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When Facts Don't Really Matter
Israel - Middle East
Friday, July 19, 2013
Alf Cengia

It was tempting this week to break from my Middle East beat and write an article about a particularly emotional and explosive subject that has captured America's attention. After looking at all of the facts finally made available, a court ruled that a man who shot and killed another man is not guilty of murder or manslaughter.

That not guilty verdict pleased those on one side of the fence, while disillusioning the other. The case has divided many people.

I'll spare you any detailed commentary of the actual case. I don't have the skill to pull it off without offending too many people, and I want to minimize that if possible. Far more erudite commentators on both sides of the issue have already expressed their viewpoints. Yet, even at the risk of offending, I do want to say something.

First of all it needs to be noted that any loss of life is a tragedy. I lost my cousin to cancer this week. His deeply grieving mother sobbed that no parents should have to bury their children. She is right - he was too young to die. My own parents had to bury my fifteen-year-old brother. That sort of tragedy haunts one for the rest of their lives.

It's also fitting for me at this point to commend all those people who have passionately disagreed with the verdict, and yet have peacefully done so.

But this case got me to thinking about opinions again; why do people have and retain them, often against evidence to the contrary? Why do we believe what we believe about anything?

How many of us would change our minds when confronted with irrefutable new evidence? How many of us would continue to hold onto our views despite new evidence refuting that view?

Judging by a couple of conversations I've had regarding the case in the last week, I believe many of us may fall within that latter category. In one example, a Christian acquaintance insisted on keeping his position despite being confronted with new information that contradicted some of his points.

We can arrive at an opinion based on a number of factors and often we'll hold fast to that opinion even when the evidence contradicts it. Why is that so? I can only assume that the reasons must fall into personal biases, peer-group pressures and personal presuppositions.

Please indulge me as I rehash a personal example:

The affable Human Resources manger where I once worked was a practicing Buddhist. He was an Australian who had adopted the religion. When Dan Brown's "The Da Vinci Code" hit the stores, my colleague digested the novel's basic premises. After all, didn't the blurb in Brown's book assert it was based on facts?

Knowing that I was a Christian, he confronted me with Brown's tidbit facts on Christian history. He hadn't realized that I'd done some homework on Brown's "facts". The man's response to my rebuttal was a teachable moment for me.

Instead of admitting that this new information was something that he should perhaps further explore (I might have made it all up), he simply remarked something like: "What is history and truth?" In his case he didn't care; history and truth were whatever he preferred them to be.

I saw similar dynamics come into play with popular opinion surrounding the case of Lindy Chamberlain. Back in 1980, the Chamberlains claimed a dingo stole their baby girl, Azaria, while they were camping in the Australian outback. Eventually the Chamberlains were charged and convicted of killing their daughter.

Digging into the details of the case as to why the convictions against the Chamberlains were finally overturned can be a long and arduous proposition. Moreover, there are no guarantees that one can walk away with a truly satisfactory conclusion. But the irony was that so many acquaintances and media commentators cast suspicion on her from day one; even before any meaningful information had emerged. "She was most likely guilty."

Apparently there were very good reasons for this: Look at her hard face. That's not the face of a grieving mother. A dingo could never do that (but a mother would?). There is no record of one attacking a human. Azaria means sacrifice in the desert (it doesn't). Seventh-day Adventists believe in sacrifice (they don't).

At the time I remember wondering whether I'd be judged by my facial expression if I was being tried. Would I look innocent enough for these people? Would I have to smile a bit more and frown less?

As it turned out, the science naturalists' claims that dingoes don't attack humans were erroneous. Some years after the debacle, there was a spate of dingo attacks on humans, and children in particular. And then Azaria's clothing finally turned up in a region dotted with dingo lairs. Yet these events never jolted some people's opinions.

For over a year now, I've been having discussions with some anti-Jewish Christians. This week I received another e-mail. They still insist Jews have attracted worldwide (and especially Islamic) condemnation because they've traditionally practiced some of the more sordid guidelines found in the Talmud. I'll spare you the details.

So, is the Talmud the reason why Islamists also persecute Christians? It has nothing to do with Islamic intolerance? It appears the facts can be whatever one prefers them to be. Anything contrary to one's sacred presupposition may be ignored.

Then there are statements such as this one:

"All the problems and challenges facing the region [Middle East] result from a failure to find a just and permanent solution to the Palestinian issue." ~ Jordanian Prime Minister Abdulla Ensour

You mean it's not about the Talmud? It's not about Islamist infighting?

It's sad that my Buddhist friend allowed his pre-conceptions to go unchallenged. It will have eternal consequences and I pray he has changed his thinking.

Likewise, those who blindly look for excuses to criticize Israel or the Jews are enslaved to their emotions, rather than being dispassionately objective.

Would I ever change a cherished belief if confronted with new unassailable information?

I really hope so.

About Alf Cengia

Last week: Begin again Eygpt?

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