TMI: Keep Your Eyeballs to Yourself

Last week at a school orchestra concert, I saw two moms engaged in a heated argument while the poor assistant principal tried to mediate. My husband, a school counselor, mediates these kinds of conflicts all the time–usually between moms, usually over a conflict that actually belongs to their kids. It reminded me of the time when I was in high school and I watched a mom pull up next to the school, throw her car in park, jump out, and physically attack a student–punching and kicking her for “how you treated my kid.”

For some reason, I told my kids about this story, and it made me realize I don’t hear them talk about fights at school. My oldest, who is in middle school, told me she is aware of one fight that has happened at school in nearly a year and a half. When I was in junior high, physical fights seemed to happen almost daily in the hallways at school. After school, kids were attacked as they left school grounds. These were not all spontaneous skirmishes; many were predatory and premeditated attacks producing serious injury.

Now, the difference could be in the setting. I went to urban schools; my kids are in affluent suburban schools. There aren’t a lot of steel-toed-boot-wearing skinheads walking around these halls. And not a lot of serious gang affiliation. But being a curious person, I had to wonder about the trend in school violence over time. So I looked it up.

It turns out the difference is not just in my head and not just about setting–although violence is more common in urban schools. In general, school violence has decreased since I was in school. Despite the media attention given high-profile school shootings over the last 15 years, this decrease in school violence is pretty dramatic and mirrors a societal decline in youth violence. The arrest rate of juveniles for violent crime has decreased every year since 1994. And the serious violent crime rate in schools in 2007 was less than a third of the rate in 1994. In 1994, there were 42 homicides by students on school grounds during the day. In 2010, there were 2. In 1995, 12 percent of students said they were afraid of being attacked or harmed at school. In 2009, only 4 percent expressed this fear.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention tell us, “While shocking and senseless shootings give the impression of dramatic increases in school-related violence, national surveys consistently find that school-associated homicides have stayed essentially stable or even decreased slightly over time.

“According to the CDC’s School Associated Violent Death Study, less than 1 percent of all homicides among school-age children happen on school grounds or on the way to and from school. So the vast majority of students will never experience lethal violence at school.”

Does this sound wrong to you? Did you, like many people, perceive that schools are much more dangerous today than they were in the past? That schools are among the most dangerous places your kids could be? Actually, statistically, kids are safer at school than anywhere else, including at home. But because of popular perception, many parents worry about their kids’ safety when they’re at school. They hover and spend time in the schools to watch over their kids. Some keep their kids out altogether, for this reason.

I realize parents are concerned about schools for other reasons as well. Among them is a perception that schools are not doing their jobs well. When asked about the quality of public schools in the U.S., in an annual Gallup poll, Americans consistently give schools a grade of C or below. However, when parents of school-age children are asked about the quality of their own children’s schools, they consistently rate their own schools much higher. In 2010, the most recent year for which data is available, 77 percent of parents gave their own children’s schools grades of A or B. Only 18 percent of Americans gave that kind of grade to the overall public education system. This is impossible–that most schools are failing while 77 percent of them are doing a great job.

It’s a striking illustration of the gap between people’s perceptions–probably shaped largely by mass media and their own imaginations–and their experiences. Many parents are infected with a general sense of “education anxiety” that causes them to worry that their children won’t receive a good education, but when acknowledging their own experience, what they actually know to be true, they apparently have little reason to worry.

I don’t mean to pick on parents. It’s just that fears about our children are a prime breeding ground for misperception. But we have plenty of similar misperceptions.

In his 1999 book The Culture of Fear, Barry Glassner describes how powerful people play on our fears for the sake of getting our attention, enriching themselves, or making themselves even more powerful. He addresses several societal scares that were exaggerated or even invented, but which haunted the national conscience: things like road rage, violent crime waves, health risks, and travel safety. In the introduction to the book, he says, “The short answer to why Americans harbor so many misbegotten fears is that immense power and money await those who tap into our moral insecurities and supply us with symbolic substitutes.” Glassner argues that focusing on these problems, blown out of proportion or even trumped-up, distracts us from paying attention to what actually matters and what we might be able to change. This culture of fear plays on our anxieties, coming and going without resolution, moving from one fear to the next, leaving a residual sense that we must do something–so we worry over things that may or may not be significant or even real.

Many of our perceptions are dramatically different from reality–and I believe the gap is widening. Why? Because in a digital age, if we plug in, we receive far more information from other sources than we do from our own senses and experiences. Somehow, even if our own experiences don’t correspond with all the information we hear from others, we’re likely to be overwhelmed by what we hear and embrace it despite what our own experiences tell us.

Do you realize almost everything you hear on TV and read online is aggressively pushed at you by someone trying to make money off your eyeballs? There’s always a benefit to getting your attention. In most cases, the benefit is monetary: the more news you consume, the richer someone gets.

Does that mean we can’t trust anything we hear and read? No. But it does mean we receive a very unbalanced picture of reality. Most of what’s presented as urgent is not urgent at all. Most of it is completely irrelevant to our lives, yet presented in a can’t-miss and must-know manner that focuses on what is most likely to win the competition for our attention rather than a balanced presentation of reality. And this glut of “information” skews our perceptions of reality.

We give away our eyeballs too easily–and by extension our brains.

I know, that sounds like the old Sunday school song, “Be careful, little eyes, what you see . . . ,” a song I always thought was a warning against filth and gratuitous violence. And maybe it was. But for some of us, subtle distortions of reality are far more destructive than obvious evil, obvious lies. These distortions are harder to detect. They work their way into our lives and cause us to mistrust one another. Hide from each other. Mistrust the truth. And while knowledge may be power, “the truth will set you free” (John 8:32).

We must be more savvy about what we hear, see, internalize, and embrace. Let’s consider engaging in a new spiritual discipline: ignoring most of what people tell us we need to know. Choosing instead to believe what we know to be true. Purposely seeking what’s true and sticking with it. Maybe this is one way we are called to be set apart in a world staggering under the weight of everything we think we know.

© 2012 Amy Simpson.