In my final year of high school, I took a course on current affairs. My teacher was very enthusiastic about instilling an interest in being informed, but recognized our unwillingness to spend hours reading and writing during the dog-days of spring before graduation. Thus we spent most of our time debating social issues about which we were already relatively knowledgeable, and stayed away from discussing international issues that would require more in-depth background research to truly understand.
It is not surprising that some tend to shrink away from international issues. The world is a complicated place, full of cultures and political systems totally unfamiliar to us. This lack of familiarity in turn can deter people from staying informed—there may be a wealth of information out there, but the breadth of such information in and of itself is intimidating. Where do we start? What sources do we trust? How much do we have to know before we can express an opinion without it getting shot down by someone who knows more, or who has more conviction in their ideas?
In August, we learned of accusations that the Assad regime in Syria had perpetuated a mass chemical weapons attack on its citizens. The attention dedicated to this event made it more of a faux pas to remain ignorant about foreign affairs. There are several reasons for this. First of all, the nature of events like this are easily compartmentalized and made accessible. It is a lot easier to read breaking news on the UN’s investigation in Syria than it is to follow the day-to-day logistics of its two-year, brutal civil war. Moreover, people are naturally more inclined to tune in when it seems that the news might affect them personally—the tense negotiations between the U.S., Russia, and Syria have left many Western citizens and scholars uneasy about the prospect of international war.
This leads to the question of whether or not our periodic interest in these crises overseas actually increases our overall awareness about the topic in question. What is the true effect of reading a New York Times article or two about Syria? It could be highly informative, or procure some unintended consequences. When people only pay attention to current events at such crisis points, it leaves them more vulnerable to unreliable and biased information. At best, critical consumers will acknowledge these limitations when forming opinions. At worst, we might ignore it, and proceed to make assumptions that undermine the complexity of the issue at hand.
American public opinion on Syria, for example, has been shaped enormously by the effects of war fatigue from Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as the effects of the Arab Spring. The anniversary of the 9/11 attacks also impacted many opinions on the prospect of negotiations and a possible military strike. As often occurs with such controversial topics, politicians, media outlets, and ordinary citizens alike have a disconcerting tendency to make demons of important players in the struggle—comparing President Bashar al-Assad to Adolf Hitler or insinuating that the motivations of rebel groups are purely jihadist. The reality of Syria’s civil war is far more complex than these statements imply; while many acknowledge this, harsh rhetoric that whitewashes difficult issues create sound bytes that leave lasting impacts on unsuspecting consumers of information.
At the basic level of consumption that most people employ, there will always be a trade-off between the acquisition of knowledge and the inadvertent acquisition of false premises that we use to construct our opinions. This does not mean that we must comb through every possible news outlet to form an opinion, or otherwise avoid the news at all costs. Rather, we must always be curious, but humbly acknowledge our own ignorance and remain skeptical of everyone, including ourselves.