As the old curse goes, we certainly are living in interesting times here in the year 2017. A couple of years ago, (the bending of) political facts were dubbed “truthy” by The Colbert Report. Then last year, with the mushrooming of fake news, the term “post-truth” was coined to describe this new media landscape of what us olds used to call “bullshit.”
And with January’s world premiere of the new political reality show “The President” – which perhaps did not get the live studio audience it hoped for – we will no longer hear lies from the press or spin from the PR staff. Now, there are “alternative facts.”
Once again, The Simpsons are only too true!
In a way, I’m glad. Have you ever tried to argue with someone based on “facts”? Has someone ever tried to convince you to change your mind with (their) information and logic? Did it work? I’m guessing not. Paradoxically, and this has been shown with psychological studies (science!), the more we are given information that challenges our beliefs, more we hold onto those beliefs and the stronger they become (see this post on the Backfire Effect).
Ideally, everyone would realize that, no matter where they fall on the political spectrum, their beliefs and feelings are only that and worth as much. And everyone would consume a varied diet of information that would enrich their capacity to hear other points of view, develop empathy and tolerance for differences, and generally have a civil conversation about things without resorting to petty name-calling or demonizing their opponents.
Of course, that is not happening. Social animals that we are, the more fragmented and divisive it gets out there, the more we retreat into our comfortable echo chambers and block out those who disagree. We unfollow and hide people who disagree with us from our Feed; we join online groups that share and reinforce our views; we like and share memes that pithily express our POV. I do it, you do it, we all do it.
We believe what we want to believe, to the point that “mainstream media” (or MSM) has now become this putdown. So if you’re reading the New York Times or listening to the CBC or watching CNN – just a few examples of established sources of authoritative journalism (alternative fact: establishment brainwashing) – you might just be an elitist! I tell you, life just gets more interesting all the time.
Think of it as a “post-trust” world we’re living in. Even if you’ve consulted this handy-dandy chart and filtered out blatantly fake and heavily slanted sources of news, you still can’t believe everything you read (source: your dad). Mainstream media has standards, but failings too: the story’s source was unreliable, the reporter’s bias might have led to incomplete research, or the editors made cuts that distorted the message or facts. Even the most august publications have had plagiarists and pathological liars slip through the cracks.
And guess what? Much of your local newspaper wasn’t sourced by a dogged reporter wearing a little press hat at all! Instead, PR agencies and government/corporate communications departments helpfully supply their content to editorial staff who have no time to waste but pages to fill and feeds to feed. So part of the editor’s job today is “curating content” and even working with advertisers to produce “sponsored content.”
So, information is faulty and it’s useless at changing someone else’s mind. You can still try, of course, to chip away with a well-considered point-by-point argument countering your opponent. In my family, we argue for fun at the dinner table (“we’re not arguing, just disagreeing loudly”) but you might as well try to change rocks into water for all the good it will do in changing the conservatives (small c) into liberals and vice versa. But the process of discussion taught me to listen (a little) and not to demonize the other side. Hack, Part 1: keep talking, keep listening. You might learn something – from your enemy!
The someone’s mind to change, you see, is mostly your own. Acquiring knowledge, experience, stories, the ability to think for yourself, making yours a brain that can change and take in new information, to be actually curious about what it doesn’t know yet. Wicked smaht!
The secret of the hack is proven, easy, and often free: read a book. Then another. And another. Whatever interests you. Anything. A story. A biography. Fairy tales. Reader’s Digest Mysteries of the Unexplained, which filled many hours of my summer days. Pick a classic novel, pick a popular YA (young adult) series, read Jackie Collins or John Le Carre or Harlequin romances for all I care. It’s amazing to drop out of your world and into a fictional one. Even via shitty writing, reading a story puts you into a character’s point of view and shows you a world through different eyes. According to Pew Research, about a quarter of American adults didn’t read a book at all last year. For whatever reason, that’s a lot of people missing out on all the benefits of reading, from increased empathy to decreased stress to helping their kids do better in school.
(However, be warned that having a lot of books will NOT make your friends want to help you move. #sorrynotsorry)
It might be too late for some adults, which is sad, but if you’re grown person with firmly held opinions on the value of books and the type of people who read them, there’s not much I can do, bub. But when it comes to kids and young people, there’s a chance. I have a wonderful client called the Reading Bear Society, which matches up kindergartners with middle- and high-school students for reading and literacy activities. They also try to get donations of books for the younger kids and create writing activities for the older ones. Just reading together makes a difference!
What else can you do?
- Find or found a Little Free Library, give a book, take a book.
- Support your local public library and literacy programs. Take a kid to see a writer.
- Make a #readingselfie a thing. Maybe it already is. I’m #old. But if you don’t snap it and #hashtag it, it doesn’t exist. Werd.
- If the physical act of reading is daunting because of vision problems, dyslexia, difficulty holding a book, time to sit down, etc. check out audio books and podcasts. You can download tons of them for free and it’s a great way to get your stories on the go!
- Advanced activities: Read some Orwell. Unfortunately, Animal Farm and 1984 have become required reading once again. Fortunately, you can easily borrow or download a copy. Maybe you still have a copy from high school…
With your growing arsenal of knowledge, a few grains of salt, self-awareness of your own biases, and a finely tuned bullshit detector, you might make it through the post-truth information landscape. Cue the theme song: “Trust yourself and don’t believe in any more lies”!