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Restoring Democracy Through Civic Literacy

By Reed Anfinson
Swift County Monitor-News
Many years ago, we were standing by a friend in the church at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter. He was in the college choir and had a beautiful tenor voice. As the congregation began singing a hymn, we remained silent. He turned to us asking, “Why aren’t you singing?” We replied, “You’re so good we would be embarrassed singing next to you.” His reply, “If the only birds that sang in the forest were those that sang best, it would be a quiet place.”

Through the harmony of many voices, America has created a nation that has been the envy of people across the world. In Washington, D.C., Jan. 6, the world saw that already badly frayed harmony shredded.

In this time of bitterly divided communications, when the voices one disagrees with are not just suppressed by shouting but by threats of violence, we must all do our part in creating a more harmonious and civil conservation. It won’t be easy considering how deeply ingrained our bitter divides have become.

We need conservative voices because there are legitimate conservative beliefs and viewpoints. We need liberal voices because there are legitimate liberal beliefs and policies; each tempers the other. But on both sides, those voices must be truthful, not exaggerate, and not have their sole purpose to incite hatred toward those who believe differently.

“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?” English journalist Peter Hitchens, a contributing writer to The American Conservative and the Spectator, says. His words define the challenge – providing citizens with an honest civic education at a time when a toxic social media distorts all truth, then is taken advantage of by those in power who gain from the lies.

“I think we have created tools that are ripping apart the social fabric of how society civil discourse, no cooperation; misinformation, mistruth,” Chamath Palihapitiya, who was once Facebook’s vice president for user growth, said.

America’s media must call out conspiracy theories for what they are - farfetched delusions meant to radicalize and remove followers from reality. Over the past four years, these theories have been allowed to take root in support of white nationalist causes aligned with the Republican Party. America’s conservative media has not done enough to call out these more extreme factions, exposing their lies.

Take the QAnon movement, which claims Democrats and celebrities belong to a cabal of Satan-worshipping pedophiles who secretly run the government. Does anyone who has met and worked with former Minnesota 7th District Congressman Collin Peterson, a once powerful member of this party, think he could belong to such a cabal?

“Conspiratorial thinking has moved into the mainstream. But don’t blame Donald Trump for this. While he has exploited and accelerated this erosion of fact-based reality, it didn’t start with him,” Alan C. Miller, founder and CEO the News Literacy Project, writes.
“Nor is this tendency to disregard evidence and expertise a purely partisan exercise. The anti-vaxxer movement includes many progressives; in fact, Robert F. Kennedy Jr. is one of its most prominent leaders,” he writes.

“Become more mindful about what you read, watch and hear; more skeptical of what you trust; and more responsible with what you share,” Miller says. “Consume a varied news diet, and practice good information hygiene. Push back against misinformation and reach out empathetically to those who are spreading it.”

It is critical that we “bring back civics lessons — including, as an essential component, teaching students how to separate fact from fiction and determine what information they can trust,” he says.

Civic education has been a core of American education since its founding.

“Civic education is essential to sustain our constitutional democracy. The habits of the mind, as well as ‘habits of the heart,’ the dispositions that inform the democratic ethos, are not inherited,” Alexis de Tocqueville wrote in “Democracy in America” in the 1830s. “I see the time drawing near when freedom, public peace, and social order itself will not be able to do without education.” How prophetic his words in light today’s unrest.

Each generation takes on the responsibility to renew that education; it is not inherited. It is taught. While we may sacrifice our desires and needs to the interests of our tribe, we do not inherently give them up for others. It is through education about how democracy works that we learn the necessity of compromise.

America’s founders had bitterly competitive visions on how to form a new government and the laws under which the people would be governed. Yet, they came together creating the most enduring documents of a representative democracy in history with the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights.

Even if we follow Miller’s recommendations to broaden our points of view and insulate us from conspiracy theories, how do we get them to take hold? Too many today reject facts that challenge closely held beliefs, beliefs that give them standing among family, friends, and social groups. For some, it means stripping them of their identities and self-worth. It won’t happen. In these cases, it is the responsibility of society and the media to be a check on their excesses, so they never again poison our democracy to the point  of shaming us in front of the world.

Thomas Jefferson wrote that “wherever the people are well informed, they can be trusted with their own government.” The events of Jan. 6 brutally illustrated what happens when we fail to ensure citizens are honestly and accurately informed.

Miller says the news media must “consistently and vigorously enforce your community standards against hate speech...that incites violence and damages public health and democracy.” His words apply to the networks as much as they do to small-town newspapers in America.

Miller says the news media must “consistently and vigorously enforce your community standards against hate speech...that incites violence and damages public health and democracy.” His words apply to the networks as much as they do to small-town newspapers in America.

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