Eighteen years ago, on a brilliantly sunny day, I attended a Fourth of July barbecue in a pleasant suburb a few miles outside of Boston. I was sitting at an umbrella-shaded table by the pool, watching my son splashing happily in the water with the other kids, when one of the guests nearby turned to me and asked me a question that caught me off-guard. He said, “Why don’t you Jews celebrate the 4th of July?”
“Why in the world would you think we don’t?” I responded (although I will admit that I used much more colorful language than that to convey my astonishment).
It turns out that this guest (a native-born, college-educated American about my age, mind you, not a confused elder or a recently arrived immigrant unfamiliar with U.S. customs) believed that Independence Day was a Christian holiday. There was of course more, but I’ll spare you. Suffice to say that there was no convincing him otherwise; he believed unswervingly in the radio talk show host he’d heard it from. It was, as you might imagine, a wholly unsatisfactory conversation.
Not surprisingly, I’ve thought of him these last several weeks as the debate over healthcare reform has raged. I’ve heard his voice in the ludicrous accusations about death panels and forced euthanasia, in the offensive comparisons to Nazi Germany that have diminished civil discourse.
At a recent town hall meeting on health care a disgruntled citizen, bearing a photo of Obama doctored to look like Hitler, confronted Massachusetts Congressman Barney Frank (who happens to be Jewish). She asked him, “Why are you supporting this Nazi policy?” Frank, viewing her with cool contempt, asked, “On what planet do you spend most of your time?”, and dismissed her, saying, “Trying to have a conversation with you would be like arguing with a dining room table.” (You can view the video yourself to watch their exchange.)
I understand fully the impulse that led Frank to respond as he did. Although 18 years have passed, I still recall vividly that exchange at that long-ago party. I remember how the anger seared when I heard his contemptuous “you Jews”. I can still feel the frustration, the stunned disbelief at his willful ignorance and full-bore stupidity.
But a mediator I know asked me the other day if I thought Frank’s response was appropriate. I had to answer no, it wasn’t. Emotionally satisfying on a primal level, yes. Appropriate, certainly not. The last thing we need these days is more insolence, more incivility, more personal attacks. Frank had an opportunity to educate; instead he chose to alienate. Frank may perhaps be unrepentant, but other members of Congress should heed seasoned public facilitator and dialogue and negotiation expert Lawrence Susskind. Blogging at The Consensus Building Approach, Susskind proposes a wholly different approach in his post, “How Should You Respond to the Noisy Health Reform Critics?”
Although Susskind’s post makes good reading, my primary concern is not in getting people to speak civilly to each other. I’d like that, yes. But I’ll leave that for others to ponder.
I’m far more interested in a bigger and more pressing issue, one we must address before we can have discourse that is truly civil: How do we eradicate ignorance? How can we create a better informed citizenry? One that is capable of thinking critically, of relying on reason and logic, of analyzing and evaluating data, and reaching decisions and making judgments based on sound information, not sound bites? In other words, what can we do to improve media literacy among citizens?
Media literacy is the ability to access the media, to understand and to critically evaluate different aspects of the media and media contents an to create communications in a variety of contexts.
Media literacy relates to all media, including television and film, radio and recorded music, print media, the Internet and all other new digital communication technologies. It is a fundamental competence not only for the young generation but also for adults and elderly people, for parents, teachers and media professionals. The Commission considers media literacy as an important factor for active citizenship in today’s information society.
In its recommendations (downloadable in PDF), the Commission observed,
Democracy depends on the active participation of citizens to the life of their community and media literacy would provide the skills they need to make sense of the daily flow of information disseminated through new communication technologies.
Unfortunately, some here in America remain suspicious of “Old Europe” and any of its ideological exports, whether law or policy. But surely (and I say “surely” with only the slightest hint of cynicism) there is nothing controversial about a better educated, well-informed, media-savvy public.