In this election season, we face issues that affect our society and need to make decisions about our political leadership. So, where do we go to get the information to make informed decisions and how can we exercise critical thinking?
Recently, David Ferriero, the 10th Archivist of the United States, shared a graphic with me. It read, "A truly great library contains something in it to offend everyone."
We now live in a world that empowers us to insulate ourselves from any ideas or opinions that might possibly offend us. We admire those of similar minds and are uncomfortable around those who disagree with us.
As head of the National Archives, David has a critical role in fulfilling the institution's mission of helping us, The People, hold the government accountable. Hence, not only is he a steward and curator of history, he and his colleagues are also catalysts for critical thinking. Our conversation had revolved around the decline of thoughtful dialogue -- people seem to be talking past one another or at each other rather than with each other.
So where DO we go to get better informed?
A new avenue for information is the Internet.
We pride ourselves on our ability to access information online. We can type in a search on anything from presidential elections to questions to organic gardening and many potential websites pop up. It sounds pretty random, right? Eli Pariser, in The Filter Bubble, points out that search engine algorithms are actually constructed to generate search results that cater to our existing tastes. Hence, if I were to type in "wooden toys for toddlers," the results would be based on my previous searches for toys for my three-year-old and would be different than what your search would generate if you had typed in the same thing.
This piece of intelligence caters to our demands for efficiency. Where the danger lies is when we conduct a search on a story or an issue, the engine also generates results that caters to our existing opinions and views. What's intended to be efficient and intelligent, is also diminishing our range of choice and perspectives. Pariser argues persuasively that this creates for us a false sense that our perspective is the majority perspective and differing perspectives are the outliers. This leads to greater polarization on issues and less informed decision making.
A more recent source for information and news is Twitter and Facebook feeds.
These are quicker avenues to groundbreaking news that also offer up a seemingly diverse set of news sources. But, how diverse is it really? After all, it's easy to "friend" or "follow" those whom we find interesting. However, those are more often than not people who hold similar perspectives as ours. This avenue can help us explore more deeply, ideas that we already espouse, but may not expose us to other points of view.
Then, there are the traditional avenues such as television and newspapers.
The news has been a trusted source is because of its grounding in journalistic integrity -- the notion that regardless of the issues persuasion of the reporter, the story needs to present the diverse points of view fairly. By doing so, it helped us to see the various angles of an issue and enabled us to shape a deep and constructive dialogue.
Over the last decade, journalistic integrity has been hampered by the evolving nature of the media and the new demands of the audience. In the Walter Cronkite era, we received only 30 minutes of news from a limited number of sources, and we were captives of what was available. What was available, however brief, provided a broad swath of perspectives. So, what we saw may have made us uncomfortable, but we watched, learned, and thought.
Today, we have a wide range of choices in print, online, and broadcast. To get our attention, networks and newspapers have cultivated a particular bias. It's now easy to flip through the channels until we find a network or scroll through our tablets until we find a story that resonates with us.
We have easy accessibility to a wide range of choices and often, the easiest gut choice is to choose the one with which we find comfort. Cass Sunstein had argued that this shift from an architecture of serendipity to an architecture of control, has created more polarization on issues and less informed decision making.
Finally, there is the age-old source of information, which is our communal gatherings.
But here, social networks have facilitated our connecting with others who share similar tastes by giving us access to specific choices. We can find groups as esoteric as Yoga for Libertarians, Sewing for Stay at Home Dads who are Republican, or Foodies who are Democrats. We can easily find kindred spirits who share our esoteric tastes and perspectives and it will be a nice and comfortable community to share in.
So what does this all mean?
It's easy to be comfortable and distance ourselves from ideas that challenge us. However, it's in the midst of disagreement or being challenged that we both prove and question the premises on which our own views rest. Seeing the other sides- understanding that there is another side that is not an outlier, but rather a point of view espoused by a large group of people forces us to think about why that is so.
Why do we think the way we do? Why do others think the way that they do?
It's easy to talk past one another when you think the other person is most certainly wrong and in the minority and you are clearly right and in the majority.
Consequently, we are living in a more polarized society which perpetuates deep cynicism and distrust.
At a time when discord and tensions over critical issues run high and disputes get more heated, we need to bridge across divides more than ever. We need to talk with one another and unearth the values and differences that lie at the heart of our perspectives. We need to discover the similarities and points of intersection so we can arrive at a shared solution. More than ever, we need collaboration rather than contempt for other points of view.
We are empowered with choices, but it's easy to use them in a way that boxes us in rather than exposes us to a broader and more diverse set of perspectives. We can discipline ourselves to be exposed to other points of view.
So, subscribe to a newsfeed that you might otherwise not read; watch a new network in addition to the ones that you would normally choose; follow a few people on Twitter who seem extremist to your current point of view. Or go to a great library.
So, get uncomfortable. Better yet, go get offended. Perhaps by doing so, we can make better informed decisions about the choices we face and be more responsible in understanding the challenges we need to address. We can start on the path to forging needed solutions together instead of disagreeing.
Go get offended. It'll be good for us all.