Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Keeping Us From Knowing How Stuff Works

The idea that we are miseducated by the mainstream media, both its "news" and its "entertainment" divisions, is a pretty common one. There are lots of different ways of filling in that idea's substance, each with a range of strengths and weaknesses, and I don't intend to go through it all exhaustively. Rather, I want to explore one of its less-discussed angles: the mainstream media leaves us ill-equipped to understand how things work, socially speaking, and often largely unaware of our own ignorance in that regard.

In general, the "news" versions of the idea that the mainstream media miseducates us tend to focus on how certain voices, stories, and facts are completely absent or are present in distorted and inaccurate ways, and that this happens not just at random but trends consistently towards serving the interest of, first and foremost, elites, and in a different way those of us who are ordinary folk but who have considerable social privilege. Regrettably, some ways of articulating this play into the mainstream dismissal of any and all critical media analysis as conspiracy mongering -- actually an example of the larger point I'm leading to in this post, but I'll get to that later. Even those versions, though, often identify real and important phenomena, and more grounded explanations of how such omissions and distortions came to be are easily possible. And the "entertainment" side of it often focuses on how imagery and stories in the mass media tend to flow from and reproduce acceptance/expectation of social inequality and privilege/oppression along all of the usual axes. Again, entertainment media don't only do this and don't always do this, but it trends this way overall, not because of any great and consciously-held conspiracy but because of how media institutions are socially organized.

There is, as I said above, another way that this idea is true that I think gets talked about less: the mainstream media keeps us ignorant of how things work, and often keeps us unaware of our ignorance.

Some may not agree that we, in general, don't know how institutions and situations that shape our lives are put together, but it seems like a fairly obvious point to me. At the very least, I don't feel that I know much about such things, except in areas where for one reason or another I have had cause to learn about it. How many of us really know how, say, our bank or credit union works? Or the processes through which the curriculum in our kids' schools were designed? Or what about the corporation that sold us that last soft drink -- do we really know how its production chain is organized, how it makes decisions? I don't.

And I think that is generally true. Furthermore, it isn't about "stupid people." We live in a very complicated social world, and not knowing about how it is socially organized is entirely understandable. Even when such knowledge is readily available, or the raw materials for generating it are readily available, there is just too much for any one person among us to know more than the bits that are most relevant to our lives and work. And the raw materials for such knowledge are at least sometimes quite difficult to come by.

I want to repeat: This is not one of those approaches that explicitly or implicitly scorns people's ignorance, such as through disrespectful talk of "sheeple", while claiming enlightenment. It's not that we don't know because of flaws in us -- we don't know because our social world is really complicated and because we are denied the tools to know. Moreover, the most common among the politically diverse approaches that set up this dichotomy between the speaker's enlightenment and the ignorance of (almost) everybody else assumes that convincing people of a certain set of essential information is the key to radically changing everything, which I think grossly misunderstands how we know things, why we act, and how change happens.

Here are a few examples of "not knowing how stuff works." The first one that comes to mind for me is a conversation I had in a hockey dressing room when I was ... oh, I don't know, 10 or 12 or 14 or something like that. It had to do with U.S. troops in Lebanon, and I don't remember if it was when they were there, or if it was at a later moment when there was talk of sending them back, or what exactly. What I do remember is that my team mate insisted that a few hundred marines could accomplish any number of spectacular things, "Because they're marines, man! They're the toughest guys out there!" Now, obviously there is lots going on here connected with the problems with the dominant media that I alluded to in the second paragraph above as well, around things like empire and masculinity. In addition to all of that, though, there's also a lack of understanding of how things work -- in particular, how war happens. Even at the time, though I had not a critical idea at all about empire or colonialism or anything like that, it didn't seem to me that being "tough" was really a remedy for being severely outgunned and outnumbered, which was clearly the scenario we were discussing. Unfortunately, I had no better idea than my buddy how war actually happens, so I think I was able to state my objection but not able to present a more plausible account based on anything resembling an accurate understanding of how things work.

Of course that's just a couple of dumb kids talking after a hockey game. It's also a common feature of life, I think, among people who have spent much more time and effort engaging with the world. For instance, thinking about this also draws my mind to the many conversations happening in Ontario among activists after the G20 summit in Toronto in 2010. A lot of people had a lot to say about the absolutely deplorable police behaviour surrounding the summit. Some of what was said was insightful and some was quite ridiculous. I thought one particularly useful intervention was a long-time-activist friend's suggestion that a lot of organizers were engaged in speculation about police choices and actions that was not at all consistent with what we know about how police work is socially organized, and were not focused on trying to figure out how said choices and actions might actually have been put together. However, he suggested, we would all be better served -- our movements would be better prepared for next time -- if we really did try to do that rather than being carried away by our (entirely legitimate) outrage and our (rather less helpful) speculation. In saying that, he was in part drawing on work by sociologist George Smith on the gay bath raids in Toronto in the early '80s. Smith pointed out that the analyses advanced by many gay men to the brutality and oppressiveness of the police in that context were similarly detached from how things work -- how the policing was socially organized, how institutions operate, how the world is put together. That sort of ungroundedness and detachment can mean, in whatever context, being less likely to be able to make effective decisions about how to fight back.

Or to pick another example, I think a lot of "alternative health" sentiment springs from a place of entirely justifiable mistrust of capitalist medicine and objection to the power dynamics it embodies, but reflects a similar disconnection from how things work (and generally a lack of awareness of that disconnection) that can lead to practices of resistance that might not always be very helpful. This takes a lot of different forms, but to pick just one example, I regularly see the claim on social media that governments and corporations are aware of sure-fire ways of curing cancer, but they suppress them. There are a number of reasons I find this highly implausible, but a key one is the way that it misunderstands how capitalist enterprises work. Yes, drug companies benefit from sickness. I could totally see an industry association of drug companies campaigning against medicare dollars going to environmental and social prevention rather than treatment, for instance. But drug companies also compete with each other, so if one could get their hands on a magic bullet against cancer that would make its investors billions and put the rest out of business, they would run with it. And they would find a way to make money from it, even if it was a common and easily produced substance. The victorious company would have no remorse, and the cure would not in the longer term undermine the profitability of capitalist medicine -- there would be new diseases, new drugs, new ways to profit from illness. Similarly, there is a healthy tendency to be knee-jerk suspicious of the claims of multi-billion dollar drug companies that for lots of people all of a sudden disappears when facing the claims of multi-million dollar "natural health" companies, and again I think this is in part based on a disconnection from how things work.

In this as in lots of other things, I think it's easy to assign too much power to the media. I think how we are able to know the world is intimately bound up with how the world is socially organized in all sorts of ways, and this disconnection from how things work is tied into aspects of our world and our lives far beyond what we see on TV and in the movies. That said, the dominant media are part of it. One way it happens in dominant news media is through the emphases on being brief and current and novel and sensational. Of necessity, work which explores how things are socially put together will be longer, less up-to-the-moment, less "new" in the sense that such things are understood in newsrooms, and less immediately exciting. And if you turn to entertainment media, storytellers can quite legitimately claim that their job is to entertain rather than to adhere strictly to social reality, and that feeling obligated to do so would restrict the "storyspace" in which they can work and play and therefore restrict the stories they can tell.

And in both cases, there is institutional pressure in the form of the profit motive not to piss off other powerful institutions. That doesn't mean they never do it -- sometimes there is profit to be had in doing so -- but dominant media institutions are (in demonstrable material ways) integrated into and depend on the same relations of ruling as lots of other powerful institutions, so they default to narratives of how things work that won't rock the boat. As a consequence, when there is attention in the mainstream news or entertainment media to how things work, the narratives are most often fantasies consistent with the interest of other powerful institutions or they are accurate (in a certain sense) but produced from the standpoint of the institutions in question. "Standpoint" means that knowledge is different depending on where you make it from. Knowledge produced about how an institution works from within that institution and adopting its standpoint can simultaneously be sufficiently accurate to be useful in making decisions about how that institution should operate, while at the same time completely erasing or violently distorting the realities of those people whose lives are shaped by that institution. Knowledge produced from the standpoints of the people who are ruled and who resist is based on what's useful to them, not what's useful to the institution, so it tends to look much different. So when there is information about how things work in mainstream news or entertainment media that isn't just fantasy, it tends to reflect standpoints of ruling.

So, for instance, it is possible for mainstream media to carry lots of stories in the aftermath of Edward Snowdon's leaks about the National Security Agency and for the average, casual reader/viewer to come away knowing much more about about Snowdon's personal habits than about what his leaks reveal about the social organization of the national security state and of the private firms that control significant corners of the internet. And it is possible to devotedly watch police procedurals (which I generally loathe for precisely this reason) and develop a commonsense understanding of policing that combines fantasy (generally of a sort that law enforcement institutions are not at all averse to you believing) with information that is more accurate but is almost entirely reflective of the institutional standpoint of the cops. Or it is possible to watch hospital-based dramas like E.R., House, or Grey's Anatomy -- all of which I have quite enjoyed at one point or another -- and get a completely distorted picture of how hospitals and the practice of medicine actually happen.

Mainstream news and entertainment media are not created primarily for the purpose of giving us a bad sense of how things work, but they are pretty good at doing so nonetheless.

This post is not, incidentally, leading to moralizing about how mainstream media should do better. It would be nice if it did, but moralizing isn't going to make that happen because things are as they are for institutional reasons and it'll take meaningful social change beyond an online expression of frustration to make that any different. No, my "what can we do about this" conclusion makes two points that are quite separate from mainstream media continuing to do its thing.

The first is a suggestion to producers of grassroots and independent media that falls under the "news" category. I'm involved in this kind of work myself, and I'm of the opinion that we don't do enough to try and build grassroots knowledge about how things work. I think we are too often caught up in mimicking the forms of mainstream journalism, and too often sucked into reporting acute moments of conflict as opposed to underlying how-it-worksness. For instance, in my foray into graduate school (which seems oh so far away now, though it ended less than a year ago), I managed to work things so that a major piece of coursework involved going through lots and lots of coverage, both mainstream and grassroots, of the G20 summit in Toronto. As useful as the grassroots coverage was in certain respects as a counterpoint to the politically dismal mainstream reporting, it wasn't actually a lot more successful at presenting material that would help readers develop a sense of how things work, either in terms of the policing or in terms of the G20 as an institution of global ruling.

The other suggestion -- this one much more generally applicable -- is just that we should be aware that, by and large, like it or not, we largely don't know how things work, but we can know. This means, for instance, that if we are involved in organizing of one sort or another, we should recognize that building knowledge is integral to any sort of struggle. If we recognize that in an explicit way then we might just be able to do a better job of it. And whether we do it in movement contexts or in other sorts of spaces, we need to recognize that learning how things work is a skill -- something we need to work at, to practice. Outrage and vehement skepticism are important. Being committed to our own lived experience and not letting it be overridden by experts is crucial. Listening to the lived experiences of others is perhaps moreso. But in order to turn all of these things into the kind of practical knowledge that can make real change, we need to know -- I bet you can guess -- how things work.

And I should add that making that shift from knee-jerk skepticism (at times accompanied by a disturbing credulity towards sources that are equally dubious but that package themselves as oppositional in some sense) to grounded, critical knowledge means recognizing that so long as we are clearly grounded in the experiences of ourselves and other ordinary people, we don't need to completely reject knowledge produced in, by, and from the standpoint of ruling institutions. Our own experiences can tell us lots about what they do, and augmented with what they say themselves about what they do, we often have quite a bit to go on. They may not put their accounts together in ways that serve our struggles, but there is lots we can use. We can come to know how things work -- how war actually happens (and is so terrible for pretty much everyone concerned), how policing happens (in ways that bring terror to the everyday lives of so many racialized people, poor people, gender non-conforming people, sex workers, and others), and how capitalist and state-based medical practices happen and how we can most usefully and critically relate to them. And, of course, this is a collective enterprise. As I said at the start, none of us could possibly know enough to know all or even a significant fraction of these things. So as we build movements and communities and our own institutions, we need to get better at knowing things (in grounded, critical ways) together.

1 comment:

Christy said...

I really like this post. I definately think knowledge of how things works and how things happen is important. My husband hates the way crime shows give people an unrealistic expectation of how science happens.

In some ways the post reminds me of an incident another day where I was talking to two different people about a rent situation and a question of whether someone was evicted or not, and it was like the two people were in totally different settings. To one person being evicted meant being given a proper government approved form followed up by a tribunal hearing. To another person being evicted meant having the landlord refuse to accept another rent-cheque and saying he had to leave. On one level only a legal eviction counts, and yet on another level people experience and live through the other type of eviction (maybe just because they don't know they can fight it, but regardless, they experience it and it has implications for them). I felt like both people needed to see how the world works according to the other's perspective because just saying "one's legal, one's not" doesn't really work. The more nuanced our experience of life and our understanding of life the better. "How evictions work for those who know the law" and "how evictions work for those who don't know the law" are both valid topics of information.

I like your description of how drug companies work and how it doesn't make sense for there to really be a hidden cure for cancer. I think a lot of people also misunderstand how research is done, particularily the different levels of testing that happens before a product makes it on the market and thus why a researcher might, seeking funding, proclaim he has a cure when in fact the compound in question shows nominal effects in a test-tube yet the news reports it as if it exists and people think it should be distributed at hospitals RIGHT NOW.

The need for accurate information is such a difficult thing when there is distrust. When we know that not all the information we are given is right, how do we trust which information is? I read a number of blogs about birth and the natural-childbirth movement, and the idea that people are 'educating' themselves online because they don't trust their doctors and then refusing intervention and having dead babies as a result. Advocates of natural childbirth often say they're trying to reclaim traditional knowledge, and cut through the propoganda of the 'birth industry' yet at the same time they are dismissing so much information and suffering for it. I think in some ways the idea of looking at 'how things work' could be a way of attempting to move through the challenge of not trusting the experts but not having any expertise either. More information about how the decisions (in the case of birth it would be how hospital policies are set, how doctors are educated, etc, etc) might help cut through the distrust.