2017 was supposed to be better. We were going to wave goodbye, or flip a middle finger, to last year and be rid of it. I don’t know if it is because I have become much more socially and politically aware over the past few years but the world just seems to be in more chaos than I ever remember it. Everywhere I look there is unrest, there is upset, and there are divides. Brexit and the US election have served to highlight deep fractures. Looking closer to home and articles about homelessness or Waitangi Day bring out the choruses of “PC gone mad” and “socialist propaganda.” We are inundated with alternative facts and fake news, with a hyped-up media and countless Facebook articles. It has become an almost impossible task trying to make sense of the stories being told while navigating our own position.
In this environment, it becomes easy to dismiss people who have wildly different views to our own or are so far opposite on the political spectrum. They are laughable, ignorant, idiotic. They become caricatures: gun-toting rednecks or uptight, man-hating feminists; old white men in suits or self-absorbed, ignorant millennials. We often seek out information that supports our own ideas, ready to use as ammunition in the fight against the opposition. Everyone feels they are right and justified, and everyone feels like they have the evidence to support it. This culture of belittling, judging and dismissing, which thrives in the internet-age, only serves to divide our communities further. What can we do?
Museums have worked hard to evolve from the old model where visitors were viewed as passive recipients of information, as told by the authority of the museum. But there is always a tension between teaching facts or presenting stories with curatorial analysis and allowing space for personal interpretation and meaning-making. As visitors (and museum professionals) we arrive with prior knowledge, life experiences and bias. This is complicated further as sometimes this prior knowledge can include mistaken assumptions and incorrect information. Mark K. Felton and Deanna Kuhn argue that ideally, a museum experience will challenge a visitor’s existing knowledge, “requiring them to examine their understanding and potentially revise or deepen it.”
This is the shift from evaluating what they already know to also consider how they know it.
Exposure to a diversity of ideas that challenge people with different perspectives allows us to view the human condition in different ways. We then have the chance to reconsider our knowledge and reassess misconceptions, reforming and redeveloping our worldviews.
There are different levels of knowledge. In their article, Felton and Kuhn list four Epistemological Levels: Realist, Absolutist, Multiplist, and Evaluativist. The Multiplist level is based on the idea that since all knowledge is constructed by humans, it must therefore be subjective. No point of view is any more valid than another and all events can be interpreted in different ways. Unfortunately, this is the realm where “alternative facts” can run amuck. There is no black and white, only different versions and interpretation. This level is an important stepping stone and shows an understanding of the construction of knowledge. It encourages us to question. But it is important we move on to the next level of understanding which goes further than “blanket relativism.” It recognises that although knowledge is constructed, we can still evaluate based on evidence and arguments that support or do not support what is being presented.
Critical thinking skills are essential in an age where history isn’t written by the victors, it is written by anyone with an opinion and a keyboard. There will always be arguments, disagreements and conflicting versions of events, but, we all need the skills to evaluate the value of the information we are given. We need informed interpretation and opinion and we need to be able to develop and apply criteria to evaluate claims and our sources of information. How do we know this? Where is the information coming from? What do other sources say about this?
If critical thinking is top on the list of tools needed and which museums can provide, the second is surely empathy. Empathy, according to Google’s concise definition is: “the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.” Museums have the potential to be active spaces for connection and dialogue, for listening and sharing as a way to foster empathy. But empathy works both ways: an article in Vox looking at studies aimed at reducing prejudicial thinking found that simply calling someone racist will not do anything towards reducing racial bias. The growing culture of calling out racism and sexism in a confrontational way can sometimes do more harm. I am not suggesting we should stop this altogether – for many people, they often aren’t even aware that something they said was implicitly racist and bringing attention to it is enough to make them stop and think. And while it might seem counter-intuitive or even unworthy to try and understand the perspectives of those who expel bigoted comments it might be the right place to start.
The article points out how many white Americans, especially those in rural areas, hear terms like “racist,” “white privilege,” and “implicit bias,” which are used to point out systemic bias, instead see them as coded slurs. The article uses this example:
“Imagine a white man who lost a factory job due to globalisation and saw his sister die from a drug overdose due to the opioid painkiller and heroin epidemic — situations that aren’t uncommon today. He tries to complain about his circumstances. But his concerns are downplayed by a politician or racial justice activist, who instead points out that at least he’s doing better than black and brown folks if you look at broad socioeconomic measures… So when they hear accusations of racism, they feel like what they see as the “real” issues — those that afflict them — are getting neglected. This, obviously, makes it difficult to raise issues of race at all with big segments of the population, because they’re often suspicious of the motives.” It is hard to imagine you have any form of privilege when you are facing your own struggles and hardships. When people are told they have “privilege” they reply with things like: but I was raised in a poor, single-parent family, I was never given anything I didn’t work hard for. The article suggests, that oftentimes people just want to feel heard: “people don’t want to be immediately dismissed because they might have a view that you consider wrong or even vile; they want to feel heard. And once that happens, it’s a lot easier for them to make mental space to understand other people’s problems.”
Accusations of racism can make people defensive and hostile, sometimes acting even more bigoted as a response. Robin DiAngelo described this as “white fragility” in her 2011 article. Instead, we can use non-confrontational conversations and techniques to engage. This does not mean giving an open platform for those who hold fundamentally racist or sexist views. There is a difference between those who are intent on hate and oppression and those who are simply coming from a place of misinformation and fear. For our own sanity and resources, we can draw a line between trying to engage with those that think differently and trying to change the minds of those who think with prejudice. But it can be done: even a member of the Westboro Baptist Church can be encouraged to question their beliefs.
So, while it may sometimes feel like the world around us has gone crazy, I hold hope for the work we, as individuals and as cultural institutions, can do. We can view recent events as a catalyst for change: these issues are out in the open and if we know them, we have a better chance of fixing them. Secondly, that the world is responding and protesting means we are not ignorant or apathetic to the issues. Change will be determined by our openness and willingness to ideas. It is not a comfortable place to have your views challenged and takes a lot to admit to being wrong. It is not easy. But it is necessary.
Nina Simon, “Let’s be Bridge-Builders.”
Mike Murawski, “The Urgency of Empathy and Social Impact in Museums.”