It feels like every time I open up social media there is a new cause/ideology/change/belief system that people are ‘debating’.
I put the term debating in quotations, because I feel that that term can only loosely apply to what I see occurring. In a true debate, both sides have structured arguments, researched data and well-thought-out opinions.
The goal of such an interaction should ideally not be to ‘win the argument’ but to come closer to the ‘truth’. Ideally, the debate should contain members of both sides that are open to having their opinion changed upon presentation of new information.
Yet due to the nature of the online platforms where we put forth our views, we are often just presenting our arguments to an echo chamber that is either completely supportive or dismissive of our opinion.
The former results in our posts effectively contributing nothing new to the discussion, yet being praised endlessly for ‘speaking the truth’. I consider this to be just conforming that group’s norm. The author of the piece feels validated and continues to produce content, because everyone in that online forum is agreeing with their opinion. Any and all dissenting voices are drowned out by the sheer number of counter opinions, thus it is rare for an opposite opinion to be taken seriously or even noticed.
The latter results in incessant trolling, belittling and banishment from the groups. It is very easy to dismiss someone’s opinion if you see it downvoted to oblivion, or if 99% of comments are disagreeing with the original post. If the topic is sensitive in nature, ‘protecting the members’ is often cited as a reason to delete and block the person posting. Whilst it may be necessary, this form of censorship can cause the members to only hear self-confirming opinions.
Thus, you may be in an echo chamber and not even realise it.
Most people talk with people who share similar views to them. The articles, blogs, videos and posts shared tend to be of a similar nature to what they already believe.
Consider the websites that you visit, the social media platforms you frequent, the forums that you post in and the people you associate with online. How often do you hear a dissenting view? Moreover, how often does that dissenting view gain traction and change opinions? Have your opinions ever changed on a strongly held issue based on online discussion?
Take Feminism versus Men’s Rights Activism (MRA), although any contested issue would suffice. Note that while I do have a nuanced opinion on this topic, that is not the point of this piece. Rather I want you to consider why you hold your opinion on this topic.
What things in your life made you a Feminist or MRA? It could be your gender, sexuality, life experiences, income levels, country, religion or a plethora of other factors. You probably have many reasons supporting your beliefs and many counters to the common arguments against those beliefs. If you are particularly passionate you may regularly post articles, memes or videos promoting your point of view.
The question is, “Could you be wrong?”.
Before you respond with a barrage of angry comments promoting your opinion, I want you to reflect on the reasons why you have your opinion and attempt to see the issue from the other side.
This will be difficult, as often people hold strong beliefs and don’t really question them. We like to say that we are open minded, that we are willing to change, yet we rarely do. Not when it is an issue that is a core belief.
Have you ever changed the mind of a religious zealot? What could you possibly say that could counter (what they believe to be) the word of God? Or attempted to reason with a passionate atheist, who (in their mind) see all religious experience akin to mental delusion and dysfunction?
Has any argument with a vegan ever resulted in them eating meat? Or with you becoming vegan? What could the Trump supporter possibly say to convince you that he is a great president? Are those ‘chem-trails’ corrupting everyone’s mind, or are they just condensation from jet engines? Etcetera.
For the Feminist, it is self-evident that women are oppressed, the patriarchy rules the world and that women need to fight for their rights and the rights of women everywhere. Yet an MRA would argue that the feminist movement has gone too far, that our culture accepts the belittling of men due to their past transgressions and that due to affirmative action and the like, competent males are being passed over for less competent women and minorities.
Both parties think they are right. Both have facts, expert opinions, (in)group consensus and an online following. Both parties can claim that history is on their side ‘proving’ their point. How can they both be right at the same time?
Here’s the thing, both parties are probably right and wrong. There will be an aspect of truth to both of their claims, otherwise their views would not resonate with so many people.
I want to clarify a point here. I am not arguing that it is impossible to have a strong opinion on a particular topic. Or that some belief systems are not inherently evil – that is, adherence to its world view objectively causes an increase in suffering. What I am promoting here, is the need for self-reflection and analysis.
If you have an unchangeable opinion on a topic, you are basically claiming that you know everything that there is to know about it. That nothing anyone says can sway you and no new evidence could possibly move your position. You are effectively claiming omnipotence. Yet, unless you are some kind of deity, you are just a fallible human. That is, you can be wrong. We all can.
Here are a few measures you can take to help ensure that you are not stuck in an echo chamber.
1) Be open to all of your opinions changing.
2) Seek out contrary opinions – Listen to their reasons and don’t reflexively counter them.
3) Empathise with others – Work out why they hold their views and consider what would have to happen for you to hold their views.
4) Read widely – Both on the topic and off topic. Reading gives you access to the thought processes of other people and thus can significantly expand your consciousness.
5) Play devil’s advocate – By attempting to convincingly argue for the counter point, you are forced to see the issue from another perspective.
6) Seek out and observe other echo chambers – If you look at the echo chambers of issues that you are not that passionate about, you can see how incestuous and self-confirming they really are (search Facebook ‘groups’ for any topic and join them to start looking).
A final note.
When someone disagrees with us, and when we have support from our echo chamber, it is all too easy to ‘other’ them. That is, to put them into the preverbal ‘other group’. A group that is external to us, that thinks differently (read incorrectly), that is less intelligent and thus their opinions are not worth hearing.
This results in the ‘othered group’ becoming ignored, despised and mistreated. If you believe that all MRAs or Feminists are wrong as a matter of fact. That they should be censored, trolled, abused or ignored, then it is not much of a step to see each individual of that group as deserving of such treatment – regardless of anything other than their adherence to that group.
At best, you are depriving yourself of a potentially opinion changing debate. But at worst, you may be heading down a slippery slope that has in the past, ultimately resulted in societal condemnation and extermination.
If we don’t take steps to rid ourselves of group think, we may end up losing our ability to discern nuance.
If you regularly challenge your core beliefs, you will either learn they are wrong, or make them stronger. Either way, you will grow.
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Check out this related blog post: How Social Media Is Corrupting Your Mind - Even If Its All 'Positive'
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