Arguably, current affairs mean that the time for pause and substantiated critical thought is more important than ever. Social media in particular is full of quick judgements and prejudice on one hand, and unfortunately down-right nastiness and abuse on the other.
Perhaps there is little that can be done with those who engage in the latter other than blocking and reporting. However, I like to think I still have a little faith left in humanity and feel that while an unsubstantiated quick judgement based on prejudice can be a bit bitter, and the temptation to snap back in frustration is high – it may be best to move things along by demonstrating critical appraisal and thought, rather than criticism.
A tweet by Greta Thunberg from January has resurfaced and is currently redoing the rounds on social media. The motivation of those who have set this recent circulation in motion is to claim that Greta is a hypocrite, because while on one had she is powerfully vocalising and demanding action on climate change, she is pictured here with plenty of plastic packaging.
If you can stomach the debate taking place in the comments (or are one of those who like to grab the virtual popcorn), you’ll notice that they get pretty edgy, on both sides of the argument. You might find the odd attempt at genuine discussion and debate, but often those are hijacked the usual gunge-throwing.
But what if more of us did want to engage in productive discussion? How could we go about it? It actually does take a bit of effort and practice to start, and that’s perhaps one of the reasons why some don’t do it (plus the relative anonymity and ‘safety’ of spitting via your keyboard…) but, if you’re willing, constructive debate becomes habit, and everyone will be more informed, more respectful of others’ opinion and happier for it.
So let’s use Greta’s tweet above as an example and show you a trick I call “Foreground, background, four-corners and space” (bounces off the tongue!)
This is a process I used to teach to Key Stage 3 (11-14 year old) students, as a way of not jumping to conclusions by only focusing on the ‘obvious’ in a photo. This is best done in groups so more ideas can be collected.
First, get the ‘obvious’ out of the way by focussing attention on the foreground. In this photo, that would be Greta and her lunch.
Comment on what you see, no matter how obvious. It is ok to make assumptions based on observations, but not based on conjecture (what you cannot see). For example:
- Greta is eating a meal, maybe lunch as they are things you’re likely to eat in the middle of the day.
- She likes hummus and bread, and bananas.
- She uses reusable bottles for her drink, but is also drinking from a paper cup.
- Some of the food are in contained in single-use plastics.
Now the background:
- Greta is in-transit, probably by train given the table and seating.
- There are trees going by fast, so likely she is on her way from one city to another.
The point of looking at the ‘four-corners’ is just in case you may have missed something in the areas where your gaze usually doesn’t focus on:
- There is a pot of ‘Vegansk Salat’ – a quick web search to translate to English, this is ‘Vegan salad’ in Danish.
- That could be a tupperware container in the bottom right. If so, it looks like it is made of plastic. So although Greta is consuming single-use plastic, she does reuse plastic products. Since this is a meal, it could be for food.
And finally ‘space’ is for all other areas that you have yet to focus on. For this picture, the space would be the trees going by at speed and the bulkhead behind Greta. There is nothing there noteworthy for me, but you can certainly disagree and suggest a thing or two 🙂
Top tip: you could combine this approach with other evaluation tools – why not try it with the Development Compass Rose, for example?
So now if you combine all your observations, you can start making some reasonable assumptions not based on conjecture or prejudice, but on observation. For example:
- Greta is either travelling within Denmark (or leaving it after spending some time there), as she is on a train and eating a meal bought in Denmark. This verifies her statement that she is, in fact, in Denmark.
- The vegan salad makes us look at the meal again. It looks like she is eating a vegan meal as the food doesn’t appear to have any animal products.
- Greta still chooses to buy products that use single-use plastic, but makes efforts to reuse containers (drinks bottles, tupperware).
We’re still making some assumptions, but at least they are based on what we actually see, not what we think we ought to see. So some resistance (and practice) is needed to mitigate your own biases. But now we in a position to make some reasonable substantiated arguments, which can be further strengthened by research and knowledge (e.g. bearing in mind what I know about Greta Thunberg, and what I have read – I do my best to stick to fact-based/balanced media).
How might this approach look in response to one of the comments on the tweet?
I can be a bit clumsy with my words – but I did my best to sound evaluative and not critical, and not attempt to come across as ‘foot-down final-say’ or close the argument. We all know it’s tricky to put across a genuine message via text! Keeping it to 280 max characters is a skill in itself (and actually a common teaching strategy to practise being concise, amongst other teaching uses of Twitter).
Here are a couple more pictures, less ‘political’ and more geographical, that you can use to practice ‘foreground, background, four-corners and space’:
To offer my opinion on the criticism Greta Thunberg has received thanks to the ‘plastic picture’: she is doing her best with the cards she’s been dealt, and doing far far more than many of us would ever be willing, capable or brave to. Her activism alone is calling out a lot of what is wrong with our lifestyle and consumption of this planet’s resources, so people are very quick to find any stick they can to beat her with. She is very effective in using her privilege and position as a well-off westerner – she is eating a vegan meal, which is low-carbon and travelling by train rather than air. It’s interesting that this makes some feel threatened rather than inspired. Perhaps it’s because they think this one person really might set things in motion that does away with our comfortable, gluttonous way of life? Well… in my opinion, better that way and live within our means, than to be forced to if the worst comes from the climate and ecological breakdowns.
I’ll end my thoughts there, but point you to this interesting article by Robinson Meyer trying to get to grips with why so many adults find her threatening and will be openingly willing to mock her – for simply wanting a better planet for us to live on. And if Greta makes you feel vulnerable because you can’t emulate her – and I count myself in this group – then this BBC article may provide some solace.