At the beginning of December, a student gave a presentation in which he noted that the headlines of every major news source referenced Covid-19. He’d had to click through a website to find an article on a shooting at Kabul University that left 22 students dead. Why, he wondered, was this not headline news everywhere? He went on to talk about bias in the way that knowledge is presented and his presentation was compelling enough that I am still thinking about it over a month later.
I stopped listening to NPR for several weeks back in March and April when it seemed like the US had just woken up to Covid-19 and everything that had happened in the rest of the world was completely irrelevant. The myopia was stunning and it was exhausting to continuously come up against individuals’ seeming inability to look outside of themselves. It didn’t matter that Covid-19 had been in Asia and Europe for months by then. All of a sudden, it was not only headline news but the only news.
I wish I had been able to experience a world in which news was not all-consuming. I wonder what it would be like to read about events like Covid-19, or democracy protests in Hong Kong and Belarus, or the insurrection on the US Capitol as they became relevant and not as part of communal obsession. I wonder why we can’t let go and why we refresh webpages by the minute hoping for an update. I do not know a world in which we have patiently waited.
In order to make the world a more peaceful, more just place, we need to be informed. We need to know what is happening and why, and we need to talk with or listen to those who know more than we do. Many people speak of the importance of different perspectives, but are also unwilling to engage with those who offer them.
Learning is not a zero-sum game. Entering a conversation with one idea and leaving with another does not mean you have “lost” and they have “won”. Rather, it means that your perspectives have broadened, ideas have become more nuanced, and you are able to appreciate complexity. After all, if global problem solving were easy, we wouldn’t have global problems.
When information sharing becomes a battle of who can yell the loudest, we have moved away from the process that builds democratic society. We cannot live in a world that has abandoned dialogue.
I had a conversation with an administrator recently in which he lamented that students are not willing to talk about their concerns or about issues they have raised. They want not just a solution but their solution, and they refuse invitations to sit down and actually have a conversation. This is not a surprise, for dialogue is not modelled for young people today. It is not part of politics, it is not part of the media, it does not appear in formal debate. The other side is vilified when it is presented at all, and experts sneered at. Again, this is not a surprise in an age where anyone can present an opinion and start a campaign on the basis of how many people they can convince to join them.
Yesterday I read an article from the US that mentioned increased interest in civics education, but my thoughts immediately went to the political divisions that will only deepen in written curricula. I would argue further that a lack of civics education is not at the root of the problem of political polarisation. Rather, there is an unwillingness to take a step back and listen. Perhaps there is even a real fear of what we might learn or come to understand. This is preventing us from doing the difficult work of coming together.
And until we are ready to feel uncomfortable, to honestly say, “Thank you for explaining that. I hadn’t thought of it that way”, we are going to remain exactly as we are.