“All men are not created equal,” she stated matter-of-factly.
“Umm… what do you mean?” I asked while consciously fixing my fallen jaw and wide eyes before she looked back at me.
“Well, people are not the same…” she started. “They have varying personalities, levels of intelligence and capacity, moral compasses and vices…”
“Yes, that’s true,” I affirmed. “But I don’t think any of those characteristics were the reason that statement was originally penned.”
She scrunched up her brow and nodded at me to continue.
“What document is that sentence written in?” I asked.
She looked at me blankly. “You know, I’m not sure. Bill of Rights? Constitution? Declaration of Independence?”
“I believe that sentence is written in the U.S. Declaration of Independence.” I pulled up the statement on Google and read the whole sentence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.”
I paused for a moment, letting some of the most important words ever penned sink into the minds and hearts of everyone in the room, who were now all paying attention.
“What do you think that sentence means now, in the context of the whole sentence and the historical moment in which it was written?” I paused for a moment to give them all a moment to retrieve their 8th grade history class knowledge. “Our founders were declaring their independence from a government that was treating its people unfairly. They were saying, ‘We will no longer go along with your rules because they are unfair.’ This sentence wasn’t written about personalities, levels of intelligence and capacity, or even moral compasses and vices. It was a statement of the essential worth and rights of a human being.”
The room still quiet, I continued.
“Of course, as we look back through history, we can see how the founders came to this great realization but failed to include all humans at first. Over time, women, people of color, and others have raised their hands to say, ‘I’m a human being, too,’ and fought to have the same rights that were originally offered to the white men of the time.”
They were all nodding.
“As a messenger and a messenger coach, I know that just because we write something down does not mean we fully understand or fully embody the truth that just came through the pen. I wrote ‘Life has your back!’ to my son in 2013 and I believed it was true then. But that was only one level of knowing that truth. For the next 7 years, I was faced with all of the areas of my life in which I didn’t actually believe it and had to practice embodying the truth that had come through my fingertips years earlier. I’m not saying it was right that they left people out; I’m just saying I understand how it could have happened in a moment that was designed to create more freedom and independence.”
“Well, I have heard people twist that saying over time then to mean that they think everyone is the same,” she responded.
“Of course, that’s what happens when people stop asking, ‘Where did that statement originate? Who wrote it? Where in the world were they? What were they experiencing? Why and to whom were they writing these words? Without that information, we cannot make out an author’s true intention. All that’s left is to make sense of the statement through our own experiences and beliefs, which means there a as many potential interpretations as they are people on the planet.”
But how do you get that information,
especially in times like we’re living right now?
That’s the question.
Here are some tips I’ve culled from my own education and experience and some of the information-gatherers and -analyzers I respect the most:
- Make sure you get as much contextual information as you can. Read the whole article or watch the whole video. As in the example above, it’s important to realize that it’s common for people to see/hear one small clip of information and then make inferences and stories about it without reading/hearing everything the person had to share.
- Get curious about the assumptions being made. Sometimes the assumptions on which these bits of information are “off” just enough to make the rest of the content not make sense in the real world or achieve its actual intention. For example, there was a popular FB post I saw a few months ago about the importance of washing hands. It showed a picture of five sandwiches in clear plastic bags, which had been handled in various ways — wiped on chromebooks, fresh and untouched, dirty hands, soap and water, and after hand sanitizer — and then left in the bags for a month. After a month, the “fresh and untouched” and “soap and water” sandwiches showed some signs of decay and the “dirty hands” and “wiped on chromebooks” were absolutely overrun with mold and bacteria. The point of this exercise was to show kids why it’s important to wash their hands properly. This felt like a “fear tactic,” which turned me off immediately, but it took me a minute to figure out why this post really bothered me. And then I realized it. There was an assumption made, which left out some really important information that kids also would benefit from knowing:
Sandwiches do not have immune systems.
You don’t have to be afraid of germs.
In fact, the more germs you expose yourself to (not inundate yourself with — come on, I’m not crazy), the stronger your immune system becomes. Wouldn’t that be a truer, more empowering message?
If you wonder if I have my facts straight, do some research. 🙂
- Ask to see/review the documents, videos, or other content that the person is reporting on (evidence). We know how easy it is for US to take things out of context, and it’s probably best for us to assume that other humans could be doing the same thing — unconsciously or consciously (for whatever agenda they may have). I always hear my son, who is steeped in the world of Mock Trial and necessity of firsthand knowledge in a case, say, “I don’t trust it. Why aren’t they showing us the documents they are talking about like the other folks do? They might be leaving stuff out or misrepresenting, but how will people know if they don’t look at it themselves?”
- Pay attention to the emotional appeals, especially from people who are supposed to be reporting facts. So, a good portion of the world is experiencing some big emotions right now. That’s just a fact. We’re human. We’re dealing with a lot of unknowns. And a lot of us have not been taught how to calm our systems down, and then engage information in an effective way. When I see someone, especially a reporter, becoming overly-emotional, I suspect one of two things: 1) They are actually triggered by the facts they are reporting and would benefit from a few deep breaths, or 2) They are trying to incite emotional reactions in their viewers. The difference is subtle, and I’m not quite sure I can help you out any more than to just invite you to ask the question: “Why is this person so upset? Is this person using emotion to make me feel a certain way? If so, why might they be doing that?” In my experience, the best fact-sharers are the ones who know how to say, “I’m emotional about this, so I dug through the facts, and here’s what I found. Please stay with me while I try to manage the emotion and share what’s here.”
- Practice caution when you encounter absolutes and certainties. When you hear words that leave no room for exceptions — never, always, all, each, every, none, everyone/body, no one/nobody — get curious. Is it true that “nobody ever…” or “he always…” or “everybody believes…”? These all-or-nothing words/statements can get you into some trouble with an English teacher when you’re writing a persuasive essay, and some really hot water with a loved one during a fight. You’ve been accused with “always” and “never” before, right? There are usually exceptions and outliers, so I tend to look at these statements as more emotional outbursts than statements of fact.
- Beware when you encounter an “absolute” musing about someone’s worth or intentions. Most of us are shocked (and hurt and/or enraged) when a loved one or friend discloses an absolute musing about our intentions or worth: “Well, you’re always criticizing others to feel better about yourself,” or “You are stupid/bad/ridiculous/too sensitive.” How many times have we done something with one intention, and others perceived it as something else entirely? It’s very challenging to determine someone’s intentions, even when they are someone you cohabitate with, so why are we so quick to assume intentions when it comes to strangers? That’s different than watching and listening to someone with curiosity, noticing patterns of words or behavior that indicate intentions, and still holding it loosely because “hey, I’m the first one to admit that my words and behaviors don’t always line up with my intentions.” And the musings about worth. Well, I tend to turn my attention elsewhere when I hear people use dehumanizing language and call a person “bad” or “reprehensible” rather than focusing on their behavior and how “it might not be” well-intentioned or well-executed.
- When you are faced with information that doesn’t match up — varying opinions, beliefs, narratives, etc., follow all the steps above and if you still can’t decide who is telling you the truth, ask: “What do they have to gain by sharing this information?” Sometimes, not always, the dissident voice is the voice of a hero who not only has nothing to gain, except trying to free the people from a matrix, but a lot to lose by going against the tide. I love me the rebels who are willing to speak the truth, even when it means they are putting their careers and lives on the line.
What other ways do you vet information?
I’m always eager to learn!