A friend asked what I thought was the biggest problem in America. Without hesitation, I answered that it was our inability to discuss issues with civility and respect.
I have no doubt that the problems facing our country today could be solved if we could just talk to (and not at) each other. If we could just talk to and really listen to each other, we could work miracles. We could solve every single problem if we could just accomplish this.
Every. Single. Problem.
Hurricane disaster relief, unsafe water, racism and all of its descendants, poverty, corruption. ‘
Every. Single. Problem.
But we’re too busy wanting a win more than a solution. We’re too busy sneering at those who “cross the aisle” and attempt to work out solutions. So many people automatically write off the opinions of those who don’t fall in line with our own beliefs. We’re too busy labeling each other “RINO” (Republican in Name Only) or “DINO,” (Democrat in Name Only) libtard or trumptard, etc., that we’ve lost the ability to hear what others are saying over the noise of who we think they are.
We have been divided by those who fail to see beyond their immediate scope.
We have been divided by those whose entertainment comes from stirring the shit and sitting back, watching us become even more polarized because they profit no matter who comes out on top.
“Critical thinking,” this same friend told me over margaritas, “is the biggest problem in America.”
I’m pretty sure I shrieked, margarita or no.
“No No No No No Noooooooooooo!”
I cried it in my best pretty-close-to-shrieking-voice.
The lack of critical thinking is closer to being the biggest problem in America than any presence of it could ever be.
I wish I would have asked him how he defined it. I think I may have missed an opportunity to learn.
Critical thinking is looking for what isn’t being said just as much as what is. It is hearing a statement and questioning whether it’s factual or not. It’s recognizing biased or inflammatory language and realizing there is something more than what is being reported. It’s asking who benefits from this bias or incendiary rhetoric.
Critical thinking is discovering the why behind a claim. Paying attention to things such as 1) if any evidence is offered to support the claim being made 2) if the evidence actually supports the claim and 3) if answers to questions actually answer the question being posed.
Once upon a time, we held journalists to a standard of truthfulness. The Reynolds Journalism Institute says that “To serve the public, journalism must be accurate, independent, impartial, accountable, and show humanity.” It was reasonable to expect that reported stories were factual, and when journalists made errors, a retraction followed, usually along with an apology. Reporters were respected, and many of them became household names.
Its purpose is to serve the public. Freedom of the press is so vital to a democracy that it was codified in the Constitution.
But in the past couple of decades, yellow journalism has replaced the semblance of actual news.
According to Frank Luther Mott, a 1939 Pulitzer prize winner, there are five main characteristics of yellow journalism(1):
We can see it modernized in click bait titles and radically biased reporting. We can see it in opinionated and biased language in so-called news stories. We can see it in sensationalist headlines and emotionally manipulative photographs.
Yellow journalism is emotional manipulation pretending to be news.
Having been exposed to this sort of journalism for so long, it has affected our thinking. Our thoughts and beliefs have become reflections of the news to which we’re exposed. We live in the mindset of titillating headlines and biased reporting. We think in outrage, and I have seen that even mentioning a name can evoke bitter reactions, simply because of what we have been told about that person.
Before the current President of the United States took office, I often used this example of the manipulative tendencies of today’s headlines:
These might be the facts: Obama golfed at Whatever Golf Course, and he scored a single hole-in-one. On the preceding night, Congress voted and passed a law that his administration had worked to get passed. The day following his golf trip, there was a hurricane that was more destructive than expected.
Instead of a simple title that led for an article that reported all three facts as not-necessarily causative, the headline might be, “Obama Celebrates the Passage of ABC law by Golfing at Whatever Golf Course” by those outlets that liked him or supported him.
Unless Obama was interviewed and he said something that specifically indicated that he was celebrating the vote, it is unconfirmed that he was in fact celebrating that vote.
Another headline, this time from an outlet who neither liked nor supported him, might be, “Obama Golfing on Vacation as Hurricane Jon Snow Decimates the Southeast.”
Same situation, different biases.
In order for us to find solutions to the many problems facing us today, we must question who profits from our outrage or our impassioned delight. Someone is profiting, whether its sales of a specific item or advertising when we’re glued to a news site or television station.
We must identify and scrutinize the language that causes such reactions and get to the root of the story in order to discern truth from fiction.
We must meet somewhere in the field between viewpoints and discover viable solutions. If we can find no common ground at the onset, let us ask each other, “This is a problem. How do you propose we fix it?”
We have to stop believing that the “Us vs. Them” mentality is the only way to think, or that it is beneficial at all. We have to believe that solutions and not winning should and can be the goal.
Solutions are out there.
We just have to put aside our outrage, talk and listen to each other, and find them together.
(1) Frank Luther Mott’s characteristics of Yellow Journalism as listed by W. Joseph Campbell: Introduction to Yellow Journalism.