Life-Work with Dr. Stevenson: Your Fact-Finding Mission, by Heidi Stevenson, PhD

Welcome back! In my last column, your life-work assignment was to learn about a group of people to which you did not belong. I encouraged you to learn about a group with which you felt at odds.

The submissions I received were fascinating. I learned that ski jumpers are sometimes afraid of heights (there goes my excuse for not ski jumping!), and that there are people who contract with butterfly houses to procure the wings of the deceased for artistic purposes.

Another participant wrote this: “I read about DACA and the application process because it was being discussed a lot in the news and some are angry. I learned they are held to high standards and am still reading to understand this program better. I now want to understand its history and current status better. Thanks for the push.”

I feature this response at length because it got my gears turning, thinking about our relationships with the media and how it colors our relationships with each other. In short, it got me thinking about Facebook fights.

Many of us have felt pulled into an argument in an online space like Facebook. Sociolinguistic norms shift when we’re not face-to-face. It’s easier to be meaner, to feel attacked, and to easily lose sight of the ultimate goal, which is—or at least should be—greater understanding of a wider variety of views for all involved.

A common ploy in these bloodbaths masquerading as discussions is dismissing a source of information wholesale that someone has used to back a claim. It can feel like an efficient way to shut the whole thing down and get back to the rest of your life.

But here’s the rub: Any time you make a blanket statement discrediting an entire media outlet instead of the ideas it has expressed, you’re employing a logical fallacy called an ad hominem attack. You’re foregoing sound logic.

Let’s try an example: Your friend has posted something about the threat of nuclear war between the USA and North Korea. And then your friend’s Uncle Al adds a link to a Fox News article titled something like “Opinion: Ridiculous Snowflakes Fear Nonexistent Threat of Nuclear War with North Korea.” Please switch out the word “Fox” for “Mother Jones” above and the word “Snowflakes” for “Deplorables” if it helps you better engage with this scenario.

You know how the next part goes. Everyone—you included—piles on Uncle Al to tell him he’s an idiot for believing anything from Fox News/Mother Jones, that Fox News/Mother Jones is ill-informed, sensationalist trash.

Here’s what you’re all really trying to say to Uncle Al: “I don’t believe the content of this article is objectively accurate.”

Here’s what Uncle Al is likely hearing, though: “I don’t believe you are capable of reading through bias or fact-checking sources.”

We can all read through bias and fact check our sources, Uncle Al included. Over time spent consuming media from many different outlets, we may come to respect some more and others less. We are entitled to our preferences. We are allowed to frequent news sites that make that reading through bias and fact checking easy for us.

But we don’t get to eliminate other media outlets for other people. If we tell Uncle Al we won’t accept any information from Fox News/MJ, we are also insinuating that we are incapable of reading through bias and fact checking, and that we cannot read a Fox News/MJ article for accurate information while noting what additions, omissions, and language choices might be misleading.

Here’s what we might do instead, if we do not think Uncle Al’s Fox News/MJ article is accurate:

—Find an article disputing it from a credible source. Assume other members of the conversation are unfamiliar with the source. Explain why you find it trustworthy.

—If you don’t have a single source that compellingly refutes the Fox/MJ piece, find and present several.

—In your presentation of this information, consider establishing some common ground with Uncle Al. We all want the same big things; we just disagree about how we should achieve them. It does not take much for any of us to feel attacked. Uncle Al might be more receptive to your contribution if you don’t lead with insults.

When you are ready to begin your life-work assignment, find just this kind of conversation happening on Facebook or in an online space like it.

1. Write down a quick summary—just a sentence or two—of what you are observing. Leave names and any other identifying information out as best you can.

2. Write down what you would do to help turn it into a productive discussion. Lean as hard on my suggestions above as you’d like. Share any of your own tips. The more tools we all have, the better.

3. Lastly, and this is optional: Take your own advice from #2 above and jump in. Write down a few sentences about what happened from there. Just maybe, to paraphrase a hockey idiom, a conversation will break out during a Facebook fight.

Then submit your writing to heidi.ann.stevenson@gmail.com with the subject line “Life-work #2 submission” for a chance to be featured in the next column. Designate whether you’re comfortable with your writing being shared under your name or you’d prefer anonymity.

Heidi Stevenson is a lifelong Yooper, save for two years earning a PhD in Pennsylvania. She is a former NMU professor, writing center director, group fitness and yoga instructor, and a current wrangler of house cats, autoimmune diseases, and ideas.

Reprinted with permission from Health & Happiness U.P. Magazine, Spring 2018 Issue, copyright 2018. All rights reserved.

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