Early on when planning our panel for the Guantánamo Public Memory Project, we were given the option of including a way for visitors to participate via text message. Presented with a yes or no question, visitors could text their response and see the collected results presented in real-time or on a website. I am all for encouraging visitor reflection and participation, especially on a topic as emotional and controversial as ours, but I am troubled by this particular kind of feedback. I disagree with the boiling down of a complex concept to a yes or no question, something you must either agree or disagree with. This concerns me because I feel our society has become so polarized on many issues that we have forgotten the value of developing one’s own opinion and articulating it.
It seems every political or social issue we deal with has been framed as a two-sided fight. You may be a Republican or a Democrat, a conservative or a liberal, you can either be for healthcare reform or against it, but you must pick a side and prepare for battle. Politics has become poisonous; we have two parties, unwilling to compromise, preferring instead polemics that characterize the other side as the villains. Alongside this fiery rhetoric is a system of media that mirrors the political divisions in Washington and is more than happy to fan the flames in the name of higher ratings. Many moderate politicians are forced to choose a side or leave Congress out of frustration. While some consequences of this political polarization, like our deadlocked Congress, make the front page, others are less obvious but just as serious. Voters become disenfranchised with politics and distrustful of the media, and the words and actions of our citizens start to resemble the extremist stances of politicians. What happened to the middle ground? When did compromise become a dirty word?
A recent blog post by Wray Herbert in the Huffington Post brings up an interesting study. Philip Fernbach, a psychologist, asked a group of self-identifying Republicans, Democrats and Independents to share their opinions on political topics like the flat tax and rate how much they felt they knew about the topic. Then, Fernbach asked each to write a detailed explanation of the topic.
This exercise prompted a shift in the opinions of these individuals. They realized how little they actually knew about the topic and how truly complex it was. As a result, their political opinions became more nuanced. The very act of articulating the topic made them question their own strongly-held values. Wray Herbert asks the essential question, how many people actually do this? When we consider a topic deeply instead of just accepting the emotional rhetoric of politicians, we see how important it is to adopt reasoned, well-articulated positions.
So what does this have to do with our text message dilemma? Over-simplifying something like torture or illegal detention by framing it as a yes-or-no question misses the point. I want to give our visitors the opportunity to craft their own position and articulate their views, a skill that should be nurtured and encouraged. For our panel, a feedback system that allows for open-ended responses would be more appropriate. The Guantánamo Public Memory Project gives visitors the tools to make reasoned and informed opinions on the Guantánamo issue; let’s not spoil that by forcing them to choose between two sides.
Posted by Allison Cosbey, M.A. Candidate at Indiana University- Purdue University Indianapolis
Indiana University Purdue University at Indianapolis is participating in the Guantánamo Public Memory Project‘s National Dialogue and Traveling Exhibit. Opening at NYU’s Kimmel Center for University Life Windows Gallery in December 2012 and traveling to 9 sites (and counting) across the country through at least 2014, the exhibit will explore GTMO’s history from US occupation in 1898 to today’s debates and visions for its future. The exhibit is being developed through a unique collaboration among a growing number of universities as a dialogue among their students, communities, and people with first-hand experience at GTMO.