Information literacy of the heart
Among its many unpleasant impacts, Brexit has done information literacy a wry service: it demonstrated how well-founded was the fear that people either would not, or would not be able to, question the source and veracity of the information they were supplied. The appallingly misleading ‘Facts’ leaflet is surely going to replace martinlutherking.org as librarians’ new favourite instance of misinformation, while the use of brand names and logos – including that of the NHS – to grab both attention and allegiance was, unfortunately, as effective as it was unscrupulous. I’m not even going to mention the biggest lie of all, the one that was literally the size of a double decker bus.
Yet beyond the lies and the deliberately misleading information, there was on many parts a sheer wilful desire not to hear a message that was unwelcome, information that challenged comforting assumptions, implications that didn’t fit with beliefs and world-views. The phrase that I pray will haunt Michael Gove’s career, “People in this country have had enough of experts,” sums up this resistance to criticality. What Brexit demonstrated is that IL is not only a matter of taking a questioning stance towards information in the outside world: we must also point that same critically questioning focus on our own motives and beliefs, on the way in which we construct and interpret reality and the meanings we impose on it.
We need to look with clearer eyes at the stories we tell ourselves and about ourselves. These oral narratives are information just as much as are the the textual and visual artefacts we more usually analyse, or the formal knowledge structures we work in. The labels we use to present our selves to others – “feminist”, “scientist”, “recovering Catholic” – are also value-laden and socially constructed, and as such they too require to be evaluated, interrogated, unpacked: just as do those labels that we hang, unasked, onto others. It is in those bits of shorthand, those conveniently abridged fictions, that bias is born.
There is a euphoric affirmation in subsuming our individual selves into a collective social identity, whatever its political status – football supporter, Labour party activist, supporter of Richard III’s reputation, anti-war marcher, choral singer. But if it weren’t for the stories we tell about ourselves, the stories we tell ourselves about others would not bear such an overwhelming capacity for harm. Because it’s when those others become Other – when their labels place them in opposition to us – that we allow ourselves to believe that the people on whom we’ve hung them aren’t people any more. They’re Tories. Or Leavers. Or neoliberal scum. Or, for that matter, tree-hugging bleeding-heart Liberals. It’s not the politics that matter, but the act of homogenising.
Hatred starts with homogeneity: the refusal to allow people to be individuals. Once people are diminished to the level of a despised group characteristic, they are no longer people. The stories we tell about Others are so reductive, so obviously simplistic, that an atom of discernment would surely bring them into incredulity, if it weren’t that the horrifying, betraying Otherness of “those people” (whoever they are this time) overrides all evidence, all intelligence, all integrity and all humanity. And by that stage not only have They become responsible for everything bad that’s ever happened to us, but it seems perfectly fine for us to do something about it.
So let’s remember that critical integrity around information is far from being a matter for the academic classroom, or to be directed only at search results and internet content. It is also, and fundamentally, a matter of our emotions, our values, the narratives through which we construct our identity, and the stories we tell to make sense of our reality. Information literacy is not an academic exercise. It is the human capacity to admit that our categories might be wrong, that our opinions aren’t facts, and that it’s possible we may be mistaken. It is having the strength and humility to “lie down where all the ladders start / In the foul rag and bone shop of the heart”.