We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them. – Albert Einstein
Like many of you I am in mourning over the shooting of elementary school students in Newtown, Connecticut. I am also incensed, because this problem of mass shootings really isn’t random or new.
Most problems don’t just appear out of thin air.
Think about it, how do you even know that a problem is a problem in the first place?
Today, most people learn about the problems affecting society when they are highlighted on the news, YouTube or other media sources.
When I was younger, I used to think that what the news simply reported on was what was ‘happening.’ Several media politics courses and advocacy experiences later, I understand how the media is not only subject to the ‘hand’ of consumer interests, but also to the whims of savvy folks who want to push an agenda forward. This affects not only what gets reported, but how it’s reported. This is called ‘framing.’
I’ll never forget when I was in a Political Science course during undergrad. We were talking about the Clinton Administration and the professor asked how many of us had heard of Monica Lewinsky during the 90’s. All of us raised our hands. Then she asked how many of us had heard of the Mujahideen? Only one person stretched up their hands this time, even though “the administration of U.S. President Bill Clinton held direct talks with the group.”
Fast forward a few decades and the United States is at war with the Taliban, who rose to power in response to the Mujahideen, and now everyone knows they exist.
Thus, the media filter and ‘frame’ is important because social problems have to be recognized as a problem.
Take for instance, the fiscal cliff. This matter has been discussed endlessly in mainstream print and television news sources. I am pretty sure everyone has heard of it, but I am skeptical that many people understand why it’s a problem or the implications of the decision that Congress has to make.
This is the third challenge, problems need not only to be highlighted and then recognized, but understood. Yet, most media outlets rarely (if ever) provide enough contextual information to help people understand the issue being discussed.
Let’s take drugs for example. If you were young and impressionable in the 80’s and 90’s, I am sure you’ll recall this public service announcement (PSA)- cue the frying pan…
This particular PSA was brought to you by The Partnership for a Drug Free America. You may remember that detail, but have you ever asked yourself who decided to invest funds to shape young people’s attitudes about drugs? Where did the political will come from? What about the money?
In short, why was this issue prioritized as a problem worth addressing?
Famed rapper Tupac Shakur said, “Instead of war on poverty, they got a war on drugs so the police can bother me.” Could you imagine where we might be as a nation if we’d prioritized poverty as the most pressing social issue of the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s, when industrial work was disappearing in our cities?
I just finished reading, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, by legal scholar Michelle Alexander. In the book, Ms. Alexander argues that Reagan’s War on Drugs led to funding for things like The Partnership for a Drug Free America, and also intentionally targeted black and brown men and framed them as criminals.
I’ll leave it for you to decide if you agree with her that mass incarceration accounts for a new system of racialized control. Whether you disagree or agree with her hypothesis, it would a shame to ignore the compelling factual information that she provides about the legal barriers that incarcerated individuals face.
I personally had no idea that ex-offenders were barred from holding some professional licenses, jury service, voting, access to public assistance, federal funding for higher education, or had to pay so many fees after their prison or probationary sentences were over.
It’s also hard for me to believe that at one point and time people didn’t know that smoking and even second hand smoke cause negative health outcomes. But then again before Louis Pasteur proved that germs exist, people used to think that diseases came from curses, evil spirits and in some cases, bad blood, literally and would use leeches to “bleed” people to cure them of their ailments.
Hence we have the fifth problem with problems, they have to be attributed.
This is key, because how we define the cause of the problem will shape our responses to it.
Fortunately, each subsequent generation becomes the beneficiary of cumulative knowledge. Today, we know that the world isn’t flat and that seat belts can save lives.
This is great! But all of this access to information doesn’t always translate into thoughtful analysis and reflection about our society, past and present. For example, there is a growing argument that even if drugs are a problem we should be worried about, there may be better alternatives for addressing the issue than locking people up.
So, here is the main problem with problems: the world that we know is enormously impacted by social, political and economic policies that were set decades ago. The lived reality in which we all exist is crafted by people!
In some instances it’s ‘the masses’ who highlight, prioritize and determine solutions for problems. This is how we ended up with anti-drunk driving laws, integrated public schools, wheel chair on-ramps on US sidewalks and the United Nations.
Despite these prominent examples, more often than not, it isn’t ‘the people’ who set this agenda. It is well-connected actors who wield their influence to further their own narrow interests (ahem, case in point the gun control lobby).
Most people aren’t aware of the shifting agendas, let alone thinking about the potential impact of these shifts.
And that is problematic.