Tuesday, May 22, 2012

News, Ignorance and Information

Thirty-second sound bytes that sound like a roll call of tongue twister countries, sudden cuts to harassed looking correspondents in far off continents, pixelated clips of violent deaths and bleeding victims, fatal waves and deadly earthquakes. A mine has collapsed somewhere in South America, or was it South Australia? What's happening in the world right now, and how do I keep up?

I've only just learned (thankyou, Wikipedia) that the Tea Party in America has nothing to do with providing a great array of herb and floral concoctions to it's thirsty population, that Burma and Myanmar are actually the same country and that there exists many persecuted peoples across the world whom I have never heard and whose names I cannot pronounce (see: Uyghur people). With the invention of the internet, accumulative documentation of modern history and the exponential increase of written, photographic and video reportage on current world affairs - how is one to keep up? How do I keep from looking like a complete ignoramus when somebody asks for my position on Palestine?

Opinions are interesting things, in university there's no shortage of them. Yet the bridge to be crossed in education is attaining an informed, relevant and respectable opinion, to do this you have to actually have some sort of knowledge, or at least a framework, of the issue at hand. And boy, that doesn't come easily.

As a communications student I'm well versed in subjects dealing with paradigms of 'The Other', 'Post-Colonial' analysis, 'Deconstruction of texts' and so on and so forth. What continues to be confusing to me is the linking of theories and academia with what I see in the news, what I read in the newspaper (more often than not these days online) and what I hear discussed by peers, colleagues, journalists and strangers on public transport.

Recently the terms Neoliberalism, Global North/South and Post-Development have come to have a useful definition. Yet I still don't understand what the Gulf War was about (oil, president bush and something in the middle east?) and with history repeating itself I am as yet not enlightened on the relationships between Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan - who is America 'supporting', 'opposing', 'invading', 'reconstructing'? With all this going over my head and not enough time in the world to catch me up in recent modern history it's no wonder I turn to c-grade sitcoms with barely plausible story-lines and inconsistent characters.

But I don't want to be ignorant, I promise. I am trying to put the pieces of the world together but there's so much information and where do I start and what do I do with that afterwards? The internet is at best an all powerful ally and at worse a daunting, formidable obstacle. Hurrah! when wikipedia turns up with a direct page for my search 'North Korean Nuclear Program' I need to research for an assignment, the world ends when it turns up with 156,0000 pages with some vague reference to my obscure search on 'Politics in Kyrgyzstan'.

If you were anything like me in high school the dominant occupier of time was the tiny needles-eye world that was What Happened at School Today or Who Did What or rants about various mediocre aspects of My Narcissistic Life. Here's hoping you made a little more use of your six years of secondary education. I sure wish I did.

All is not lost. The online world and this ancient resource called The Library are more than well-equipped to lead even the most removed from world affairs to an elementary understand of What's Going On. It's impossible to know it all, or even a little bit of everything. From my slow and still very much underway transition from ignorance to knowledge (understanding may come in a few decades) I've realised there's no point in seeking information on something for the sake of not looking like an idiot in a conversation.

The things I'm learning and what I'm seeking out are those that interest me, through studies of development, aid, the history of grassroots movements and government resistance. It's not a text book learning by any means and the information comes in the forms of poignant documentaries, opinion pieces, class rooms and off-hand comments made by peers or lecturers. (Eg. Did you know one of the origin myths about the croissant is that it was made by Austrians to celebrate the defeat of the Ottomans? Who knew the croissant was such an important historical artefact!)

I guess the point I'm making with all this rambling and my fleeting references to other countries and media headlines is that The World is a big, scary larger-than-life place, but that the stories are interesting, human and everywhere. The media does a great job of transmitting information, but understanding, frameworks and comprehension are not transferrable - they are left up to us. The great news is that we are all in the same boat. Only a fool would propose they know it all.

Even better, to reassure you that ignorance is common and full understanding near extinct I will leave you with a quote (what better way to validate my arguments than with those of somebody else!). There is a 'fix' to ignorance and it starts with confusion but ends with exchanges in stories, in history, in experience.

“Among other things, you'll find that you're not the first person who was ever confused and frightened and even sickened by human behavior. You're by no means alone on that score, you'll be excited and stimulated to know. Many, many men have been just as troubled morally and spiritually as you are right now. Happily, some of them kept records of their troubles. You'll learn from them—if you want to. Just as someday, if you have something to offer, someone will learn something from you. It's a beautiful reciprocal arrangement. And it isn't education. It's history. It's poetry.”  
                                                                                                  ― J.D. SalingerThe Catcher in the Rye

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