Growing up in the 1980s, I was a huge fan of the Eurythmics. I had all of their albums, including remixes, and had to special order In the Garden.
I never got to see them in concert, but concerts were never my thing as a teenager. I did go, but usually, something extra had to compel me. I went to see Gloria Estefan and the Miami Sound Machine in Orlando for New Year’s Eve, for example. I have seen rock concerts in Belograde, such as Zdravko Colic’s.
While some kids went to see Madonna, I went to see Alan Ginsberg perform is poetry in Europe.
I had a big LP collection, and a lot of old and obscure nuggets from every era, but The Eurythmics were my favourite musical act.
Except I was the only kid in my neighbourhood who admitted to liking them.
Other kids always made it sound as if I was some sort of oddball for liking the band. I didn’t buy it. They wouldn’t be putting out multiple albums and having tours around the world if I were the only one, and I said it. They were a Top 40 act, and as special as we all like to feel, I don’t think their record label would go through all that trouble and expense just for me.
And I used to say it.
For years, I would have people ask me, “Do you still like The Eurythmics?”
Hell, yeah, I do.
To this day. I can still listen to Annie Lennox sing or Dave Stewart play the guitar and I am in a better mood.
But now, thanks to social media, you can find fans congregate anywhere and anytime. No one needs to feel like an outsider when it comes to pop culture preferences these days.
Yet, that kind of familiarity does have a downside.
You can find groupings of anything, and then a pecking order begins to form, where someone positions themselves as the “expert” of whatever the group believes.
And that’s a problem now.
But armchair experts were always a problem, and that’s why I became an Actrivist.
I was a teenager when the civil war in the former Yugoslavia broke out. I didn’t have a lot in terms of experience in adult matters. I was a smart kid. I was an observant kid. I was a kid who studied, and had a gift of researching things and finding obscure sources because I had no trouble picking up a phone or pen and communicating to people in various position of power or access and asking them questions.
Of course, I got shot down a lot of times. I was even called rude because I wanted to know about serious things and went straight to the top. I wasn’t rude. I was curious, and there was no reason to say no to a simple request, or direct me to someone else.
But more times than not, I had big packages mailed to me, filled with all sort of things, and I read it from cover to cover. To me, this was exciting and fun. I couldn’t believe that none of the other kids in school were doing it. Anyone can smoke weed and get hungry and paranoid at the same time. Whoop di do. Not everyone can write to a foreign cabinet minister and get information on their military spending. Go me!
The fun and exciting reasons came grounding to a halt when war broke out and journalists were all parroting propaganda. I found out their source, and I was pissed. They learned nothing from the Gulf War and the babies and incubators hoax.
Maybe there was a reason for it. They didn’t have to learn because their mandate may have been something other than to inform.
But I didn’t know, and I knew I didn’t know.
I could speculate like an armchair expert. That is as easy as smoking weed. No effort, and something else alters your mood for you.
I could also research. That’s how I started.
And I wrote letters, got information, and had banker’s boxes that took up a sizeable chunk of my room — and living room, and dining room, and grandma’s room. These boxes had academic articles, newspaper and magazine articles, UN reports, government documents from around the world, think tanks, responses from reporters and editors, press releases and documents from PR firms, you name it. Every day the mail or courier came to my door. I read everything cover to cover.
I was, at this point, far more informed than an armchair expert. I was also far more informed than any journalist covering the war. I had one anchor from a PBS news program tell me she researched her topic by reading a couple of newspapers, and here I was with boxes piled to the ceiling — and one box alone had cassette tapes of information I got over the telephone.
Yet she got to spew uninformed bullshit, and I couldn’t catch a break.
This was, to say the least, maddening.
But everyday, I would get more information, not just documents, I got video footage of atrocities committed against Serbs. I obtained photographs that also contradicted what media reports were spewing.
If there was an Internet back then, I would have been a teenaged media outlet because in the course of my research about the former Yugoslavia, I stumbled upon other interesting intelligence not about that war or area.
I wasn’t an armchair expert. I was an actual expert.
Yet I was missing a key element all the same.
As much as I read books on journalism, all of it was bullshit. None of it actually aligned with the chasm of what I had and what was being reported. It was like night and day.
When I decided to become a journalist, I had a lot of information already. I knew how to conduct experiments as a psychologist.
But I still needed to know more so I could compare what I had with what the reality of the profession truly was.
Being a journalist gave me insights that put a lot of those banker’s boxes into context. I learned a lot about the MSM, such as the veracity of a lot of their “experts” and pundits. Far from being unbiased and the most qualified, a lot of them were friends with someone in the newsroom — or their parents were friends with each other, but it was schmoozing, not c.v. that determined who got to speak in a public forum.
Insider knowledge helped a lot. These days, you can listen to a radio station and know that some experts pay advertising dollars and basically pay to be quoted. But even when I was a journalist, a lot of articles were just advertorials — another form of the same practice.
Armchair experts are easy to spot: they make guesses, and because they do not know how news is constructed, they make folksy guesses and make assumptions that are wrong and it shows.
The problem with social media is that it gives an illusion that things are all “out there” and all you have to do is point, click, swipe, or tell Siri what you want, and now you are an instant expert.
But you’re not unless you do things inside that system because what you read is created by other outsiders who also don’t know what’s going on. You have no scaffolding or perspective.
And people think it is all obvious and self-evident. It isn’t.
Quiz them to see just how little they know about the basic mechanics of easily accessed information.
And I have parents telling me that their grown children are much smarter than “we were.”
There will always be smart young minds around.
But even the smart ones need context to actually comprehend the significance of what they know.
I have first-hand experience in that department: as much as I knew, there was far more I learned by actively working in the profession I was studying. I didn’t fall for the lures. I wasn’t taken in by cognitive dissonance where I began to explain away and justify things just because I had to do them as a reporter.
I was the subject of my own experiment, and with that, I learned a new way of learning and gathering information.
And learned armchair experts are worth the experience they have — which is none…