Although I haven’t posted in several weeks, I have been doing a lot of reading, writing, and thinking. In particular, I’ve been working on pulling together the Open Educational Resource (OER) for the First Year Seminar (FYS). It isn’t complete but you can see a draft of it and watch it as it progresses. I have also been working with the General Education Outcomes Task Force to complete our charge by October 2017, the date we were given by the General Education Committee. Finally, I’ve been working on my particular section of the FYS which is focused on the wicked problem of fake news. I see all kinds of connections between these individual strands of work.
One of the major topics of the FYS is information literacy which is the section of the OER that I’ve been thinking about and working on most recently. Information literacy involves understanding when and how to search for information relevant to whatever you’re working on, how and why particular information is produced, how to evaluate the reliability and validity of information, and how to use information ethically (not misrepresenting it, using proper citations, and so on). This is a big, challenging topic and I’m particularly interested in the evaluation of information since this is directly related to my FYS topic of fake news.
In doing the research for my FYS, I’m reading/watching all kinds of people making claims that I would consider strange and really hard to believe. I came across a video which sets some of the rantings of conspiracy theorist Alex Jones to indie folk music. I have not watched much of his rantings because I never want to increase the traffic to his site. But the video is oddly entertaining. His rantings are really crazy and made me wonder whether anyone takes what he says seriously. For example, he claims that he faces people who “literally crawl out from under rocks. They have green looking skin and they run around screaming, ‘We love Satan. We want to eat babies.’ I have them on video.” Later in the clips set to music, Jones claims that he’s been told that Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton smell like sulfur. The implication, of course, is that they aren’t quite human. I doubt very much that Jones has ever shown the video he claims to have to anyone because I doubt that it exists. This (and virtually everything else that comes out of Jones’ mouth) is an example of “fake news.”
Jones’ use of dehumanizing rhetoric is, of course, not a new tactic. It is not easy to kill or torture or condemn another human being. And so, leaders of all stripes use dehumanization as a way to encourage and allow their followers to kill and torture and condemn those that the leaders have deemed as the source of whatever ill they are trying to address. Such tactics are the source of all kinds of cruelty. The rhetoric allows us to distance ourselves from each other, to not see each other as full human beings.
Novelist David Joy talked on NPR recently about his essay trying to humanize poor Southerners, those people often characterized as “trailer trash,” a term that dehumanizes those to whom it is applied. I recently read a long comment exchange on a Facebook page for residents of Goffstown, NH (my hometown) about addicts. One person advocated that the police stop using Narcam when an addict overdoses a second (or third or fourth and so on) time because they clearly don’t want to get clean and are choosing to suffer. (By the way, Joy’s essay has a moving passage about addicts: “When all you’ve got is a twenty-dollar bill, twenty dollars doesn’t ward off eviction notices. Twenty dollars doesn’t get you health insurance. Twenty dollars doesn’t make a car payment. Twenty dollars doesn’t even keep the lights on. But twenty dollars can take you right out of this world for just a little while. Just a minute. Just long enough to breathe. That’s what every single addict I’ve ever known really wanted: just a second to breathe.”) I could go on and on with example after example of one group of people failing to see the full humanity of another group of people.
So I’ve been thinking about how we can combat fake news. I’ve also been thinking a lot about habits of mind, which are our usual ways of thinking, the habits that we’ve trained our mind to use as we encounter the world. Habits of mind, like any habit, can be changed and cultivated. So the Gen Ed Outcomes Task Force has identified 4 habits of mind that we think our current Gen Ed programs tries to cultivate in our students. One of them is called Integrated Perspective. This is a habit of mind in which we recognize that our perspective on the world is not the only perspective, that other people have equally valid perspectives, and that when we integrate our perspectives, we often do work that is superior to any work we each could do individually. Part of this habit of mind involves empathy which is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another person. Interestingly, design thinking, which I’ve written about before, requires that we develop empathy with the people that we’re designing for. Design thinking is a key part of the redesigned FYS that we’re working on.
How do we combat fake news? I don’t have a complete answer to that question. But it seems to me that a lot of fake news requires believing some unbelievable things about other people. So maybe it’s really important for us to develop a habit of mind where we empathize with other people, where we really see them as human beings with hopes and fears just like our own. I know that alone won’t fix the fake news problem. We have lots of work to do there. But it’s a step, an important step that we can all work on.