Monday, November 28, 2016

Asking Instead of Knowing

The modern idea of Democracy is rooted in the 18th century European Enlightenment and its belief in reason, rationality, and empirical evidence. The founders believed that if sound arguments were placed in front of people, people could figure out the right course of action. We would read or hear the opposing arguments, laid out cleanly and clearly. We would debate and discuss them, like civilized people, and then we would decide. The arguments for and against the Constitution, laid out in the Federalist and Anti-Federalist papers, followed this recipe pretty well. Arguments were made, supporting evidence and precedents were cited, respect was given to opposing viewpoints. Up and down the new states, people read, discussed, and argued—passionately, but more-or-less rationally.
And then, almost immediately, the founders threw reason to the wind and started arguing with emotion, hysteria, and outright lies, just like we do today.

Human nature being what it is, we can’t rely on our better angels to win out when it comes to political discourse. We need to be on our guard, all the time, to separate facts from opinions, and reasonable arguments from nonsense. Not just in what we’re reading and seeing, but also in what we, ourselves, are saying. We have to approach everyone—including ourselves—with a healthy dose of skepticism. The survival of the republic depends upon it.

Screaming matches are no way to settle important problems. When we come at every disagreement with emotion, hunger, and bias, we care more about winning than being correct, and that’s a very dangerous thing when you’re dealing with issues of public policy. If I’m wrong about the best way to provide for the poor and the sick—if my ideas are not, in fact, the best and most effective ones, then I should want to lose the argument—because people’s lives are at stake, and their lives are more important than my ego.

We’ve lost sight of that perspective in our public discourse. We simply assume that our ideas are correct because they’re ours—and that being right in the moment is more important than being effective in the long term. We don’t feel the need to double-check or confirm our arguments or those of our allies, because our allegiance is all the proof we require. We don’t feel the need to inquire into the arguments of our foes, because they are already, definitionally, on the wrong side, regardless of what they say or think.

We don’t do this because we’re awful people. We do this because we are taught from an early age to see the world as black vs. white, inside vs. outside, us vs. them. It informs and infects our worldview and our mindset, and it makes it very difficult to deal with diversity or ambiguity.

If your religion sees the world as divided between the forces of light and darkness, where one side must win and the other must be vanquished, if your culture tells you that your group is civilized and other people are barbarians, then it never occurs to you to ask if your group might, perhaps, be wrong. It can’t be. If your thirteen years of primary schooling tell you that in all things there are only right answers and wrong answers, and that the role of Authority is to give you those right answers, and the role of the Follower is to accept them, then it never occurs to you to question Authority—because it is, by definition, correct.

Everything you see and touch becomes a mirror of your mindset. Physical activity limits itself to a series of competitions—because nothing else is worth doing (and people not interested in competing are weak and useless); storytelling focuses on battles between good guys bad guys (and stories where it’s not certain who’s right and who’s wrong are seen as signs of moral decay); art takes as its single purpose the elevation of the Good and the Beautiful (and anything not fitting the culture’s definition of those things is seen as corrupt and disgusting). Everything becomes a zero-sum game where only one side can win or be right, and other side must be destroyed or dismissed. It’s like the old saying: if the only tool you have is a hammer, then the whole world looks like a nail.

Compromise in such a world is a sign of weakness—surrendering some of your light to the power of darkness. Why would you ever do that? Dialogue with people who disagree with you is foolish unless it’s used to persuade, manipulate, or fool your opponent. Why else would you even engage in discussion with them?

What does this kind of dualistic, Manichean way of seeing the world do to democracy? It limits it to a series of votes that drive people into and out of power. Each side remains hermetically sealed and self-contained—never listening to or learning from the other. One side gets a moment in power, and then it is voted out and its policies erased until the next go-round.

The only way to escape this cycle is to allow the thought to enter your brain that you might be wrong—that the other guy might actually have a better way of doing things—that your Authority Figure might be in error, every once in a while—that’s it’s up to you, not them, to decide what’s best—that’s it up to facts, not feelings, to determine what’s true.

An authentically democratic culture requires humility—the acceptance that you might not know everything. An authentically democratic culture requires empathy—the ability to see the world through someone else’s eyes and understand the pain, fear, and joy of someone different from you. We have unwittingly allowed ourselves to create a culture that works against humility and empathy—telling us that no one is more important than Glorious Us, and that our needs, our fears, our desires, and our opinions, are all that matter. And little by little, we’ve defined that “us” down, from humanity to race, from race to country, from country to region, from region to family, from family to individual. We live in 300 million Republics of Me—and the president (and sole resident) of every republic is 100% right, 100% of the time.

How do we break down the walls and re-establish some kind of common space for rational argument and discussion? How do we stop bullying each other with shouted opinions and start listening to each other instead? I think the first step is DOUBT. Science and rationality all start with doubt—with the question, “what if I’m wrong?” We don’t ask in order to give up; we ask in order to find out.
We have to start doubting ourselves and our allies, even if only for a moment. We should doubt ourselves to verify and reinforce ourselves. Doubt ourselves so that we can come back from doubt even stronger. Instead of saying “I know it’s true because it feels right,” let’s put in ourselves in a place where we can say, “I know it’s true because I checked.”

I’ve tried to think of a few steps we can share with students, children, and friends—or to use, ourselves, when we’re not sure what stories to trust.  It’s not comprehensive or all-inclusive, by any means. But maybe it gives people a place to start.

Questions to Ask When We Read News on the Web

·        Should I trust the author?
o   What do I know about the author? What else have they written?
§  RED FLAG: If the author’s other work reveals a bias or agenda (always writing about the same topic; always taking the same position), find a second author who supports what this author is saying…even if you’re in agreement with that bias.
·        Should I trust the publisher?
§  RED FLAG: If the website seems to have a bias or agenda, find a second publication that supports the article’s main positions…even if you’re in agreement.
·        Should I trust the argument?
o   Are there links to supporting resources in the article—or in a bibliography at the end?
§  If so, what websites do those links lead to? Are those sites connected to or allied with the site publishing the first article?
·        RED FLAG: If the author is only citing friends or colleagues, search elsewhere for supporting information.
·        RED FLAG: If the article cites experts but doesn’t link to their work, look up the experts and find out who they are and what biases or agendas they might have, and where they have been published.
·        Am I being played?
o   Is the author laying out a rational argument, or am I being manipulated and coerced?
§  RED FLAGS: Be on the lookout for these logical fallacies (and check the link for many more!). Authors who rely on techniques like these are trying to keep you from thinking rationally and clearly about the facts and their meaning.
·        Ad hominem—a personal slur or attack on the opponent, unrelated to the topic.
·        Slippery Slope—assuming the most extreme result and attacking that instead of the more probably result
·        Bandwagon—appealing to a position’s popularity and the power of the group-mind.
·        Straw Man—misrepresenting an opponent’s argument and then attacking that instead of the actual argument.
·        Tu Quoque—avoiding criticism by turning it around on the accuser and saying “You, too.”
·        Who else is talking about it?
o   Is the story bouncing around the “echo chamber,” or is it being written about and discussed across a wide spectrum of sources and opinions?
·        RED FLAG: If everyone is talking about a story, but they’re all using the same source for their information…approach with caution.

·        RED FLAG: If the story is only being told “in-house,” within a partisan echo chamber, be cautious. There may be a good reason no one else is talking about it.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

How Do You Know?

Experience hath shewn, that even under the best forms, those entrusted with power have, in time, and by slow operations, perverted it into tyranny; and it is believed that the most effectual means of preventing this would be, to illuminate, as far as practicable, the minds of the people at large.
Thomas Jefferson, 1778

Our nation was founded on the idea that power is vested in the people and ceded, judiciously and with severe limits, to government, in order to provide leadership and management effectively. It was clear to the Founders that the right to self-governance came with the responsibility to be knowledgeable about the issues of the day. Ignorance left people susceptible to superstition, prejudice, and the charisma of charlatans. Ignorance would steer the people straight back into tyranny. But the founders argued about whether the “people at large” could really be trusted to be sufficiently knowledgeable; some wanted to limit the right to vote to the literate and/or the people who owned property; most were happy to limit it to Caucasians; all of them agreed to limit it to men.

Where are we, 238 years after Jefferson wrote the words above? We are a nation that provides universal, compulsory education to the age of 17 or 18—unheard of in Jefferson’s time. We are a nation that is trying, in fits and starts, to provide an equitable education to all children, regardless of race, class, or religion—also unheard of. Literacy is not a luxury for the leisure class; in fact, we are awash in reading material, from chick-lit and thrillers sold in airports to blogposts and news articles and emails and text messages read on tablets and Smart Phones. We can access the news of the day at any hour of the day, from our handheld devices, in our cars, and on multiple television channels available on multiple kinds of screens. We are, in fact, drowning in information.

But are we knowledgeable? Can all the information available to us protect us from tyranny? I think it can, but I’m not sure it does.

The Transcendentalists, authors like Thoreau, Emerson, and Whitman, were firm believers in discarding the masterpieces of old and creating new works of art, new ways of seeing and thinking that were uniquely American and did not rely on ancient authority. They demanded that we think for ourselves, rely on ourselves, and break old patters of thought. I think they would have applauded the ways in which we’ve challenged the gatekeepers of old, who filtered what could or couldn’t be published and seen by the public. Everyone has a voice now; everyone can be heard. But I have a feeling they would have been horrified by the end result, because what we’re saying to each other is often vile and ignorant. When you get rid of the gatekeeper and the filter, a lot of garbage gets through.

This has been written about quite a lot, in books like True Enough and How Do We Know What Isn’t So? It’s been talked about for almost two decades, even spawning the word “truthiness” back in 2005. Everyone has an opinion and everyone has a set of facts and figures, drawn from…somewhere…to back them up. All points of view seem equally true and valid; all points of view are argued equally passionately. All that matters is which side you’re on, which point of view you decide to listen to.

If we’re going to make important decisions, then it’s up to us to assess the validity of the information we hear. If we just select our favorite TV authority and believe everything they say, we’re not really self-reliant or self-governing. In fact, we run the risk of being slaves or stooges, without ever quite realizing it. We have to pay attention to the fact that each of us lives in an information bubble and echo-chamber, and we have to take steps to force ourselves out of those bubbles to hear new information and opinions, and figure out what’s real and true.

The first step is relatively easy; it’s just a matter of will. We have to make the decision to seek out alternative or contrary points of view. But the assessment and evaluation is trickier, and this is where education becomes important. We have to make sure our schools are doing more than delivering information to children. We don’t need schools solely or primarily for that anymore. Kids can learn about Topic X in any place and at any time. But is that something worth knowing? Is it true? We need schools to teach the skills of analysis, assessment, and evaluation—and we can’t wait until high school or college.

Let’s start here: in a world where everyone has an opinion and voices it loudly, how do we know whether the opinion or point of view we’re starting with is even right? How do we know whether our deeply held beliefs are true, or if they’re based on misconceptions and biases? This step, all by itself, is intensely difficult, and something people tend not to do if they don’t have to. It can be deeply troubling and upsetting. So I ask you: when was the last time you deliberately and consciously challenged your beliefs (political, cultural, religious, economic, aesthetic) to see if they were valid and worthy? How did you go about it? What was your process? What different information or perspectives did you bring into your life? How did you make sure you weren’t’ simply dismissing those points of view, but were, in fact, allowing yourself to engage with them with an open mind?

Don’t forget, everything we now understand to be nonsense was once thought to be true: the world is the center of the universe; bad luck can be prevented by throwing spilled salt over your shoulder; the king derives his authority directly from God; illness is caused by imbalances of “humours;” take your pick. We believe what we believe fiercely, and we don’t give it up easily or willingly.
This is one of the main reasons for the partisanship and divisiveness in our country. We can’t see past the borders of our own mini-nations of like-mindedness, and we think—we decide—that anyone who lives beyond those borders is evil or insane. Like the old magazine cover showing how New Yorkers view the world, we focus only on what is close to us.

So: are we raising our children with the intellectual curiosity and confidence to question everything, including their own assumptions? Are we letting them cast their minds far from the comforts of home to see how other people live, and love, and think? Do we have the confidence, as parents and teachers, to allow them to question and test the opinions they’ve inherited from us? Are we secure enough in what we believe (having tested and confirmed it) to know that, after questioning and testing those things, our children and students will arrive at the same conclusions we have?  And if they don’t…is that okay?

If we invite our children and students to undertake that journey of questioning, are we giving them the skills they need to navigate those waters and plot a safe course? Ask your children—ask your students: “How do you know whether something you’ve read is true?” Go on—ask them. Let’s see if they have an answer, beyond, “my teacher gave it to me,” or “my parents told me.”

I once taught a unit on the Cold War to some high school students, during which, I gave them an old, 1960s-era textbook chapter (theme: the USSR is actively trying to conquer the world) and a more recent essay by Noam Chomsky (theme: the USA is using the pretext of the Cold War to solidify and extend its power worldwide). The two pieces disagreed on pretty much everything, and it left my students perplexed…and angry. They didn’t find it fascinating; they found it annoying. They demanded that I tell them which point of view was “right.” I’m not being cute, here. They actually demanded. They didn’t find the intellectual exercise of compare-and-contrast interesting. They wanted an answer, and they wanted it right away.

People who demand an answer will almost always get one. There are plenty of teachers, parents, and political leaders more than willing to provide simple, clear answers to whatever problem is in front of them. Sometimes, the answer will be something positive and helpful like, “we all must make sacrifices and work hard,” but sometimes, the answer will be something like, “it’s all because of the ____.” (fill in the blank with any minority group.)

Self-rule requires that we not settle for other people’s answers. We have to do the work, ourselves. Raising a citizenry capable of self-rule requires that we not provide answers so quickly and easily. Socrates taught us, many centuries ago, the power of teaching-through-questioning. Instead of giving our children or students easy answers, let’s drive them crazy—and make them think—by responding with questions of our own: What do you think? Why do you think that? How do you know you’re right? If you don’t know whether you’re right, how might you find out?

We shouldn’t be replacing yesterday’s gatekeepers and guardians of information with newer, even less-trustworthy authorities. We should be able to trust ourselves, as Emerson suggested. But, in the words of the Russian proverb that Ronald Reagan loved to quote, to tease Mikhail Gorbachev, “Trust, but verify.”