What You Don’t Know Can Kill Others (and You)
By NAVID FARNIA
Epistemology has a hidden value in education and socialization. As a concept, “epistemology” began to resonate with me in graduate school. The critical inspection of our knowledge – thinking about how we know what we know – intellectually fascinates me.
In a personal sense, I have noticed how my increased news consumption over the years correlated with a heightened self-critique of my knowledge. I routinely question the source from which I receive information, because such information is often presented as truth. But what if these “truths” are not meant to inform? Is it possible that certain truths are actually constructed, with intent to distance us from thought, and in effect, feeling and caring? And is this how we become numb to mass murder and oppression?
Regimes of Knowledge
In the past month, the Trayvon Martin case, the “royal baby,” the crisis in Egypt and the fast-food strikes in the U.S. received various degrees of media attention. The press coverage was sequential, with little overlap between one story and the next. As the next event attracted the limelight, the previous one dwindled out of American discourse.
Each respective story is a “regime of knowledge,” a standalone entity that is contextually isolated from other world events. The Trayvon Martin case and the events in Egypt for instance, are represented as entirely independent issues because they are separate regimes of knowledge. We accept and believe this.
Denis Maeder writes, “Regimes of knowledge, epistemes, succeed each other historically.” The media’s chronological portrayal of current events then, exemplifies how mediated representation becomes our truth. Our sources of information shape the context surrounding important issues and the meanings and beliefs that we extract from those issues. As such, it is crucial that we critically examine the nature of our news consumption and knowledge consumption in general.
Epistemology explains how we cognitively structure the world around us. The relationship between knowledge and power is particularly noteworthy; power structures disseminate knowledge while simultaneously repressing independent thought production. Hence, our knowledge is related to what we are taught and how we are socialized into the world – institutional pedagogy.
Media coverage concerning the above news stories reflects institutional pedagogy. Each situation attracted the media spotlight for a period, only to eventually be replaced by fresh “breaking news” (i.e. a new regime of knowledge).
Reporting the News?
In the days leading up to the George Zimmerman trial verdict, the mainstream media fixated its attention on the case. Zimmerman was acquitted on charges of Trayvon Martin’s murder on July 13th, which entrenched the situation as the top national story for the ensuing week.
Anticipation surrounding the birth and naming of the British royal family’s future heir ultimately supplanted the Zimmerman trial. The “royal baby” was born on July 22nd and garnered a media frenzy in the following days.
Sandwiched around these events was Egypt’s escalating crisis. The military overthrow of Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi on July 3rd gained the world’s attention. Since then, pro-Morsi protesters have gathered on the streets, steadfastly demanding his reinstatement. But the international media eventually diverted its attention away from Egypt. On August 14th, Egyptian military and security forces began a violent crackdown against demonstrators, killing hundreds of people in a single day. Egypt appropriately vaulted back to the center of global press coverage as a result.
While these three major media events were unfolding, fast-food employees in major cities across the U.S. were mobilizing to demand significantly increased wages. Menial wages in the fast-food industry are nowhere near the income required to provide for a family, and workers around the country find themselves in this compromising situation with no alternative. On July 29th, fast-food workers staged a nationwide walkout to protest wages; even greater action is being planned for August 29th. Fast-food workers received nominal media coverage compared to other, more enticing events.
The Media’s Agenda
Contrary to the media’s timeline, the four events overlapped considerably. But we are socialized to believe major events are sequential.
Media representations of the news are in truth, practices of agenda setting and framing. Agenda-setting theory postulates that media organizations determine which events deserve press coverage, subsequently influencing public interest on topics. For example, because the fast-food protests lacked substantial media attention, observers may not be as sympathetic to the issue as they are with the “royal baby” (although it was later reported that coverage of the “royal baby” actually received poor television ratings in the U.S.).
The fast-food strikes represent a solidly racial and working class issue, and they particularly undermine corporate hegemony. As major corporate entities, mainstream media organizations offset their own interests by reporting on the strikes. Thus, they largely avoid the strikes altogether.
The mainstream media also banks on the notion that middle class people are neither interested nor compassionate to a cause that is dominated by working class people of color (of course, many white fast-food workers are also involved). The fast-food protests again remind us that when working class people of color demand to be heard, the microphone is often yanked away.
The media also frames events from certain perspectives, which subsequently influences our awareness. The sequential timing of news stories is merely one way issues are framed. Media framing occurs in even the most meticulous methods, such as word choice. Labeling the events in Egypt a revolution instead of a coup invokes entirely different sentiments.
Agenda setting and framing techniques shape our ideologies by disciplining our epistemologies. In other words, the media’s reporting methods outline what we know about issues and how much we care, which subsequently determines our politics. As a result, the media focuses on tabloid journalism and climactic events rather than on the processes that lead to those events. Today’s American news lacks the necessary sophistication to explore the nuances surrounding important issues – and this is intentional.
The essential taming of world events and the simplified one-by-one news coverage disciplines people’s thoughts by preventing broader structural analysis. We are chronically uninformed about the processes that underlie crucial events, because critical understanding of process raises consciousness concerning the power dynamics at work. Instead, the mainstream media highlights insignificant issues to the point where our minds are completely numbed to what is happening elsewhere, concurrently making us ignorant and finally, apathetic.
In a graduate school course, I specifically learned about the “epistemology of ignorance.” We examined the notion of how we are actually taught not to know, because ignorance has to do with power. Possession of power enables ignorance, especially in regard to the relationship between privilege and oppression – specifically, how the privilege of some is necessitated by the oppression of others. For the oppressed on the other hand, structures actively enforce a state of ignorance to maintain society’s power dynamics. Conscious dissenters against oppression become enemies of the state.
The mainstream media and other dominant institutions breed an epistemology of ignorance. Trayvon Martin’s murder, the “royal baby,” the crisis in Egypt and the fast-food strikes in the U.S. are all portrayed as temporally independent from one another as a result. Moreover, they are represented as totally separate issues.
Although the mainstream media refuses to relate these issues, we will subvert common notions and draw our own epistemic connections. For instance, Trayvon Martin’s murder and the mass slaughter of Egyptian protesters involve the same state security apparatus. The U.S. government continually expands the police and surveillance state, reifying an environment where Black people are especially susceptible to racial violence (which is even inflicted by vigilantes like Zimmerman). Militarization makes violence against Black people the norm in the U.S.
At the same time, the U.S.’s intimate military ties with Egypt – the U.S. provides Egypt’s military over a billion dollars in aid annually – has empowered Egypt’s state forces to perpetrate violence against protesters. In tandem, American militarization at home and the U.S.’s military alliance with Egypt, results in the formation of an Egyptian security state that closely resembles its imperialist administrator’s. In effect, authoritarian and neoliberal processes that reinforce racial violence in the U.S. are similarly transpiring across the globe (with Egypt being only one example).
The British monarchy’s “royal baby” exhibits similar contextual issues. As an institution, the British monarchy is centrally responsible for the dispossession and labor exploitation of people around the world. The fast-food strikes in contrast, directly oppose hegemony and exploitation, which are processes that historically contributed to the British monarchy’s wealth.
And while the monarchy no longer holds political power, it remains the quintessential symbol of British imperial and colonial domination. Egypt’s modern history encompasses an ugly legacy of British occupation that began in 1882 and lasted for over half a century. The British empire’s long denial of Egyptian self-determination had ripple effects that resonate to this day. This history indubitably undergirds Egypt’s modern political and economic upheaval. Thus, for Egyptians, talk of a “royal baby” does not escape the context of British imperialism.
Moreover, while this baby was born to the world’s supposed adulation, Black children across the globe are treated in the opposite fashion. If Trayvon Martin were a white prince named George, his fate would undoubtedly be different.
The brief analyses above do not even begin to cover each relationship’s complexities (each deserves its own article). But by examining these issues as part of a greater structural project, we can more easily decipher white supremacy and neoliberalism’s salience in the contemporary world.
As a social and political institution, the mainstream media capitalizes and further consolidates power by broadcasting an epistemology of ignorance. Our conceptualization of the world is largely determined by how the world is portrayed to us through their regimes of knowledge. This process ultimately socializes us into the global market. In effect, the mainstream media retrenches existing power dynamics.
The “royal baby” phenomenon encourages our escapism into a world of wealth and privilege, despite its complete contrast to most people’s lived experiences. A new prince was born, but working class people around the world are none too impressed. They are too busy struggling against racial violence, challenging neoliberal hegemony and protesting against imperialist-backed military regimes. Connecting these issues enables us to construct a broader analysis regarding power and domination.
Nevertheless, the mainstream media avoids establishing such linkages; instead, the media forever produces regimes of knowledge that subjugate our sensibilities. Pervasive ignorance regarding important issues is a disease that sustains oppressive institutions. Our ignorance of others’ suffering is our demise.
Navid Farnia received his Master of Arts degree from the Institute for Research in African American Studies at Columbia University in New York. He is an Iranian American who was born and raised in Oklahoma.
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