The foundational political battle being waged right now across the globe is quickly becoming one of “globalists” vs. “nationalists” — and some still think of it as a war between progressives and conservatives. The biggest battle, though, is between the informed and the ignorant.
People bristle when you so much as whisper the word “ignorance.” It’s not a healthy response, but it is an understandable one. Nobody likes being reminded they don’t know something. But ignorance isn’t a choice until we make it one.
Echo chambers are what happens when we do. They’re the result of living with a lens over our eyes. We can blame social media — and media in general — for perpetuating ignorance and feeding us what we want to hear, but we all choose for ourselves to stop learning. Media helps make that choice easier, but it’s still ours to make.
So what is the definition of an echo chamber, and why is it so destructive? Let us count the ways.
Echo Chambers = We See Only What We Wish To
Let’s come at this issue by way of an example. It’s a racially and religiously charged issue — the perfect kind to lay our echo chambers bare.
It’s possible you’ve been on the receiving end of a chain email or two about listless Muslim youths in Germany or refugees wearing out their welcome. These stories are easy to forward because they fit a narrative that’s familiar and comfortable for a certain type of voter: the narrative that Muslims are inherently dangerous.
Forget for a moment that the refugees referred to as “animals” in these stories are far from home. They come to us from places that look like the apocalypse came early. They have not so much as a single inch of the earth to call their own. They are young and have grown up without a stable environment or a worthy role model.
If even a small percentage of the “horror stories” about Muslim immigrants “causing trouble” in their new foster countries is true, it means they need direction and some reassurance that the world cares what happens to them — not race-baiting hate speech and antisocial diatribes about American and Christian superiority.
Dispatches like the one linked above aren’t constructive. But more to our point today, they reveal just how deep our biases are and how they inform our decisions about which stories, media and websites to visit and take seriously.
Echo Chambers = Binary Political Choices
When an alt-right Christian in America reads and forwards a chain email confirming their worst fears about other religions, a flip gets switched. The phrase “What Would Jesus Do” seems to go up in smoke. He assigned no red tape or second-guessing to phrases like “love your neighbor as yourself.” The folks who point the finger at every kind of religious and political hypocrisy but their own do so because their cherry-picked reality gave them permission. As they do so, they miss something vitally important.
The most important Muslim world leaders all across the globe roundly condemn evil whenever it’s practiced in their god’s name. Unfortunately, the numbers tell us that the majority of American Christians rarely do the same. The state of American politics is proof.
More than 80 percent of Christians voted for a presidential candidate who is more unlike their holy book’s protagonist than perhaps anybody who’s ever sought the job. That man went on to fill up his administration with people who call themselves Christians but whose public behavior is cruel and deranged to a degree that would be comical if human lives didn’t hang in the balance.
When half-a-dozen government institutions are already vetting foreign refugees, you don’t slam the door on folks who have nowhere else to go. You don’t bribe Republicans in Congress to strip health care from their constituents if your god created all people equally and cherishes life in all its many-splendored forms.
Echo chambers don’t just make us ignorant — they make us hypocrites.
The Left Hand and the Right
Echo chambers are the left hand choosing not to know what the right hand is doing. Literally: The political Left and the Right have absolutely no idea what the other is doing or stands for, and they seem to prefer it that way. Their adherents assign binary moral values — right and wrong — to two parties that have chosen binary colors — red and blue — to divide us down the middle during elections. A “pro-choice” Democrat is — maybe — not a Democrat. A Republican who parts with GOP consensus on medieval “health care” “legislation” is a “defector” and a “threat” to the status quo.
See how we dig our trenches? And it’s only going to get worse now that search engines and news apps are smart enough to serve us only what we want. As our technology learns us and writes algorithms to further narrow our vision and filter bubble us, it gets even harder to expose ourselves to alternative points of view.
The American people are in the midst of a spiritual paroxysm. Our leaders are having an identity crisis for all the same reasons we are: Echo chambers aren’t real. They’re built on caricatures, rounding errors, deliberate ignorance, tribalism and nationalism and, yes, on media outlets with ends of their own in mind.
No matter how many people attempt to convince you there’s no “objective” version of reality worth investing in, know that it’s not true. There is a real reality out there somewhere, but we have to choose to live in it. Reductive news blogs about troubled Muslim youth in Germany, written by Christians who are fully invested in the superiority of their own faith, don’t help us break through to clarity any more than Comcast’s lies about net neutrality.
When somebody’s bottom line or existential comfort is important enough, they’ll lie to you to protect it. They offer you a bubble, and you step inside it because it’s easy and you don’t have to learn anything about other people.
Instead of making snap judgments about folks a world away — whose life experiences we can’t possibly hope to understand from our little air-conditioned pockets of America — we need to spend a little more time knowing each other.
We’re living in a political landscape where longtime Republicans are turning against the abhorrent takeover that’s going on within their party, while people are also starting to become more aware of the corruption on the left side as well. This is great, and something that those of us who can still claim to have sane and reasonable opinions on how our government is run should be supporting. We need to start coming together to seek out a fix to our political turmoil. Fixing our misinformation problem would certainly help.
Because “liberal” and “conservative” aren’t real things. They’re traps that even observant and intelligent people fall into on a regular basis. They’re designed to divide us. Life and philosophy are richer — and yet somehow abundantly simpler — than the hats we wear and the circles we travel in.
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