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How To Stop American Ignorance

Do you read books? If you don’t, you should start.

by Kate Harveston

The great tragedy of any society that chooses capitalism over cooperation is that many of its citizens will grow up totally, or mostly, unconcerned with the world beyond their own heads. Untold generations fetishized competition and rivalry — now we’re reaping the consequences. Should anybody really be surprised that so much of our population can be intolerant?

Unfortunately, fixing it can’t happen in bulk — it takes millions of individuals making small changes to their lives and their thinking. It takes a critical mass of people saying that reason and compassion ought to rule over our lives instead of blind opinion, bluster and peace at the end of a gun.

Most of us already know of the current administration’s tendency toward xenophobia and cultural intolerance. Since we can’t rely on our leaders to be good role models, we can take matters into our own hands on an individual level and spread the important message of worldliness to others.

The word “panopticon” has a storied history, some of it literal and some of it metaphorical. In its metaphorical usage, it describes an invisible prison — a power mechanism — whereby a society slowly and gladly enslaves itself thanks to its omnipresent fear of surveillance and thought control. The funny part is a panopticon will work if it’s only half-real. A lot of the thought-control is of our own making.

Many people around the age of sixty seem to believe becoming an informed citizen means watching MSNBC just for good measure when FOX cuts to commercial, for example.

“Real” news doesn’t come from television these days — it comes from citizen journalists and the real people who are “on-the-ground” in the areas we don’t hear about on the radio. You might be surprised to discover, for instance, that the “real” story about what’s going on in Syria is quite a bit different than the “official story.” Don’t overstate the importance of international news because it tells you quite a lot about how we conduct ourselves back home.

Like it or not, figuring out what’s actually going on in this ugly world is a tough nut to crack — but you’d have to look beyond the glowing box to know that. It might mean looking for cultural events to attend in your region, traveling more or even playing host to members of other cultures under your own roof.

You don’t have to cut out televised news or boycott thoughtful little curation algorithms when it comes to your news feed. Just understand that most of these “services” are personalized echo chambers. They serve you more of what you like and agree with, and a little less of the other stuff with each passing day. Just as you train yourself to be selectively observant, so do you train your technology.

Arguing has been a vitally important part of human civilization for thousands of years. But we seem to have lost the knack for it. An argument, as Aristotle and others understood it, was not to be a shouting match, but rather a level-headed debate wherein the participants provided a logical and rhetorical framework to defend their interpretation of a set of facts.

When was the last time you saw this process happen on Facebook? Or in a chain of tweets? Human society has reached a point where arguing is less a tool of discourse and more — forgive the imagery — a form of masturbation. We seek out those who hold alternative viewpoints and “punish” them rhetorically. Human nature also decrees you’re more likely to spread misinformation than the genuine article when outside sources enter the equation.

The trick is just to stop for a second. Stop scrolling through Facebook spoiling for a fight. Observe the world impartially every chance you get. Fact-check everything you see. Expand your own understanding and take nothing for granted. Secure your own oxygen mask before assisting others with theirs.

It’s not a secret: public schools in America are some of the worst in the developed world. It’s another fact you might miss if you live in the panopticon. This is thanks to several factors, the most important of which is that many of our representatives in government are more concerned with showering their donors with wealth than with adequately funding our schools.

As a result, American schools have increasingly become a canary in the coal mine of American collapse, pervasive austerity and egregious inequality. That school systems are funded by property taxes in the first place tells you something about who, according to the lawmaking caste, deserves high-quality education: it’s folks well-enough-off to afford property.

Given all of this, it’s vital that Americans take advantage of every educational opportunity available to them. Since there’s a chance you won’t pick up many marketable skills in elementary school — and, increasingly, in college, either — it’s time to engage in some self-learning.

You can find online courses covering everything from sustainable gardening to writing code in up-and-coming programming languages like Swift. You can look for grants and scholarships from local community colleges, and you can take courses in your evening or weekend hours. Life can be more than your career and your leisure time if you desire it to be — you just have to know where to look.

For the most part, there is no right or wrong way to engage with world culture. Actually, the wrong way is reading People Magazine to catch up on politics. But just about everything else is fair game.

Do you read books? If you don’t, you should start. Do you read only familiar or fantastical genres? Broaden your horizons. Even as an avid reader myself, I’ll readily admit that beginning a new book or picking something up that talks about social politics or even evolutionary biology and psychology in layman’s terms is intimidating.

But engaging with world culture, whether it’s through the written word, television programs or movies, helps us explore how other people and other cultures — even those within our own familiar borders — think and speak. We can expand this beyond the individual level, too — how can you help your community or workplace expand and improve its approach to diversity? Can you be a positive light in the fight for better representation for everyone? Consider integrating this way of thinking into your everyday life in an attempt to inspire change.

Oh, and one last shameless plug for reading: It enhances your vocabulary like nothing else can. If you’ve noticed the general quality of our discourse declining, it’s largely because people have no idea how to express themselves cogently, convincingly or specifically anymore. Be better. Be thoughtful.

Opinions are optional. Being intolerant is optional. We might live in a world that rewards deviousness and stupidity and selects its leaders accordingly. But one by one, people are waking up to the idea that there’s a better way. A more rational way.

Whether you find your place thereby reading more nonfiction, tailoring your own newsfeed instead of trusting an algorithm or just taking a social media cleanse from time to time, you might discover there’s a whole world out there just waiting for you to find it.