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A Framework for Understanding: How Do We Know What We Know? The Source of Difference

There are three concepts in the framework I have been using to pose questions about the events, policies, and positions reported in the news. In summing up the several essays prompted by the Mueller Report, I described the concepts as questions about knowledge, that is, what we believe; the role of people’s ordinary experience in shaping their beliefs; and how we can effectively respond to beliefs that do harm in the service of special interests. You may ask, “Why do I need to be concerned about what people know and what they believe to work for positive changes in our world?” First, because shared beliefs and values are a basic foundation of a democratic society. A people must identify sufficient common ground to provide for the ‘general Welfare.’[1] Second, and most of this know this from experience, because knowledge is power and determines many of relationships in life whether personal or political.

Progressive social change has always been about calling Americans to live up to the aspirational values of the founding documents, whether in the 1860s, or the 1960s. In our era of “alternate facts,” it is even more essential to understand beliefs and values. First, those of the “other” with whom we disagree. We need to understand their view of reality, their point of view, to draft responsible and effective responses to policies that do harm to people and planet. We need to understand the “other” who is our ally to know what perspectives we share and what we do not share so we can work together create change. Too many social change and environmental organizations have failed in their mission when undisclosed values were found to be at odds. And finally, and perhaps foremost, we need to understand our own beliefs and values so we are cognizant of the source of our preferences and our own prejudices.

Ordinary Differences

What we think we know and, thus, what we believe and value are shaped by the inherent and situational dynamics of our birth and becoming. The larger influences of family, community, region, culture, religion, nation, and physical environment of individuals vary considerably. Our age, gender, race, ethnicity, and education are basic characteristics, and our life experiences are unique to each of us. These are the characteristics that make us individuals. That we have different views of reality is understandable. This is not a new a new phenomenon, people have always seen the world from their own standpoint. What is new is, perhaps, is how divisive these can be in our daily lives and in our social and political deliberations.

Such differences are important because it can mean that some people do not even see a problem that you see, much less think about how to solve it. A standpoint, literally, from where I stand, is a good image. You can do a 360-degree spin from where you are and see one version of ‘reality.’ Perhaps you have a home at the top of the hill looking down on the local Big Box store parking lot (actual scenario in a neighborhood near me), while someone else is in the parking lot looking around for the exit. Your problem might be that the store and the parking lot ruin your view, while their problem is how to get home and feed the kids. This is an ordinary difference of perspective due to a different context. Even though we understand these kinds of differences, we need to pay a lot more attention to how they create different needs and different views on what is important, especially in terms of public policy. Next week I will expand on the second concept of this framework, which speaks to the relevance of these ordinary differences and how we can learn about them.

Manipulated Differences

Anther kind of different perspective is that which is manipulated. Case in point, the doctored video of Nancy Pelosi aired over Memorial Day weekend that the President and his allies promoted as they commented on her ‘decline.’ People who follow this contingent of the sociopolitical conversation reportedly believed the video that shows Speaker Pelosi slurring her words. They attributed several causes to her obvious deterioration and re-tweeted the image even after the deception that the video has been slowed to achieve this effect was revealed and the authentic video was compared side by side on newscasts. This is a manipulated difference in perspective. Unfortunately, such differences are fast overshadowing differences based on the normal differences that arise from our background and context. Once again, the questions here are “who benefits?” and “who is harmed?” I will return (two weeks hence) to these differences to discuss the third concept of this framework: how we can analyze and respond to the myths that undermine our democracy created by the manipulation of perception.

Dirty tricks like this one directed at Speaker Pelosi are, thankfully, still easy to spot and get lots of attention. Other manipulations are just as purposeful and more difficult to call out. For example, media coverage of social movements where the violence at the fringe is the subject of the evening news instead of the marchers’ signs about human needs or climate concerns. The numerous ‘green washing’ campaigns we are subject to with advertisements about the sustainability features of coffee pods, flushable toilet wipes, or environmentally friendly cleaning products. Most subversive of this kind of purposeful manipulation are the citizen or consumer groups actually funded by corporations, or corporate funded foundations. These campaigns to manipulate public opinion are all significant to social change efforts because they seek to obscure facts and shape perceptions that may turn into votes that determine who gets healthcare, eliminate a woman’s right to choose, allow toxics in the waterways, or permit carbon emissions that contribute to global warming.

Whether the news, a political campaign, or a marketing promotion, you can put this process of analysis to work using the traditional questions about knowledge.

1) Source – Where does the knowledge, understanding, belief, or interpretation come from?

2) Nature – Do the proponents of this knowledge assert that it is truth, belief, reason, or opinion?

3) Limitations – Who is being harmed by this perspective?

[1] I refer to the Preamble here, of course.

JoAnn McAllister

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