This–this is why I am not sure I can be a History/Social Studies teacher anymore, and why I should be more than ever…
Ah, Internet. So bountiful, so giving: it allows students from all over the world to communicate, to understand and empathize with all kinds of species, including their own.
But a few weeks ago I hit a hard truth: sometimes I teach students whose values, beliefs, and systemic ideas take root in the worst examples of rhetorical blunderings. (Translation: I don’t agree with them, and have to check my own biases.) While I adamantly defend a students’ Constitutional Rights and remain effectually neutral, I am not sure I have the will or the strength to fight this brand of illogic: the conspiracy theorists.
Students love to bandy about The Illuminati, and shouting “Illuminati” is their go-to punch line, a warding off of evil juju, much like my ridiculous practice of tossing salt over my left shoulder. (Yes, I do that, and knock on wood. Stop it. You don’t know what calamities I’ve prevented!) Some theories are fun, such as these literary ones. (Well, I think they’re entertaining: and I think that Poe one being Cooped has merit.)
What is the real danger in believing a conspiracy theory? Those enduring ones, from the moon landing was fake to Obama’s birth certificate linger, and then get re-branded. Consider the Ted Cruz eligibility for being President. One legal argument from Mary Brigid McManamon says fairly clearly and logically, and more important,t legally, no, he’s not. This may have been in response to Jonathan H. Adler’s piece, also in the Washington Post prior to McManamon’s piece, that yes, Ted Cruz is. The author of this article provides an update and revises some of his original nuances or misinformation, so I give him credit for that:
UPDATE: Several readers object that this post simplifies what is, in actuality, a very difficult constitutional question. The precise original public meaning of “natural born citizen” may not be as clear as my post or the Katyal-Clement article suggests. For reasons why, see this 2010 essay by Lawrence Solum.
In contrast, McManamon states:
Article I of the Constitution grants Congress the power to naturalize an alien — that is, Congress may remove an alien’s legal disabilities, such as not being allowed to vote. But Article II of the Constitution expressly adopts the legal status of the natural-born citizen and requires that a president possess that status. However we feel about allowing naturalized immigrants to reach for the stars, the Constitution must be amended before one of them can attain the office of president. Congress simply does not have the power to convert someone born outside the United States into a natural-born citizen.
But is this a conspiracy theory? No, it’s a legal clarification and debate over wording and intent in the Constitution. That’s what our justice system does.
So how do we describe the difference between conspiracy theory adoption and critical debate and speech? What is the danger in ignoring these nuances? The danger is allowing Fear to sit at the table and take all the food. Fear is my current personified monster that is at the root of all heartache. Fear is the student who thinks an author is a Nazi, and then denies herself the joy of reading his works. Fear undermines the mother whose child has Autism and in desperation wants to believe in Jenny McCarthy versus the decades of science and people of medicine. People we used to hold in high esteem and trust. Fear breaks parents’ hearts over and over again when someone doubts their loss.
But, Fear gets a punch on the snout by Buzz Aldrin:
The researchers conclude that the diffusion of content generally takes place within clusters of users known as “echo chambers” — polarized communities that tend to consume the same types of information. For instance, a person who shares a conspiracy theory online is typically connected to a network of other users who also tend to consume and share the same types of conspiracy theories. This structure tends to keep the same ideas circulating within communities of people who already subscribe to them, a phenomenon that both reinforces the worldview within the community and makes members more resistant to information that doesn’t fit with their beliefs.
Confirmation bias holds the key:
Confirmation bias is the tendency of individuals to pay attention to or believe information that confirms the personal values and beliefs they already hold, rather than allowing their beliefs to be changed by new information.
People tend to believe in the theory that fits or is relevant to their situation of culture, race, religion, etc. Stress (and my monster Fear) team up to push us toward our lizard brains, abandon our front cortex in fight/flight mode. The problem with all of this is the “real” world is doing a dandy job of being nut-job crazy coco puff bananas. If a conspiracy theory is meant to explain, all it ends up doing is deflecting.
Just what Fear wanted all along.
So how do we truly help students, and ourselves, sort fact from fiction? Is it even possible?
My husband told me last night that the tapes of the moon landing were “lost,” and we were the last generation to witness the moon landing, and the memory is only in our minds. I had not heard about this, or even thought about it, because moon landings are in my own memory bank, clear and present. How is anyone going to believe us now?
Keep teaching. Keep learning. Keep connecting. And try to be a credible source.