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To think about the news (2): Ask, what is the point of view?

Last week the focus of the news and political commentary was all about the submission of the Mueller report on Friday, March 17, and then the release of the four-page summary from Attorney General William Barr on Sunday. A lot of energy, as I pointed out in my previous post, was expended on conjecture during the next few days since no one other than those Barr had consulted had read the report. There was not much news, that is to say, noteworthy information. There was a summary, an official interpretation of the report. Monday morning as I scanned my usual news media it appeared that the fervor had died down and the narrative has changed, which is not surprising given that we are living in a ‘breaking news’ environment. Various committees in the House of Representatives are, however, remaining focused on the Report of the Special Counsel and are demanding full access. As House Leader Pelosi succinctly stated on Thursday, March 24, “….we do not need your interpretation, show us the report and we can draw our own conclusions. We don’t need you interpreting for us.” (https://www.cnn.com/2019/03/28/politics/pelosi-mueller-report-congress-barr-summary/index.html)

Her statement caught my attention. Interpretation and conclusions are concepts that I work with everyday as I teach qualitative research to graduate students. Research reports always begin with an abstract, a structured summary that presents and interprets the meaning of a study. It includes specific information: a statement of the problem; what experts already know; what is unknown about the research question; the design of the study, that is, the method, the procedures, and the population studied; and the essential outcomes, or conclusions. The Barr summary generally addressed these aspects. What it did not contain was any reference to the perspective of the summarizer. In qualitative research we are very much interested in the perspective of the researcher and while it may be noted in the abstract it is disclosed in the sections describing the research approach called limitations and assumptions. The perspective of Mueller’s investigators, the researchers, has been of great concern to one side – the Republicans. The perspective of William Barr, on display since he penned a 19-page letter that called the investigation “fatally misconceived,” has been important to Democrats, most of whom voted against his appointment.

The “Russia” investigation is only one of many areas of contention that highlight the division and polarization that characterizes our current civic conversation. What I propose in this second reflection on how to read the news is that an awareness of point of view, including the inherent assumptions and limitations, is an essential skill for reading the news, engaging in conversation, especially political dialogue as currently conducted, and participating in social change. Point of view arises from our individual or group belief system and is what drives interpretation, which we might also describe as bias. Shaped by the dynamics of family, community, religious and cultural traditions and where we fit into the categories of race, class, and gender, our beliefs, what we believe to be true, are difficult barriers to bridge in the best circumstances. Today, however, special interests that propel the media aggressively shape our view of the world, our sense of purpose, and the meaning of our experience. This is what happened last week when there was no news only conjecture, supposition, assumptions, and people moving to their corners and enticing others to follow.

So, what do I teach my students to do to limit their own bias and potential misinterpretation of their data? First, I tell them they must know their own story. They need to analyze their beliefs, specifically with regard to the question or problem under consideration. Although we can never be free of bias, we can keep it in mind as we read news of the next hotly contested political issue. There will be a multitude of these in the coming months. The next step in this process is, of course, to be aware of the belief systems and the context of those holding opposing views. As noted above, this includes being aware of who is being manipulated and by whom, especially when needs and beliefs do not seem to be aligned. A frequently cited example of this is red state voters who often appear to vote against policies that would benefit them.

In a world where people are divided by their different perceptions of reality and what they hold to be true, we need to cultivate ways to listen without the filters of our own biases and to tell our own stories with self-awareness. Although I hesitated to use the word conversation above since it implies that we our interested in exchanging ideas, it is important that we do talk. We live in a democracy that is based to a great degree on our perception of shared values and we need to make space again for the exchange of ideas about what these mean in practice. Another important step in making such a space is granting that many of our divisions are not just self-interested, or uninformed opinions; they are the genuine result of different beliefs and divergent perceptions of reality. (Not all, of course, and I’ll circle back to the special interest manipulation of our cultural conversations another time.)

It is unlikely we will, as a whole, get to a shared view of the Special Counsel Investigation. Administration partisans and those on the other side(s) will stay in their respective corners. I believe, though, that many people will take the time to read widely and ponder deeply enough to come to an understanding that makes sense of the last two and a half years. They will not come to the center, so to speak, but will understand the context of the problem, why some will stick to their position no matter what, and for themselves find a more reasoned approach in their own efforts to make our democracy work. An old definition of conversation also meant “living together, having dealings with others,” and “manner of conducting oneself in the world.” (https://www.dictionary.com/browse/conversation) Recognizing that we live together seems like an approach worth trying, if we are to work together to create a future that is “humane and ecologically sustainable. “

JoAnn McAllister

1 Comment

  1. Steven Soifer on April 9, 2019 at 8:22 am

    JpAnn:

    Very, very nicely done. I have two strains of thought, from very different perspectives.

    First, from social work, we have two concepts that nicely parallel what you’ve had to say: we discuss (and even have) a course entitled “Human Behavior in the Social Environment,”, which is a requirement for students in every social work program, and it it, we have the idea of the “person-in-environment” perspective, which nicely dovetails your thoughts above.

    Second, and this comes from my attending the wonderful “Oxford for the Book” Conference held every year here in Mississippi, is a talk I attended by none other than Annie Duke, a former world class Texas Hold’em player nicknamed the “Duchess of Poker,” and also a cognitive psychologist. She has written a fascinating new book called “Thinking in Bets: Making Smarter Decisions When You Don’t Have All the Facts.” She discusses “perspective” and “cognitive bias” in her book, and truly opens our eyes to seeing the world from the others’ perspective (which one must do to have any chance of being a good poker player:).

    Keep those blogs coming!

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