#49: commentary vs. citizenship
"can you look directly at the world? do you have the courage?"
Time Spent is a series of letters exploring how and why we should read the news, do care work and spend our time. Each letter includes 1) a thought, interview or tidbit from research and 2) a “how might we…” prompt to help us explore our own relationship with consumption and care. It’s free, published weekly-ish, and part of a book project I’m working on called Taking Back the News. (Hi, I’m Jihii.)
In This Issue:
💌 Consuming news in times of crisis and the purpose of doing so.
💡 How might we practice citizenship instead of commentary?
A Wholesome Media Diet (Tricycle)
The Western Media's Empathy Problem (Jill Filipovic)
Peak News (The Rebooting)
When news becomes the noise (The Unraveling)
You don’t need to post through a crisis (Embedded)
The Courage to be Disliked (Book)
You Are Here (Book)
Some resources for following the invasion of Ukraine (Nieman Lab)
I took a bit of a break in February to wrap a writing project, but in the last 2 weeks, I’ve received more than a few messages asking what I think about the news and Ukraine. To be honest, I don’t know what to say, except that I don’t support war in any circumstance, and I’m continuing to do my best at what’s in front of me.
However, as I see people exchange online, I have been thinking about the difference between offering comment and being a citizen. Here are some things I’ve bookmarked on that subject.
The Difficulty of Consuming News about War
Last week, NPR posted this thread on Twitter.
Their suggestions were the usual for situations in which we might be glued to social media or a newsfeed: breathe, move, take care of yourself, sign off.
The backlash in the comments, however, were huge.
To be honest, I was pretty on board with some of the comments. But I also understand the serious impact the news cycle can have on individuals’ mental health and how difficult it is to consume responsibly.
You can see from # of retweets which side of the spectrum most people sat.
Still, in reality, NPR’s thread echoed what so many writers and professionals in the mental health space have been saying online.
So here is my attempt at unpacking a few of the questions under the surface.
Why pay attention to global news?
Before addressing how to do something, I always try to address why.
In 2020, I explored this idea for Tricycle:
Probably the most useful bit of advice I can offer may sound like the most simplistic: confirm your intentions before you check the news. My intentions are based on my Buddhist values—I often turn to Ikeda’s writings on “global citizenship,” which can be defined as a genuine concern and effort to establish peace in the world. I believe that to truly practice global citizenship, our interconnectedness should be a consideration in all of our actions.
The idea of interconnection is central to so many views of life, be it science fiction, Buddhism, social justice, human rights or technology.
I’ve always loved this line from A Baptist Preacher’s Buddhist Teacher, where Lawrence Carter of Morehouse College writes of Martin Luther King Jr.’s vision of the World House:
I intend to open all the windows of my house and, without getting blown off my feet, let the cultural winds of the world blow through. We can widen our perception of the world and enlarge our understanding of who we are, what we are capable of, what we ought to envision, in solidarity with others.
Interconnection is a beautiful sentiment, and leaders of industry are quick to promote the potential of a truly interconnected world—economically, politically, socially, morally. But when it comes to how the individual interacts in this interconnected world, it seems that we consistently default to tribalism. We prefer to flex our ego than our empathy.
Last year I bookmarked the following from Daisaku Ikeda (source: Reflections on the Global Civilization), in which he summarizes the work of Japanese educator and Buddhist reformer Tsunesaburo Makiguchi:
In his A Geography of Human Life, Tsunesaburo Makiguchi argued that every individual requires three different types of self-awareness: a local awareness, of being rooted in one’s own community; a national awareness, as belonging to a nation; and an awareness of being a citizen of the world.
In other words, by retaining a strong foothold in our awareness as members of a local community and citizens of the world to avoid being swept away by the evils of nationalism, we can deepen mutual understanding as good neighbors and good world citizens at the level of both the community and international society and enjoy shared prosperity.
Makiguchi advocated broadening and elevating our outlook by alternately looking at the world from the perspective of the local community, and seeing the local community from the perspective of the world.
This is one of my absolute favorite framings for news. Why should we consume global news? Because it allows us to practice global citizenship.
If you take what people post on Instagram and Twitter at face value, it's easy to feel like one "should" participate in conversation about Ukraine simply because of the volume and speed of messages on the subject. But when has obligation ever created something that lasts? Things that last come from deep within our lives, they are born of grit, determination, courage and deep empathy.
(Related: The Western Media's Empathy Problem, published by Jill Filipovic on Monday is a thought-provoking read, in which she criticizes both the lack of interest in foreign news on the part of readers, whom she implores to be “better citizens,” and the empathy gaps that journalists could and should be filling with nuanced, thoughtful reporting.)
Which brings us to the question of how.
How should we pay attention to global news?
Having a strong sense of purpose, I find, is the perfect foundation on which to decide how you want to act in times of crisis. Conversely, crisis can be a great time to clarify one’s purpose.
The aspect of NPR’s thread that most bothered me, was how purposeless it felt.
As I’ve written before, being intentional, mindful and limiting news consumption can be generative. Limits for the sake of self-preservation are never as useful to me as limits for the sake of acting on behalf of others. Here are some examples:
Because I need to be able to check on the people in my life, I can't be scrolling social media all day and then offering haphazard, discouraging comments about World War III.
Because I want to explain to my children what they are seeing on Twitch, I have to have some understanding of the issues, even if that means starting with the basics.
Because I work in humanitarian aid or journalism, I need to bring my best self to work right now, so I’m laser-focusing on the sources that matter most.
It’s important to remember (always, but especially in times of crisis) the factors that also underpin social media and news that are working against our best interest.
Last month, Brian Morrissey wrote in The Rebooting how “spending less time on news is bad for publishers but good for society”:
Like most industries, the news industry suffers from a bias to produce more. Models dependent on advertising require pageviews, which are frequently best produced by producing more. Subscription models are often premised on “unlimited access,” although as Jack Marshall points out this is often a losing value proposition compared to offering “scarcity, efficiency and concentrated value.”
In other words, just because breaking news is high in volume and urgency, doesn't mean that's the right way to consume it.
He offered 5 ideas for what publishers should focus on, which I find a useful framing for what consumers should too, especially if your purpose is to participate in the world as a global citizen:
Address specific needs
Mitigate bad news bias
Find the middle ground
Go narrow and deep
A few days later, Jeremy Littau wrote in The Unraveling about how news-oriented platforms such as Twitter make understanding what’s going on much harder simply by virtue of their design and delivery methods:
Everyone’s Twitter experience varies, and it’s a function of how you build your network, a variation of contributor vs. listener (with most users doing more consumption than creation). In that sense, the act of following is really about two things. First, the creators whose ideas and work you want to follow. Second, the amplifiers whose network you want to be exposed to. The second one is an affirmation of credibility in some sense, that you trust as a second-degree relationship a followee’s information diet, and it’s a sneaky critical part of a good Twitter experience.
So most of the time, we live somewhere on the creator-consumer continuum, with the vast majority of users leaning toward consumer. But there are moments such as today when people who might normally just curate and amplify authoritative, expert voices feel the need to chime in, and that has potential to break the entire experience.
Which brings us to my third question.
How should we participate in the public square?
In times of crisis, it seems like there are two ways most people participate in the public square (online). 1) Amplifying content. 2) Offering comment.
If you follow the basics, amplification can create great good (contributing aid, sharing resources, checking on people). If you don’t, it can really harm people (disinformation, disrespect). So some basics:
But when it comes to offering comment, things are a bit trickier. And over the past week, I started seeing this warning more and more from people I respect:
As Kate Lindsay explained in Embedded:
In the past five years, and even more so in the past two, we’ve put increasing pressure on public figures to say something when society is confronted with a crisis—from the pandemic to the killing of George Floyd to tensions between Israel and Palestine to what’s happening today. That those with power aren’t silent in the face of inequality and oppression is, of course, important. But there’s a limit to how helpful their statements actually can be, and they have the potential to be hollow or even harmful, depending on the person saying them—especially as our definition of a public figure has broadened.
Which brings me to this letter’s subject: What’s the difference between commentary and citizenship?
Increasingly, I find the single differentiating skill of responsible news consumers is that they know their role.
When feeling overwhelmed by information, it’s often because we are consuming survival-related updates about an entire world without the ability to locate ourselves in it.
In this scenario, you are responsible for everything. But increasingly, I find that the people who make longterm change tend to be the ones who are dedicated to their own path and confident about it. More below.
How might we try to be citizens instead of commentators?
Out of pure luck, I happen to be reading three books right now that have helped me see this a bit more clearly and I'll leave you with a passage from each.
From the opening of 21 Lessons for the 21st Century:
In a world deluged by irrelevant information, clarity is power. In theory, anybody can join the debate about the future of humanity, but it is so hard to maintain a clear vision. We might not even notice that a debate is going on, or what the key questions are. Most of us can’t afford the luxury of investigating, because we have more pressing things to do: we have to go to work, take care of the kids, or look after elderly parents. Unfortunately, history does not give discounts. If the future of humanity is decided in your absence, because you are too busy feeding and clothing your kids, you and they will not be exempt from the consequences. This is unfair; but who said history was fair?
As a historian, I cannot give people food or clothes—but I can try to offer some clarity, thereby helping to level the global playing field. If this empowers even a handful of additional people to join the debate about the future of our species, I have done my job.
PHILOSOPHER: There is no escape from your own subjectivity. At present, the world seems complicated and mysterious to you, but if you change, the world will appear more simple. The issue is not about how the world is, but about how you are.
YOUTH: How I am?
PHILOSOPHER: Right . . . It’s as if you see the world through dark glasses, so naturally everything seems dark. But if that is the case, instead of lamenting about the world’s darkness, you could just remove the glasses. Perhaps the world will appear terribly bright to you then and you will involuntarily shut your eyes. Maybe you’ll want the glasses back on, but can you even take them off in the first place? Can you look directly at the world? Do you have the courage?
From You Are Here:
We need, instead, stories that foreground interconnection and interdependence. Similarly, stories about the digital world that restrict our focus to individual people and individual rights will never inspire the long-term transformations needed to address the network crisis. Here, too, we need different stories.
So I leave you with this question, which is what I’m asking myself and has transformed my own anxiety and I-want-to-look-away-but-I-can’t feelings into clarity:
In each crisis you encounter or witness, what can you uniquely do?
Can you check on people in your life?
Can you be an informer or amplify resources?
What can your profession contribute? Can you do your best at it? (For example Arweave recently solicited contributions to an archive of the unfolding crisis; archives are crucial for history.)
Can you educate yourself patiently and courageously?
Can you inject humanism and empathy into your work as a journalist?
Can you make a financial contribution or otherwise support refugees?
Can you connect with and through your community of practice or prayer?
The list goes on. There are many ways to be a citizen of the world. Just because the infrastructure of online communication makes us feel like we need to comment or participate in the same way everyone else is, doesn’t mean that’s true. Based on that purpose, consume accordingly.
I think it’s much easier to be a global citizen if you have agency and agency will look different for everyone.
For those who asked how I’m consuming: my news diet continues to be some version of a mainstream snapshot in the morning, limited browsing on social media and then long-form or explainers as and when I have questions. In times of heightened crisis, I try to compare several sources. Here are some.