Feeling wobbly from the shifting sands of fake news, disinformation, talking heads, and viral videos? Trying to figure out what matters? Don’t know who or what to believe but eager to find solid ground in these blustery times?
Here is an instruction manual for Do-It-Yourself What Matters constructs that can be built anywhere, anytime, if you have the will and the want:
- Question the source, not the messenger. It may be your co-worker, brother-in-law, your barista, or a gym buddy who heard something somewhere and takes it for fact. Or it is posted on social media or a news outlet. Wonder where and how that source uncovered the data or talking point. What you are questioning is the authority of information, not the person delivering it. When we question, we are on a mission for a more intentionally thoughtful society.
Practice: Wondering does not require action. But in order to practice this step, find one source directly involved with this issue. Start with the website and read “About Us” or “Mission;” look at the Board of Directors. If it is a nonprofit foundation, who are its big donors?
Pitfalls: Once started, it is hard to stop yourself. But know this—disinformation, or intentionally inaccurate information, often resides on websites that look as legitimate as the real thing. Here’s a tip: the bogus sites are very hard to detect even for the pros; so be wary, you have been forewarned, be patient with yourself.
- Triangulate. In order to have a leg to stand on in these sands, you must practice your mad skills of questioning the source on at least two, if not three sources. Tip: Ideally these sources will not be referenced by each other, which defeats the purpose.
Practice: This one is tricky. Think of it this way—learning in the 20th Century was about answering the question; learning in the 21st Century is about questioning the answer. We have to give up the notion of the one, precise, correct, irrefutable answer but rather two or three solid perspectives on a viable answer to any issue. You will get there only by triangulating your findings.
Pitfalls: Here is where an open mind is required. Learning that the big, bad corporation did something that is the folly for a perfect viral moment may have you asking who shot the video, who disseminated it, and what was the motivation. Time and again, your preconceived notions may be doomed, and you find yourself in an untenable position of defending the machine rather than raging against it.
- Breathe. One aspect of our constant comment and viral video-focused society is that reflection is cast to the wind. Case in point: we have an upcoming national election and when those inevitable scandals are revealed, it will seem to this professional detector that we do not have all the information and that it might take days or, the horror, weeks for relevant details to emerge. So judgment, opinion, and comment should be tabled for a time. When it is hard to believe something and you start to think that you do not have all the information, you will most likely be correct. Take a breath, develop the vocabulary of, “Something just seems like we are not getting the whole story yet. I think I will sit this one out and see how it unfolds.” As poet Gwendolyn Brooks wrote of social activist Jane Addams, “Go ahead and live your life. You might be surprised. The world might continue.” Go ahead and step back from the fray.
Practice: Having a language of questioning and curiosity, you will find that it starts to feel natural to you to take that step back. You might unintentionally model through learned behaviors as they become familiar and comfortable. Tip: Do it respectfully—we are all figuring this out.
Pitfalls: Muscle memory will develop, habits of mind will form, and you will need to make choices about what matters. We are flooded with information. It is up to you to create the context around it or not. What matters is a personal question: What is meaningful to you and what is not? And what do you think and feel about that? Yes, you are learning about what it means to live in an information society but what you learn about yourself might be more than you intended—not exactly a pitfall unless you know how to avoid the quicksand.
At this point you may be wondering why you should believe me. Oh, stop it, you make me so proud, you intellectually curious thinker, you. With an academic background in anthropology (our cultural lens), library science (how we engage with information in society), and educational psychology (how we think and how we learn), this advice is on firm ground. But please, look up my writing, and many others, search information literacy, learning in the 21st Century, and information fluency.
Those of us in the information professions believe there is an art and a science to contemplating big ideas and issues of our times, in separating the wheat from the chaff. The good news for you is that the mindset that you need is based on learned behaviors and these three simple steps are a good start to having that pesky informed citizenry that is so necessary for a democratic society.
Gail Bush, professor emeritus of education, college trustee, and former librarian, is a writer who lives in Evanston, Illinois. Her most recent publication is Our World is Whole (Sleeping Bear Press, 2020). She is the co-editor of Indivisible: Poems for Social Justice (Norwood House Press, 2013). Learn more at www.gailbush.com