By Jon Duncan
Layman, Long Hollow Baptist Church, Hendersonville
Having been around children as an educator for close to 20 years now, I remain fascinated at their inability to separate fact from fiction. More fascinating still is the unwillingness of adults to do the same. In children, this inability is biologically involuntary, cognitive limitation. In adults, this unwillingness is a voluntary, self-imposed limitation. Why let facts get in the way of a strong opinion, right? Regardless of the type of cognitive limitation — voluntary in adults or involuntary in children — the end result is the same: flawed reasoning, which leads to inaccurate, often irrelevant opinions.
Recently, I took a virtual lynching by parents I have never met in response to a new school policy which was factually misrepresented on social media. Facebook, the world’s largest bathroom stall, was the scene of the crime. I accept criticism as a part of my position. Leaders who are not criticized are probably not making decisions of any consequence. Arm chair principals are nothing new to me so I am used to parents who are sometimes disgruntled. In fairness, the overwhelming majority of parents with whom I come in contact are well-informed, supportive participants in the education of their children. I consider them teammates in every sense of the word. They call with questions, e-mail their concerns, and politely request meetings when necessary. Very rarely do the parents at my school resort to Facebook bashing.
What I find disturbing in these rare occasions, though, is critics’ willingness to form opinions based on inaccurate and/or incomplete information shared on social media. Even more problematic is the dogmatic approach that those critics express these ill-conceived opinions. “If I share my opinions loudly enough or if I repeat them enough times,” they think, “those thoughts become fact.” Then quicker than a mouse click, lunacy gets mistaken for enlightenment, thanks to a handful of “likes” or “favorites.”
Social media has evolved into a sort of quasi-empowerment for wrong people with ludicrous opinions. Credibility is regrettably now determined by the number of followers or “likes” and is no longer a measure of experience, expertise, or someone’s access to factual information. I find that trend beyond alarming.
“Likes” don’t make wrong opinions right, and no amount of followers can turn an imbecile into an intellectual. Expressed in a more historical context, no volume of friends or followers would have ever made Hitler right, and no number of likes or favorites would have made Mein Kampf more noble. Consider the fact that Katy Perry has more than 81 million Twitter followers and Nelson Mandela, at the time of his death, had around one million followers. For every single person exposed to the insight of a Nelson Mandela tweet, 81 people are exposed to nuggets of wisdom shared by the cerebral juggernaut, Katy Perry. In other words, the girl who sang “I kissed a girl” has a social influence of more than 80 times that of Nelson Mandela. Thanks to Katy’s bigger bullhorn, millions of young people know that “California girls will melt your popsicle,” but they don’t know that “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world,” as stated by Mandela. Does this terrify anyone else? Should the size and volume of the virtual bullhorn really establish the truth or significance of the message?
On an admittedly much smaller scale, uninformed or misinformed moms in a “public” but closed Facebook group are incapable of “liking” ridiculous opinions into a state of validity, although they might have us believe otherwise. That reality doesn’t make my virtual beating any less painful, however. Falsehood doesn’t become fact because it originates from a relatively loud virtual bullhorn in a considerably quiet school community. Further, the frequency with which inaccurate statements are broadcast has no bearing on the validity of those statements. A repeated lie is no closer to the truth after the tenth time it is told than it was after the first time it was told. “Please keep the information as close to factual as possible” is a stated requirement of this particular Facebook page. That suggestion speaks volumes. Are there degrees of fact?
Considering all of these things while engaging my brain at the formal operational level of cognitive reasoning, I am left with one well-founded conclusion. In this Internet age, if I need an inferior opinion about school policy and management, I can now go one of two places: a third grade classroom where children necessarily reason at an operational level or a Facebook page where adults unnecessarily problem solve at that same diminished level of cognitive reasoning. Cute, simple-minded opinions are shared regularly in either setting, and both places provide quality entertainment, if not workable solutions.
— Duncan is a Baptist layman at Long Hollow Baptist Church, Hendersonville, and principal of Madison Creek Elementary School, Goodlettsville.