I was talking with a friend today about how we ingest media these days, and specifically, how critically we take in the feeds that we receive from fourth and fifth estates. We both agreed that our suspicion of the 'party line' had increased exponentially over the last while with the effect for both of us that we ask very specific questions whenever we hear 'news', and pretty much regardless of the source. We now wonder what it is we're not supposed to be looking at when we see the disingenuous stories that seem to dominate the headlines, or at least the biases that dominate the way those headlines are reported.
We grow up (or perhaps grew up – my smart, young friends seem to be suspicious far more naturally these days) thinking that the news we receive through the mainstream sources are credible and unbiased by default. These are, after all, the professionals – the epitome of journalism and, ostensibly journalistic integrity. I grew up in the then-present mythos of Woodward and Bernstein, the Pentagon-Papers, war-journalists embedded in Viet-Nam, before the movies but just after the breaking news, when journalism was held up as the last great defense against corruption.
I don't feel that way now. Maybe (probably) I just grew up a bit. I've grown to believe that cynicism is a natural response to seeing the world the way it is. Psychologists routinely report that depression is statistically linked to a more accurate perception of the world around us, the world as it truly is. Being hopeful, resisting an unadulterated strain of that disillusioned perspective, requires either denial of the truth or a stubborn choice; a refusal to give up on what could be. Denial shouldn't be a viable option anymore, so that leaves making daily choices. Hard ones.
This isn't even about which side we take. I'm a firm believer in passionate disagreement and debate. I entertain dreams of that kind of respectful yet strong discussion occurring here one day, comments from honest and open people on both sides of an argument. I wouldn't for a second suggest that I'm detached or completely objective in the perspectives that I hold, but I hope that my opinions (because that's all they are) at least show that I've taken the time to investigate and think through both sides of an argument. My conclusions usually end up in relatively the same place: perhaps an inevitable destination because of my biases, or perhaps because of the logical result of the investigation – most likely (hopefully) at least a bit of both.
But we shouldn't be afraid to ask the questions. I've used the Descartes quote before: 'If you would be a real seeker after truth, it is necessary that at least once in your life you doubt all things.' This should be - has to be - the attitude that we take when looking at the world around us. So much of the world that we are presented with through the media, by our politicians and social leaders, is presented through a biased and manipulative lens, that we have to doubt what we see. Have to.
To not do so is to deny the simple truth that we all create our perceptions of the world through our own, auto-biographical narratives – that we are constantly being tempted to see the world only through the lens that we find most comfortable; the one that feels safest. We seek others that think like us, talk like us, are passionate about topics like us. It's so comforting to surround ourselves in group-think cocoons so that we never have to face the possibility that our perspective is wrong. Being committed (and continually renewing that commitment) to questioning what we see and how we choose to see it is part of our responsibility as citizens.
It's not easy, especially when we find ourselves in a comfortable place, that place where we feel at home and accepted and amongst friends. Ironically, that's when a questioning, self-cynical perspective is the most important. It's at the exact moment when we feel safe and included that we need to ask ourselves the hardest questions: What are my prejudices here and now? What is this place of apparent comfort encouraging me to not see? What biases are my deeply held beliefs fostering in me? How is my perspective encouraging me to dehumanize people who don't agree with me? Am I in danger of becoming that which I hate?
That kind of soul-searching and the constant state of imbalance it can create can be very disorienting, but it's honest. When we think that we're standing on concrete is when we should be most concerned. The world is made of sand, constantly shifting and never stable. Simply recognizing our inclination to try to delude ourselves into thinking it's solid when it isn't is an enormous challenge.
Our responsibility as citizens, if we care about ever evolving past war and greed and the creation of arbitrary differentiations between 'us' and 'the other', is to get comfortable with being off balance; with choosing to stay off balance in so much as we are constantly re-evaluating our beliefs and assumptions, constantly trying to see past ourselves.
It's a hard place to live, but nobody ever said that anything worth while was easy.