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The problem with Americans: Too many have surrendered the ability think for themselves

“One of the first things I think young people, especially nowadays, should learn is how to see for yourself and listen for yourself and think for yourself. Then you can come to an intelligent decision for yourself. If you form the habit of going by what you hear others say about someone, or going by what others think about someone, instead of searching that thing out for yourself and seeing for yourself, you will be walking west when you think you’re going east, and you will be walking east when you think you’re going west. This generation, especially of our people, has a burden, more so than any other time in history. The most important thing that we can learn to do today is think for ourselves.” – Malcolm X (1965)

The internet was supposed to make us smarter. It gave us access to information that previously required us to spend hours going through card catalogues at libraries, reading encyclopedias, ordering out of town newspapers and spending lots of money on magazine subscriptions. It worked. But it also opened a can of worms that are like the alien species we have seen multiple times in sci-fi movies.

The internet and social media is a swamp full of things that are literally killing us. Misinformation, disinformation, ridiculous conspiracy theories, and so-called news organizations peddling drivel is the world of the internet.

I wonder what impact our schools have had on this. I recall thinking as a teacher that we do very little to teach students to critically think. We shove information at them, ask them to regurgitate it back to us in different assessments and think that is educating. It’s not the fault of teachers. It’s the flawed theory of education that we have used for so long that we think it works. We reward children who can regurgitate the material with the most clarity and accurateness. We tell them they are geniuses when they can tell us exactly what we told them.

We rarely ask them to think for themselves and craft an argument to support how they think. In fact, our education system leaves little room for voices of dissent. Stick with the curriculum! Don’t use supplemental information that is not aligned with the “standards!”

If the current state of affairs in the nation, even the world is not indicative of the failed educational systems that allow people, even with advanced college degrees to believe something as asinine as the QAnon conspiracy, I don’t know what else will. If the fact that the current President of the United States actually told people to ingest bleach, and was not removed from office immediately, that should tell you something.

“I see the disinfectant, where it knocks it out in one minute. And is there a way we can do something like that by injection inside or almost a cleaning, because you see it gets in the lungs and it does a tremendous number on the lungs.”

The most powerful man on the planet said this about COVID and was not laughed at:

“I said supposing you brought the light inside the body, which you can do either through the skin or in some other way. And I think you said you’re going to test that too… So, we’ll see, but the whole concept of the light, the way it kills it in one minute – that’s pretty powerful.”

Just to show you how messed up the education system is let’s take a look at the educational journey of the 45th President. First He attended Kew-Forest School, a private pre-kindergarten through grade 12 preparatory school serving the Queens communities of Kew Gardens and Forest Hills form 1950-1959. From eighth grade through high school graduation he attended New York Military Academy, a boarding school in upstate New York. During his senior year, he was promoted to captain, which required him to maintain the discipline of the students in his charge.

From 1964-66 he attended Fordham University. He transferred to University of Pennsylvania Wharton School of Business from 1966-1968. He said in his Book, The Art of the Deal, “I decided that as long as I had to be in college, I might as well test myself against the best.”

I say all of that to say, he was well educated in expensive, private K-12 schools and one of the most prestigious business schools in the country. Despite that, we have all marveled at some of the words that have come out of his mouth. Here are a few examples courtesy of Shortlist.com.

Speaking about gay marriage:

“It’s like in golf… A lot of people – I don’t want this to sound trivial – but a lot of people are switching to these really long putters, very unattractive… it’s weird. You see these great players with these really long putters, because they can’t sink three-footers anymore. And, I hate it. I am a traditionalist. I have so many fabulous friends who happen to be gay, but I am a traditionalist.” – NY Times (2011)

Speaking about global warming:

“It’s really cold outside, they are calling it a major freeze, weeks ahead of normal. Man, we could use a big fat dose of global warming!” Twitter (2015) “The concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive.” – Twitter (2012)

On why people would vote for him:

“To be blunt, people would vote for me. They just would. Why? Maybe because I’m so good looking.” – New York Times (1999)

On Hillary Clinton:

“If Hillary Clinton can’t satisfy her husband what makes her think she can satisfy America?” – Twitter (2015)

On why he is the best candidate for president:

“I’m the most successful person ever to run for the presidency, by far. Nobody’s ever been more successful than me. I’m the most successful person ever to run. Ross Perot isn’t successful like me. Romney – I have a Gucci store that’s worth more than Romney.” – Des Moines Register (2015)

On Hollywood women and political correctness:

“While @BetteMidler is an extremely unattractive woman, I refuse to say that because I always insist on being politically correct.” – Twitter (2012)

On shaking hands:

“The concept of shaking hands is absolutely terrible, and statistically I’ve been proven right.” – Playboy Magazine (2004)

On his intelligence:

“Sorry losers and haters, but my IQ is one of the highest – and you all know it! Please don’t feel so stupid or insecure, it’s not your fault.” Twitter (2013) “I’m intelligent. Some people would say I’m very, very, very intelligent.” – Fortune Magazine (2000)

Speaking about his daughter:

“She does have a very nice figure… If [Ivanka] weren’t my daughter, perhaps I’d be dating her.” – The View (2006)

On his fandom:

“I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose voters.” – Campaign Rally (2016)

On diplomacy:

“North Korean Leader Kim Jong Un just stated that the “Nuclear Button is on his desk at all times.” Will someone from his depleted and food starved regime please inform him that I too have a Nuclear Button, but it is a much bigger & more powerful one than his, and my Button works!” – Twitter (2018)

On winning graciously:

“Crooked Hillary Clinton is the worst (and biggest) loser of all time. She just can’t stop, which is so good for the Republican Party. Hillary, get on with your life and give it another try in three years!” – Twitter (2017)

I could go on with many more. What’s the point? The point is that 62 million people voted for this man in 2016 and an additional 74 million did so in 2020. I remember a student years ago asked me, “What are the qualifications for becoming president?” According to Article II of the U.S. Constitution, the president must be a natural-born citizen of the United States, be at least 35 years old, and have been a resident of the United States for 14 years. That’s it.

So we look at the people Trump’s wife called “patriots” who stormed the U.S. Capitol, Elizabeth from Knoxville who was interviewed by a reporter form Yahoo.com was asked why she was there and said, “We’re storming the Capitol! It’s a revolution!”

Twitter eventually gave the President a “lifetime” ban which is about four years late. His 89 million followers are now looking for a new platform to follow him on.

Social media and the internet as well as news organizations give information that is very influential to the minds of people. Facebook had 7.3 million registered users in 2006 but today that number is 2.7 billion around the world. Around seven-in-ten U.S. adults (69%) use Facebook. Twitter has 340 million users, and one in five U.S. adults use it. These platforms are often the first place many go to for news now. A 2018 Pew Research Center poll shows how influential online and social media platforms are for getting news.

“One-in-five U.S. adults say they often get news via social media, slightly higher than the share who often do so from print newspapers (16%) for the first time since Pew Research Center began asking these questions…Overall, television is still the most popular platform for news consumption…News websites are the next most common source, followed by radio, and finally social media sites and print newspapers. And when looking at online news use combined – the percentage of Americans who get news often from either news websites or social media – the web has closed in on television as a source for news (43% of adults get news often from news websites or social media, compared with 49% for television).

Pew also shared that “Many adult Facebook users in the U.S. lack a clear understanding of how the platform’s news feed works, according to the May-June 2018 survey. Around half of these users (53%) say they do not understand why certain posts are included in their news feed and others are not, including 20% who say they do not understand this at all.”

We have turned our brains off to get instant gratification for information by using electronic devices. Students think using Siri, Google and Wikipedia are the best ways to do research. We have literally re-wired our brains by using electronic devices. We often don’t have the ability to patiently wait on information. We are caught up in what is known as “clickbait,” content whose main purpose is to attract attention and encourage visitors to click on a link to a particular web page. We read headlines but not full articles. Headlines are designed to get us to click and are often not a good indication of the content of what we would read if we actually read the articles.

How can we get people to do what Malcolm X said was critically important back in 1965? I really wish I knew. People are so entrenched in their views because social media is designed to feed you information that is aligned with what you already believe. The algorithms are designed to give you more of the same. It uses confirmation bias principles. That simply means you will get more stuff on your newsfeeds that supports what you already like.

It’s not your fault. The Netflix Documentary, “The Social Dilemma” uses interviews of many of the people who created the platforms and algorithms. One of the people interviewed is Tristan Harris, Former Design Ethicist at Google and Co-Founder of the Center for Humane Technology.

“I wish more people could understand how this works because it shouldn’t be something that only the tech industry knows. It should be something that everybody knows…I was feeling this frustration with the tech industry, overall that we’d kind of like, lost our way…Never before in history have 50 designers, 20- to 35- year-old white guys in California made decisions that would have an impact on two billion people. Two billion people will have thoughts that they didn’t intend to have because a designer at Google said ‘This is how notifications work that screen that you wake up to in the morning.’”

Justin Rosenstein, Former Engineer at Facebook and Google talked about how some of these companies work.

“There are all these devices on the internet that we think of as free, but their not free. They’re paid for by advertisers. Why do advertisers pay those companies? They pay in exchange for showing their ads to us. We’re the product. Our attention is the product being sold to advertisers.”

Harvard Business School Emeritus Professor Shoshana Zuboff said this:

“They sell certainty. In order to be successful in that business, you have to have great predictions. Great predictions begin with one imperative: you need a lot of data.”

Harris said “Many people call this surveillance capitalism, capitalism profiting off of the infinite tracking of everywhere everyone goes by large technology companies whose business model is to make sure that advertisers are as successful as possible.

What does that have to do with the influence of social media on us? These internet technology companies are now the biggest, most valuable companies in the history of the world without building anything tangible.

Jaron Lander, Founder Father of Virtual Reality told us how they influence us:

“We’ve created a world in which online connection has become primary, especially for younger generations. And yet, in that world, anytime two people connect, the only way it’s financed is through a sneaky third person who’s paying to manipulate those two people. So we’ve created an entire global generation of people who are raised within a context where the very meaning of communication, the very meaning of culture, is manipulation. We’ve put deceit and sneakiness at the absolute center of everything we do.”

Because we are mostly oblivious to how we are being used and manipulated, the trick has been working on a scale that we can’t imagine. We are guinea pigs. We are the dogs in Pavlov’s famous experiments. The division that you see growing in the country and world around us is not happenstance. It is intentional.

Unfortunately, far too many have been caught up in the mess. They have been brainwashed by those manipulating the way we see the world. I actually think the word brainwashing is a misnomer. It is actually brain-dirtying, we need to have our brains washed.

The way crazy ideas spread so easily is part and parcel of how the world of technology has corrupted us. Our schools can’t fix the problem. Too many people who graduated from school, years and even decades ago, are the people falling in line with the nefarious ideas spreading on social media and in the “news.”

No one knows exactly who to trust anymore. Th days of Walter Cronkite are like ancient history. He was the must trusted newsman in the country, above reproach, trusted for the most part by 100 percent of those tuning into the news.

There are no more voices of credibility like Walter Cronkite, but many have the same level of faith in the news they get. They don’t feel a need to fact check because they get confirmation of what they believe daily.

Those who have seen their relationships with friends and family over the “truth” are caught in a cycle of mistrust. It is truly debilitating to our humanity. The damage almost feels irreversible. It is not. Part of the solution is to give people alternative sources of information. This causes cognitive dissonance, a state of mind where we have conflicting thoughts, beliefs, attitudes with cause us to dismiss some information which may or may not be true. The constant bombardment of information can easily make us truly believe.

How do you possibly escape the noise? Is it possible to hold the social and regular media companies responsible and make them fix this mess? I doubt that will happen because of the undo influence their fortunes grant them.

The solution is to move away from our devices and retrain our brains to think. We need to learn how to think for ourselves. We have eyes and ears that we don’t use properly. It’s almost the equivalent of hitting the reset button.

Unfortunately, if you don’t think you’re broken, you are not likely to hit the reset button.

“Is there any point in public debate in a society where hardly anyone has been taught how to think, while millions have been taught what to think?” – Peter Hitchens

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Jоhn Lоchеr

About The Author

Reggie Jackson

As an award-winning Senior Columnist for the Milwaukee Independent, Reggie Jackson covers a range of African American issues. He is also co-founder of Nurturing Diversity Partners, and volunteers as Head Griot for America’s Black Holocaust Museum (ABHM) in Bronzeville.