Why some of us cannot (simply) educate ourselves

Misogyny. Ableism. Ageism. Vystopia. Health-shaming. These are some of the words that I have come to learn more about in recent years. After a long period in which I hardly found the time nor had the energy to follow up any literature closely, I have recently refound a drive and eagerness to pick up some ‘more serious’ stuff again.
I have been reading about vegan activism, the sociology of human-animal relations, intersectionality and the entanglement of the oppression of humans with that of other animals. I am also picking up information from discussions in facebook groups, blogs and other online articles. I have looked up terminology that was new to me, discovered new authors, and am trying to work my head around theories and hypotheses.
I still have many questions, but I am learning (aren’t we all, always?), helped with feedback provided on online platforms.

Photo from my Instagram account that shows my hand holding up the book in my garden
(Animal Rights/Human Rights. Entanglements of Oppression and Liberation, David Nibert, 2002)

But on those online platforms, there is also a comment that occassionally pops up. Educate yourself! Just google it! Don’t come here expecting to be educated!
I cringe whenever I see such a comment (especially in intersectionality groups which are supposed to be a safe haven and an example of inclusiveness). I also wonder how the recepient of the comment takes it on board.

I do not expect others to do the work for me. I hardly ever post questions online, because indeed, there’s a lot of information out there that I can simply find myself. But sometimes I do have questions about other people’s comments, about theories of hypotheses, about the information that has been provided. What do certain words mean? How does it relate to anti-speciesism or the plight for animals? And sometimes I cannot (easily) figure this out myself.
But even then I sometimes refrain from asking my question. Or even refrain from making a comment tout court, not sure my comment will not be beside the point, maybe a misinterpretation from what is actually meant, or I will be countered with a ‘go educate yourself‘ reply.

Replying ‘educate yourself’ to a question or comment, is an expression of privilege.

Next to the possible deterrent effect (scaring people away from asking information, from entering the discussion), the point I would like to make is that replying ‘educate yourself’ to a question or comment, is an expression of privilege. Telling people to go educate themself presupposes that that person has ready access to all the relevant information and knows how to find his/her way in that wealth of information. It also pressuposes that the person has all the physical and mental abilities and skills to process that information. And often there’s also an additional language barrier: he or she must be able to find and process information that is given in another language than one’s native language.

Access to the information

There’s a wealth of information to be found, in books, in magazines, on the internet. It’s out there.  But that does not mean it is readily available for everyone. Purchasing books and magazines can be a costly affair, and might not be your number one priority when you’re struggling to just make it to the end of the month. Some literature can also be found for free at public libraries, but libraries’ numbers are declining. In the UK for example, several hundreds of public libraries have shut down in recent years.
There’s a wealth of information at ‘our’ fingertips when we go online. But world internet user statistics show that only about 54% of the world population uses the internet (2017). With higher usage in North America (95%) and Europe (85%) and lesser usage in Africa (35%) and Asia (48%), and inequality according to (ao) age, gender, class and education. So although the digital library contains a wealth of information, not everyone in the world has (equal) access to it. And even with internet access, not everyone knows how to look up the information and discern the rubbish from the serious literature, the tabloids and fake news from the ‘genuine’ news and information, or to place it in its context.

Abilities to process information

Although global illiteracy has grown substantially in the last two centuries (from 88% to 17%), there are still large sections of the population that are illiterate (see also Literacy data Unicef). And with the digital revolution, computer literacy has become increasingly important. According to an OECD study in 33 ‘rich countries’, only 5% of the population has high computer-related abilities, and only a third of people can complete medium-complexity tasks (and the study even left out people older than 66). Statistics show the large education inequality across countries and between groups within countries.
After some years as a researcher in academia, I worked as an educator in a youth correctional facility. Although aware of stats and theories about exclusion, poverty and education, it was confrontational to discover that some of the teenagers were (practically) analphabetic. Most also had no idea about the meaning of words like progressive and conservative, left wing and right wing, socialist and liberal, although one of the obligatory ‘educational’ activities at the institution was to watch the national news, of which they had to write a summary.
So even when the information is readily accessible out there, not everyone has the abilities or has had the educational environment that helped develop those abilities, to process that information. Moreover, not everyone has the physical or mental abilities to be able to process the information, in the form or level it is provided (e.g. some visually impaired people will struggle with printed information).

Language barrier

Although I consider myself relatively fluent in English (but also aware that most likely some grammar or spelling faults will have crept in here), writing this text in English will have probably taken me three or four times the time it would have taken me to write it in Dutch, my native language. It also takes me a lot more effort to read books and discussions in English, although I realise that I am fortunate to actually be able to get through an English written text, which might otherwise even be challenging for native English undergraduate students. Yes, many people speak and understand English, but there are also billions who do not. Furthermore, there is most likely also interesting information provided in other world languages like Russian, Chinese, Spanish or Arabic, although I have no idea about it, let alone in less ‘international’ languages like Nepali, Sotho or Korean.

Privilege and empowerment

I benefit from many privileges: I am privileged to have enjoyed higher education, to be born and living in a rich country, and to be white. I am able to read, have acces to information, can go on the internet whenever I want. And yet I also struggle to ‘educate myself‘. I have been dealing with chronic diseases for nearly three decades now, and although it mostly impacts my physical abilities, it also impacts my abilities to process the information. Brain fog. Exhaustion. Loss of concentration. Rereading a passage three times and still not being able to make any sense of it. Not finding the time to pick up that book that’s placed invitingly on top of the stack, because I need to recuperate from an afternoon out, because I’m living parttime, because I don’t have the spoons to deal with anything else than just … living. No longer being professionally involved due to disease also means I am cut of from professional relations and social and also information opportunities that otherwise come with the job.

Some of the books that I have been trying to read lately. (stack of book in front of shrub in my garden). Titles: A Vegan Ethic. Even Vegans Die. How not to Die. Sistah Vegan. Animal Rights/Human Rights. Aphro-ism. Animal Oppression & Human Violence. Invisible. How Young Women with serious Health Issues Navigate Work, Relationships, and the Pressure to Seem Just Fine

Educating oneself is self empowerment. But educating oneself is not so easy and straightforward for everyone.
When I’m asking a question, I do not ‘expect’ to be educated. I will have done my homework, tried to figure it out by myself, looked up information. Yes, I realise that some people don’t, are just there to troll, or really do expect to ‘be educated’. But there are always so many more people that read along, that can benefit from the information given, that maybe don’t have the abilities to look up or process the wealth of information out there.

When someone asks a question, if you have the motivation, energy, intellectual capabilities or other abilities to give that information, please do. If you can explain your situation, if you feel comfortable sharing experiences, your thoughts, I would love to hear. Even if it is simply a link to an article, book, podcast or even a previous online discussion where some information can be found or that issue was also raised. If not, scroll by. But please, stop dismissing it with ‘educate yourself‘.

The title of my blogpost is inspired by the title of this post: Kay Ulanday Barrett, Some of Us Cannot Wait & See: 5 Thoughts on Undoing Ableism & Isolation In Your Community Spaces, Published online: The Body is not an apology.
https://thebodyisnotanapology.com/magazine/some-of-us-cannot-wait-see-5-thoughts-of-undoing-ableism-isolation-at-your-event/

11 Comments

  1. What a generous, compassionate post you’ve written! You are right that we are each responsible for educating ourselves — but also right in acknowledging that not everyone has that capacity to the same degree. I hope a lot of people read this and learn from your fine example, Trudi.

  2. Great post, Trudi. Very honest and very inspiring. I agree with you. I often try to educate myself, but sometimes I do not have the time or resources to find the answer to a question (despite my privileges). I then count on others to help me in finding the answer. Likewise, I think I should try to assist other people who need some advice or assistance.
    Here is another word that is worth learning: misothery. It means contempt for animals (therion means animal in classical Greek). Misothery, just like misogyny, is all-pervasive in our culture. It is the attitude on which the ideology of carnism is based, the attitude which allows researchers to carry out experiments on animals in laboratories. Yes indeed, it is not an ideology that justifies one’s attitude to animals; it is the other way around: a certain attitude to animals provides the basis for establishing an ideological system, or for adhering to a certain ideology. There is an article on misothery in The Oxford Handbook on Animal Studies, edited by Linda Kalof and published by Oxford University Press in 2017.

  3. Hello Trudy, thank you for your very interesting thought.
    I have a question, though, as I have also experienced this very exchange myself a few times.
    Can the comment to “educate yourself!” not also be caused by the exasperation of people of color if they get asked again and again to explain some things that are “basic” to white people?
    As an example, if a white person asks a person of color “But I said that I do not see color at all! How can you say that is racist or bad on my side?” and does not display any inclination to educate themselves first (or, even persist in their beliefs once it is explained to them).
    I can understand how that would lead to frustration, and, if the person that is asked lives in a culture where their experiences are questioned daily, to an unwillingness to educate others who should be able to find out some things for themselves.
    On the other hand, I fully agree, asking a person who does not know anything to “educate themselves” can actually lead to disastrous results, simply because there is so much BS out there on the Internet, and even well-meaning people are often stumped by wrong information presented to them.

    1. Thanks for taking the time to read the post and your feedback Andreas. Appreciated.

      Yes, I agree with you that the comment ‘educate yourself’ can be caused by exasperation (I had to look up that word 😉 ) of people having to deal with the same questions, over and over again. Not only POC, but people from other oppressed groups as well, and people experiencing multiple oppressions.
      I certainly don’t want to dismiss those sentiments, and can fully understand that it is exhausting and asking emotional labour. I have experienced it myself in discussions about ableism and sexism, and I’m trying to learn to step away from it on time, to protect myself. But I would never reply ‘go educate yourself’. In many cases I have no idea about the background of the person involved, and as such also cannot know to what extent that person is able to really educate him/herself (see all the points raised in the blogpost). And as you say, there is indeed a lot of BS on the internet.

      In the example you are giving, if the person indeed has been given information, but keeps persisting, do you think it is to any avail that that person receives ‘go educate yourself’ as an answer? I believe it is not, in fact I think it might be counterproductive, scaring people away from the discussion (as I’ve seen happen many times, and I’ve also left discussions/online platforms because of that). Not only the person asking the question itself, but also other people reading along.

      One of the comments I received on this post elsewhere was “”changing the world requires conversation”. And I agree with that, although I also get it when some people are not up to it. If you are not up to that, can’t deal with it, for whatever reason, perhaps better don’t engage, instead of replying ‘go educate yourself’.
      I also realise that online discussions often run a totally different path than if the discussion would be held face to face.

      Next to that, I also would like to point that I’ve seen “educate yourself” used by both women and men, POC and non POC, abled and disabled, etc and in discussions about sexism, racism, ableism (which I find very ironic – ableism is precisely one of the issues that I raise in the post), speciesism, classism, etc.

  4. I fully agree that “go educate yourself” is very much a weary and resigning answer, and as such counter-productive.

  5. Thanks for this great post, very inspiring. I know that in many ways I am privileged as a white male, with a higher education living in a wealthy country and having access to all kinds of information. I also understand that if you need the explain concepts, or answer the same questions over and over again, you might feel frustrated.
    However, by dictating people to ‘educate themselves’ you possibly close the path to debate and exchange of ideas, hence prohibiting the growth of knowledge and empathy. It undermines the essence of activism, as it drives people away from your goals instead of persuading them or share your views. And it is true that most of the time you don’t know who is on the other side of the screen so you have to be careful not to be to judgemental. Maybe that person really tried to find all the information within his or her possibilities, but still is in doubt about some issues.
    Also, you know what happens if you “just google it”: an information overload and lot of crappy results. Probably leading to even less education and more misconceptions, needing more effort to repair that damage, than it would have taken to initially reply to the question.

  6. Agreed on all points. I am often bothered by the impression that some vegans one-up each other and think vegetarians aren’t serious enough about animal rights. The negativity seems to run off the veg-curious who need a source of support that they won’t find among omnivorous friends and family.

    For whatever it’s worth, I thought until your post about updates to your blog that you might be a British expatriate living in Belgium. Your written command of English is very good!

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