“Nonpartisan” …. nonplussed

In teaching students and other library users how to evaluate web pages and other published information for the presence of bias, we direct them to look for a number of cues that reveal whether the producers of the documents are more interested in accomplishing a goal in the world or working toward impartial truth-seeking and education. One cue that many organizations hope that we interpret incorrectly is the word “nonpartisan,” as in Such-and-such organization is a nonpartisan group working in the public interest. Organizations want us to view the word nonpartisan as a synonym for unbiased, neutral, or impartial, but they are usually using it in its more technical sense, which means not working with a political party. They can be working on something that one party would like and another would not like, but as long as they are not affiliated with a party in any formal way, they can safely and truthfully call themselves nonpartisan. Most of us have noticed this, I’m sure. I’m just putting it out there in case anybody is instructing students to look for the word “nonpartisan” as a cue to a lack of bias… but also to worry about the larger implications.

I like to think, what more valuable lesson to students than to show them this example of the way in which things are not necessarily the way speakers want to make them seem? But our students are already distrustful and cynical, having grown up in a world full of people claiming to be “nonpartisan” when they obviously want something from you, so why should they believe that we only want them to think for themselves? I don’t blame them for wanting to tune out all debates and just work on stuff that results in a product of some kind. I’m not sure how things got to be this way. It’s easy to blame Edward R. Bernays but important, also, to look at the way the idealistic 60s generation actually made use of the media once they took the helm. Does the word “nonpartisan” make me want to throw up? Usually, yeah. Do I want students to grasp that it is B.S.? Yes. But, do they already understand that it is? Yes, I think they do. Would they listen to me talk about how to discern truth anyway? Mostly not. So, I’m not sure where that leaves us as information literacy instructors.