As a teenager, politics has often meant nothing to me. Of course, I have classmates that dream of going into politics someday, and in the meantime devour all the political news they can get. But most teenagers aren’t like that.
Politics is seen as an abstract field led by adults, and teenagers, myself included, rarely think that it can affect their lives.
I first became aware of the political world in 2016. During the election process, I would go to school and see students proudly wearing MAGA hats and holding binders pasted with Trump-Pence campaign stickers.
When I went home, I would read the Wall Street Journal headlines that covered the tweets then-candidate Donald Trump used to attack his enemies. When we turned on the TV, we would see live coverages of the presidential debates. Both my parents did not like how the name calling seemed to overshadow the policy debate.
So, although my family has always been Republican, in 2016, my parents voted for Hillary Clinton. My mother especially wanted her three daughters to see a female president, and she did not want the rude, disrespectful antics of the presidential candidates to become the norm for the younger generation.
Recently, I have been reading more of the news. I saw the way the president’s tweets had to be deleted or corrected because of misspellings. I read about the degrading language he used towards women, even powerful women like Germany’s Angela Merkel.
More recently, I pored over New York Times articles that detailed the way he denied the seriousness of the pandemic, called his rivals Joe Biden “sleepy” and Kamala Harris “nasty,” and insisted on referring to COVID-19 as “the China virus.”
But it is not just the actions of this president. The use of fake news to silence viewpoints or criticism is dangerous. It is a blunt tool used to stifle the real thought and discussion that advances society.
So, let me be clear, I am not taking political sides. After all, how much could a 16-year-old know about politics, really?
But I find these behaviors worrisome because it speaks about the example that adults are setting for my generation. We look to adults, our parents, our teachers, our leaders, as examples. We use them as role models.
But now, our role models are telling us that it is OK to lie. They are showing us that there is no consequence for name-calling, which is something we learn not to do on the kindergarten playground. Many adults are getting all their news from sources like Twitter. So, naturally, teenagers today get their information from Instagram.
Democracy is about the ability to have checks and balances within the government, independent institutions and freedom of the press. But we are jeopardizing these freedoms when we are unable to distinguish between false and true.
I have often wondered how, exactly, our society got to this point, and I do not have a definite answer. But I believe that the most important problem is that somehow, we lost the ability to think.
Our generation has benefited from the ease of having technology in our hands, but this has also led to much less critical thinking in a collective sense. And that is a disadvantage, because a strong mind is the best defense against misinformation and brainwashing.
Elections come and go, as do leaders. But if we do not cultivate our minds, it doesn’t matter who our leader is. As a society, we will languish. As a country, we will weaken.
My message to myself and my generation is: read. We can start by reading the papers, both left-leaning and right-leaning papers. Reading about different viewpoints and diversifying the news we consume is crucial.
We can also learn from our past by reading history; for example, the speeches made by past presidents: Washington’s Farewell Address, the Gettysburg Address, JFK’s inauguration speech. Even classic literature contains lessons for all of us, because it teaches us about human nature. I recently reread George Orwell’s “1984” and was astonished at the number of parallels it contains to today’s world.
To borrow from Jefferson, our democracy will only be successful with an educated populace. It is our duty to educate ourselves. In a few short years, we will be that populace. We will be the ones in charge, and the fate of our country will depend on us.