A guard in front of 10 Downing Street in London, the residence of Prime Minister of the United Kingdom.

Political awareness vs. political understanding

11 January 2023

It may feel like every day brings a new and disturbing crisis which competes for our attention, understanding and sympathies. While it’s easier to settle for awareness rather than understanding, or even to look away, seeing beyond the headlines for deeper and meaningful understandings can be empowering and liberating.

Keeping pace with the news cycle

A news clip about the Bank of England and the interest rates.

A headline on NHS organisational pressures and the likely outcomes for patients.

A notification of a strike on the start pages of social media platforms and search engines.

A radio sound bite about a trade agreement that will likely not materialise due to the current British government’s relationship to the new government of Brazil

Nowadays flicking through news headlines can take you through complex political matters at high speed. Some days we might not have time for the news or only manage a fragmented intake, making it even harder to keep up.

While fast, too fast perhaps, this flow of information is vital to the functioning of democracy.

Fragmentation, complexity & heavy topics

So, navigating this rapid flow of information is challenging.

We learn new information on different outlets, media, and platforms. In the form of disjointed and fragmented headlines, news pieces on TV, radio clips and interviews, each following their own mostly daily news cycle.

It seems to take more time, focus and determination to meaningfully follow the complexity of issues of the day. And, it is not only that the levels of complexity have increased.

For many of us, following politics and current affairs, is getting tougher. What we read often leaves us unsettled. Each crisis competes with the other for our attention, understanding and sympathies: The climate crisis, resource depletion, wars and genocide, droughts, and famine. It is easy to despair, even look away.

How then can we avoid headlines just whizzing past, one after the other?

The ‘global we’ and why we can’t just look away

The news whizzing past us each day highlight issues that often affect all of us in this country or on the planet, even if it may not seem that way. We all connected by our global past, present, and future.

For example, the connections of our imperial past very strongly inform the inequalities, insecurities, and dynamics of change (or the lack thereof) both within and across borders, if in very different ways.

Choices made in the global North, and increasingly the wealthy and the middle classes across Asia, still often reverberate both more and for longer in the former imperial and colonial territories, or the Global South, than the other way around.

Poverty, conflicts, climate change to name just some all have deeper histories we often don’t see in headlines and rapid news cycles.

From awareness to understanding

Perhaps we could think of how we relate to the news cycle as more of a spectrum of sorts. This spectrum ranges from minimal engagement on one end to more active and analytical engagement on the other.

Minimal engagement

At one end of the spectrum, we either lack the time or we choose not to follow the news closely. We may feel that our time is better spent on other activities or that the news doesn't significantly impact our lives.

Occasional and topical interest

Moving along the spectrum, we may only have occasional and topical interest in the news. We keep up with headlines as we come across them, even if it's a fleeting engagement. This is how most of us likely interact with the majority of news stories. We are aware of the headlines but we don't delve deeply into the details.

Analytical Engagement

As such, very few of us possess both the analytical tools and the time required to deeply analyse and process the vast amount of information presented by the news every day. This level of engagement involves not just knowing the headlines but also understanding the nuances, context, and implications of news stories.

Occasionally, we might have time to watch a longer program or documentary, or catch a podcast with several experts discussing the topic of their expertise. But even when engaging with these longer formats, often, they are presented in a one-way setup without a space for discussion. It's a passive form of engagement where we, the audience, are simply absorbing information.

So, perhaps on the opposite end to total disengagement is both broad awareness and topical understanding. What is we develop a general awareness of a wide range ofpolitical  topics and a basic understanding of them? We wouldn't be delving deeply into every subject but we'd still be informed to some extent about various issues.

And who knows, with a bit of awareness and understanding, there might be room for subsequent analytical engagement. This could involve discussions with others, further reading or research, or even participating in conversations related to the topics we're passionate about.

What is political understanding?

In this way, understanding is not being aware of headlines and the matters they cover. Political understanding is about looking beyond the news cycles and slowing down our news consumption to build knowledge and connect seemingly disparate but deeply connected issues across time and space through meaningful forms of engagement, whether that be discussion, letters to the editor or your MPs, voting or something else.

Often, most of us will be able to do this some of the time, but not always. So, a part of it is also about choosing what we can we meaningfully do. That varies for each of us as we navigate our experiences, perspectives and circumstances.

Importantly, this also requires us to accept that knowledge and what we do with it can be both disconcerting and unsettling while also being empowering and liberating, all at the same time.

Expanding both our understandings and comfort zones can be a way forward to different perspectives, new skills, community, mental enrichment, or lively and informative discussions with peers, friends and grandchildren, children and other relatives.

Build your understanding of current issues

To build a deeper understanding of current issues, there are several key strategies to consider.

Learn the history

First and foremost, take the time to learn the history surrounding the issue at hand. Understanding the historical context provides crucial insights into why certain issues exist and how they've evolved over time.

Take a history or politics short course

Secondly, consider enrolling in a history or politics short course. Such courses can provide structured learning, expert guidance, and a more in-depth exploration of specific issues, further enhancing your grasp of current events and their historical roots.

Read about topics that interest you

Additionally, read about topics that genuinely pique your interest. Passion drives curiosity, and by exploring subjects that resonate with you personally, you're more likely to invest time in researching and comprehending them thoroughly.

Discuss with others

Lastly, engage in discussions with others, whether they be friends, family, or colleagues, who may have different perspectives and insights. Constructive dialogue can challenge your own viewpoints and broaden your understanding.

Study History, Politics & Current Affairs

Politics affects all of us whether directly or indirectly. Your engagement can make a difference. Whether through discussion, voting, writing a letter to your MP or the editor. It starts with understanding the depth of the political issues we're facing today.