Monday, April 5, 2010

Echo Chamber

Historian Tony Judt’s stunning new book Ill Fares the Land presents a savage critique of our culture’s “nihilistic individualism.” He argues that the rise of the internet not only contributed to this individualism but crippled our ability to communicate our differences and sustain our communities. Such a judgment is, to say the least, counter-intuitive. Defenders of the internet are swift to assert that the internet has made more and more information available to larger and larger group of people. Furthermore, it has enhanced our ability to communicate our ideas around the world and to varieties of constituencies. The problem with the internet, however, is not the availability of information or the speed of its dissemination. The problem is that users of the internet select what is important or interesting to them and avoid exposure to what is disagreeable to them.

Judt says of his students, “Some may read of environmental catastrophes and climate change. Others are taken up by national political debates but quite ignorant of foreign developments.” They may read informed and thoughtful blogs. They may also read dishonest and bigoted blogs. In either case they may not distinguish an “opinion piece”, like a blog, form a sober news story or scholarly article. They accumulate fan pages on Facebook and seek for persons who share the same tastes in music, art, movies, novels, politics, religion, or sex. “In the past,” Judt writes, “thanks to the newspaper they browsed or the television reports they took in over dinner they would at least have been ‘exposed’ to other matters. Today, such extraneous concerns are kept at bay.”

This, Judt worries, is a serious challenge for democracy. The problem with our social discourse today is not that we disagree with each other. “The disposition to disagree, to reject and dissent,” Judt argues, “however irritating it may be when taken to extremes—is the very lifeblood of an open society.” Our problem is that our dissent is frequently so ill informed. We attack from a position of gleefully sustained ignorance and freely chosen isolation. We do not listen to each other, because we do not need to. Comfortable in our circle of agreeable friends, we demonize all who differ with us using our most extreme and abusive language. Obama is not just wrong, he is a Marxist. Bush is not simply mistaken, he is a Fascist. We solicit electronic pats on the back from our friend and “hide” the status reports of those we disagree with.

We are living in intellectual “gated communities”. We intend to keep the “tea party riff raff” outside. We bar the way to the “liberal loonies”. This problem extends to the religious world. The church in the United States is on its way to experiencing a similar “atomization.” In the mainline church people who disagree on human sexuality are dividing up the ecclesiastical spoils. Advocates of differing positions on homosexuality are well on their way to establishing separate denominations where they won’t have to put up with people who interpret the Bible differently than they do. In the Evangelical world the “really Reformed” want nothing to do with the “pragmatists”. The Southern Baptists want nothing to do with “emergent”. And to “enlightened” Evangelicals everyone to the right of themselves is a “fundamentalist.” When people are labeled, they are silenced.

We need to learn new, kind, and generous ways to listen to each other. We need to learn to grit our teeth and attend to those who differ with us. Otherwise our democracy and our religious communities are doomed.

1 comment:

  1. Yep, Jay, we need to listen to all those voices and be charitable to opposing viewpoints.

    If we value Scripture, and I hope we do in whatever community we find ourself, we need Scripture to guide us. "Where is it written?" and "How does your walk go?"are still great guides for our Internet communities.