Curators of my worldview
by Brian S Collier, Ph.D.
May 13, 2016
I need a haircut this morning and I’m awaiting the opening of Armando’s barbershop so that I can go and get my haircut. A haircut that I’m getting so that I’m prepared to meet parents and families of students who in less than 48 hours will be graduates of our university.
I distinctly remember being in the barbershop as a young boy with my Grandfather and listening as the men discussed the world. Their discussion had the weight of important matters and they spoke as if they were the purveyors of truth. Despite this gendered environment I knew that the adults in my world were thinking about the world around them and doing their best to make the world a better place for themselves and those who worked, lived, and worshiped with (and like) them. They were making an effort. For additional proof of this I didn’t need to look too far at all as the Catholic Church we belonged to, and at that time administered by Holy Cross Priests, preached a method of Social Justice and inclusion. The Presbyterian Church that we also belonged to and that was led by my Granddad also regularly had messages of justice – both churches were predominantly working class in nature. We attended school with kids from neighborhoods that we could walk to – and even though these areas crossed racial, ethnic, and class lines we found again in the kitchens of these classmates and on the playing fields that messages of justice and cooperation prevailed. My worldview was curated in this environment and I understood quite clearly how my town and county came to time and again elect politicians that I had heard of and that I felt like were the morally just and correct people to be leading us, despite their propensity to resemble both my own race and gender I felt like the world in which I lived mimicked the ballot box experience in my hometown.
Certainly the candidates in my hometown didn’t always win the state or national elections, but they did fare well part of the time and this made sense. As a town we would lament in our barbershops and churches when the economy turned bad and invariably we would blame those hard times on people that our town had not voted for or had turned against since the previous election. Our worlds were shaped by those around us – and thankfully I grew up in a town with a world class university so our ideas were also challenged by an influx of faculty and staff who came from other parts of the world and brought ideas to our community, ideas that disseminated through our barbershops, churches, schools and as I learned later also our unions. We weren’t a progressive town by any means but we had just enough infusion of ideas to not perceive ourselves as out of touch or anti-modern, these new ideas that would infuse themselves into our culture like a cold current connecting through a warm stream would enliven us and help us to grow as a community and gave us new things to talk about with our families and friends as we mostly went about the busyness and business of our lives.
As we enter into the modern political age an age of bitter political divisiveness I’ve given some thought to who is curating my worldview and the view of others these days. Certainly in an hour when I’m sitting in the barbershop with Armando, an Italian immigrant who still will speak some Italian with customers, and his son Chris we’ll discuss a few politics of the day, but mostly local and certainly in civil ways. We’ll do this in ways that will lack the certainty of previous generations as we work to not offend each other – but we’ll all hold ideas of what is right for our community and nation. Unlike the days of my childhood the barbershop is no longer the place for certainty of political thought.
I’ll hear strong messages of social justice and inclusion from the pulpit this weekend with some certainty. I attend Mass weekly with the Sisters of the Holy Cross at their Church of Loreto. The Sisters have clear ideas about social justice and seem to get priests to attend to them who are great thinkers, justice oriented, and clever. However, even with Pope Francis at the helm I’ll hear a great deal of uncertainty among people I work and worship with respect to whom they should vote for this political season. Many of my Catholic friends can’t seem to find any Democrats, despite their stances on the death penalty as pro-life, and these days they find the Republican candidates, despite their pro-life for babies stance to not represent some of their other values and views – making them seem less viable as leaders — so again it seems the political discussion lacks clarity and certainty – my coworkers and I gently dance around politics in polite ways and my Church is uncertain as to who to champion in local and federal elections.
I turn on my computer screen – and here my world is clear. My computer via Twitter and Facebook is clearly showing me things that I agree with, things that I like. Finally, a world of reputable news sources that say things with which I agree. After all, careful algorithms are in place to keep me clicking onto the next story. I see story after story that I can relate to – and friend after friend sharing things that I agree with. Stories from news sources (The NY Times, The Washington Post, NPR, CNN, MSNBC and so many more) that give my opinions credibility and me validation. Yes, here are my people – and the people sharing these news sources are people I agree with completely and share my interests, why there’s a former student and here is a distance colleague at another university. There’s a thoughtful blog by an intellectual partner who works in my same town! Clearly my opinions and thoughts are in the right… so how is it that as I work to plan my class reunion and start to reconnect with so many people with whom I grew up that their views are so different from my own?
It turns out that their views are being carefully curated too. The things they like are validated over and over again. Algorithms see the things they like and select other things including political pieces that they might like and if they don’t take the clickbait then that article and train of thought begins to be delicately curated out of their lives. To them it seems like their opinions are shared by everyone they know – just like the same seems true to me. They, like me, get emboldened to speak their opinions or to repeat a word or phrase or message that is part of their Twitterverse and the opinion or idea gathers power. It is group think gone awry and it has gone awry because we don’t ask people to find and think about true perspective the way we might.
I help to Social Studies teachers hone their craft and one of the things that we’re constantly pushing is that there needs to be perspective in all things. We can’t just talk about Japanese internment from the US government’s point of view otherwise we’re likely to agree with that perspective and then think it’s okay to round up legal immigrants and detain them and strip them of their property. Instead, as we hear stories about those who went to the Internment Centers and those who lost their land and properties and those who went and served our country in the war we can learn more about the total experience and come to the conclusion that the government was wrong in its actions and thus needs to take better care of its citizens and be more mindful of their rights. However, we need people who have studied this time period carefully to introduce us to a series of articles and pieces from multiple perspectives to help us arrive at conclusions – great teachers do this everyday and through pre-k-20 education people learn how to curate their own stories and worldviews to be able to talk respectfully and to share ideas – with careful attention to the Social Studies they can learn how to become that cold current without succumbing to the undertow of Facebook populism and being swept away into an ocean of reifying viewpoints.
We need to take time as a society to actually curate our own news sources and stop allowing computers, who are just doing what they’re told, to pick our news, our friends, and our politics for us. We need to halt our busy lives and delve down into issues that are important to us and our communities and see what the sources actually are that relate to our candidates and our politics. Doing this will end the quick Facebook factions and allow for us to enter into informed dialogue. Don’t let your twitter feed and your Facebook friends as liked by you decide how you vote this year, instead talk to a variety of people from lots of walks of life as this is how to beat the old world group think of our childhoods and the new world computer generated group think of the present – read about candidate issues and positions and question what the words are saying and by all means talk to your barber, your religious leaders, and those you work with in civil and respectful ways and form your own thinking, based on evidence that you can point to clearly as a rationale for why you are selecting the politician or viewpoint you are choosing this season.
For racial, gendered, class, and a myriad of other reasons I wouldn’t go back to the past in this country, but for now I’ll go see Armando the Italian barber and his son Chris – and perhaps I’ll push them on their political beliefs a bit and hopefully in that discussion they’ll also push me to further understand what it is I believe and why I believe it.