Sunday, February 19, 2017

Information, Misinformation, and Child Marriage

I was recently asked to respond to a video showing a wedding celebration of an 80 year old man to a 12 year old girl. The person who shared this video held it up as an example of the abuse of Muslim women and children under Sharia. I decided to respond on my blog as a way of engaging more people in the conversation and hopefully putting a few more cracks in the walls that form our own echo chambers.

Dear friend,

About 18 months ago, we laughed together at the irony that we found ourselves on the same "side" of an issue because we don't often agree about much of anything political. We both thought that Trump's candidacy was a disaster and you posted something on Facebook like, "I can hardly  believe Kristin Brown and I actually agree about something political!"

So, I want to begin my response to the video from that place: the place where we agree. We have a lot in common. We are both middle-aged white women who grew up in the Midwestern United States in Christian families. Both of our families of origin are relatively conservative although I believe your upbringing was more conservative than mine. And yes, we both find the idea of an 80-year-old man "marrying" a 12-year-girl abhorrent. 

The video you shared raises (at least) three issues that I will address:
  • Child marriage is an abhorrent practice and should be prevented. The practice is not associated with any particular religion.
  • The Internet is a source of both information and misinformation. 
  • Context matters. Don't fall prey to the campaigns to present "sensational" stories as "information". Check the sources. Make sure you get the whole story. #FactsMatter
Child Marriage
Child marriage is an abhorrent practice and should be prevented. Child marriage is not a practice of a particular religion. Rather, it is a practice that is found around the world and is associated with poverty and low levels of education. Educating girls is the most effective deterrent to child marriage (as well as sex trafficking and other forms of violence against women and children). There is a wonderful documentary, Half the Sky that addresses this issue comprehensively.

Almost one-quarter of the world's population is Muslim. It is therefore not remarkable that many countries that have high levels of poverty and correspondingly low levels of education also have large Muslim populations and that some of them practice child marriage. UNICEF's data show "rates of child marriage are highest in sub-Saharan Africa, where around 4 in 10 girls marry before age 18; about one in eight were married or in union before age 15. This is followed by Latin America and the Caribbean and the Middle East and North Africa, where 24 per cent and 18 per cent, respectively, of women between the ages of 20 and 24 were married in childhood."

Islamic law, or Sharia, does not encourage or support child marriage. But yes, there are communities that identify as Muslim and allow child marriage. That does not make child marriage a "Muslim practice" any more than burning crosses on people's lawns is a "Christian practice".

For more information on Sharia for the layperson, I found this 2008 article in the New York Times, Why Sharia? and this 2016 academic essay, The Myth of “Sharia” and Child Marriage by Megan Luckenbaugh. 

Moreover, lest you think that sex trafficking is not a problem in the US, I urge you to see this February 4, 2017 article, Flight Attendants Train to Spot Human Trafficking.

Fun fact: Evanstonian Frances Willard and the WCTU led a worldwide campaign in the early 20th century to raise the age of consent from as low as 7 in Delaware. "By 1920, every state in the union, with the exception of Georgia, had raised the age of consent to 16 or 18 years of age."  

Information and Misinformation
Since the dawn of the Internet, it has been as much a source of information as of misinformation. A lot of misinformation is shared by well-meaning people who unwittingly spread the most recent urban legend. Internet and email scams abound. More recently, spreading misinformation has unfortunately become big business. Sensationalism sells. It is more important than ever to have a healthy skepticism about whatever you read online. I have always appreciated sites like Snopes.com, devoted to debunking or verifying stories trending online.

In previous  posts I've asked my readers where you get your news and what sources you trust. Personally, I appreciate getting information from a wide variety of sources representing diverse perspectives. I trust major news outlets like the New York Times because they employ hundreds of journalists committed to researching, fact checking, and are held to high standards. That said, every writer has a point of view, whether they are identified as an "opinion" or a "news" columnist. When I lived in Europe, I remember being impressed that major cities had a dozen newspapers that wore their political party identification on the masthead: there was no pretense that news is not subjective. In contrast, major American cities typically have a single major paper.  

Now, when someone shares a link to story, the first thing I look at is the source. If I don't recognize the source, I look for more information before I click the link. A lot of online sites make money off of clicks, so I avoid clicking links that may enrich those that are spreading #fakenews or sensationalist stories. 

Context Matters
I didn't click the link my friend shared showing the child marriage. I know her to be a good person who is sincerely concerned about the treatment of women and children. I believer her when she says the video shows people celebrating the marriage of an 80-year-old man to a child and, as I said above, I agree with her that it is abhorrent. 

However, I didn't recognize the source, "Louder with Crowder", so I looked it up. The first thing I found was a story about how Crowder lost his position with Fox News in 2012 for editing a video to remove the context for a point he was trying to make. He is described as a conservative "pundit and comedian" who considers himself a leader of the "alt-right". He dropped out of college after two semesters. In other words, he is an entertainer who has turned his opinions into a successful business. As long as his audience understands that are being entertained, that is fine. However, it is dangerous business if they believe they are being informed.




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