Good. Evil. Bratwurst.

Choice, Echoes, and the Death of Discourse

Posted on by arlen

It began, as most insights do, as a comedy routine. Noel Paul Stookey did a riff on the self-centeredness of our culture, beginning with the magazine “Life” which was expansive and covered all of life, then “People” which had a narrower focus, then “Us”, which covered people, but not them, only us. (The routine was before the magazine “Self” existed. Ironic, as the punch line of the riff was a magazine entitled “Me.”)

Cable TV grew, promising hundreds of specialized channels. And the Internet boomed. In time, the wide array of choices began to bother me. Not the possible choices; the ones being made.

Back when the world was larger and the choices were smaller, every outlet tried hard to service everyone’s point of view. It meant, of course, that no one was happy, because it meant we were all confronted regularly with things we didn’t like and didn’t want to hear. Stories that were critical of our favored views found the air, and we had to confront the criticism.

To me, this had always been the way you built your views. I subscribed both to The Progressive and The National Review. I bought Bill Buckley’s books, and Ralph Nader’s. I grew up being exposed to multiple views, and carried that habit forward, believing the only way one can possibly be comfortable in one’s intellectual house is by being familiar with the weapons used to try and break it down.

The marketplace of ideas brought forth a cacophony, forcing me to resolve the dissonances myself.

But as the array of choices became wider, it became more and more possible to shelter our points of view from all those nasty objections other people had. And as the Internet dawned, no matter how crackpot the idea, we could always find a few other like-minded souls to conclave with, and we could rely on Wikipedia to present our viewpoint without noting the strength or severity of the objections to it.

At first, the idea of finding these communities, these sanctuaries, on the net was welcome. But I noticed a disturbing tendency, not only in others, but in myself. There were so many opportunities for like-minded gatherings, no one was seeking out contrary views. We (for I did it as well) spent all our Internet time listening to echoes of ourselves.

It was easy to notice it in others; as usual the faults in others are far more obvious than those small subtle deficiencies in ourselves. It was only when one of the political sites I regularly read posted something obviously (to me) false (it was obvious to me because it was about people I knew for years) that it started to dawn on me.

It’s known that eating dirt helps you. It’s something to do with training the immune system (apparently, just like other faculties, the immune system needs practice to get its responses right).

The equivalent to that in the intellectual arena is deliberately exposing yourself to “contamination” by other points of view. This develops not only our ability to defend ourselves against them, but it also helps us recognize the seriousness of them. And, just as helpful, the truth in them.

(The Da Vinci Code foofah comes to mind in this context. Yes, the book demonstrated Dan Brown wouldn’t know a fact if it walked up and kissed him on the lips. But the book was also clearly labeled “fiction,” so that’s hardly an issue. But despite that label, how many people let themselves be seduced into either believing it or reacting to it as a serious threat to the stability of the universe? Since nothing in it was new, the “antibodies,” as it were, should have been widely disseminated, and all we should have had to talk about was storytelling technique.)

We’ve closeted ourselves in our groups, where everyone believes what we believe, and no one dares speak against it. So when someone does, our personal echo chambers resound, aghast at the impropriety. We haven’t trained our mental immune system well, so we overreact badly, and things spiral out of control quickly.

We’ve locked out all who think differently from us, and when all our safeguards fail, and we see someone a few degrees different from us, we react as if they’re a threat to everything we hold dear. So Fox News screams radical epithets at MSNBC, and MSNBC returns the favor. Neither makes sense, neither makes a reasoned discourse. They simply make noise.

But if we’re going to make this silly thing called democracy work, folks, we can’t do that. We have to let people espouse ideas and principles that horrify us. And we have to learn how to meet those people, and more importantly, live beside those people, even though every fiber of our being screams they’re wrong.

Just like they have to live beside us. Else we are all doomed.

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August 2009
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