Monday, September 19, 2011

Dumbing it Down

I know that I've touched upon this topic in the past, but after reading a Maureen Dowd op-ed piece the other day, I felt that I could use this post in order to properly formulate and write down my views about the anti-intellectualism, anti-fact, and embracing of stupidity that has become the status quo in certain social and political spheres in our country.
The sad reality in contemporary American - and to a large extent global - society, is that everyone has a different view of how things actually are. Those views are not based (at least explicitly) on traditional historical perspective formulations like family, friends, culture, geography, race, gender, or any of the other myriad of factors that could contribute to determining how you view and interpret what you see and hear. So what are they based up? Where you get your news. It's as simple as that. I think that everything else; your perspective on politics, love, literature, beauty, culture, etc., is all just an extension of where you get your news.
The reason is that the "news media", if they should even be called that anymore, has gone through a terrible transition over the course of its history, that has brought it to be something of a cultural cancer that is slowly eating away at [what we have left of] our democracy. News media started as a medium to disseminate information. And while I'm sure early media pioneers didn't always printed everything about everyone, this bias was much less systemic. The news media, and I suppose media in general, then became so large that they began having an affect on what we thought. They would built up or tamp down news stories, dependent upon whether or not it was politically and economically advantageous to do so. We began to see our world filtered through the news media's prism, and what came out on the other end was not only not related to fact, but was simply a dumbed down ad for some company, product, or idea. However, the contemporary "news media" (again, I think quotes are necessary when describing the current media phantasmagoria) has become so vile, that they no longer have an effect on simply what we think, but they've had a deleterious effect on HOW we think.
How can they do this, you might ask? Well, we've become accustomed to short, fast news stories, that are meant to thrill, but not meant to last. This has become our perspective on the world, personified in our everyday lives by our relationships, our spending habits, and leisure activities. Americans no longer wish to spend years learning crafts, not for money or fame, but for the joy of making something; no, Americans prefer activities that benefit them financially or socially, but which are a low cost to them in time and money. And we don't like to build relationships over long periods of time, getting to know one another well, and learning to depend on each other for comfort and support; it's much easier to talk via a screen, and never have to leave your house. It's easier to have children raised by others, and to have the television educate children, while they eat their dinner in front of it, than to read to kids or take them out for a bike ride. And we don't build things to last anymore; it's easier just to continue buying the same cheaply built garbage over and over again, than to buy things that will stay with you for the long haul. In fact, our society goes so far as to call people who hold onto things for long periods of time "cheap" and "hoarders" (there are real hoarders, but I'm not referring to them), instead of valuing their appreciation for well made products. Houses, cars, crafts, wares, they're all made quickly and cheaper out of poor products these days.

So what does it all mean? I don't know. I'm just as susceptible and guilty as everyone else, but I've always heard that acceptance is the first step in overcoming. A long-time friend of mine and I have discussed this topic many times, and I think he has what might be the best solution in the short-term, and a building block for better solutions in the long-term. The reason we're so easily manipulated into being told how to think, is because there is a void. Parents, friends, relatives, schools, no longer teach kids how to think. They believe that a child should "be able to think for themselves". This is true, but it misses the point. The point is that kids first need to know HOW to think, before they can learn to think for themselves. The activity of teaching kids how to think is not explicit, but rather a slow process of helping children understand that everything they're taking in should not be interpreted as being true. This isn't to say a rejection of facts, but simply being able to interpret a specific type of information. What we need to develop, from the time kids start school until the time they are no longer in school, is a critical thinking curriculum. Critical thinking is the single most important skill to have in today's world, and it is among the least valued in our society. If we all learned how to think rationally, and be able to "separate the wheat from the chaff", we've all be much better suited to deal with the sensationalist news media and society that is going on around us, and attempting to pull in a million different directions at once.
A glut of information is not a bad thing. But too much information, and no way to interpret it is very scary. So to meld these two ideas, we can embrace the modern media phenomenon of a literal orgy of information, but also understand how to sift through the information to find out what is true, real and right.

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