Over the past few weeks, I’ve heard a familiar refrain from people professing concern over what they deem my more aggressive posture on events of the day:
Be careful, you don’t want to end up just creating your own echo chamber—do you?”
Well, that all depends.
On the surface it sounds like a sensible question. There is of course, wisdom in the idea of not sequestering yourself away from dissent to the point that you’re only preaching to the adoring choir of those who agree with you. And yes, open, reasonable dialogue with those whose opinions differ from your own is healthy and often redemptive. It’s a worthy aspiration.
The problem is, it’s becoming less and less possible. The President and his spokespeople are making sure of that, and an all-or-nothing media adverse to nuance combined with intellectually lazy citizens are helping him.
These days I’m beginning to believe that maybe the echo chamber is actually not the worst place to be. And in times like this when things have gotten really ugly—it might even save your sanity.
We live in an America where FoxNews has brainwashed a portion of the adult population, rendering them fully immune to reason and deathly allergic to factual information. Add to that, a toxic cocktail of Nationalism, contempt for Government, and good old-fashioned bigotry, and some folks are simply impossible to engage in any meaningful and productive way. They are impervious to evidence. They are unreachable in the ways were taught to reach people.
Worse than that, many emboldened by the President’s unapologetic cruelty, spend their days trolling strangers online, parroting the racist, anti-Muslim, anti-LGBTQ FoxNews talking points, and reveling in a coarseness that a year ago would have been deemed downright profane. They are making already vulnerable people feel more endangered than ever. It is a form of home-grown, virtual terrorism, and to ask people to expose themselves to that every day in the name of avoiding an echo chamber is manipulation of the worst kind.
One of the truest examples of privilege, is when entitled white people chastise members of marginalized communities for their inability to get over things and get on with their lives. That’s the problem and the impasse: their lives are terribly altered. They are facing a daily assault on their identities, their families, their futures, and their sense of safety—and I am not comfortable demanding that these folks step into the line of fire in the name of cooperation with the bullies. It feels irresponsible.
For many, the echo chamber can be a much-needed place of protection and safety; a place where their pain is acknowledged, their opinions are valued, their voices are heard, their inherent worth is recognized. It can be a place where they find solidarity and affinity. Why would I or anyone else demand that they step out of this and be exposed to the poisonous venom of extremists and trolls, who in essence sanctioned their present suffering with their vote? That’s a really big ask.
Like many people, I’ve disconnected with friends, family members, and co-workers in the aftermath of the election—not because I can’t bear disagreement, but because I will not tolerate unrepentant racism, homophobia, bigotry, or misogyny. The “echo chamber” that may be naturally forming isn’t designed to stop conversation, but to eliminate unnecessary exposure to vile things. (If someone comes and defecates on your front porch, you’re going to clean it up and you’re make sure they don’t “darken” your doorway again. We’d never feel the need to apologize for that.)
For example, when someone is programmed by their preacher and FoxNews to make Muslim refugees all into would-be terrorists and their default response in discussing them is ugly slurs and lazy stereotypes, I often need to step away. It’s very difficult to work with blind hatred that refuses to be informed by the truth, as gently and thoughtfully as it might be delivered. If the choices are the echo chamber or unstable, angry people—I’ll hang out and preach to the choir for a while.
And the thing is, in many ways the echo chamber can still be big enough for a majority of us to renovate the country in meaningful ways. With tens of millions of like-hearted people, we can do beautiful, life-saving, planet-altering work together and not have to be exposed to behavior that dehumanizes us or anyone else. We can use our shared influence to push back against all that feels so wrong in the world. We can shape policy and create positive change. So the parameters of the echo chamber can be wide enough for diverse thought, but include nonnegotiables that demand respect for everyone gathered. The invitation to the table is predicated on guests fully acknowledging the value of those seated around it.
Reaching to the vast, rational, level-headed middle and crafting compromise in areas of disagreement is always going to be the noble and best path, but at this moment in time staying in a smaller circle may ultimately be a form of self-preservation, shielding you from abuse and violence and indignity, and allowing you to find encouragement. As a Women’s March attendee said to me, “I came here because needed to know that I’m not crazy.”)
No, as a rule the echo chamber isn’t a place to spend your life, but as a temporary space to heal and rest and find some hope during really ugly days, as a spot to begin creating something meaningful in response to these disheartening days—it might be just what you need.