Escaping the Echo Chamber: Is It Worth It?


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Winston Churchill is famously quoted as saying, “Show me a young Conservative and I’ll show you someone with no heart. Show me an old Liberal and I’ll show you someone with no brains.” He never actually said this, and it’s just one of many quotes attributed to Churchill that he didn’t say, but the sentiment is appealing and persists because it makes everyone feel good about themselves, no matter what they believe. Liberals can feel caring and youthful, conservatives can feel learned and wise.

This website is about religion in the southern United States, but because it is election day and we’ve had to sift through so much political bile lately, and because politics and religion are—especially in the South—so inextricably tied, I think a detour into politics is worth the time.

Because, really, revealing yourself as a liberal in the South is about as dangerous as revealing yourself to be an atheist. The experiences are remarkably similar, down to the condescending dismissals from your family: “Yeah, you may be a liberal/atheist now, but just wait till you’ve lived a little.” My mom once told me that it’s fine to not believe in God now, because one day something so tragic will happen to me that I’ll just have to turn to God. (How this sounds to a sane person, she must not realize. It’s basically a threat. Believe in God or you’ll be so super sad!) Similarly, as an idealistic college student getting excited about Barack Obama and volunteering to work for the campaign, she told me that I may vote Democrat now, but just wait a few years until I had a mortgage, money, and a family, and then I would think differently.

Well, I have a mortgage, money, and a family, and I actually find myself getting more liberal with age, not less. This isn’t proof of anything, of course, but I at least have some pride in knowing that I came by my beliefs honestly; I didn’t inherit them from my family, and I didn’t just parrot what some charismatic college professor told me I should think. And, as with belief in God, I doubt this is even something I can choose. Beliefs are the product of millions of different factors that are far beyond our control. I can no more decide to care about social justice than I can decide that I believe Yahweh created the world in seven days. We have natural predilections, and then we follow those predilections until we arrive at convictions.

I don’t think we can control these things any more than we can go back in time and change where we went to high school, and yet we take it so seriously and personally when somebody believes differently than we do.

This tendency to surround ourselves with like-minded people is well documented. For decades, people have been moving away from others who aren’t like them and into communities where they fit in—racially, economically, and politically. In the hyper-conservative South, liberals live almost exclusively in the big cities, which are, as in the rest of the country, dominated by Democrats. In New Orleans, where I live, there is not a single candidate for a city-level position on the ballot today who is not a Democrat, because Democrats live in the city, and Republicans live everywhere else. The internet in general and Facebook in particular have accelerated the filtration, allowing us to live comfortably in our echo chambers alongside people who agree with everything we say. I know I’ve done it—I unsubscribe from every one of my Facebook friends who will go on a Benghazi rant or spew Fox News talking points Tourette’s, banish them forever from my news feed like they don’t even exist. What is left is the handful of people I know who won’t ever make my head hurt… or challenge me.

It’s a problem, but I’m not sure what to do about it. Yes, dissent and disagreement are necessary if we ever want to learn anything. It’s good to be exposed to people who think differently, if only to realize it’s possible even to like someone who doesn’t believe the things we do. It’s often said that the single biggest thing that helped the gay rights movement was people getting to know gay people in their own lives, because it made it harder for them to discriminate and deny them rights when they realized gay people were people too. AND YET it just seems so hopeless and fruitless to try to engage, when expressions of even the most benign political dissent are met with angry trolling. Are we going to change any minds? Arguing with right wingers on Facebook, carefully deconstructing and picking apart their claims, and then asking them to support their conspiracy theories with actual evidence… is any of that worth the effort? Does it make any difference? On the one hand, you get the casual onlookers to notice your divergent opinion, the ones who aren’t arguing with you but are just watching everything unfold… maybe they’re the ones that you’re arguing for. On the other hand…