the state of us: in defense of context

Jon Stewart is a brilliant thinker and satirist, and in my view the public sphere is less informed without his voice.  When Stewart ran Comedy Central’s The Daily Show, pollsters claimed that a majority of millennials looked to Stewart for primary news; he was their information source.  Many older Americans decried this as a sign of the decline of our country’s intellectual rigor, or of the lack of seriousness and discernment young people possessed.  To be fair, Stewart himself adamantly claimed he was not, nor did he try to be, a trusted source for news.  He is a comedian, and that is all he claimed to be.  However, I think Stewart regularly offered us something news agencies—and most people—lack: context.

How do we come to know the things we know? Could the answer illuminate the sources of our alleged divide?  Our fractious citizenry is a result of our inability to contextualize our unique realities.  We live in circles largely segregated along economic, racial, ethnic and political lines.  These lines, invisible though they may be, are powerful, and they keep us from interacting regularly with people whose experiences and backgrounds are largely different from our own.  We love to yell about the problems this insulated living causes. “Get out of your echo chamber!” “You live in such a bubble.” “You only reached that conclusion using confirmation bias.” The list of accusations goes on, even though our divided communities ensure many of us DO live in bubbly echo chambers. 

The work of self examination required to recognize my bias, to trace its roots, and to mitigate its impact, can be exhausting.  Nevertheless, we cannot be responsible stewards of our citizenship without contextualizing our experiences with the experiences of people who live very differently than we do.  For instance, if my view of police is based on the positive experiences of white friends who live in safe, wealthy areas, then I might passionately defend all policemen as dutiful servants who are patient, respectful and levelheaded in every instance.  On the other hand, if my view of police is based on the negative experiences of black friends who live in a part of town overlooked by investment, then I might passionately accuse all policemen of being overly aggressive and suspicious, more likely to use force than to have a conversation.  Without the context of another’s point of view, our perspectives become reactionary.  In every interaction, we need to recognize our own perspectives and then intentionally contextualize those opinions with the thoughts of others.

The way we access information also demonstrates our need for contextualization.  Increasingly, we are consumers of “the media” rather than informed citizens who advocate for important ideas and people.  We are reactive to sensation, rather than intentionally engaged in the diverse realities of living in America.  I don’t blame us for this reactionary living.  The onslaught of information to which we are privy is overwhelming.  Most of us lack the capacity to curate which information is helpful or necessary, so we give that job to trending social media feeds, and to companies who own news stations and papers.  Without knowing we have done it, we allow them to decide what is necessary, or what angle matters.  Some do a better job than others at providing context for the information they share.  However, we often consume what they present as isolated fact, rather than discovering an independent, historically rooted and thoughtfully framed context.

The point here is not to demonize “the media.”  As David Dark often says,  “there is no the media.”  Rather, we are all implicated in a system that keeps us uninformed, spoon fed with snippets that make us furious, stripping away both nuance and context.  We are implicated because we consume our news in this way, like cows huddled in a corner rather than exploring the expansive field before us. 

How might we shift from passive acceptance to actively contextualizing our views of the world? A few thoughts:

1)   Take inventory of the ways you engage news.  Do you spend energy informing yourself, or do you accept arbitrary knowledge of the school board, affordable housing accessibility, limits to religious freedom, state of welfare, and the condition of your state’s guns laws? Observe your pursuit or avoidance of “news.”

2)   Think about that pursuit or avoidance.  If you avoid the news, is it because it feels too “political” and somehow dirty? If this resonates with you then know you are surely not alone. However, consider this: The ability to insulate yourself, protected from any policy decision your government makes, is a privilege not enjoyed by many who struggle pay check to pay check.  It is also worth noting here that when you make a habit of giving your political power away, it is very difficult to get it back.

3)   If you think most news sources are terribly biased, consider sampling all of them.  Rather than repeat attacks of, “Fake News!” or “They have an agenda!”, take time to listen to a variety of sources. If you believe that a certain outlet is overtly biased yet successful, it behooves the informed citizen to spend time getting to know those powerful voices.  When you listen to disparate voices it might make you angry, but it could also provide context for you to understand the many forces at play around a given issue. Such exposure might help you communicate well with people who lean differently from you.

We live lives largely contextualized by the people we know best, and by news sources we find agreeable.  Such self-referentially rooted context is no context at all, and leads to the passionate defense of positions not fully explored.  As citizens who share a country, we fundamentally understand we share spaces with others.  As long as we value only the opinions of those who are the most like us, we will continue to react badly to those who have a different way of experiencing or seeing the world.

Note well that the forces around you do not provide context; indeed, if you are weary of today’s reactionary blaming, do the work to contextualize your own experience with the experiences of others.  Contextualize your acquisition of news with outlets who spin in service of a different power.  It is the job of each of us to build a bigger table, invite others to have a seat, and then share our experiences.  If we do, perhaps we can stop reacting with anger and blame for people who dare respond differently.  Offering your story to the stories of others will bring insight to our shared concerns.  As Jon Stewart once mocked cable news, “This portion of our program is brought to you by… Context. It’s the shit you have in your tape library that gives seemingly isolated instances perspective.”