Over the past several weeks, I have read, listened, and watched a lot of people talking about racism. People speak passionately about the need for change. I know more about social and institutional change than I do race as it is currently understood. I grew up in the time of Martin Luther King, Jr., not Black Lives Matter. Part of our conflict is a generational one.
All intentional change must begin with what we know. The line between what we know and what we do not know is a broad one. On one side is information, experience, and knowledge. On the other side of that dividing line is conjecture, opinion and the spectacle of the real*. Social media straddles those two ways of understanding. It presents the perspectives that suggests that because we have seen an Instagram story or watched a video that we now have some definitive knowledge about something. Coming to know what you know is not a passive experience of absorbing other people’s knowledge or opinion. Instead, it is an active search for understanding on many levels. I want to show you the practice that I use to understand the world that surrounds me. In doing this, I hope to show you the difference between genuine knowledge and mere opinion. Why does this matter? When you know what you need to know, you are less susceptible to being manipulated by people who use ideologies as a wedge to divide people and communities.
Five Actions for Acquiring Practical Knowledge
- Be Curious. Observe people and situations. Identify patterns of behavior and thought that repeat themselves with other people.
- Listen and Watch for the connection between what people say and do. Are they speaking from direct experience, or, from a system of beliefs or values? Check your own emotions in response. If you feel anxious or fearful, ask why? If you feel resolution to a burning question, ask why?
- Ask specific questions. Test your assumptions. Learn to distinguish between opinion and knowledge. Identify when people of influence are manipulating public opinion.
- Study to learn. Read broadly. Watch YouTube videos. Be skeptical of what you read and hear. Conduct your own research to be informed. Study what you don’t know. Take notes. Write down your thoughts. Learn how to articulate clearly what you are thinking and feeling.
- Think for yourself. Base your knowledge, as much as you can, on your direct knowledge of the topic.
This is how I distinguish between what I know and what I don’t. In practice, it follows like this.
My ear is always tuned to listening for thoughts, perspectives, or ideas that are new to me. I never assume that I know everything I need to know. The result is that think critically from a perspective that is based on a clear set of values. With a clear foundation of personal values, we lack the reference point we need to discern knowledge from opinion, openness from manipulation, and, to see through the spectacle of hyper-reality we are presented every day through our screens.
A Current Example
In our present situation, there is a deep concern within the Black community about two issues. I know there are more, but these two serve as seminal issues for our time. The issues are police profiling of Black people and the level of incarceration of Black males nation-wide. What is distinctive about these highly politicized issues is how they have supplanted the issues of earlier generations, like racial segregation and the state of the Black family.
My starting point for understanding is to ask questions. I begin first by asking the first three of the Five Questions That Everyone Must Ask.
What has changed? How are we in transition?
The media and political organization’s narrative about race has changed. It is no longer about racial harmony. It is about white privilege, slave reparations, and systemic oppression. These are social constructs that have no way to be measured or resolved. These are ideological strategies, not scientific ones. As a result, the purpose is sort of a permanent revolution against past understandings and advances. In the end, race is an idea to be exploited. How do I know this? As I watch video on the rioting, i seeing Black and White men and women looting minority owned businesses.
What is the impact of this change?
Civil unrest, the undermining of local governments, and, and the alienating of people who once would have been allies, who are no longer. This is a social change on the level of the October 1917 revolution in Russia and the Communist revolution in Asia following the Second World War. It is about the transfer of power. With that transfer comes a filtering or purging of those who are no longer relevant to the future. This is not a new practice. We now live in a dangerous time of ideological civil war. This is why we need to know what we know with clarity and insight.
Who is impacted?
Everyone is impacted by these developments. Quite possibly for the first time in most people’s lives, they will have to think clearly in order to know where they stand as the future unfolds during this dangerous time.
Doing the Work of Research
I am always in the mode of learning, of doing research, of connecting information that can help me learn what I need to know so that I know what I need to do. I do several things at once. If I am watching a YouTube lecture or report, I’ll take some notes. If I’m watching on my phone, I may use my computer to lookup online something I heard, while I am watching. Just in the past two days, I’ve looked up two topics, neither directly related to race, but caused me to wonder if they did. One is Michel Foucault’s perspective on power and the other is Shoshana Zuboff’s perspective on surveillance capitalism. You may not find either of these topics of interest. They are reference points of understanding. My point is that you listen for topics or questions that pique your interest, and you go look for an article or a video on it. Each new perspective provides another reference point of understanding. When it is clear that I want to know more than an article’s worth, I will look for a book or two to purchase to go deeper into a topic.
When I begin to get some understanding, I try to connect what I’m learning to other areas. Returning to our test case, I want to determine if there is a connection to other areas of information and knowledge. Over the past decade, I’ve read a lot of postmodern and anarchist literature. What I learned is that this race conflict is not a recent development, but is born out of cultural conflict in Europe in the first half of the 20th century. What I conclude from what I’ve learned is that race is a symbol for a larger conflict in the opposition to capitalism and neo-liberalism. In other words, whatever we see on our screens is a microcosm of a much larger story. Learning what that story is how we come to know what we need to know.
As I am sorting through the information that I’m gathering, I am also going to ask people questions. I want to understand what people think. Everyone speaks from a particular point-of-view that is a product of their life’s circumstances. I listen without judgment. A young Black woman born in New York City in 1990 will have a different perspective than me, an older White man born raised in the South. If I have the opportunity, I am going to ask some questions so that I can better understand. I know in some circles this tactic is viewed as exploitative or oppressive. If it is, then this is a good place for us to start to learn how we each come to have our perspective on race in America.
Race is a defining theme in American history and has been one for my entire life. Many of the decisions that I have made have been based on my own process of trying to understand the Black experience in America. It is far richer and more complex than short sound bites suggest. In many respects, the man I am today is because of the Black men and women who influenced me as my teachers, colleagues, and friends.
Seeking Practical Knowledge
In this process of continuous learning, it is important that we articulate what we are thinking. There may be real confusion. What we are learning may not make sense. This is when I begin to write down my thoughts. Consider writing as a type of “call-to-action.” If all we do is take in information, consuming other people’s ideas, we are not doing sufficient work to understand what we are experiencing.
I suggest keeping a journal for cataloging your thoughts. I’ve kept a journal for most of my adult life. It is not just helpful for figuring out what is going on in my head. It provides a record of what I’ve read, experienced, and thought about at a particular point in time. And, it helps me to learn to say what I mean and mean what I say.
When I began weblogging in 2004, most of what I was writing were comments on other people’s opinions. It was of great value in learning how to apply the Circle of Impact. After about five years of blogging, things began to change. I shifted from being a consumer of other people’s writings to the creator of my own. It was the necessary step for me to be able to write my first book, Circle of Impact: Taking Personal Initiative To Ignite Change. As a result, I was able to write about what I know, rather than simply write opinions about other people’s writings.
We live in a very chaotic, dangerous time. It is very important that we know what we know, and distinguish it from mere opinion. Having spent a lifetime seeking to understand the world, I can say that the most important thing that we can do is engage directly with people in the matters of life. For in every situation and relationship, our direct encounters will be moments of testing our assumptions and preconceived notions about what is true and false, of what is real and unreal, and what creates hope and goodness for the future.
In other words, THINK FOR YOURSELF. You will find a quiet confidence for the challenges of each day. Your ability to relate to a wider community of people will expand into a network of relationships of mutual respect and trust. You will find that you know what to do in the moment that is upon you.
* The Spectacle of the Real: https://edbrenegar.typepad.com/leading_questions/2018/10/the-spectacle-of-the-real.html