Don’t believe everything you read

I will be very happy if we ever reach a time when people are no longer naïve enough to say: ‘It must be true, I read it in the newspaper’, but I am not holding my breath. While complete falsehoods and fabrications may well be the exception, opinions being expressed as facts is a very common phenomenon. And, of course, even when factual information is presented, how it is presented can be very significant. For example, consider the difference between: ‘The team achieved an impressive success rate of 82%, a slight improvement on last year’s major achievement of 81%’ with ‘The team failed in almost 1 in 5 cases for the second year running’. The facts are the same, but how they are delivered is very different, of course. Presenting information in a written form (especially to a mass audience) is not a politically neutral or value-free undertaking.

But it isn’t just newspapers that this applies to. The written word tends to have more power and influence than the spoken word in most situations. Putting something in writing can deliver the message more forcefully and therefore more effectively in the majority of situations. So, we have to be careful to make sure that we are not allowing the written word to influence us unduly.

For example, I have many years’ experience of teaching critical thinking skills to students and, in doing so, impressing upon them the importance of not taking texts at face value, of being prepared to look beneath the surface, to examine assumptions and so on. But what I have found in those situations is a significant proportion of students who struggle with this and, when asked why they are finding it so difficult, their responses have indicated that they did not feel confident enough to challenge the authority of the written word. Sadly, this opens the door to all sorts of abuses, as it means that anyone who has the wherewithal to get their views into print has a degree of power that needs to be scrutinised (in the sense that all use of power needs to be open to scrutiny in a democratic society), which escapes such scrutiny because of this tendency to assume that the written word is not to be questioned.

Writing something down does not make it ‘the truth’, but nor can we assume that it isn’t true either – these things need to be weighed up carefully, with neither undue reverence, nor undue cynicism. As in so many things, it is a matter of balance.

The advent of the internet has made this even more of a pressing issue, as far more people now have the opportunity to make what they write available to a wider audience (as is reflected in the problem of ‘trolling’ that has caused so much pain and distress for so many people). This means that we need to be especially sceptical about what we read online and especially careful in questioning its validity and verifying its source. It is all too easy for people to use the internet to put their views in writing in biased, distorted and potentially harmful ways – that is, to use the power of the written word in illegitimate ways. Communication is power in action, and so we need to make sure, as far as we can, that such power is used in legitimate ways.

This isn’t about being paranoid, it is about being sensible, using our intelligence to ensure that the power of the written word is not being allowed to create problems for us or for others.

Feel free to disagree

Conflict is a broad term. It can range from minor disagreements to out-and-out war, with various degrees of antagonism in between. Relatively minor conflicts can escalate to much more serious situations, and so it is understandable that people will so often be very wary of entering into even a minor conflict for fear of it developing into something of more major proportions.

However, this wariness comes at a price, as it means that we can become reluctant to air any disagreements. One unfortunate consequence of this is what is known as ‘groupthink’. This refers to a group of people who are involved in a process of decision making in which some members – sometimes the majority, even – disagree with the direction that one or more people are taking the group in. They foresee difficulties, even potentially catastrophic ones, but do not speak up for fear of ‘rocking the boat’ and of being seen as out of step with the group. A common consequence of this is that the decision made backfires and results in a poor outcome, and those people who had not spoken out wishing that they had. Those who are brave enough to admit that they were not happy with the group’s decision (but did not say so at the time) could well then find themselves being pilloried for keeping their concerns to themselves.

In a group context disagreement has a positive role to play (provided that it is done in a civilised way), in so far as it can highlight difficulties, provide opportunities for learning and, as in the case of groupthink already mentioned, avoid poor decision making. Having someone disagree with you can introduce new perspectives and insights and help you gain a fuller and more helpful picture of the situation.

But it isn’t just in a group context that disagreement can be positive. We are all different people, with our own unique perspective on life, and so it is inevitable that differences and disagreements will arise. Pretending these differences don’t exist is not a wise strategy, of course. It is much better to be aware of these differences and use them constructively – this is part of what is meant by ‘valuing diversity’, recognising that differences in perspective are potentially very useful as a source of learning, broadening our horizons and avoiding unfair discrimination.

It is important to realise that disagreement is not simply a matter of one person being wrong and another being right – both might be right in their own way, reflecting different aspects of the situation, or different perspectives on it. You don’t have to look far before you come across one or more examples of this. It is quite common for people to be arguing about something that they actually agree on in large part!

What is really important when it comes to disagreement is to do it in what I referred to earlier as a ‘civilised’ way. What I mean by this is an assertive approach – that is, one that does not involve trying to force the other person(s) to accept your point of view, nor allowing them to force their point of view on you. It is about being open minded and being prepared to consider other people’s views and perspectives – it is essential that we do not confuse disagreeing with fighting. Fights have winners and losers (or sometimes just losers on both sides), whereas disagreements can be positive and constructive, with everyone winning if they are handled tactfully and sensitively.

So, while disagreements can escalate into more serious conflicts, they can also be helpful and productive for all concerned. The key to it is about how we disagree – in a spirit of moving forward constructively or in a spirit of antagonism.