Friday, February 22, 2013

Towards Real Open Mindedness

Every so often I hear or read someone wringing their hands about information bubbles--the basic idea being that all these social media and feed personalization services allow people to "hide" or "shield themselves" from viewpoints that differ from their own.

This has always struck me as an odd thing to worry about. First, because people have been doing this forever, both intentionally and not. The simple fact that communication and mobility over large geographic areas was until recently in human history relatively difficult meant that people naturally were more isolated. More than that, our tribal inclinations mean that we tend to want to be with people who are like us, so, coupled with that being not hard to accomplish in most historical circumstances, it strikes me that this socio-cultural isolation has been the norm for most of human history. Why get so angsty about it now?

Another example comes from my own background growing up as an evangelical Protestant at a mega church, with its own school, located next to an ideologically similar university. One could literally grow up within that sphere and rarely encounter people of other viewpoints. We kids often debated the value of the "Victory bubble" growing up, all the way up to debating whether or not to go to said university or not based on that consideration.

For better or worse, my family could not afford to keep me in the bubble for all of my school years. I will say that those years outside of it were hardly wonderful and enlightening. The "world" is not all it's cracked up to be, and I told my friends who never left the bubble that at the time. (Of course, this could provide a digression on whether or not public schooling really reflects "real life" itself or not, but I will save that for some other time.)

So anyways, that touches on the "why now?" aspect. The second thought is that maybe the isolation enabled by these media channels is not so bad. By that I am being more pragmatic than idealist. People seem by and large to need this isolation. It feels safe. It is less emotionally draining. Unless it's your job, it is simply too tiring to not be able to have such an ideological retreat.

Perhaps more than that, it seems to me that the people wringing their hands about this are usually worried about other people. They see themselves as so wonderfully enlightened and open minded. In short, by taking the position they are taking, they are representing an ideology, an ideology that is inescapably one sided. Why do they want these other people to not be isolated? Because they hope that by making them so, they will become more like them. It is the same exact tribal inclination at work.

And along with that, you will find that rather than increasing dialogue and open-mindedness, including ideologically opposed channels in your feeds will often rather simply reinforce your own views, in a negative way. You are more regularly opposed to the "stupidity and idiocy" of the other side. You will, instead of gaining ground on the way to enlightenment be dragged into anger and outrage. Only the most disciplined mind could avoid this, and I'm not sure it is possible even then.

So rather than arguing that everyone stop using services that let them create a like-minded information bubble, which I think is normal, healthy, and possibly healthier than the other alternative, I suggest rather carving out focused and limited times in your life to engage with "the enemy." The popular media, and most of social media, is not the place to look for this engagement--because these are the centers of the echo chambers/bubbles. Instead, find a thoughtful person or two on the other side who is interested in dialogue, i.e., really open minded and not just doing lip service to it. Discuss your differences, share selective sources, don't worry about convincing each other. Just be honest and respectful.

Doing this enables you to both minimize and manage the emotional drain of such encounters while providing the most likely ground for mutual enrichment and growing in respect. This is the way to learn to view "them" as real, thoughtful human beings rather than as the enemy.

- tapped from a tablet, pardon the typos