“A dream you dream alone is only a dream. A dream you dream together is reality.” – Yoko Ono (via John Lennon), 1980
“It will be very hard for people to watch or consume something that has not, in some sense, been tailored for them” –Eric Schmidt, 2010
“I’m sure that everyone out listenin’ agree, that everything you see ain’t really how it be.” –Yasiin Bey (Mos Def), 1998
“It is what you read when you don’t have to that determines what you will be when you can’t help it.” –Charles Francis Potter, 1927
When I was in my early 20s and fresh outta undergrad, I just knew I knew everything. Then, someone hipped me to the notion that there were a handful of secret societies controlling everything we experienced. These secret societies worked in tandem with governments and international agencies all over the world to create a veneer of “reality” that served to pacify, manipulate, extort–if not outright kill–the masses. September 11th, 2001 was then the most recent example, and there was no shortage of slick-graphic-production videos with a host of facts, figures, and experts who pointed out all of the holes in the 9/11 Commission’s version of events.
For the next five years, I ingested every conspiracy I could find. In many ways, my mainstream education had made it inevitable.
I’d spent my K-12 years learning that Columbus discovered America, Thanksgiving was just that, Lincoln freed the slaves, and MLK and Rosa Parks were the only notable negros in existence. I’d learned that America was a meritocracy and if you weren’t wealthy, it was your own damn fault. In sum, I learned that education itself was irrelevant to my lived experience–thus, pointless.
You can imagine the validation of my identity experienced taking my first African American Studies course. Imagine the cranial expansion I underwent reading US history through the lens of Howard Zinn. For the first time, I began to understand that vantage point is everything.
I spent so much of my early education feeling lied to about…everything that I was ripe for all the surprises. I spoke of The Matrix like it was a documentary–directed by Werner Herzog.
Twenty years later, I’m still as interested in a good conspiracy theory as any red-blooded American, but I’ve fallen back on some basic principles of research: checking the sources and resources for possible agendas, identifying my biases up front, and actively seeking opposing views. I’d argue that these are good principles both of research and media literacy in general.
But these days especially, I have to take my heart into consideration along with my mind. In 2020, there’s TOO much information about this virus, its origins, trajectory, mortality rate, fluctuation, political responses, etc. Not only that, but information now, more than ever, is tailored to what I already want to hear, based on any number of factors. When Spotify does it, that’s just good customer service, but when it’s Google, it’s only a hair’s breath from “madeupmonkeyshit.gov.”
Accordingly, the single most important question in relation to engaging the media during this time is: How do I want to feel?
This question is extremely valuable because it: a) acknowledges that “facts” are often shared before we vigorously research them, and b) my place of residence, shopping/reading habits, Audible choices, political leanings, and network of social media connections are all used to shape the information I receive.
Being human, I’m highly susceptible to information I already agree with, and algorithms use my personal information and habits to tailor my searches. I’m going to have feelings (sometimes strong ones), about the information I consume. But having feels without taking the above factors into account is akin to watching a horror movie for laughs. While it works for some, most of us will end up feeling both unsatisfied and deeply disturbed.
Personally, I want to feel balanced–both cautious about the present and optimistic about the future. I need the caution to keep aware of best practices, and I need the optimism to make it through this time without losing the barely-registered smile so fundamental to who I am. I’m a pragmatist with an optimistic streak, and I like that about myself. I want to protect it.
So, I read the news sources closer to the middle of the news bell curve, with an occasional foray into the outskirts. I continue to engage NPR/BBC daily, but I also make space on most days for some stand-up comedy via Spotify. I watch TonyBakercomedy videos on IG pretty regularly. I follow specific journalists on twitter who’ve proven reliable researchers. I never watch Trump’s daily briefings live, but I always make sure I check in daily with the fact checked version. I try to exercise regularly.
In other words, I know how I want to feel in my mind, body, and heart. I work hard to maintain that, to protect it. In a time where everything feels so upside down, it might not be a bad idea to know who you are, what you want to prune, and what you’d protect. Let that awareness practice guide the way you engage with yourself and each other. We need hearts intact.
We likewise need sharp minds. And if you happen to think 5G towers are responsible for the virus, so be it. I’m not here to challenge that. All I ask is that you don’t forget the fundamentals of good research. If everything you read confirms what you already think, that’s not research, that’s self-imposed propaganda. Check your sources for possible agendas. Don’t avoid experts in a given field. There’s a lot of good people who became experts to do the right thing–not to trick the masses. Look for peer-reviewed literature where possible.
Otherwise, you’ll be well on your way to having your own page on madeupmonkeyshit.gov in no time.
How do you want to feel? What balancing act does it take to get you there and sustain you? Let me know in the comments section below, or at firstname.lastname@example.org
Delma is a Senior Fellow with CWC. His focus is on facilitating system change on campuses and in institutions through transformative practice and the power of story. He received his undergraduate degree in African-American Studies and Psychology, and his Masters in Liberal Arts with a concentration in American and African American Studies at the University of Michigan. He regularly lectures on a variety of socio-political topics with a special emphasis on intersectional approaches to social justice.