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| August 16, 2018
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Beware of Strawries

Beware of Strawries
When I said that I am from Nepal, a taxi driver in a Midwest US city quickly responded: "Oh, man, all the homes are destroyed in your home country. I am so sorry. Is your family okay?" I asked why he emphasized the word "all," and it turned out that he wasn't exaggerating: the reality was that he had only seen collapsed houses in the media!

Especially in capitalistic societies, media today typically show the public a view of the world that "sells" best, and that tends to be a world seen through a straw, based on "stories," usually advancing oversimplified views of people and issues in the world. We could call those easy-to-sell but often problematic narratives "strawries."
Many of the views of the world shown and seen through the straws of the media can have dangerous implications. They could not only shape the understanding of general public—like that of the taxi driver above—but also influence public policy, international relations, and even education and research. When we are not self-critical and aware of potential pitfalls in our thinking, we use the frames that we are most used to and we register the signals that we are primed to.

We ignore cues that don't fit our schemas. It is harder to create or use more advanced lenses for understanding cultures and societies, especially those in far-away places. But, strangely, it is also easy to create unique kinds of blind spots about issues in our local society.

The implications of this tendency are many, but let us consider just the case of education, both formal and informal. Education is about being able to look at the broader context of issues, going deeper where needed (but without decoupling things from their context). It is about doubting and challenging ourselves even when we think we already know. It is about developing critical thinking, adopting multiple perspectives, transcending self-interests. But, increasingly, educators and students alike seem to use individual stories and cases to discuss general social issues.

When I first came to the US, I was surprised by the use of stories as a rhetorical device, much more prominently than back home. These days, I see journalists and teachers and other professionals embracing the method more frequently. Arguably, the trend that we see in the media (both social and professional) is going to affect how teachers teach and students learn. Especially in a time of a national rebounding after a crisis, the obsessive focus on failure and corruption can have a negative tradeoff.

Now, this is not to say that stories are inherently problematic—only the way we use them. Nor is it to suggest that we should try to strive for the supposedly perfect objectivity of science, the myth of simplicity in engineering, the much-touted pragmatics of disciplines like economics. Societies and cultures and contexts are usually too complex for neat stories and theories.

We need caution and balance when forming narratives or focusing on issues. We should leave room for all kinds of conceptual tools, including stories and perspectives, questions and ambiguity, theories and confusion. The medium shouldn't contaminate the message, and we shouldn't sacrifice nuance and complexity for the sake of communicative convenience. When we create or respond to narratives, we should be alert to details that may not fit the overall narrative frame, realize complexities lurking behind the stories, and try to situate events and people in their original and full contexts.

In other words, we can't just blame the media and feel good ourselves. If conversations on media platforms are any indication, even the most educated people run amok with one-sided, stereotyped, and superficial ideas and reactions about people and social systems—both distant and local. For instance, most people share striking stories about "corrupt government," helping their audiences zoom into those cases and not counter with other incidents where the system worked better.

The assumption seems to be—as in the case of the earthquake where the global media decided to "only" show damaged houses—that we will serve the world best if we only talk about cases of corruption and failure, if we put pressure on the system. This assumption, like its opposite (that we should hide our problems in the name of public confidence), is unproductive. Obviously, whether to criticize, praise, or say nothing should depend on a range of factors: we should ask a range of critical questions.

We should also note that it is not just writers (in the media or among the general public) who are responsible for creating "strawries"; readers can easily create and advance problematic narratives as well. In today's network-based world, readers can quickly draw and share generalized inferences, projecting their own meanings into stories. For example, as you may have noticed, I started this article with a story, the anecdote involving a taxi driver. As you may have also noticed, I did not say or suggest that Americans generally (or taxi drivers particularly) don't know about the world beyond what they see in mainstream, commercialized media; nor that all of western media deliberately misguide people while trying to increase revenue. And yet, as a reader, the story could be interpreted to make generalizations like the above. That is, we as readers can turn complex issues in the world into simple and straightforward, one-dimensional stories.

The above challenges bring education into the equation: it is the role of education to help us avoid pitfalls in our thinking, to help us open windows of intellectual perspectives, rather than use straws, for looking at the world. It is the responsibility of educated and informed people to help interrupt the flow of simplistic narratives about societies and cultures.

We should deliberately try to learn about the "context" of issues beyond our local context, country, and culture. We should ask what is missing (like all the houses that most of the global media did not show), whether we are making problematic inferences, or if we are imposing our worldview in understanding issues especially in another place or time.

We may not be able to open the door and go out into the world in order to learn about all of the things we are virtually exposed to, through the different mediums and channels of communication. But if we can put away the straws and open windows instead, we could broaden our vision and sharpen our ability to think more critically about the world, both locally and globally.

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