Information and Access

Astrid brought up a great point on “Shaming and Blaming” which I wanted to explore a bit more, because it’s an important point, and it’s one which I want to make sure gets addressed here. To paraphrase a bit (and I hope I am getting this right, Astrid), she expressed discomfort with some of the ideas I brought up in “Yes, Actually, I Can Make An Informed Choice,” namely, this: “I think that everyone is capable of making informed choices.”

As Astrid pointed out (and as I am well aware), that statement is a bit misleading; everyone actually cannot make informed choices, because not everyone has access to the information they need to be able to make those choices. What I should have said was that I believe in the potential capacity for all people to make informed choices, when the information to make those choices is available. And I apologize for not making that more clear, because, re-reading the post, it does convey the suggestion that everyone has access to information and it’s just about being able to make choices with that information.

In fact, everyone does not have access to information, and this is a very critical problem, not just in feminism, but in the world in general. Many people in a position of privilege with reference to information tend to assume that others share this privilege, and that everyone has access to the same level of information.

This simply isn’t true.

In fact, a great deal of work goes into actively denying people the information they need to make informed choices.

Part of what I’ve been exploring lately is the judgments which are passed on people who make informed choices which differ from the choices which other people think they should be making. But the flip side of the coin is the condemnation of people who make uninformed choices.

Now, I don’t actually think that making an uninformed choice is necessarily wrong, and if I ever conveyed that idea, I want to apologize for that right now. Sometimes it’s impossible to know the outcome of a choice until it’s done, and sometimes you are simply making choices with what is available to you. Whatever the reasons behind a choice, I think that condemning people for making choices out of ignorance is not productive, helpful, or really very nice. Because, often, ignorance is not necessarily someone’s fault, and when you blame someone for being ignorant, it doesn’t really encourage or help that person.

How, for example, can we expect young women in schools which refuse to provide sexual education to make informed choices about sexuality and pregnancy? When you literally lack the basic building blocks you need to seek out information, how can you be held responsible for not “knowing better” in the opinion of someone who is in a position of privilege, of having that information to hand, of not knowing what it is like to not even know where to start? Many women don’t have the information they need because it’s actively kept from them or because their access to information is restricted through simple neglect or assumptions about what people do/do not need to know. As Astrid said she: “…didn’t have access to sex ed materials, how was I supposed to know what questions to ask at all?”

That. Right there. Is the problem with condemning people for making uninformed choices. I know that I sometimes parrot the phrase “get informed!” but it’s more complicated than that. Some folks lack the basic tools they need to get informed. We can’t place the burden of getting educated on them, because they don’t know how to go about it. And when we say “you’re doing that wrong,” and then give them the cold shoulder, what kind of message is that sending?

It is, for lack of a better phrase, information supremacy.

The fact is that information is weaponized, as is access to information. And when you lack access to information, you can’t be said to be making informed choices (this doesn’t make your choices wrong! On the contrary, it makes society wrong, for depriving you of information and autonomy!). The problem with the shaming and blaming attitude is that it puts the burden on the individual, rather than looking at the social issues which surround the individual, and the way in which these issues contribute to decisionmaking.

When you say “well, she should have known better,” you are exercising your information privilege. Because what you’re saying, there, is that you “know better,” so obviously everyone else should. What you should be asking in a situation like that is “what did she know? What information did she have on hand to make that choice?[1.If the answer is “she had ample information,” then you should respect the fact that she made an informed choice, even if you disagree with it.]” And if the answer to that is “the information was limited,” the next question you should ask is “well, why was it limited?”

Because this is the problem. When access to information is restricted, people cannot be empowered. And it’s not their fault that they are not empowered, it is the fault of society. When we focus on what individuals do and do not do, we miss the larger picture.

This attitude is completely unproductive. If feminists worry about the choices people are making, or are not making, they need to look at the social and cultural contexts of those choices. And if feminists actually care about building a better world, they need to not be looking at individuals, but to be looking at social trends and asking how they can combat them.

Instead of condemning people because they don’t choose as we do, we should be ensuring free access to information, so that people can have all the information to make informed choices of their own. This is what sites like Scarleteen are all about, but, again, if you lack even the building blocks to know what to search for, how are you going to find Scarleteen?

And I know what it’s like to be there, because when I was struggling with my gender identity in high school, I didn’t have the language to express my information needs, or to help me search. It wasn’t until I went to college and interacted with people in the trans* community that I understood that there were words to describe what I was feeling, and that I could use these words to search for information. Was it my fault as a high school student that I was ignorant? No. It was the fault of the world around me, for not providing me and people like me with a starting point which we could use to seek out more information.

We need to be talking about the ways in which access is restricted, and how we can combat that. We need to talk about getting basic information into the hands of people who need it so that they can start to get informed, so that they have the chance to make informed choices of their own. We need to reach a point where everyone has the ability to access needed information.