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Smarter Activism March 18, 2011

Posted by frrobins in activism, communication, critical thinking, Current Events, iraq, Memories, Personal, Politics, Schools.
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It might seem ironic that I went through a crisis of faith as a college student. That’s the best way my husband and I could describe it. I went through this even though I was and am an atheist. Born and raised. Yet while some atheists run away in fear from the word ‘faith’ there are things I did and still do have faith in. For me this came from my Humanistic philosophy. I believe that people are mostly good and will do the right thing. And this was where the crisis in faith came in.

The invasion of Iraq and subsequent re-election of Bush were what caused it. I knew that we had no valid reason for invading Iraq. I felt it was morally wrong. And I could not believe so many people supported it. I protested, wrote letters, pestered my acquaintances with anti-war rhetoric. I did the stuff that reformers before me did that lead to progress. No one ever told me that those reformers experienced more failures than successes in their life. While Susan B. Anthony secured some property rights for women, she fell way short of her big goal of earning the right to vote. And the setback were numerous.

It was bad enough that Iraq was invaded. It was worst that Bush was actually re-elected. I wore my CD player out with Green Day’s American Idiot and went through a period of several years where I gave up on activism all together. People were idiots and it was useless trying to reason with them. It was a small comfort that shortly after his re-election people woke up to their mistake, and that long term Iraq has been considered a fiasco. It doesn’t change the fact that many have died unnecessarily and that things are worse now.

Eventually I got back into activism, though not the way I did before. I hope I’m doing it smarter. How? Well, trying to figure out how to repackage my message.

This is hard. Studies have shown that when people are entrenched in a position, reading evidence against their position only strengthens their previously held beliefs. Then there is the confirmation bias, where people seek out information that confirms their beliefs. Making it unlikely they’d even read what I have to say anyway.

So, how to reach across the aisle and convince people of the validity of my viewpoint? This isn’t an “I’m smart and right, you’re an idiot and wrong’ thing. For instance, I really don’t care about your religious beliefs, so long as you don’t try to impose those beliefs on me. What I’m talking about is stuff that does affect me. Such as global warming. The evidence supports that it is occurring and we need to do something about it. This affects me. How do I make people see the reality of the threat here and, more importantly, get them to see the importance of eco-friendly planning? Fear mongering works. People are irrational creatures. Rather than think rationally we think with our emotions. Even the most logical person will think irrationally in the throes of fear and anger. Hence, how we found ourselves in Iraq.

I don’t like fear mongering. I respect its power and I don’t like it. I don’t want to scare people into making decisions…it tends to lead them into making the wrong ones. I want people to look at the evidence rationally and make informed decisions.

So people don’t make decisions about important things rationally. I’m against using irrational means to spread information even if it benefits my cause. How do I get around this? I know! Teach kids critical thinking skills while they’re young!

Consider that a lot of people don’t know how to make informed decisions because they were never taught how. I’m going to use Shirley Sherrod as an example. An edited video came out showing that Sherrod, a black woman, discriminated against a white farmer. Or did it? When the full video was seen, it was obvious that Sherrod had done no such thing. By that time it was too late. Her reputation was damaged and she had lost her job.

What if, rather than judging Sherrod by a few video clips, people had watched the full tape from the beginning? It is ridiculously easy to manipulate sound bites or take written words out of context. What if people looked up the original source of a quote/video/sound bites, etc?

All of this can be taught. It’s not difficult to learn. Kids can learn it in history class. What if, instead of memorizing dates of events they will forget during summer break, we teach kids skills that historians use to determine what happened in the past? What if we explain the difference between a primary and secondary source and have kids find examples of each. What if we show how information can be corrupted, either intentionally or unintentionally?

Marie Antoinette never said, “Let them eat cake.” In Antonia Frasier’s biography of this infamous queen, she details how this quote had been attributed to many an unpopular queen through history, and how with Marie Antoinette it stuck. This misinformation pervades our past, present, and will be out there in our future. How do we inoculate our kids against it?

What if we showed how words and information can be manipulated by governments and other groups of people and taught children how to check their facts, think critically, and question what they see and read?

Of course, this would require a major overhaul of how we see education in America. It would require letting go of our standardized testing fetish and introducing a more difficult curriculum into the classroom. It would mean teaching kids that may be our government wasn’t always all good. And I live in a state that wants to use history class as a propaganda machine for saying that the reason the south succeeded was a state’s rights issue that had nothing to do with slavery *sighs*.

So how to reform the schools to teach critical thinking? How to convince people that this is needed? Especially when giving out harmful standardized tests is a big money maker for some people and the current broken system benefits some politicians? I can already hear cries of liberals wanting to brain wash children into godlessness, when in reality I could care less about their religious beliefs and just want people to think critically about issues that affect us all (we’re not on this rock alone). Heck, critical thinking is the opposite of brainwashing. I use it even with sources I trust or things I want to believe.

For instance, Jon Stewart once made the comment that Sarah Palin made rape victims pay for their rape kits. Alarmed, I went the check and found that while her chief of police did this, whether or not Palin supported it is undetermined. Now, I dislike Palin. I think she is harmful to the women’s movement and like to collect ammunition against her. But if I start passing around misinformation, then I look like a fool.

So, to get people to think critically about issues we need to teach these skills in school, which means reforming an educational system that favors rote teaching and blind acceptance, which means convincing people that changing it to teach critical thinking is a worthy goal without using fear mongering. Whew! So ladies and gents, how do I pull that off? Well, if you have any ideas I’d love to hear them. Because I haven’t figured it out yet.