Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Should I Really Post That? The Current Rhetoric of Social Media

While I have strong political feelings that I willingly share with my husband, close friends, and certain family members, I typically try to stay out of the social media political frenzy. This is for several reasons. First and probably foremost, I am an avoider and people pleaser. I want to keep people happy and more often than not I keep my mouth shut to do so, even if not telling it like it is makes me miserable. I say this as more of a confession than a revelation of a positive personality trait. Quite frankly, while this trait has helped me in the area of self-preservation for years, I consider it one of my main personality flaws. However, this particular personality trait has allowed me to maintain friends of different political affiliations without conflict. Second, I get tired of the virtual shouting match that occurs between the far left and the far right and I have no desire to be a part of it. Third, I believe that it is my duty as a high school teacher to teach my students how to think and research for themselves and come to their own conclusions, and participation in the far left/right debates would make me a hypocrite. I realize that there are fellow teachers out there who disagree, but here it is: I want my students to feel free to make the connections to what they read for class without feeling like I am going to blast them for seeing something that I don't necessarily agree with. I want them to write well-researched, well written argumentative papers on topics that are important to them and take the position they want without worrying about my personal views on legalization of marijuana, doctor assisted suicide, or global climate change. I don't tell them who I vote for and while my personal views may come out in readings I assign for class, I try to avoid verbalizing them. I always tell them that my personal views will not determine their grades, and I work very hard to make sure that happens. However, a very poorly written paper about a topic that I do not agree with does occasionally meet my grading wrath, which is unfortunate for all, especially when it is a topic about which I am well versed. Case in point, the unfortunate college student who wrote a paper praising the success of No Child Left Behind. My entire teaching career has been under NCLB or the aftermath of it and I know way too much about the topic to take a paper with blatant misinformation lightly. But that is all beside the point.

The real point finally came to a head yesterday when I finally commented on a FB friend's post which pictured all previous presidents and the total debt and next to it our current president and the debt he has supposedly accrued in the last three years. We are in the midst of a hotly contested election season, and I am already tired of it. And while posts of these sort were plenty available four years ago, it feels like I see them more and more from FB friends on both sides of the aisle. And people are posting these pictures or cartoons about everything: gun control, gay rights, gay marriage, sanctity of marriage, sanctity of life, taxes, health care, war, the list goes on and on. And I get it. People have strong feelings about topics that affect them. Heck, people have strong feelings about issues that have absolutely no apparent impact on them. But does anyone that passes these things along ever sit down for a couple minutes to consider the rhetoric in some of these posts and the political impact that it is having in our increasingly politically divided climate? Take the above mentioned post. All it really had was pictures and numbers. No explanations about whether that was actual debt or projected debt from programs currently in place. No discussion about the previous two term president and the economic policies, tax code, and wars that Obama inherited (just as there was no discussion from the far left about the role that Clinton played in deregulation that helped lead to the financial collapse that happened under Bush's watch). They were just numbers meant to shock and scare anyone who read that particular post. And thanks to our top notch educational system (of which I am admittedly a part), most people would just look at that and not feel the need to check further. They wouldn't read about the claims to see if they were true. They wouldn't use this as a starting point for intelligent conversation about what needs to be done about the national debt. They would just take the information at face value and pass it along. And this happens every day.

I know that I may be an exception. I have taught Freshman Composition to college students for the last two years and I will be teaching AP Language and Composition for the first time starting in two weeks. Therefore, I teach rhetoric and composition, and the more I teach it, the more I see it. I can't help it. It's everywhere I look. And I feel that I have the duty to share this with my students. To help them see the rhetoric in the writing of others so they can see it in their own writing. But I would also like to see the American public wake up and see it for themselves. I want them to understand that when we pass along half-truths, misinformation, and seriously biased political rhetoric as fact we are participating in the madness that is our current political climate. It's not going to stop unless we stop. I tell my students that a solid argument gives concessions to the other side. A solid argument knows that the other side has a point and perspective worthy of consideration. A solid argument also needs research to back it up. Don't post something unless you are ready to back it up, even if that just means posting articles (but not from The Onion, which is fantastically entertaining but a terrible place to get real information of any kind) instead of pictures and cartoons. Washington won't change until we do. Maybe it's time we started.

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