Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Pry Open the Doors

I don't really like to discuss politics in an online setting. I think inflection is an important part of serious discussions, for one thing. For another, I don't really think anyone has the right to tell anyone what to think on any given subject. Still, every now and then something is important enough to address.

One of the more interesting classes I took back in the day was An Introduction to Social Anthropology, it's not a field of study I pursued, but it was an interesting class and the woman teaching it had an engaging manner. On the first day of class, after all the formalities of establishing that we were in the right place at the right time (incidentally, as always happened several people seemed to stunned to find out where they were, and promptly left), she said something that stayed with me:

"The biggest challenge you will face in this class is not the course work, or the reading. The biggest challenge you will face is trying to think in something other than absolutes. The role of social anthropology is not to judge, but to understand. If you keep an open mind, you will learn more about the world around you, and have a greater understanding of the people in it."

Then she began to teach. I don't know how many students in the classroom were really listening as she gave her canned opening speech, but I happened to be one of them. I was also busy fiddling with my roommate's tape recorder, since I needed to record the lecture for her, as she was briefly out of town. That's how I ended up hearing that opening multiple times. I dutifully recorded the class, and gave the tape to my roommate. She listened to it repeatedly because of a sound quality problem, but that happened to be a clearly recorded passage. I must have heard it a dozen times and it stuck with me.

So did Robert Frost's The Road Not Taken when she had to memorize it for a class, which she chose to do aloud, for what seemed two solid months. For years my eye practically started to twitch whenever I heard Frost's name, and like some upright version of Pavlov's Dog I'd begin, " Two Roads Diverged in a Yellow Wood..." but that's a different story.

The advice of that long ago teacher was very solid, and applies to more than just a class. If we keep an open mind, and embrace the possibility that we are misinformed to start, there is much to learn and understand in this world. That the world doesn't end when and if we admit that we have more to learn, or find ourselves to be wrong. There is no sin in being wrong. Nothing crumbles if we change our minds, and who knows, it is possible that as we find out more, we may discover that our first inclination was correct.

That teacher was encouraging students to start from a neutral space when approaching what we were to learn. I have to admit, although it was only an introductory class, I did learn about customs in other places that gave me pause, and sometimes shocked and appalled me. I had to work to set that aside, and sometimes I wasn't successful. Seeing merit in other cultures was sometimes a challenge.

By far the most interesting material in the class had to do with social structures in our country, in our own society. The history of gender relations was the thing that interested me the most, and that is something I chose to keep learning about.

I'm bringing this up because at present it is almost impossible to turn on the news, or to log online without seeing evidence of the recent Town Hall Meetings in the United States. Whether people are standing up and shrieking about birth certificates, or screaming that proposed health care reform involves Death Panels convened to judge the worth of your Nana or baby, it's been some pretty appalling stuff. I can't help but ask myself, "How in the world did anyone come to believe this crap?"

Death panels? Death Panels?!? It could not be more obvious that most people are latching onto buzz words, propaganda, smear campaigns and allowing that to serve as the whole of their knowledge base.

Listen, I'm a liberal. I'm not a Democrat, by the way, nor am I a Republican. I don't like to align myself along party lines, I vote the issues, not a ticket. That's what works best for me. If you happen to stumble across this, I'm not seeking to change your affiliation to mine, all I'm saying is that my long ago teacher had a point and it applies to our situation at present:

The biggest challenges we currently face are not the issues at hand, but our tendency to approach situations with preconceived notions as absolutes. The debate about health care cannot be solved when either side engages so broadly in scare tactics designed to obscure actual facts.

I'm not an Obama fan girl. I like him, I voted for him, but I voted for him because he was the choice presented to me that best fit my own political leanings. If we're really getting down to the nitty gritty, Hillary Clinton was my candidate of choice but she didn't make it to the final ticket.

Like the new health care plan, or loathe, please make sure you understand it before you judge it.

It's disheartening to see footage of meetings where people ask, seemingly believing that it is a question that needs to be asked, if Obama's health care plan really plans to euthanize the elderly.

Don't get your information from Fox News, or MSNBC for that matter. Don't look to the Daily Show, or The Colbert Report to make up your mind. Gather information from as many sources as you can, don't listen to soundbites on cable. Heck, don't listen to me, make sure you're well informed and make up your own mind. None of the TV sources named here will keep you well informed, that's something you need to do on your own. Don't let anyone do your thinking for you.

It's not a perfect plan, by the way, at least not in my estimation. We have a situation that needs addressing, that needs a solution. To solve it, we need to be knowledgeable, and we need to quit shouting at each other. When people start shouting, no one is heard, it just gets loud.

It's clear that I support health care reform, and if you don't? I have no quarrel with you. I just want to make sure that you aren't supporting it for the right reasons. If you think that you shouldn't support health care reform because Obama has nefarious plans for your grandmother?

That's not the truth of the matter. Find out the truth and then make up your mind based on as much knowledge as you can gather.


The Panorama said...

"The biggest challenges we currently face are not the issues at hand, but our tendency to approach situations with preconceived notions as absolutes. The debate about health care cannot be solved when either side engages so broadly in scare tactics designed to obscure actual facts."

My problem is that I feel one also needs to take a stand and sometimes that actually means having 'preconceived' notions. The ultimate aim is to keep an open mind but I find myself thinking along these lines" oh , he/ she is definitely rightwing or leftwing" which is exactly what I want to avoid but then, one is often left in the twilight zone. What is better? I really don't know:) However your post is a good reflection on the subject. Enjoyed reading it:)

Land of shimp said...

Hi, The Panorama. Thanks for your comment.

The ultimate aim is to keep an open mind but I find myself thinking along these lines" oh , he/ she is definitely rightwing or leftwing" which is exactly what I want to avoid but then, one is often left in the twilight zone. What is better? I really don't know:)

Absolutely, I find myself doing this too. I also find myself shutting down when certain labels are brought into play. The other day, and part of the reason this was on my mind, I was watching Real Time with Bill Maher. I'm no great fan of Maher, I frequently find him abrasive, even though we agree on certain issues.

Anyway, one of his guest was identified as a "Conservative" and I nearly changed the channel without hearing what the man had to say. I've started to have a kneejerk reaction to the word. As it turned out, the guest in question had some interesting things to say about studying France's health care system, which is much admired, to find out how they deliver such high quality health care for less than we currently spend.

I'm in favor of providing health care to all citizens, and I confess I nearly turned a deaf ear to the man, because I assumed him to be on the other side of my personal divide. I ended up spending some time looking into his point.

It was just an interesting moment for me.

I still walk on the liberal side of social issues, and will continue do so (been sort of a pattern in my adult life), but I had been assuming I knew what the man was going to say because of his political affiliation.

The Panorama said...

You are so right and that truth is we need both the liberals and the conservatives in a democracy. How else can we ensure that a state doesn't turn totalitarian with just one way of thinking.

I have respect for the conservative party here in Norway. My problem is the extreme rightwing party.I find myself increasingly intolerant of their views because they are so extreme and their statements are often based on incorrect facts.

However, you are right. One should atleast hear the other person out.I won't switch the channels the next time:)

Merlin said...

Beautifully put. Makes me wonder... is information now controlled by the media, in spite of the internet, blogging and the "direct" information channels? Is the media still responsible for guiding (or misguiding) our perceptions? Even in a country like the USA?

Pauline said...

I've been reading your comments on other blogs and find your reasoning and writing (happily) to be clear and concise. I nodded in agreement with this piece all the way to the bottom, though how many folk will turn off the popular news stations to dig into other sources is questionable. We seem to be in a feeding frenzy of hypernews - the hopped up, exclamatory declarations promulgated by the major networks. I am willing to bet that most Americans turn to TV only as their source of information, little realizing how controlled the media is by special interests. If we only watch or read news that fits our ideology, our capacity for non-judgmental thought decreases.

I, too, feel that knee-jerk reaction to buzz words like conservative, liberal, socialist, etc. and must force myself to set them aside and listen. That ability is something that should be taught in our schools. We need to train our youngsters to be open minded because they will need that skill to maneuver in the world they are inheriting...

Kathryn said...

I agree with Pauline - i always enjoy your comments & find them well-thought-out & sensitive.

I become more "political" as i grow older. I used to be listed as one of the two parties, no more. I have very strong view on the situation & am not happy with the political scene as it is currently playing out (not talking Obama, i'm not one of his "bashers," but the process that put him in place).

I feel the way we elect folks these days is very flawed & because of the influence of main-stream media the people don't have a lot of say in this. (Well, the electoral college is a big part of that, too.) Of course, people accept what they are told too easily.

One of my hopes for the future is that people will start educating themselves more & take an active part in many parts of their lives. I have hopes that the internet will be a big part of that, but it takes critical thinking skills as well as the internet also is rife with mis-information. As a nation & individuals we are too quick to let someone else decide. Doc says this pill or vaccine is good for you & we take it without questioning. Gov't says that these taxes are necessary & we pay them without questioning. FDA says these genetically modified foods are essentially the same as what was eaten before them & we eat it without questioning.

I agree with your point about an open mind & seeing things in context - from the point of view of the culture from which it comes. We do tend to fall too easily into categorizing other thoughts, issues, opinions, people without looking at what is behind. And we tend to see the bricks instead of the whole wall or what is behind that wall.

I always so appreciate what you share, even tho i can tell our political values here are rather divergent. Being able to read your thoughts stretches me. Thank you! :)

Land of shimp said...

How else can we ensure that a state doesn't turn totalitarian with just one way of thinking.

That's a great point, The Panoramaand one I think people in the U.S. tend to forget. The views, and the pull of the opposition (no matter which side) are essential to balance in governance. The things we think of as so thoroughly dividing us, are an essential part of the nature of democracy.

It sounds as if Norway also has it's current struggles with extremist influences, a problem we share!

Is the media still responsible for guiding (or misguiding) our perceptions? Even in a country like the USA?

The internet certainly removes any excuses an individual might have for not being well informed, doesn't it, Merlin? Although as with everything else there are good sources, and less than credible ones. I do think that part of the growing pains of our current Soundbite Nation problem is that there are so many avenues available for information, perhaps people are simply attracted to bite-sized news because they feel it is the most readily accessible. The least overwhelming. Having so much information available seems to have overwhelmed. That doesn't excuse TV News from recent smear campaigns, and outright lying.

I don't personally believe that the TV media should be responsible for providing our sole source of information. Oversimplification of complex issues has led to some of the shouting fests we've been seeing at the Town Hall meetings. However, it seems many people are content to allow it to be their sole source of information. Except for rare instances of outlying areas with no access, most people do have access to multiple sources of information via the internet (available at all public libraries, that also stock print media sources).

The news media is guilty of distortion, and I think we are too complacent about accepting that. Our reporters, particularly anyone with a show to their name, are not held to any standard of truth. They have become propaganda machines. What's next, leaflets from the sky?

That ability is something that should be taught in our schools. We need to train our youngsters to be open minded because they will need that skill to maneuver in the world they are inheriting.

I really agree with this, Pauline, I think we need to make efforts towards change our own national perception, and social conscience. The cries of "This is the greatest country on the face of the earth!" ...well, hey, it's got great ideas behind it, but the current reality is not the greatest. I think we were encouraged to be very arrogant about our place on the globe, and now we (I use the general here, not the specific) are frightened to know that we still have much to learn. Ways to evolve.

Compared to a lot of countries, particularly in Europe, we are a very, very young country and we often have the kind of arrogance displayed by the young.

Kathryn, I really enjoy your views also, and I like reading your blog. You always put a smile on my face. You're absolutely right, we do come from different political viewpoints. In fact, from reading your blog, there are a lot of differences in our lives, yet it hasn't meant that we still have views to share with each other.

I think another problem is that we've stopped talking to people who are different from ourselves, whether in religion, or politics. We, as a country, let differences define us too much.

I have noticed that you and I are approaching issues from different viewpoints. The other thing I've noticed is that despite that? We have a lot in common in our approach to live, and other people.

Pretty cool stuff :-)

Thanks for the comments, everyone. I really enjoyed reading, and responding to them.

Jo said...

LandofShimp (I wish I knew your name...) you have the best blog in the blogosphere. The whole world should discover you. You are brilliant. Well, maybe I'm saying that because you and I think exactly alike.

I just heard about the "Death Panels" today, and I was gobsmacked that people could actually believe -- and be afraid of -- that garbage. Now I understand why there is so much fear in the U.S. about so-called socialized health care. The folks in the U.S. really do need to study -- thoroughly -- the health care systems of France, England and Canada. Right now, you actually do have "Death Panels". They are your insurance companies. They make decisions about who will get treatment, and who will not. People in your country actually do die because of these decisions. I would be terrified to live in your country for that reason alone.

Indeed, the people there need to keep an open mind about the whole situation. I feel so bad for you folks, having to go through this.

Amy said...

I don't comment often but your post was an excellent thought provoker. I've been reading your comments on Jo's blog and I find I agree with you almost all the time. Since I'm in my early 60's, I'm no stranger to politics and was very much a child of the 60's in that I was very idealistic and issues were pretty black and white then. Now I find myself conservative (ah, there's that dirty word!!!) on fiscal issues and liberal on social issues. That's probably due to the fact that I owned and operated a small business for 20+ years and was taxed to the max! I've never belonged to a political party and have no plans to ever do so. Probably what we need in this country is a 3rd party - only because we are so divided - liberal vs. conservative. A wise teacher once told me his take on one of the dangers when a society is as divided as we are (down the middle); there will be a "messiah" figure that will present in the middle ideologically. It could be a good thing, but it could be negative in that the tension of the opposites will collapse. Something to think about...

But I do believe in our system and the checks and balances that our founders put in place will keep us afloat for some time.

I made a point on Jo's blog the other day about the internet being good for democracy. What I should have said is that it's good for information gathering, both true and untrue, biased and unbiased etc. When I did a post on healthcare the other day, it took me an hour or so to go through different links I'd been saving, again, that sifting process to find the truth. Ultimately, the truth is grayish, but I'm determined to remain optimistic about our future.

Land of shimp said...

(I wish I knew your name...)

Jo, we may not be able to solve the problems of the world easily, no matter how we might wish we could, but that is one wish easily granted. My name is Alane, nice to emeet you :-)

Right now, you actually do have "Death Panels". They are your insurance companies. They make decisions about who will get treatment, and who will not.

This is exactly correct. People in the U.S. have themselves convinced that their health insurance companies are held to some standard in which they are not allowed to deny care, or treatment. That's simply not the case. It happens every day, to good people. Decisions about health are meted out based not on the well being on the insured, but upon profit.

As to how people in the U.S. came to believe in Death Panels (egads, what a turn of events), essentially Rahm Emmanuel's brother, who is a medical ethicist of long standing, had several quotes taken completely out of context and manipulated to give this impression. He has since refuted this (as well he should, although he never should have been in this position) in an article in Time.

Our politicians latched onto this manipulation, and put this forward as fact. It's skates the line of being actual, criminal incitement.

I feel so bad for you folks, having to go through this.

Thank you, and again, I am so sorry we keep dragging other countries into this, misrepresenting their systems. It's beyond embarrassing, it's shameful.

The fear of the word "socialized" seems to spring from our past. The witch hunts of the fifties, the McCarthy era, demonized the word "Socialist" (unjustly).

It's a strange fact in the U.S. that anything bearing the tag socialized tends to make people think, "Socialization is the enemy of democracy!" Ay yi yi. Another embarrassing thing.

So at the root of it all, is a fear based on a complete misinterpretation of a word. Forget semantic arguments, we're having semantic panics at present.

Land of shimp said...

Hello, Amy. That's precisely how my husband describes his political leanings, by the way.

Thank you for the comment, I don't have much to add, but wanted to say, "Hello!" :-)

The third party candidates in our country have traditionally not done well, Jesse Ventura's term of office being the rare exception. Diversity in political views is an exceptionally important part of our process. Our current trends leave little room for compromise, and that's a big problem. We find ourselves at stalemates frequently.

One actually wise thing that I will credit Obama with having said was back after the election. It ran something like this, "We are not as divided as our politics would suggest."

However, our politics have led us to believe we are divided, essentially. I haven't found that to be the case. There are, of course, rare exceptions where I find someone's views on either side to be too extreme to see merit in, but for the most part, there is a lot to be learned from each other.

I think one of the things the internet truly helps us with is in talking about our differences. In person I think we're less likely to have discussions with people of a political nature because it isn't the done thing, having in-depth conversations in a social setting.

One of the neatest things about the internet is that we feel free to discuss topics, at length. There is a wealth of information out there, some of it very good, some of it suspect, but part of internet culture has to do with seeking it out, and discussing it.

I guess maybe because in a face-to-face setting we spend so much time dealing with niceties, you know? "How did the move go?" "How are your tennis lessons?" etc. There's nothing wrong with that, but it is a sort barrier of formality that discussions on blogs and elsewhere don't have.