently bought into Donald Trump’s ‘alternative facts’, makes one wonder whether fantasy is beginning to be preferred to real life. All of us who care for truth must fight for it even though it may prove disturbing. So far, the events of Trump’s America have taken on the appearance of a surreal television show. Let us hope that most of us can still retain a firm foot-hold in reality. None of us wish to wallow in a place where we do not know what is true and what is not.

About Stephen Parsons

Stephen is a retired Anglican priest living at present in Northumberland. He has taken a special interest in the issues around health and healing in the Church but also when the Church is a place of harm and abuse. He has published books on both these issues and is at present particularly interested in understanding the psychological aspects of leadership and follower-ship in the Church. He is always interested in making contact with others who are concerned with these issues.

2 thoughts on “Seduction of ‘alternative facts’

  1. Most people tell the truth most of the time. Society rather depends on this. I think it’s the flat disbelief when someone says something that is plainly outrageous that carries them through. If you know it’s not true, you are probably reduced to spluttering incoherence, rather than logically marshalling your arguments. And if you don’t know either way, the thought that someone could say something so blatant that isn’t true probably makes you think it must be!

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