Tucked away in a “Three Weeks Less a Day” passage where I tell some fictional background history about my main character, John George Mortimer, readers might detect my passion for critical thinking skills. It’s a passion I developed early in my business career and one that intensifies today.
Last week, in a blog about social media (http://www.garydmcguganbooks.com/rendezvous-blog/it-depends-on-us), I wrote about the emphasis educators and governments in Finland place on critical thinking skills to fend off continuous, malicious Russian disinformation campaigns. It’s important for us, too.
Perhaps even more crucial is the role critical thinking can play to generate greater harmony in our society, but it’s a habit many of us use all too seldom.
I once asked a colleague who studied law what part of his legal training prepared him to become a successful chief executive officer. “Critical thinking skills,” he told me. “The only thing I learned at law school that helped me become a better company president was training to think about subjects from every possible perspective. That was an invaluable skill to make better decisions.” As I thought about this bit of wisdom, it occurred to me that critical thinking skills could actually make people more effective in many different ways.
What if salespeople thought about their sales proposition from a potential buyer’s perspective? What if negotiators focused their energies on understanding the other side’s perspective? What if managers tried to see a subject from the point of view of their direct reports and vice versa. It turns out that people who use critical thinking skills in this way are invariably the best performers in their industries.
Writing for http://learn.filtered.com/blog/6-benefits-of-critical-thinking, Kadie Regan explains, “An appreciation of differing worldviews is a direct result of learning how to empathize with other points of view. Critical thinking enables you to see beyond -- not judge -- cultural norms and learn how to understand other factors that can influence decision-making. This empathy and understanding is crucial to effective teamwork and leadership.” It’s also essential to social harmony. So, what happens if we apply critical thinking skills to some social media memes?
Here’s a recent example. A dear relative by marriage recently ‘shared’ a Facebook meme that screamed “Do Not Stop Sharing This Until Every Person Who Cares About Women Sees This,” picturing a woman in traditional Muslim attire being whipped by a man. The meme was circulated about the time of International Women’s Day and included a video.
Clicking on the video icon, I watched a slickly produced narrative that talked about female circumcision, child marriages, honor killings, spousal punishments and female child abuse, including murder. The production used multiple clips of human rights representatives and TV news articles to build their case. They included a couple brief clips from the UK, Canada, and the USA to justify their claims. No viewer of the video could help but be emotionally concerned about the treatment depicted and many could easily be enticed to follow the meme’s admonition to share, share, share.
But it struck me odd such a video focused only on Muslim women. In fact, the subtitle on the meme exclaimed “Do you really know what is happening to women in the Muslim World?” But aren’t the tragedies of female circumcision, child marriages, honor killings, spousal punishments, female child abuse, and murder also prevalent in other societies?
What about the forced child marriage problems in predominantly Christian Guatemala, a problem that even extends to immigrant Guatemalans currently living in Southwest Florida? What about the horrific rapes and treatment of girls and women in Hindu-dominated India or the senseless murders of unwanted baby girls throughout Asia. Or the plight of hundreds of unsolved killings of Canadian indigenous women? And, is human-trafficking not a deplorable crime that touches women in almost every society on Earth?
Why should a video that screams “Do Not Stop Sharing This Until Every Person Who Cares About Women Sees This” talk only about negative issues framed in a context of exclusively Muslim women? And why mention such incidents for countries like the USA and Canada – where Muslim populations are tiny and occurrences so rare the researchers must have spent many hours to find one or two examples that fit their narrative?
A little more research helped me to understand better. An outfit known as Israel Video Network produced the meme. Now, why would an organization from Israel create a video about Muslim women and abuse of their human rights, I wondered. A quick scroll down their site explained why. Other featured videos include titles like: “In just 50 years, if we don’t act now, Islam will take over the world”; “The Muslim Brotherhood’s plan to overthrow your country”; or this fabricated gem “You won’t believe what Germany is doing to fight Muslim migrant rape epidemic.”
I stopped watching the rubbish they spewed about half-way through one titled “The fake news Nazi hunters about to abolish Canadian free speech.” I don’t think very elevated critical thinking skills were required to determine that organization is one of several groups publicizing an ongoing hurtful narrative that Muslims are not only different from us; they want us to think that Muslim people don’t belong among us.
So, I started to wonder what reading such memes, and watching such videos, might mean to a Muslim man or woman living in Canada or the USA. Because the actions of violence and the Muslim practices that site described are virtually non-existent in North America, I can only imagine that most North American Muslims would just shake their heads in despair. Then I wondered what perspective a twenty-something Muslim person -- maybe one born in Canada or the USA, or one who arrived at a very early age -- might think.
I suspect their reaction might represent something more than despair, something like anger or total exasperation. Many modern followers of Islam might interpret such derogatory messages as a continuing sign of unwelcome or lack of acceptance. Behavioral experts realize such rejection over time -- combined with radical enticements from thugs who want to cause harm to western societies -- find occasional fertile terrain for converts to terrorist causes. It’s a fundamental reason we have ‘home-grown’ terrorists – and home-grown terrorists have been the only perpetrators of all terrorist acts in North America in the past 15 years.
From another perspective, such memes and videos perpetuate a narrative that Muslim people are not only different from us, but don’t fit our western values and societies. This dehumanizing line of thinking provides motivation for disaffected folks like the Quebec City university student who developed no apparent apprehension about shooting 14 defenseless Muslims at prayer.
From every rational perspective, this sort of meme and video is harmful and led me to characterize it as ‘garbage’ and ‘trash.' One person suggested I was a little ‘harsh’ to use such terminology. With what’s at stake – tolerance of others in our community, social harmony, and even our public security -- I’ll leave it to you to decide if my comments were too harsh.
Regardless, I again ask all my readers, followers, and friends to be vigilant. Look carefully at every social media meme. Take a moment to study them for truth, accuracy, and fairness before you ‘like’ or ‘share.' Think about the group targeted and try to imagine how they might perceive the message. Then do what you think is right. I hope that includes calling out such memes for what they are: intolerant, dehumanizing, demonizing, and fear-mongering, with no place in our social media conversations.
In the 2-year run-up to the last US elections, social media memes became progressively more absurd and mean-spirited. I felt concern but studiously avoided comments for either party or candidate. As a Canadian, I thought it inappropriate to comment – even though some messages were unquestionably hurtful and others clearly false. I now know I made the wrong decision.
Over the past few months, we’ve learned that hateful messages can spread far beyond US borders and affect societies around the world if left unchecked. There have been recent examples of shootings of people targeted as Muslims in the USA and elsewhere.
You probably heard of the tragic shooting of 14 innocent Muslims at prayer in Quebec City in January. Six hardworking, productive immigrants to Canada were killed, and eight others were seriously injured. Police quickly arrested the sole suspect in the shooting. He’s a Quebecois student, born in Canada and attending one of its best universities.
His arrest concerns me, and it should concern all of us. His situation is probably complex and likely involves multiple contributing factors. We’ll learn much more over the next few years, but we should be aware of two disturbing pieces of evidence we know already. First, he recently started visiting several extremely intolerant websites that received lots of free publicity during and after the US elections. Second, his social media posts suggest he developed a great admiration for the new US president during the recent election campaign.
I don’t suggest the president or his followers directly motivated his action. I do suggest the demonization and hatred towards Muslims created during the campaign -- and spread in some supporter’s Facebook messages -- probably helped one individual to rationalize that he was justified committing such a horrible crime. Repeated, hateful and intolerant messages have unleashed forces that spread far beyond American politics and are now negatively impacting thoughts -- and possibly actions -- of people around the world.
Some experts believe the continuing barrage of inaccurate, intolerant, and thinly-veiled racist social media messages may be poisoning the logical thought process of a generation. We now also know that governments – Russia and possibly China – are funding and encouraging false information to sow seeds of mistrust and confusion in Western societies and even try to influence the outcome of democratic elections.
In a recent Toronto Star article (https://www.thestar.com/news/world/2017/03/01/why-is-finland-better-at-fending-off-russian-linked-fake-news.html) we learn that Finland has -- for years --successfully fought Russian disinformation by constantly emphasizing critical thinking skills in their schools. The Finnish government also encourages its citizens to think logically when they encounter such messages and challenge all claims that are hurtful, inaccurate or untrue.
I’ve decided to adopt the same posture with social media memes. I’ve started to confront wrong and biased messages when they appear on my Facebook feed and I’ll continue to do this. I want us all to remember that truth and accuracy is crucial in communication. I’ll also remind my friends that demonization of any person or group is wrong. Full stop.
I encourage you to do the same with your social media feeds and join my personal battle for tolerance, truth, and civility. When you see a claim that seems odd, check the facts with www.snopes.com or any reputable media source that publishes a real paper newspaper. They have people and processes to check facts and sort out misinformation every day.
If a meme is questionable, take time to think about it. Please don’t ‘like’ or ‘share’ it unless you are sure of the facts and are prepared to defend the statement. Otherwise, you can expect me to take you to task – challenging misinformation or biased statements. In this way, we keep our social media civil, tolerant and fair.
As I pursue these goals, I’ll try to be reasonable and fair with my questions and comments. I’ve spent a lifetime making friends and building relationships, so my goal is not to embarrass or make anyone uncomfortable. But, should this quest for fairness offend you, I guess you always have an option to “unfriend” me, either on Facebook or in person. I really hope that won’t happen. It would be sad, but “c’est la vie!” To keep our social media useful, it really is up to us.
Dictionaries might define the word ‘rendezvous’ as a meeting with someone that is arranged for a particular time and place (and that is often secret); or a place where people agree to meet at a particular time; or perhaps a place where many people go to spend time. Here, Rendezvous is a place where we can share information and get to know each other better.