Living daily with suspicion


Response to the Covid-19 pandemic has promoted a culture of suspicion. Who or what might transmit the virus to me? Do I have the virus? Who is the person behind the face mask? What is their facial expression in this moment?

Requiring masks have highlighted a couple of ironies. First, in most locations, patrons do not have to wear a mask when in a bank. Authorities fear that masks may confuse bank personnel about who is and is not a bank robber. Second, in countries like France, that prohibit individuals from wearing facial coverings for religious reasons (primarily niqabs by Muslim women), authorities now struggle with whether to mandate face coverings as a means of preventing Covid-19 from spreading. The prevalence of face masks, including my wearing one, has given me a personal understanding of the pros and cons of wearing a niqab, and I have found no advantage apart from health concerns for wearing a face mask.

Twentieth century liberation theologians introduced a hermeneutic of suspicion in biblical and theological studies. Briefly, a person interrogating a text needs to ask what motive(s) led to the author’s choice of language, details to include, thematic emphases has and so forth. Concurrently, the interpreter needs to interrogate him/herself to identify his/her motives for reading and interpreting the text. This hermeneutic of suspicion has helpfully identified ways in which conscious and unconscious bias skewed interpreting a text. The hermeneutic of suspicion has revealed historical unchristian support for male subjugation of women, racism, economic injustice, etc.

This era of “alternative facts,” self-proclaimed geniuses, apparent unfettered willingness to lie when a lie seems advantageous, ad hominem attacks and disregard for the meaning of words, calls us to adopt a hermeneutic of suspicion. Screen all written, oral and visual communication from the media, politicians and business through a filter of suspicion. Does the received message accord with messages from other sources? What does the sender hope to gain by sending the message? Is the source credible, regardless of whether you (dis)like the source? How is the message shaped to prompt a particular response? To make applying a hermeneutic of suspicion easier and more practical, identify a set of trusted sources, and then periodically reevaluate those sources’ trustworthiness.

The potential disadvantage of living with a hermeneutic of suspicion is that one stops trusting any other person or source. Perfection is the enemy of good enough. No person or source is, or ever will be, 100% reliable. Consequently, part of being trustworthy entails practicing self-assessment, taking full and public responsibility for one’s errors and missteps. Incorporating an ethic of forgiveness into one’s hermeneutic of suspicion avoids the pitfall of total skepticism, a pitfall that has trapped some unwary biblical interpreters.

In time, I expect to grow accustomed to seeing and interacting with persons in face masks. Maybe the need for face masks will go away, e.g., a reliable Covid-19 vaccine becomes widely available. Or, maybe, humans will learn to spot non-facial tells connected to what a masked person is saying, thinking or feeling. Incidentally, Malcom Gladwell in his bestselling Talking to Strangers argues that most people interpret a stranger's facial expressions  poorly. In any case, now is a good time to practice a healthy hermeneutic of suspicion.

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