I am currently reading Caring for Words in a Culture of LIes by Marilyn McEnyre (W. B. Erdmans Publishing Co, 2009). I am about a third of the way through it and I am absolutely floored by it! I know I’ll be writing more about it both here and elsewhere later because it has challenged me and made me think deeply. After each chapter I have found myself sitting with the ideas and mulling them over, rereading parts, and being challenged. But right now I wanted to share a passage I just read because it is true and important. It is something that would change the tenor of much of what passes as dialogue and information these days. I’m sure it was so when she wrote it 12 years ago but seems more relevant than ever!
We try to maneuver our way through social media, web sites, newspapers, politicians, secular and religious influencers, and 24/7 “news” channels (I put that in quotation marks because, really, there is not enough actual news worth reporting to fill that time so they have to editorialize and push an agenda on the bits of news that are reported by them both conservative and liberal). Everyone seems to have both an opinion and a platform. It isn’t lost on me that I have both as well and that I’m using it here. My blog features my views, beliefs, and opinions. I try to write from an informed place. I hope that I am truthful and rely on facts to form these personal statements. But if you are reading this, you have a responsibility too.
In talking about reporting, news, media, etc. Marily McEntyre exhorts us to take that responsibility. “Any effort to find reliable reporting needs to start NOT with questions about the sources but with questions about OURSELVES. What are MY responsibilities as a citizen? As a person of faith? As a consumer? As a leader? As a parent? As an educator? What am I avoiding? Why? How have I arrived at my assumptions about what sources of information to rely on? What limits my angle of vision? Have I tried to imagine how one might arrive at a different conclusion? How much evidence do I need to be convinced? What kind of persuasion works most effectively for me? How do I accredit or challenge authority?” (59-60). (any emphasis is mine).
We have been bombarded by conspiracy theories. We have been told that statements weren’t lies but were “alternative facts.” Many people take to the online world or our airwaves to pose conspiracy theories, lies, and probably some truths by not making any statements but by posing very pointed and directive questions. I heard one last night (and I use this because it was the most recent example fresh in my mind) where Rep. Greene of Georgia posed questions regarding the mass shooting in Las Vegas. After stating that she doesn’t believe the shooter acted on his own she asked, why would someone shoot at a crowd that was mostly Republican voters? Why would they shoot at a crowd who probably own guns? Who would have something to gain from this? Wouldn’t it make sense that the Democrats are behind this? Are these questions or a way of putting outrageous ideas out into the world without taking responsibility for the act? Many have done this so that they have deniability and can later make claims with wide eyes and an attitude of incrdulity so that you would never expect any malintent. “I didn’t say that was true. I was merely asking questions.”
In the last week I have been following a social media site that hits much closer to home than the national political mess. It is a page allowing for wrongdoing within a school district to come to light. They present themselves as a way for students and alumni to come forward without fear of reprisal. It sounds like a good idea for those who have been mistreated and are afraid. I am familiar with the school and know that many of the accusations are true. There is a distinct problem within this school (and many others) in regard to racial issues. However, the creators of the site have done two things that bring their accusations into question.
Their mistakes may weaken their case and set up walls that make any solution impossible. First of all they print any and all accusations and post most of them anonymously. Second, they have been very up front that they will delete any response or comment that questions the veracity of the claim. I understand removing threats, racist rants, and such. But when you allow no response, you open up a platform for those with an axe to grind for something that has nothing to do with race. You encourage stories that are blatantly false, reported with no personal accountability for the writer’s actions, and stories that are posted not to make changes in the system but to carry out a personal vendetta. I know that there is at least one post that has no bearing on truth. It is an absolute lie. But there is no need to try to combat it with comment which would be removed or by sharing and making a statement which would not reach the readers of the accusation.
People reading the posts on this page bear a responsibiliyty to consider not just the people writing the posts but themselves as they attempt to make meaning and sense of them. If I go into this page and post unconditional response to them, what does that say about me? If I go online, share, and rail against the page, what does that say about me? If I believe the posts without knowing the student who brought the concern, what does that say about me? If I believe all of the posts without knowing the teachers and administrators, what does that say about me? If I automatically assume one side to be absolutely pure and the other pure evil, what does that say about me? Do I trust the creators of the page enough to accept blindly what they allow to be posted?
My first instinct is was jump into the fray to defend the students who have been hurt. Instead, I chose to remain silent and reflect on myself. Having once been in that district, I thought deeply about what I had done to alleviate a problem I knew exsisted. I can say with certainty that I had never attacked a student based on racial or ethnic bias because I don’t have those views. I had, in fact, tried very hard to act in what is called today an antiracist way. But had I ever said something accidentally that made someone uncomforatble? Had I ever been guilty of ignoring a situation, of turning a blind eye? I have received some very encouraing messages this week from former students who are POC which has helped me know that they saw me trying.
I am still reflecting, but as I read the flurry of posts that have come in, I have reason to question the creators of the site. From what I can tell, they are young and probably not cognizant of the dangers for spreading lies and for escalating and complicating the problem. I have spoken privately to former students who have confirmed that they too experienced many of the behaviors related in the posts at the hands of other students or even at the hands of one teacher. I have also spoken privately to friends who are still working there. Some have circled the wagons against attack. If they see things they know are untrue or leave out vital parts, they get defensive. If a student claims the school always falsely accused the student of being nothing but trouble and having drug issues, but the teacher knows the kid served time for drug dealing… Well, that certainly colors their opinion. Unfortunately when people feel attacked, they naturally stop listening. It is incumbant upon the creators of the page to check the stories and present them truthfully especially when they are being so public in their accusations. Not doing so weakens their effect. As soon as a reader knows or can prove one instance of falsehood, it will diminish the trust in all of the posts.
This is a very important issue that needs to be taken on. It is vital that the district root out any members of the faculty, staff or administration guilty of targeting students. It is imperative that the school be made a safe place for all students. As this has escalated and the falsehoods have become tolerated, the likelihood of making progress takes a step back with each additional incident.
Both the presenter of information and the receiver of that information bear a responsibility for ferreting out the truth from the fiction. If either blindly accepts the wheat and the chaff equally no good purpose will be served.