Choose your words carefully – they can have unforeseen impacts

Be careful with your words

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I’ve been a big believer in speaking out when I think something is unjust, unfair or if people are suffering. You know, following the mantra that ‘if you are not part of the solution, you are part of the problem’.

It’s really easy now to speak out – why wouldn’t you, if you care? After all:

  • We get a lot of information about things that are going badly, devastation in other parts of the world, political decisions that seem to be very poorly thought through, and people or organisations who are twisting or misleading the advantages that their products can provide.
  • It’s easy to respond – by commenting, by circulating through facebook or other means, to show support by ‘liking’ a site, to maintain a focus, to ‘maintain the rage’.
  • And of course, there are still the older approaches – joining marches, writing letters, and the like. 

All well and good. And I am more focused this year on what I pay attention to. I found last year I was becoming overwhelmed though, and made a conscious effort to narrow the range of issues I would specifically choose to be interested in, as I couldn’t keep up with all the woes in the world. That’s been a positive step.

Despite that, something has been bothering me for a while. I couldn’t put my finger on it though, until I was supervising (aka nagging) my son with his homework. Sometimes insights come out of the blue like that. Anyway, this is what happened, and this is what I realised:

At school, my son and his year level are working on argumentative, or persuasive, writing. And there is a bit of a formula – state whether you agree or disagree, then provide three ‘facts’ to back up your position. And my son was explaining his facts, as he was, laboriously, writing up his argument . His ‘facts’, I should say. Because he made them up. I tried to argue against these (where did his 95% support figure come from? Has he done a survey to establish this? Then he got annoyed with me and didn’t want to share his work, that he had been quite proud of. So that went well).

The next day, conveniently, we had parent teacher interviews and I discussed this. And apparently my son was doing exactly as he had been taught. Apparently, they are encouraged to use statistics and other ‘facts’ within the writing, as these ‘facts’ are quite persuasive (and 95% is a good figure – 100% sounds implausible, but 95% is pretty overwhelming). At this age, the kids are learning how to structure and articulate an argument, rather than establish, through research, the validity of the argument. Therefore, making up ‘facts’ is quite appropriate. And arguing on the basis of these is, too. So now I knew. So an apology was needed when I got home – opps.

So – ok. I can accept this approach as a step in the learning process (and I can see that the teachers could not get through the curriculum if they had to learn how to research information, find out if it was true or not). And as long as my kids are aware that this is not, ultimately, how they need to form an argument (next year they will spend time on research techniques), then I guess that is ok. Plus, both have tried recently to use the same approach of creating fake information to get us to agree to something (didn’t work any of the three times they tried, so they have given up) – so hopefully they are starting to learn that in real life, we do require correct information.

However, I realised, though, that, in speaking up and circulating ‘information’, I run the risk of having an adverse impact:

  • Do I always know that what I am forwarding is, actually correct or the full story?There are a couple of projects I have lent support to (in the sense of ‘liking’, or expressing outrage or admiration, as a comment) which I subsequently found out were not actually correct. Although I could delete, or recirculate with more explanation, the impact would already be felt.
  • Do I know what the impact of circulating an article will have on those involved – particularly if I refer to specific people in doing so?I try to be careful to not attack the person but the issue (although I have to admit that I am not good when it comes to politicians) but even still, the way I approach this can sometimes be improved. Even if I disagree, there are ways of articulating this – if I need to at all. And when terribly situations happen to others, particularly local ones where family and friends may be reading the material, is it helpful for me to go on and on about it? Maybe I am better off holding my tongue.
  • Do I focus too much on the ‘outrage’ information which can both lead to a negative and cynical mind set, minimise the impact of sharing information, and also be just ineffective?For instance, does circulating information opposing treatment of refugees, for instance, have much impact on how they are treated? Would I be better instead considering signing petitions, going on marches, or something else? I might be less prolific, but more targeted in my approach, and therefore have more impact. And related to that – am I expressing outrage about a matter which, 5 minutes ago, I didn’t even know about? Why am I buying into it? Is it a bit of herd mentality? Do I actually need to take a side on this issue?
  • Does this cynical mind set then infiltrate the way I think and respond in other contexts?Do I have a greater tendency to rant when I hear news reports? Or in traffic jams? Or when the power goes out for two days? (which WAS annoying, but we got through it). Do I also, unintentionally, influence my children’s thinking as a result? And if so, I am generally doing it without providing them with any context or information – in a sense, creating ‘facts’ for them without substance I don’t want my kids to think badly of a situation or view point just because their parents do – there does need to be a reason behind it.

So I am grateful for my son’s homework, if only to help me identify the reason I have been concerned with my reactions to events and information that comes my way. I think that, in many cases, I would be better off saying, or sharing, less and being more considered when I do share and express opinions.

I have been looking at pulling back at commenting on things I read, as much. This is another reason to do so.

I’d love to know what you think about the opportunity to express our opinions now, the distribution of more information and how you form a view – and distinguish fact from fabrication or half truths.

 

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6 thoughts on “Choose your words carefully – they can have unforeseen impacts

    1. I try to do the same as John. I used to really get caught up in the emotiveness of big issues and feel I had to have an opinion on everything. These days, I try to stick to things where I am better across the actual facts of the situation (as much as possible!)

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      1. I think that’s the right approach – but it’s surprisingly tricky (sometimes it’s just so easy to get caught up in the emotions, but I am trying to learn to keep that under control)

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  1. I can’t believe the kids are encouraged to make shit up (sorry, but that’s exactly what it amounts to) and the whole philosophy about WHY they are making it up – to support an opinion that is either for or against a statement and not necessarily a balanced view of the issue – makes me quite cross!! This is life, I guess, that there will always be people heartily for or against a topic that is really quite open for debate, but it’s one thing to teach kids to examine their opinions and form an argument and quite another teach them to make up ‘evidence’ to support their opinions. I think persuasive writing is a good skill to teach our young children but it is NOT a good thing to teach them to MAKE UP STUFF. I think that’s out of line, no different to teaching them how to life to get ahead in life. Sorry for the rant. x

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    1. That’s what I thought too – and Sam was becoming more dejected when, rather than complementing him on his well articulated and clearly formed lettering, I started quizzing him on his argument. ‘How do you know 95% of people support Harmony Day? Have you done a survey or read this somewhere? If you have, you should include a source for this fact. Wouldn’t you be better to say ‘most people at school participated by wearing orange – at least you could validate this?’. I think for him (and as a mother, I guess) I was missing the point of why he was sharing it with me – he was overcoming two issues he struggles with, namely his confidence in his spelling abilities and the quality of his handwriting. He had put more detail and effort into what what usually uses very basic sentence structures, simple words and writes as little as possible, and I knew that, but negated it by focusing on the content. The content is important, however – but the validity of the content wasn’t what they were being taught. It was not right for me to criticise his work on that basis.

      HOWEVER, I have since talked to him about why I think this type of writing should be based on more solid basis – acknowledging that that is what he has been taught (an approach I don’t agree with, and which won’t work in real life, or even next year). Persuasive writing needs to be substantiated – at a minimum! It has, though, made me aware of what I might be modelling – they know I don’t like a lot about this government’s approach, but I am trying to cut back on ranting about what I hear, or at least, explaining why I disagree with it – because all they take in is ‘stupid Tony Abbott’ (which is not helpful). If it’s something I can’t explain simply and with some clear basis, I am trying not to comment at all – it’s a good lesson for me as well x

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