The article posted on the Diversity Chronicle blog stating that Pope Francis, during a supposed Third Vatican Council, condemned racism and declared all religions to be the same, is a satire. Those of us with a rudimentary knowledge of how the Catholic Church works know that the story is false. How do we counteract the misinformation that has already spread among the gullible public?
There are many possible approaches to exposing the article’s lies. The easiest is to direct the reader to the blog’s “disclaimer” page where it explicitly states, “The original content on this blog is largely satirical.” However, it would be rewarding to analyse the text of the article using tools of critical thinking. Not only will this approach clarify misinformation; it will also challenge one’s interlocutors to think critically and thus raise the general level of public discourse.
I find the points in the eHow article on “How to Detect Sarcasm in Writing” helpful, and I will use these points in analysing the Diversity Chronicle article. Although the article addresses sarcasm, and not satire, strictly speaking, the article is nevertheless instructive on analysing whether a writer means what he or she is actually writing.
1 . Look for statements of emotion or opinion that seem out of place in the given context. If a writer’s supporting an opinion that seems completely illogical, there’s a good chance he or she’s being sarcastic and attempting to convey the opposite position.
In the case of the Diversity Chronicle article, a Pope Francis full of contradictions is portrayed. First, Pope Francis supposedly waxed about love and charity to the point of saying that there is no literal hell, and saying that “today, we no longer judge.”
Then, the Pope supposedly said, “A racist is not a true Christian. A racist casts aside his humanity to become a beast, a demon! He is the embodiment and personification of evil, a Satan!” and announced that “We will consider excommunication for those whose souls willingly dwell in the darkness and evil of intolerance and racism. Satan himself is a metaphor or a personification, for the collective evils of mankind. Today, these evils manifest foremost as racism, intolerance, religious persecution and bigotries of all kinds.”
The image of the pope that the Diversity Chronicle article portrays is confused. The Diversity Chronicle wants to portray its version of a non-judgmental pope who does not believe in a literal hell, but in the same breath has the pope condemn and threaten to excommunicate racists, equating them with beasts and demons. The article ends by praising Pope Francis, after having just portrayed him as illogical, even as he is supposed to have claimed that Catholicism is “reasonable.”
2. Keep an eye out for hyperbole, or exaggerated phrasing. Writers often overstate an opinion to reveal its logical or ethical flaws.
The above quotes are not only illogical and self-contradictory, they are also exaggerated. Pope Francis does not just exhort the faithful not to judge; he denies that there is a literal hell. He does not just rebuke racism and bigotry; he threatens rascists and bigots with excommunication and calls them “Satan.”
Then, in the Diversity Chronicle’s version of events, Cardinal Arinze supposedly does not only express disagreement; he expresses fright about the Vatican becoming a giant mosque, makes an “angry and vitriolic rant” leaves the church and turns sedevacantist.
3. Watch for italicized, underlined or bold-faced words. These show that the writer is trying very hard to emphasize whatever point he or she’s making, which is in many cases a sarcastic one.
None of this appear in the Diversity Chronicle article, so I will not discuss this point.
4. Think about the personality and typical writing style of the writer in question. If he or she normally writes dry, boring prose, a statement you think is sarcastic might actually be sincere. On the other hand, when reading crafty writers like Mark Twain or Oscar Wilde who are known for their wit, keep a constant vigil for outlandish or peculiar statements.
5. Consider whether the text you’re reading should contain sarcasm or not. For example, textbooks and legal records won’t contain sarcasm, but op-ed columns and position pieces likely will.
I am tackling these two last points together because they are related. The gist of these last two points is to look at the tone of the writing in relation to its context and source.
In the case of the Diversity Chronicle article, it is supposed to be a piece of straightforward journalism, as can be gleaned from the blog’s “about” page. On this score it is not supposed to contain sarcasm. However, the blog is not a straight news blog but an agenda-driven one; this reason alone should alert the reader to keep his guard up against possible biases, half-inaccuracies, or downright lies.
Very telling is the fact that despite attempting to assume the tone of a serious journalistic piece, the story does not follow conventions of regular journalism. It editorializes with phrases like “righteous indignation,” “angry and vitriolic rant revealing deep self-hating tendencies,” “narrow-minded bigots,” “deserves praise,” and ends by summing up its editorial stand.
In addition to observations based on the points stated in the eHow article, I notice that the Diversity Chronicle article is a secondary source supposedly quoting the Pope. This raises the question of whether Pope Francis actually said or wrote the words attributed to him. A search at the Vatican website reveals nothing, which would be strange considering that the speech attributed to the Pope, assuming that he did give it, contained important implications for the rest of the Church. The absence of an official text at the Vatican website should indicate that the speech or statement attributed by the Diversity Chronicle to Pope Francis is bogus. As we lawyers say, “The best evidence is the document itself.”
There are other possible ways to respond to the Diversity Chronicle article. Whatever approach one uses in dialoguing with people who have been duped by the article, what matters is to reason with the person step-by-step and encourage the person to use the God-given intellect, according to his or her dignity befitting someone made in God’s image and likeness.
The speed and efficiency at which the new media spreads lies should not discourage us who care about the truth and who want the truth to be known. The new media may be powerful, but our own weapons, our God-given intellects, can cut through the tangled web of lies to set the truth free. Our intellects are powerful weapons which were entrusted to us that we may seek the truth and help others do the same.