It’s not what you look at that matters, it’s what you see. — Henry David Thoreau
There is a pivotal scene in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Indy, Elsa, and Donovan have reached the temple of the Holy Grail. Hidden among dozens of imposters, only the true grail will bestow eternal life. Drinking from a false goblet ensures immediate death. Aware of Nazi collaborator Donovan’s presumptions, historian Elsa hands him the solid gold chalice. He eagerly accepts, blind to the fact he is about to be incinerated as a result. Indy ponders his options carefully and selects the unadorned cup of a simple carpenter. He chose wisely.
Our perceptions govern how we select and interpret information. We are all magpies, attracted to the bright and shiny data that reinforce our opinions. As such, how can anyone formulate a truly accurate viewpoint? Is an unbiased opinion even feasible or an impossible dream?
It fascinates me how two people can look at the same set of facts and come up with completely opposite conclusions. I live in Los Angeles. We were lucky enough not to have most of our hospitals overrun and the USNS Mercy was underutilized. For some, this means we all did our job to flatten the curve and not strain the system. Kudos to Angelenos. To others, it proves that we never needed to quarantine in the first place. Our freedoms were curtailed for unjustified reasons. Both sides can cite “proof” to validate their positions. The debate rages on incessantly.
Now we find ourselves in a much more volatile environment: the #blacklivesmatter movement and subsequent protest/backlash. My purpose for this piece is not to deliberate the heartbreaking details of what transpired on May 25, 2020. I know my musings would be simple and inadequate. My quandary stems from how I — a middle-aged, middle-class white woman living in the suburbs — am to appropriately react. I want to — I NEED to get this right. In the past few days, I have seen and heard “evidence” to support positions on each end of the spectrum and thousands in between. Law enforcement tear-gassing peaceful protesters, protesters spitting and throwing bricks at police, Sheriffs kneeling with demonstrators, demonstrators providing water to the National Guard. Reports of Antifa inciting vandalism and destruction countered by stories of white supremacists doing the same and placing the blame on minorities. Looting rooted in crimes of opportunity and mob mentality. Marching for justice. Marching for anarchy. Marching for peace. Whatever your predilection, you can find facts to sustain it.
The dirty little secret of “truth”
In reality, ALL content is clickbait. From the National Enquirer to CNN to Fox News to the New York Times each and every bit of media is designed to grab your attention and keep you reading/viewing for as long as possible. Anyone searching for truth can easily be sucked into a whirlpool of disinformation. Journalistic ideals are built upon the notion of keeping the public informed, but journalists need to make a living. Conglomerates are not known for their altruism. The more readers/viewers, the more advertising dollars to feed the machine.
As a result, every article’s construction is designed to keep you captivated. Which, by the way, is no easy feat. Only 20% of readers will read past the headline. (Side Note: nearly 60% of readers will share an article after only reading the headline.) Half of that 20% will read halfway through and barely a fourth will read 75%. That means for every 100 views, maybe five will read the entire piece. To counteract disinterest, journalists are taught the inverted pyramid structure of article writing. This top-loaded method is designed to present the Who? What? When? Where? Why? How? and So What? as quickly as possible. Not only to attract the reader, but also to make sure the story still makes sense should the piece be shortened due to column space or time constrictions.
Compounding the difficulty is the rule of thumb that all that information — at least the 4Ws and the H — needs to be presented in 25 words or less. Anything more than 30 is considered cumbersome. Additionally, an adept journalist is expected to “know their audience,” cater to it and relate why this information is important to them. Complete objectivity is an illusion — and unprofitable.
This sensationally crafted lead also has to be written for the average reader. That’s understandable, you might say, until you realize that most Americans have a 4th-8th grade comprehension level. Next time you read a piece that feels like it is written for adolescents, you’d be correct.
What you feed your mind determines your appetite — Zig Ziglar
It’s no secret that social media utilizes algorithmic curation to determine what gets priority on your newsfeed. Google searches, email lists, Facebook likes, etc. are continually fine-tuning the filter towards the content will promote an emotional engagement and ideological brand attachment, weeding out any or all information that may not align with your way of thinking. Facebook has made it clear that its policy is not to differentiate between propaganda and facts. No one is immune to this chumming of the media waters. Every reader is caught up in an optimized feeding frenzy designed to stimulate their convictions, not challenge them. To think you are reading objective information without putting forth an active effort is tilting at windmills. Our current obesity crisis is not based on a scale, but in self-righteous bloat.
Highway to a Danger Zone
Have you ever shopped for a pair of polarized sunglasses? Touted as the epitome in protective eyewear, polarized lenses can add around $100 to the price tag of your shades. Which, of course, ups the status quotient.
Polarized lenses enhance your vision by dissipating glare, thereby reducing eyestrain. Better clarity is what they promise. But that crystal-clear vision is only possible in ideal circumstances. If the angle of the sun isn’t in the sweet spot, your sight can be obscured — sometimes placing you in great peril. Filtering out high and low lights blurs obstacles into their surroundings. You could be on a highway to a danger zone and never even know it.
Creatures of comfort
By design, polarized lens alter how you see the world. How much more so do our preconceptions contribute to the polarization of society? By screening out the glare, we run the risk of extinguishing the brilliance of an idea. Furthermore, warning signals of false information may be concealed. Any deviation from our beliefs generates unease and agitation. Our vision is focused on only what makes us comfortable.
The media’s great strength is its ability to inform and connect. But this lofty ideal has a negative underbelly. Like Pavlov’s dogs, we are drawn to what appeases our intellectual appetites. We truly believe we are enlightened, but in reality, we are placated — riveted to content that reinforces our inclinations. America’s melting pot is breaking into simmering caldrons of discontent.
IMHO — Resist the need to be coddled
Our latest bout of civil unrest shouldn’t come as any surprise. It’s not the first, nor will be the last. Throughout history, the one constant has been the quest to control our environment. Human beings instinctively crave power. Whether the mission is for domination or freedom, there isn’t much difference.
What is one to do when they are thirsting for accuracy? I can only propose the following strategy:
- Consider the source of your information. Scroll down to the bottom and Google the author or organization. Check the date of publication to see if the data is current. Investigate who funds the studies presented to validate their data.
- Make sure what you’re reading is news and not an advertisement. If there is any pitch to purchase a product or a discount code provided, someone is making money and their objectivity is tainted.
- Don’t fall prey to emotional headlines. Claims of “You won’t believe this!” or “Guess what happened next!” are clear indicators of what you are about to read lacks any true substance.
- Seek out contrasting viewpoints. How can you defend a position without knowing what the opposition may be?
- ABOVE ALL THE REST —PRACTICE EMPATHY. It’s time stop demonizing those whose beliefs differ from our own.
We need to rise up above passive consumerism. Counteract the coddling by exercising our minds. Be discerning. Hold everyone’s truths to be self-evident and resist the urge to judge. Maybe then we can achieve our pursuit of happiness.