Pseudo-Knowledge and the Al Gore Effect
One of the strangest phenomena of American culture is the strange split-brain attitude we have toward the media.
When the media talk about something we know, we typically protest — with good reason — that they are only getting it half right, that they are employing huge simplifications, a ridiculous slant or just plain getting it wrong. Yet whenever some reporter is telling us about something of which we have no direct experience, we trust the media.
I had this experience afresh recently after reading a hilarious puff piece in Slate on Celibacy, a hatchet job posing as a documentary on the Church that aired recently on HBO (slate.msn.com/id/2103028/). I knew I was in for ignorant twaddle when the writer informed me that “it would take until 1992 … for the Church to admit that, yes, perhaps the earth really did revolve around the sun” (which was news to the scientists at the Vatican observatory, I'm sure).
But it got even better. As the article progressed I learned an important fact: “According to the film, over half a million priests and nuns have left the Church since the early '60s, a loss known among Catholics as ‘The Bleeding.’”
Galvanized by this new discovery of an oh-so-common catchphrase among us Catholics, one is tempted to rush out and found a new support group: Voice of the Bleeding or We Are Bleeding or FutureBleed or something.
You know, a “safe place” where the countless men and women traumatized by what we Catholics all call The Bleeding can come to share our stories, come to break the bread, come to know our rising from the dead. Probably very little effort will be involved in organizing such a work of mercy since, as I discovered from Slate, The Bleeding forms a permanent psychic backdrop of trauma for virtually every Catholic in the world. Stop any random Catholic on the street and ask him or her, “What haunts your thoughts, memories and prayers?” and they will invariably reply, “Why, the drop in priestly and religious vocations in the ‘60s and ‘70s caused by the evil discipline of celibacy, commonly known among us Catholics as ‘The Bleeding.’”
So I figure if we all just tack up a sign on the bulletin board in the vestibule with a date, time and location, the weeping, traumatized throngs will pour in to share their common memories of The Bleeding.
Once that really takes off at the grass-roots level, we can have a national meeting in my hometown of Seattle and do a Bell Town Pub Crawl of Psychic Solidarity for Adult Survivors of The Bleeding. Also, I think some nice “Remember The Bleeding” coffee mugs and T-shirts will do much to heal our hearts of this widely shared generational trauma and finally quiet the din caused by us Catholics all constantly speaking of The Bleeding in our secret conversations with one another.
We Catholics laugh. Yet the thing to remember is that because of articles and programs like this, a certain percentage of our neighbors — even in the process of being rendered more ignorant than ever of what average Catholics think and talk about — now believe they have a grasp of “inside Catholic jargon” and can converse knowingly about the faith. Don't be surprised, now that this documentary has aired, if you hear non-Catholics toss around a phrase like “The Bleeding” and speak as though it is common knowledge that all of us Catholics bounce this phrase off one another in our daily chats.
Because a reporter we would not trust to get our own story straight is somebody we trust completely to get the other guy's story straight. The media is never accurate about us but always accurate about them.
I call this the Al Gore Effect. I christened the term in 1992, when Bill Clinton picked Gore as his running mate. Now the fact was I knew nothing whatsoever about Gore. Neither did anybody I worked with. But the Seattle Times came out with an editorial that day saying, “Looks like Gore is a pretty good guy!” and, by the end of lunch, people who knew nothing about Gore except what the editorial told them to think while they were munching their sandwiches and downing their Starbucks were all dutifully mouthing, “Looks like Gore is a pretty good guy.”
It's the same sort of pseudo-knowledge as all those people who go around talking as though they are certain that they somewhere or other must have read the Origin of Species or Veritatis Splendor when they could not, in fact, quote five words from either. What they really know is what some authority in the media told them they should think about these documents.
Why does this matter to us? Because we all do it. We Catholics read stupid, ill-informed articles that tell us we are were all geocentrists till 1992 and have all been maundering about The Bleeding since 1972 and we laugh. Then we turn the page or change the channel and believe whatever it is the media is telling us about military personnel, Muslims, Jews, Americans, Europeans, blacks, Indians or whatever other group of people we don't belong to.
So the question we have to ask ourselves as Catholics is, “What other hilarious things are asserted as ‘common knowledge' about communities of which we are not a part?” How much of our “knowledge” of the world is almost completely a product of the Al Gore Effect?
If my experience of the media's reportage on Catholic theology (a subject I do know about) is any indication, I can't help but suspect that a huge amount of our knowledge is, in fact, pseudo-knowledge.
Mark Shea is senior content editor for CatholicExchange.com.
- July 18-24, 2004