Confirming Our Division

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As a philosophy student in college always found a way to get wound up in late night political debates. I’ve always enjoyed vigorous political discourse, particularly with people who disagree with me. I was lucky enough to go to a university where disagreement was encouraged and where political debates raged in dorm hallways and dining halls. I grew as a person through those debates and learned quite a bit about what I really believed and what had been pushed into my head by media propaganda. I had to defend my ideas against criticism and I found that many of my defenses of my ideas didn’t pass muster. I either had to research topics in order to defend myself, or in those cases where my research led me away from my original idea I would have to shift my consciousness or even change my mind completely.

Once college ended and I ventured into the real world I found that environment of open dialogue to be sorely lacking. As a bartender at a gay bar I get to interact with a wide variety of people from every gender, race, ethnicity, and orientation, but as diverse as the people I interact with are, their ideas are fairly homogeneous. If anyone were to express discomfort with current understanding of sexual vs gender identity they would risk being called a bigot. Get outed as a Republican and the room might go quiet, and if someone reveals they (God forbid) voted for Trump they might find themselves run out of the bar.  

On the one hand, I understand behaving like this. I find myself thinking that gay Trump voters must have dark secrets in their past, but the reality is that there are a wide variety of reasons people cited for voting for Trump, from misguided economic reasons right through to immigration.

You can respond with “but Trump is bad for LGBT issues”, which is true, but on the other hand we can all imagine a cause as important as the LGBT equality cause, no matter how hard it is to swallow that pill. For example, what is a more pressing cause: LGBT issues or an end to police brutality? It is all a matter of perspective, and what each of our perspectives desires above all is confirmation.

Confirmation bias is the key factor dividing the US consciousness right now, and our divide is growing quickly. Wikipedia defines it as “the tendency to search for, interpret, favor, and recall information in a way that confirms one's preexisting beliefs or hypotheses”. While confirmation bias has always plagued people trying to spread truth, the internet has compounded the problem exponentially.

Nearly everyone I know is on Facebook, Instagram, and a slew of other social media platforms, not to mention the rampant use of dating apps. Pew Research found that 79% of all Americans is on social media, and over 90% of millennials are connected. The connectivity and networking that we are capable of now is fantastic, and I have benefited as much as anyone from social media’s potential for opportunity. I find, however, that this access to people and information is a double edged sword in that as we search for things and click on things that cross our paths we become victims of Internet algorithms that artificially direct our attention towards click bait that aligns with our preconceived biases.

As we search for specific topics, Facebook and Google track our interests and make sure that we are confronted with more of the same, increasing the strength of the information bubble we become trapped in. The problem extends to any controversial topic. Recently noted feminist YouTuber Laci Green came under fire from other prominent feminists because she opened up the conversation with several anti-feminists reviled by her movement. Green found that rather than being ridiculed she was welcomed by the very people that she and other feminists had vilified. This caused consternation among Green's audience as they were concerned she was turning away from feminism. The truth was that she felt that by opening up discussion with people she disagreed with she would not only learn more about her views and the counter-arguments to them, but she would also be exposing her audience to alternate viewpoints, an attempt to break her audience out of their bubble (addendum). 

The reaction among feminists to Laci opening up discussion mirrors the way people in the gay community react to Republicans in their midst. "How dare you give a platform to chauvanists?" As though the only reason a person could logically have if they disagree with the tenets of feminism is that they must hate women or feel superior to them. Relatively few people arguing against feminism as an ideal actually feel chauvinistic, just as most gay Trump supporters dislike the Republican anti-gay platform. People who have an alternate political view may be ignorant on the topic, in which case an open dialogue might educate them. Perhaps your ideological opponent is educated. Perhaps they have legitimate arguments against feminism or for voting for Trump, or any other topic. Points you may not have considered. Then an open dialogue can let people on both sides learn about specific grievances each has. At the very least it is good to know the perspectives of people who disagree with you so you can argue your point more cogently. Without those conversations, society will always be on the brink of danger.

We have only to look at Chechnya to see the endgame in the pitfalls of confirmation bias. Here are people killing their family members because of an adherence to a barbaric interpretation of their religion. Like any religion, Islam is spread through propaganda and indoctrination made possible by tribalism. In order for humans to survive, members of a tribe had to move as a cohesive unit. They had to work together and fight together, and the best way to ensure that cohesion was common memes-religion and culture. Once a person believed the same ideas as the rest of the group they were more likely to be accepted, so it makes evolutionary sense for us to cotton on to ideas we are surrounded by and not be moved easily. Confirmation bias is an effective survival tool and as such is biologically ingrained in us. So difficult is it to shake a firmly held belief that people will kill their blood rather than change their beliefs.

American politics has been growing more and more tribal. The New York Times reports that over the last ten years consistency among partisans (holding all views of your chosen party) has increased from 13% to 20%. A full quarter of American voters reported that they would feel disappointed in a family member who married someone with opposing political views. Conservative voters were much more likely to want to live in communities with like-minded neighbors, where liberals were more likely to unfriend people on Facebook who were conservative. We are purposely insulating ourselves from alternate viewpoints.

Why is this so dangerous? If I am liberal and in favor of diversity at all costs, then, of course, I shouldn't discuss the topic with someone who suggests that there is something more important than diversity. Right? Much easier to dismiss that person as a bigot, rather to hear why he or she may not feel so attached to diversity as a moral necessity. That is a tempting argument. It is easy to reinforce what you believe and dismiss other ideas. It is much more difficult to listen to other ideas and challenge yourself to explain why your ideas are correct–without getting into a shouting match. 

Once we have decided that our ideas are right and that we want to insulate ourselves from contrary positions we have already started building our bubble. If all you hear from everyone around you is that Trump supporters are horrible bigots and you are never exposed to pro-Trump "ideas" then you will never be able to fully understand the motives of a Trump voter, just as in the primary I wasn't able to fully understand Hillary voters. I was shocked that Democrats supported Hillary over Bernie. Now that I've spoken with Hillary supporters, I am still disappointed that they voted for her, but there were some arguments that I could see as reasonable. "Hillary had name recognition." "Bernie might struggle in the General." "It's time for a woman." “She is experienced.” I disagree with these reasons for voting for her, but they aren't crazy reasons. Had I never bothered to engage with Clinton's supporters I may have continued thinking that they weren't paying attention. 

Similarly, if you dismiss a gay Republican as just clearly voting against his own best interests, then you may never learn that some gays put other issues before their orientation. Your priorities are not everyone's priorities, nor should they be. The diversity of ideas is just as important, if not more important than diversity of culture, race, gender and so on. Sometimes people have ideas that make us uncomfortable or scare us or even *gasp* offend us. Being scared or offended does not give you the right to silence the voice that was scaring you or offending you. 

The truth is often relative. Don't let your biases let you miss out on the reason diversity is so important. If we are going to bridge gaps between ourselves and those we disagree with we have to do it by trying to understand our ideological opponents' points of view. The best way to get there is by listening more and shouting less.

Photo: Levi Walker