Lately my thoughts have been engrossed with the current chaos and division in the world. We are constantly bombarded with this reality in the news, daily conversations, and social media feeds. What an exciting yet terrifying time we live in!
Among other things, Big Ocean Women are advocates for laws and policies to protect the basic human rights of all mankind, those especially of women and children. I was impressed this month to interview a friend and colleague whom I respect and admire to teach us how seeking knowledge helps us be more informed and respectful advocates. Being informed helps us understand our “why” concerning a topic and how to best advocate for others.
Joe Burton is a Social Studies and United States Government teacher at Emmett High School in Idaho, United States, and the instructional coach to the high school debate team. Burton is passionate about standing true to your convictions, advocacy, and respecting differences of opinion. He encourages his students to share their voices with courage and class, a skill for which he is an excellent role model.
I have attempted to condense and share some key points Burton shared, with direct quotes in quotation marks.
Formula for Becoming Informed Advocates:
A. Self-Reflection for personal biases and preconceived notions
Burton shared the importance of figuring out what your opinions are about a topic before doing any form of research to identify your biases and preconceived notions on the subject. “Jot it down.” What are your thoughts and opinions on this topic? When we go into our research already knowing our personal views, we can try to “stay away from confirmation biases and cherry-picking things” which only confirm what we already believe is true. He teaches us to physically write out our thoughts and opinions on a piece of paper so that when we start researching, we can see what we believed before the research process and then note what the research and data are actually teaching us about a topic.
B. Know WHO you are Advocating for
All law and policy topics boil down to those they will impact, so the most important consideration is who will be affected and in what way. What are we advocating for and especially consider “who” we are advocating for. “If you don’t have the honest knowledge of what that single individual, community, or country is going through, then you can’t be a good, respectful advocate for that person or group of people.”
C. Be Teachable
If we are seeking solutions to world problems with the best interests of those affected, we should be open minded and willing to accept truth. Burton explains this teachable open mindedness as a willingness to try to understand what is in the best interest of those affected. He asks, “If you don’t have knowledge on their culture, their political beliefs, or anything like that, then how can you respectfully advocate for them?” He noted the difficulty of sifting through the overwhelming plethora of content to find factual information. Media stories from left- or right-leaning views often cherry-pick data to support their points. “I think it’s important to get straight to the source of the information.”
One of the biggest downfalls of being closed-minded is “you completely close yourself off to different perspectives.” Burton warned of the dangers of shutting down sources because of not liking the authors for their background or history, political affiliations, religious beliefs, etc.
To help with this conundrum of truth seeking, Burton provided us with his “5 Steps for Recognizing Truth.”
- Ask “what is the professional consensus?” This is the “key point” when deciding if something is truthful.
- Seek by study, looking at peer review data and opinions of leading experts. It’s important to “find a wide array of sources” to ensure you are “getting a big perspective on a certain issue.”
- Trust. Do you trust this source? Research the credentials behind your source. Is this a professional in the field? Is it a first-time journalist? What are the experts saying?
- Decide what is true. Once you’ve collected your data, review it for commonalities among the reports. Start your approach with self-honesty. If you reflect on your personal biases and say, “You know, I legitimately don’t know…” you have a good starting point for researching the topic.
- Review your data. Ask yourself if you’re in a rabbit hole. There is a big difference in trying to stay away from seeking to confirm what you think is true [confirmation bias] vs. an honest acknowledgment to yourself that you don’t know everything about everything and that you need to try to better understand things.
D. Show Respect
Being passionate about a topic is HUGE and with this passion there should also be respect for those persons with differing opinions. “A respectful advocate is someone who can set aside their own personal interests and biases and strictly advocate for what is in the best interest of the individual or community they are advocating for.” A lesson I learned from this conversation was the perspective that when debating, it’s natural to try to win, but that’s not necessarily the best end goal. Instead of trying to win, seeking to be more educated on a topic and to gain understanding of the opposition is more important. A successful debate can still end without the conversion of one idea to another.
However, if another’s opinion is dangerous or hurtful to society, we needn’t respect it.
E. Have Courage to Act
Being informed advocates gives us the courage and confidence to stand for what we believe in. Burton used the example that if you weren’t informed on a topic, it would be difficult to get up and talk about it to advocate for someone or to openly speak out against an injustice. “You need to be able to articulate well the causes of the issue, the harms it’s causing to society, and potential solutions before you can really get up and articulate a good argument.” He believes as we become more informed on the issues in society, we will have more confidence in our abilities to speak about them.
At the end of my interview with Burton, I asked his advice on how to make peace with our differences given current world conditions. He responded, “My biggest thought is I think people need to be a little more humble about their ability to speak on a wide range of issues, and this is very specific, but I was thinking: Get Off Social Media! The damage that social media is doing and how it allows us to isolate ourselves into these echo chambers and not really expose ourselves to people in the real world with different opinions is really damaging to global conversations around these tough topics.”
Instead, he maintains we need to listen to experts on issues. In contrast to instant experts born on social media, true experts may “dedicate their entire professional lives to understanding one single issue.” Give more weight and listen to such experts.
May we all remember these steps in our efforts to solve dilemmas of the world.