media

FAKE NEWS, REAL BULLSHIT, AND THE IMPORTANCE OF AGNOSTICISM

I got talking to someone earlier, a woman called Rachel. We'd kind of run into one another before, but not properly engaged. Rachel works in a charity shop near me, called Mesopotamia. And what the charity does is rescue refugee children and women from unimaginable situations in Greece, in Iraq, and elsewhere. What I hadn't realised until today, as I passed her cash for a couple of books and a CD, is that it's Rachel who goes out to these countries, risking her life to save others. 

We talked about that. And she told me about the situations she goes into, which has been part of her life since she married a Muslim Turkish man and discovered what was happening in his country and others where words like 'refugee' have a richer and fuller meaning than they tend to in the UK.

Rachel has been featured in the media a few times, with a Panorama documentary and other television coverage. She appeared on a daytime show at some point, but it was virtually impossible to say anything either useful or true. She was asked not to mention ISIS or Islam, and not being able to talk about them makes it really difficult for Rachel to communicate just what she's doing, and who it benefits.

The people with the biggest reason to be scared of ISIS are Muslims. And that's something it would be good to be informed properly about. Instead, newspapers shriek hatred towards brown people and lump them all together. Noam Chomsky talks about the difficulty of expressing views within the media that don't fit in the framework of stories already put out there. If you've only got two minutes before the next guest comes on to talk about the latest diet, getting into the necessary intricacies of varied interpretations of Islam and just what jihad means isn't going to happen.

In turn, that means a good percentage of what we come across in the media is bogus. If informed conversation about what's going on in Syria is impossible, and debates about what can be done about it are framed largely in terms of coverage which omits much of the salient information, then the solutions proposed necessarily lack credibility.

The mainstream media is telling us to beware of fake news. It's hard not to raise an eyebrow at that point, in a week when the Daily Express has run an entirely bogus story about German leader Angela Merkel's plans for an EU army, not long after an equally bullshit front cover claiming a 'polar vortex' would plunge Britain into subzero temperatures and make it the worst winter for a century.

To generalise, significant elements of the media are encouraging us to be scared, and angry, and hateful, about people we haven't met. And we're told that those people have been radicalised to hate us, and destroy us in a holy war. Which doesn't make for a great conversation starter if you're convinced the family next door are tooled up for jihad and planning for you to be their first victims.

I met a Syrian refugee recently. Ahmed was cutting hair in Damascus at 13, then moved on to Dubai, and is now based in Birmingham. He's recently dissolved his first entrepreneurial venture, a very successful enterprise which saw him collaborate with manufacturers in China, where he said he learned a lot from the people he dealt with. Now, he has bigger plans with a social agenda - not least to be a good role model for other refugees. I believe he's capable of achieving that vision.

Right now, I could be getting caught up in the Tweet-tsunami of people exchanging vitriol about Donald Trump as he's sworn in. I choose not to engage. The guy plays social media in a quite brilliant way, and has skilfully turned the phrase 'fake news' against some of the media channels that disapprove of him, and done a great job of bringing out all the people who object to him in the open, where they will be even more vulnerable to state surveillance now that Obama has increased government powers for Trump to play with . 

Once talk turns to state surveillance it's easy to get disheartened. It happened to Rachel, who came to the attention of Special Branch because of her frequent visits to Muslim countries and activities in refugee camps. They found her phone number by dognapping her pooch, who has it written on his collar. Rachel reckoned it was like something out of Dad's Army. Which is a much more comforting thought than some of the apocalyptic scenarios conjured up by believers of all persuasions right now. A reminder once again that, as Robert Anton Wilson said, 'Convictions cause convicts'. 

 

TRAPPED IN A WORLD WE NEVER MADE

Here's the thing. We have no idea at all about the world we live in.

And that scares us.

We can make guesses, based on the evidence of our senses. But those are the same senses which lead us to mistake one person for another, make faulty assumptions about what the weather is and will be like, encourage us to eat and drink stuff that's bad for us.

So we know we're not to be trusted.

And this is where the problem starts.

Rather than accept our ignorance, we look for a more certain mapping of the world than we can provide for ourselves. So we turn to others. At which point it goes horribly wrong.

We assume as children that our parents have built up more knowledge about the world than we have. And that's true in some respects. But as we grow older we come to accept that there are occasions when the knowledge of those who have brought us into this world is lacking. Someone told me how a two year-old showed their mother how to do some stuff with a tablet device the other day. It won't be the first time that infant realises its parent doesn't have a comprehensive map of the world we live in.

If parents are dubious, school is infinitely worse. For the most part, education is very little about how to understand the world. Instead, we're offered predigested versions of it. You might be lucky enough to encounter some kind teachers along the way, but the institution itself only has an incidental relationship with the spirit of inquiry.

School prepares us for a world that none of us have much clue about by giving us some preset routines for dealing with it. The key word here is obedience. Stay within the lines that are drawn for and around you. Accept what questions can be asked, and which are inappropriate. Accept the answers to those questions since having a consensus means people think more or less the same, at least in whatever part of the world you landed in.

People thinking more or less the same supports the delusion that someone knows something. And the media reinforce that slender grasp on things through messages which reinforce the stuff which school introduced us to. If we're all thinking pretty much the same stuff, and the things we watch and listen to and read support those notions, we're probably doing something right, right?

By the time we're adults, the tentative understanding we have of the world is pretty much fixed. Without it, what is there? We get up early to travel somewhere and perform tasks that are hopefully useful to others in some way, in return for being allowed to get by in a fashion we find acceptable. And if within all that, we find a few people who are special to us, where maybe love exists, even fleetingly - that's what keeps us going. I know it does for me.

Without that sense of connection, of some kind of community, then all the explanations and excuses and dangled prizes and consolations are worthless. Which hopefully tells us something - that the deal we're presented with, in which we broadly accept what we're told and do what we're told...is bullshit.

The more love and connection I feel, the more bullshit I see. The horrors of Paris aren't explained by the idea that evil people are set on destroying our way of life. Start to explore that, and it's not long before you realise that those deaths were caused by people whose false certainties have a different flavour to our own, reacting to the aggression of oil-hungry countries resentful at having to run their bloated economies with resources they don't directly control.

The terror in terrorism isn't just about the chaos and pain it creates. It's about the terror that the stories we're forcefed by schools and government and media are just as arbitrary and nonsensical as the beliefs we mock when they're expressed by people who dress and speak differently to us.

Real terror for me is the knowledge that most of us are capable of appalling acts, just because someone requests them of us. That's the conclusion from the classic experiments in obedience that Stanley Milgram conducted. Just by asking, you can get someone to torture another if you do so while wearing a labcoat. And we've got plenty of people who aren't wearing labcoats asking us to do things that aren't torture, but which we go along with anyway.

The alternative involves experiencing the real fear of finding things out for ourselves. Start with the realisation that the best of what you know is love and connection, and you'll likely find out you're up to the challenge.