Fresh off the press

Information that strays too far from its source loses nutritional value.

By Grace Koh

When I open a bag of potato chips, I don’t think about anything beyond the fact that I’m eating a good old bag of Lay’s. But I forget that before they ended up in my hands, they were distributed to various retailers and grocery stores. Before that they were poured into individual plastic bags, before that they were probably salted, and even before that maybe they were processed with some kind of flavoring. The chips that I consumed, my “potato” chips, are only a distant relative of its original source: the potato. Who knows how many steps ago these processed potatoes from whence my chips came were actually buried in the ground on a farm somewhere? And who knows what they’ve been through from then until now? But the chips are easy to eat and they taste good, so I eat them.

I’ve noticed that our current events are processed in a similar way. Yesterday I checked my phone, and a little news line about the President’s statement on Iran popped up, courtesy of my CNN app. From the actual event, to the reporter, to the news report, to the condensed sentence of news I get on my phone, probably a dozen mechanisms were used to “process” the event into something I can digest in a couple seconds. I may be worlds away from Washington, D.C., geographically and mentally, but that little sentence is quick and easy to digest. So I eat it.

This corollary between common consumption of both processed foods and processed information is exemplified in the recent media attention that Pope Francis has been receiving. In the same way that potato chips are a mere semblance of a potato, media perception of Pope Francis as someone who goes above and beyond what Catholicism calls for seems a few degrees removed from the Bible. CNN’s Breaking News Twitter feed uploaded a photo of the Pope embracing a man with boils, captioned, “Pope’s embrace of a disfigured man transcends religion.” In light of explicit biblical passages that embrace marginalized people, such as, “Pure and undefiled religion in the sight of our God and Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their distress,” why is it newsworthy that the head of a “religious organization” is acting out what the Bible says is true religion?

I think it’s surprising that Pope Francis saying “I’m a sinner” was such a revolutionary idea, because the idea that all humans are sinful and fallen is one of the most basic principles outlined in the Bible. Romans 3:10 says, “No one is righteous, not even one”; 1 John reads, “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves”; and the Gospel of Mark states, “No one is good but God alone.” The pope was just saying something that the Bible has been saying for ages. How, then, was this worth a four-minute news segment on CNN?

I asked several peers, from a spectrum of religious (and non-religious) beliefs and backgrounds, about their opinions or thoughts regarding Pope Francis. Commonly dispersed in their responses were statements like “I honestly don’t know that much other than a few headlines that I’ve seen,” or “One thing I know from my surface knowledge of the Catholic Church is that…” Maybe this just proves that being UChicago students makes it impossible to give an opinion without covering our bases, but the recurrence of these phrases also highlights a subconscious understanding that much of our knowledge is from a diluted source: a processed version of the original thing.

The processed information phenomenon is particularly prominent when it comes to religiously-backed arguments against issues like LGBTQ rights. There’s a much better alternative to blatantly inaccurate blanket statements such as “God hates homosexuals” or “The Bible doesn’t even mention homosexual acts,” and there’s a more productive solution than struggling to apply personal logic and experience to interpret the Bible. A much more constructive discussion would revolve around striving to understand how the Bible itself reconciles statements such as “Men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed shameful acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their error” or “Do not judge, or you too will be judged” or “Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love.” Studying the context, original meanings, or examining other related statements and themes in the Bible are a few ways to learn more accurately what the Church claims to believe, instead of dwelling on irrational and biased statements.

Of course, it is impossible to have a primary source for every piece of knowledge one claims to possess, but I think there are definite dangers to such a reality. For one, remaining far removed from a source leaves more room for inaccuracy and allows more room to make claims that are simply contradictory to what the original source says. It also permits the focus to shift more toward other things, such as defending one’s own point or winning an argument, rather than reaching an accurate conclusion.

In this respect, Pope Francis is a great role model. By being honest and open to discussion, he is not compromising his primary sources, but rather drawing more attention to them. He’s rejecting a relentless adherence to personal opinion and instead creating a space for primary sources—in his case, the Bible—to speak for themselves.

This is not a call for the elimination of all processed foods or news sources. They have tangible benefits in their own way, and I’m quite fond of my CNN pop-ups and French fries. But before getting buried in emotionally charged and unfounded arguments, it’s important to remember that at one point in its life, your chip was a just a potato.

Grace Koh is a second-year in the College majoring in political science.