I’m waiting to hear back from grad schools currently and the whole application process has forced me to do some pondering about what it is I can offer the world whilst staying true to my ambitions. Journalism seems like the right choice for me; storytelling across multiple mediums is what I do for fun so undoubtedly I could find joy in the work. A masters would offer me a lot in the way of experience, access, and legitimacy going forward. That being said, it really just postpones the question of a more philosophical matter I’ve been pondering for some time now. See, in an ideal world, political journalism is about presenting information based on established and provable facts in as unbiased a manner as possible. The journalists act as gatekeepers to the information the parties are trying to spin. It is then the job of the audience to form opinions using the information presented to them by--hopefully--a selection of respectable news sources. The hope being that the public, and the officials elected to represent them, make political arguments and policy decisions based on differing interpretations of a relatively homogenous set of facts. In practice this would mean that myself and strangers on the internet could discuss, to a reasonable extent, what to do about systemic racism. The italics meant to highlight that in this scenario, we would all be under the assumption that systemic racism both exists, and should be changed. However, the world we’ve inherited is one in which I am likely to have to argue that racism does exist and that it is worth fixing before I can begin the work of discussing solutions. The fault of news agencies in sowing this political polarization is understated. This problem has been exacerbated by the for-profitization of the major news media companies.
Our media diets have been taken over by algorithms built to optimize interest rather than present a neutral view of proceedings. It is also the job of the news to direct our attention to the things that matter in our communities. Anecdotally however, all the headlines on my For You page of Google News are some variation of “American Politician Says Outlandish Thing”, “China’s Latest Neo-colonial Venture” or “This Week in COVID.” These topics should be covered but they are no more pressing than the issues in the city I live in. Other than the virus chronicles, I see very little news from Vancouver unless I am actively searching for it. I see very little about the various protests and police response, the homelessness and opioid crisis, of the non-white arts scene on traditional news outlets unless I go out of my way to find it. It’s easy to fault the news organizations for doing a poor job covering these stories but there are so many complicating factors. The news I want to see more of may be reaching the front page of other people’s news apps while my algorithm has decided my interests lie elsewhere. When extrapolated to a larger scale, the issue becomes that when it is difficult--or even just inconvenient--to find trustworthy local news, we form perceptions that are not necessarily representative of reality. A very measurable symptom of the discordance between reality and perception are crime rates. Despite real crime rates trending consistently downward decade to decade, people generally perceive the opposite. This is true in both Canada, the US, and most other countries I’d imagine. If we are constantly exposed to sensationalized news coverage of particularly violent or high profile crime then we are primed to perceive criminality as the norm rather than the exception. Take a moment now to consider at what point a "peaceful protest with a few people taking advantage of the situation" becomes a "violent mob" or "riotous crowd." How many people is it? What proportion of the group? Does that figure change depending on how much you relate to that group? Does property destruction make you re-evaluate the validity of a protest? At what point does the violence become unpalatable? How do the ways you acquire information about these events shape your perceptions of them?
There is a dissonance between our perceptions of the world and the realities of it. People do not change their minds when presented with information that runs contrary to their pre-existing beliefs. We are all susceptible to a number of logical fallacies and cognitive biases when forming opinions and identities. These include but are not limited to the choice supportive bias, confirmation bias, and ingroup preference bias. This means that when we develop doubts about our existing beliefs we tend to work even harder to reassure ourselves of those views even when presented with conflicting information. With particularly polarizing issues these complicated dynamics can make us feel as though the social groups are at risk of alienating us because our identities are in flux. Throw in a polarized news media and it begins to make much more sense why people so staunchly fight for the “wrong” side. There’s a whole lifetime behind the political beliefs that people hold and an argument from a stranger must be more than compelling to change them. People dislike being wrong almost as much as they dislike discarding them. The high social costs of our political landscape further disincentivizes wavering allegiances. In fact, there is a rather weak correlation between one's state beliefs and the policy a person supports. People will even support policy that runs contrary to their state beliefs as long as the party they associate themselves with support it (Klein 2020, p. 73, 88).
I am reminded of a quote of a paper entitled “Coping with Trade-Offs” in which the author, Philip Tetlock, notes that “people are reluctant decision makers who do their damnedest to minimize cognitive effort, emotional dissonance, and moral angst by denying that important values conflict” (Tetlock 2000, p. 240). He goes on to argue that people “will be slow to recognize that core values clash: they will rely on mental shortcuts that eliminate direct comparisons between clashing values; they will engage in the dissonance-reduction strategy of bolstering to reduce the stress of those value conflicts they are forced to acknowledge; and they will resort to decision evasion tactics, such as buck-passing, procrastination, and obfuscation, to escape responsibility for making choices” (2000, p.240).
What I want to accomplish with my work amounts to a delicate balancing act. This blog was created to provide informed perspectives on topics presented in a manner that is both respectful of the complexities of the issue and accessible to lay people whilst acknowledging my own biases and potential blind spots. As I move forward I would like to use the tremendous power stories have to construct spaces for discourses that are personable and meaningful. The first step, for me, must be to instill an understanding in my readership of who I am and where I come from--an understanding of the intersections I inhabit. Here I am, giving you a little more context for everything I’ve said and written here.
My name is Denver John Willson-Rymer II but I go by Femi unless I’m applying for jobs. I was born and raised in Dangriga, a small seaside town in Belize. I grew up in a shitty, leaky house full of more cousins than thin sponge mattresses to cushion the concrete floor we slept on. My older brother and I found ourselves in a tumultuous family dynamic in which our parents were never really together and our mother really seemed disdainful of nearly everyone around her--this has since manifested into mild anti-blackness masquerading as conservative values. I went to a Roman Catholic school and grew up around a church that never really held my attention. For the most part I was either at home studying or at school, studying. I spent my summers in Canada with my Dad so never had an opportunity to bond with people outside of school. Nine years after leaving Belize, I have no real childhood friends, or even high school friends to speak of. I have a tenuous relationship with my Garifuna heritage: on one hand I cherish the tales of resilient defiance against the colonial powers of Central America and the Caribbean passed down from when we were exiled from St. Vincent, I miss the food, I miss the music, I should have made that drum with my grandfather last time I was home, and I deeply regret not learning the language. On the other hand, I don’t know how many of the people I grew up with would even accept my being bisexual. Nine years after moving to Canada and I don’t know the extent of my claim to that heritage when I became the person I am almost completely independent of that culture.
I spent a year in Florida living with some guy my mother was seeing. I remember he had a son who was way too old to want to spend as much time as he did with my preteen brother and I. Not one but two of my teachers in grade 6 would have raging erections during class, one of my classmates told us stories about her pimp during lunch, and half the classrooms just didn’t have windows. I hate Florida but I won every academic award the school had to offer plus the token presidential letter of academic achievement because that is what was expected of me. Education has always come easily to me and this has continued into university.
Now in my tenth year of living in Canada and I have maybe a handful of friends that were born here; only two of whom are white. I went to a boarding school in North Vancouver where the students were a bunch of rich internationals. And I don’t mean rich like when I speak about myself: i.e. my father paid for university, I can afford luxuries like expensive cameras, and . Tuition and boarding for international students is $45,000 for two terms. On top of that, they’d be getting monthly allowances usually starting around the thousand dollar mark and going up from there. Per month. Then in university all my friends were still immigrants. This time mostly Africans and while not at the obtuse levels of wealth of my high school peers, I’d definitely place them in and around the tax bracket of my family. My point is, I have an incomplete perspective of people from Canada which makes me feel some unease when talking about Canadian politics.
This, coupled with my media habits, means that I exist in a bubble that can make the world feel very abstract and theoretical to me. I have enough money to be mostly insulated from the illest effects of racism. I’ve had my run-ins with the police which I’ve documented here but had those experiences come to arrests, I’d probably have been fine. At the level of the encounter, I’m Black. I understand the weight of that label but I must also acknowledge that I would not be nearly as accomplished without the resources granted to me by my father. I doubt many, if any, opportunities have been closed off to me because of systemic racism so when will it be my turn to step back and let someone else guide this discussion?
I strongly dislike politics, I don’t like having to discuss these things so often but at the same time I feel a responsibility to participate. That’s why I pushed through the last year of school to get a degree in political science. That’s why I want to go to grad school for journalism. I feel compelled to engage because I’ve been blessed with a particular talent for exploring difficult topics and presenting perspectives with a nuance that is often lacking from political discourse. I’d love to just go to film school and be adored for making pretty colours go brrr on big screens but that would betray that responsibility so here we are.
Klein, E. (2020) Why We're Polarized. New York: Simon & Schuster.
Tetlock, P.E. (2000). “Coping With Trade-Offs: Psychological Constraints and Political Implications”. In A. Lupia, M.D. McCubbins & S.L. Popkin (Eds.), Elements of Reason: Cognition, Choice, and the Bounds of Rationality, (pp. 239-263). New York: Cambridge University Press. [doi: 10.1017/CBO9780511805813.011]