Growing up, my teachers and parents seemed to care more about what I thought than how I thought. They presented themselves as sources of infallible information that I was supposed to learn and internalize as the indisputable truth. Learn your lessons, do well in school, and your life will be good. Don’t question authority, I was told.
It’s a stereotype than Asian Americans are smart and hardworking, but dull and not especially creative. Asians are managers, not CEOs. Executors rather than innovators of big, groundbreaking ideas. I’ll have to admit that my parents largely raised me to fit this mold. I was taught to work hard but to keep my head down and not get into trouble. It took a long time and a few extraordinary individuals for me to realize how very limiting this mindset was.
Freshman year of high school, I joined the school paper, the IHS Tattler, at the behest of my mother who thought that this extracurricular would look good on college applications. I didn’t think much of student papers or the profession of journalism, but that quickly changed. In my first year reading (and writing for) the Tattler, I remember reading an editorial about a student getting detention for cursing in class. The writer objected to this punishment, arguing that every word in the English language had its time and place and that this situation for dropping the f-bomb was merited, even in the classroom. He argued that obscenities have their place, and by limiting speech the school was limiting thought which was dangerous.
The editorial resonated with me deeply and I emailed the then-Editor in Chief to tell him so. He thanked me, and I learned that he was in fact the one who had gotten in trouble for cursing and had then penned the editorial. Even though I wrote for the Tattler, I never got to know the EIC very well as he was three years ahead of me and ran in a different social circle. Despite this it fascinated me how he fit into the high school social hierarchy. He was incredibly smart and an unabashed nerd (not things that necessarily made you popular or well-liked), but also well-spoken, charismatic, and clearly respected by his peers. I observed how being an independent thinker could be an asset and earn others’ respect.
The Tattler was just a high school paper, but it has a remarkable and unique history of its own. Soon after joining, I learned that a a number of former student editors of the paper were plaintiffs in an ongoing lawsuit against the Ithaca City School District over censorship of a cartoon that the faculty advisor considered to be too sexually explicit for publication. Learning about this case made me question the rights of students to challenge authority, the role of the first amendment in schools, and the function of a student paper.
In my later high school years I became more involved in the Tattler, reporting on a lawsuit against the school district in which it was ordered to pay $1 million in damages for failing to protect a student against racial harassment, and interviewing the Principal of Ithaca High School who resigned after the lawsuit. In my senior year, I was elected to be Tattler Editor in Chief, a position that brought me much pride.
Being a part of the IHS Tattler was so much more than just an extracurricular to impress college admissions officers. It brought me in contact with a group of wonderful, smart, and independent-minded peers who thought critically and always asked tough questions in pursuit of the truth. It kicked off a healthy lifelong skepticism of the information that we as the public are constantly being fed – by authority figures such as teachers, parents, and perhaps the US President, as well as the media.
These experiences have sat at the back of my mind throughout the events of the past week. Were all the insurrectionists who stormed the United States Capitol so brainwashed by Donald Trump as to do his bidding in a most horrific and violent fashion? Why didn’t they think for themselves? In his first column for the New York Times, Ezra Klein wrote the following words about the storming of the Capitol on January 6th:
If [the crowd’s] actions looked like lunacy to you, imagine it from their perspective, from within the epistemic structure in which they live. The president of the United States told them the election had been stolen by the Democratic Party, that they were being denied power and representation they had rightfully won. “I know your pain,” he said, in his video from the White house lawn later on Wednesday. “I know your hurt. We had an election that was stolen from us. It was a landslide election, and everyone knows it.” More than a dozen Republican senators, more than 100 Republican House members, and countless conservative media figures had backed Trump’s claims.
If the self-styled revolutionaries were lawless, that was because their leaders told them that the law had already been broken, and in the most profound, irreversible way. If their response was extreme, so too was the crime. If landslide victories can fall to Democratic chicanery, then politics collapses into meaninglessness. How could the thieves be allowed to escape into the night, with full control of the federal government as their prize?
The insurrectionists literally believed all of Donald Trump’s lies about a stolen election. Many of them also believed QAnon conspiracy theories of a deep state cabal of cannibalistic pedophiles or the Great Replacement and persecution of white Americans. Any amount of digging would have unearthed facts that clearly disputed Trump’s claims and brought to light the incredible hypocrisy and self-contradictory claims being made by the President and his supporters. These claims were outrageous and outlandish to even the most amateur investigators of the truth. But they didn’t know better. Should they? How could they?
I certainly wasn’t taught to know better. I consider myself lucky to have been a part of the IHS Tattler and to have received the outside-of-the-classroom education that I did. But it was precisely that. The lessons about independent thinking, critically questioning, and chasing the facts were taught to me not by my parents or my public school education, but by my peers, through self-education and high-volume consumption of diverse media sources, and through lived experience.
Whose fault is it that so many – perhaps most – Americans aren’t equipped with the skills necessary to critically process the information they receive?* Is this a skill that everyone should have? Is critical thinking necessary for a robust and healthy democracy? Or is it the responsibility of the media and elected officials who should “know better” to be more truthful? How do we hold the exploiters accountable or try to provide people with a defense against exploitation?
Misinformation is rampant and shows no sign of ebbing in the future. It seems that in the immediate aftermath of the Capitol riots that the largest response has come from tech companies who have taken swift action to de-platform Donald Trump and many of his supporters who have made some of the most heinous, violence-inciting remarks. But it hardly brings me comfort to know that the Mark Zuckerbergs, Jack Dorseys, and Jeff Bezoses of the worlds are the ones leading the defense of American democracy and world order. As many have stated this week, our democracy is fragile, and I don’t believe that it can survive unless the truth prevails. How we get there – that I don’t know.
Tell me this – do you consider yourself to be a critical thinker capable of distinguishing truth from misinformation? If so, how did you get that way?
*I’m hesitant to blame the public education system because the primary job of a K-12 education is to deliver a set amount of knowledge and this requires students to have some amount of faith in their educators. Additionally, many of the insurrectionists at the Capitol weren’t all uneducated, low-information “dummies” and included a CEO and a son of a prominent judge. There is also some evidence that the most radicalized people tend to consume the most amount of information – it’s just…. not good information.