My Friend, My Adversary

How unusual is it to have friends with whom we disagree passionately about one or more significant issues?

An article in Christianity Today by Alissa Wilkinson, titled “Can Our Art Deal With Our World?” inspires this question. Here’s an excerpt (emphasis mine), but please go to CT and read the whole thing:

Over a decade ago, when I was an undergraduate studying information technology, we talked ceaselessly about the then-exciting possibility of the ability to curate our own consumption—to pick which articles and stories and issues we were interested in, filtering out the noise and focusing in on what was important to us.

Here is the thing: today, our consumption habits are shaped by our own curation. If you run any outlet for publication on the Internet and have access to analytics (as I do), you quickly discover that the vast amount of your web traffic comes from social media—most of that from Facebook….most people who read the Internet are seeing things posted by their Facebook friends—and frankly, few of us have Internet friends who don’t think like us. A Pew Research study published on October 21 points out that liberals and conservatives inhabit different corners of the Internet. Liberals are more likely to defriend someone because of their conservative politics; conservatives are more likely to not be friends with liberals at all.

We click through, read, and watch things our friends watch. What we see is shaped by what we already like. In other words, our Internet lives function as echo chambers for what we already believe.

I encountered this phenomenon a couple of years ago when I reviewed an article by Steve Marsh about TED, a sort of internet Chatauqua devoted to global exchange of exciting new ideas. From TED’s mission statement:

We believe passionately in the power of ideas to change attitudes, lives and ultimately, the world. So we’re building here a clearinghouse that offers free knowledge and inspiration from the world’s most inspired thinkers, and also a community of curious souls to engage with ideas and each other.

Marsh noted in his article that the TED archives suffer from the same sort of selection or “curation” bias Ms. Wilkinson is talking about—instead of becoming “a community of curious souls to engage with ideas and each other,” TED browsers gravitate toward speakers and topics that echo their own preferences and mindset. They’re not looking for new ideas so much as intellectual entertainment that reinforces what they already think.

ArgumentSo I’m left to wonder, along with Ms. Wilkinson, whether art and literature in their various modern incarnations have lost their power to blast through our biases and preconceived notions about life and open our eyes to new ways of seeing. Our increasing facility at filtering information according to our own desires seems to be wrapping us in impenetrable cocoons where we only hear and see what reinforces our own sense of rightness, and we interact only with the people who tell us what we want to hear. We’re losing the ability to rationally consider alternative viewpoints, preferring to adore the exquisite loveliness of our own thoughts reflected in a limpid pool we’ve filled to the brim with ideas just like ours.

And what about those friendships that play such a large role in shaping our mindset? Has our definition of friendship mutated from a state of mutual affection, intimacy, and concern to become, in practice, a relationship in which the parties are, in all important respects, of one mind? I don’t have many friends, certainly less than a handful I could call close friends, but I’ve always thought a characteristic of close friendship was each person’s ability to speak frankly with the other, especially about contentious issues. It’s the implied privilege to “call out” the other person, for their own good, when they’re being stupid or just flat wrong. I think we all need that, even when it’s awkward and uncomfortable. Especially then.

If you have someone like that in your life, treasure them, and let them know from time to time that you do.

Similarly, thoughtful and courageous art and literature can help fill that role for an entire society, if we’re willing to listen. The Emperor is well-served by the voice in the crowd who alerts him to the fact he’s ventured from the palace without his trousers.



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