Let me start by saying I fully support liberal arts education, and I think discussion of other cultures in a university setting is important. Furthermore, I think our university educational system would be remiss if it did not make students critically consider problems in the world, not just our own country.
These things said, today I found myself in a classroom full of students discussing sex trafficking as it relates to cartels in Mexico. The class consists of privileged (mostly) white young students, myself included. Despite best intentions and usually productive conversation, somehow today we began equating the situation of drug lords and girls kidnapped by the cartels. Suddenly, I was snapped back to the reality that most of these people have no idea what they are talking about and simply want to say something so they get their participation points.
Don’t get me wrong, some comments were genuine–though I consider them misguided nonetheless. The situation of a kidnapped woman forced into sex work and a life she never wanted is not the same as a sicario who decided to join the system instead of fight it. But I digress, my focus in this editorial is misguided critical thinking within college classrooms. We often consider things we have no context for, after all most of us come from white middle-class Midwestern families, so that’s not the problem.
No, the problem is that often we don’t recognize our privilege and lack of knowledge. Then we consider heavy topics and pretend that we are the authorities on the ideas. We ask questions we don’t really care about the answers for. We give answers that are politically correct, and answers that we think others will agree with. No one wants to be wrong. In a different setting, one of the most useful pieces of advice I’ve ever been given is, “Fail is not a bad word. Fail just means you try again.” This is what should be applied to academia, not the mentality that it currently abides.
At some point in life, everyone has been at that party or reception or graduation where they know about two people. Inevitably, awkward small talk occurs when you find yourself in an unfamiliar group. Sometimes the small talk goes well and you make new friends, other times not so much. The ‘not so much’ option usually happens when you hold extremely different views from the people you have been tossed in with. In public, in-person settings, it’s hard to avoid differing views than our own. But in our online lives, it’s much easier to hear and see only what we agree with. I’m writing this post because I want to talk about troubling trends I’ve been seeing on social media outlets like echo chambers and their effect.
First I want to define an echo chamber in the way I think of it in an online setting. To me, an echo chamber is tweaking what comes across your news feed or to your inbox to be only things that you agree with, or hold a similar opinion to. While it’s fine to like pages that you agree with the message of and search for things that you appreciate, there’s a big difference between showing support and being closed-minded.
Just want to interrupt myself to clarify here, I’m not calling anyone close-minded. I’m also not trying to call people out. I just want to make people aware of what we are doing to ourselves on social media.
We have a tendency to only want to hear what we agree with or like. Take it from Robert Cabrera, who wrote this article for The Odyssey called “Echo Chambers, Confirmation Bias And The Closing Of The American Mind”. Despite this tendency, in a climate of highly polarized issues and little to no middle ground, I have to wonder if we are making things harder for ourselves by neglecting to hear other perspectives. When I talk with someone about issues we disagree on, I find myself learning valid and factually backed arguments for their opinion. These facts may not change my mind, but the other person has educated me on another side of the issue. It has opened a door in the echo chamber. It’s as simple as following the President on Twitter, whether or not you support him, because you hear what he has to say. You don’t have to like what you read or hear, simple exposure to other ideas opens up your echo chamber.
If you’re not convinced you want to hear other opinions, look at it this way: learning other sides to a debate is also educational, and often encourages you find further support for your opinion. Still need more to crack open that door? This post by Emily Webber focuses on the importance of diversity of ideas and how it helps businesses succeed. (I highly recommend reading her blog–very well done).
I have more to say on this topic than I anticipated! Check back soon for part 2 to this post about weird things I’ve noticed on social media–like “militant close-mindedness”.