Looking for my own echo chamber

Three years ago, I vowed to eschew political engagement. Pointless, I groaned, this pretense that it helps with anything. I’m proud to say that I kept up my New Year’s resolution for that entire year, plus another. But I wasn’t letting on the whole picture.

Part of it was what I said — I was losing faith in the concept, and making it a resolution was just adding self-discipline. I became more conscious not just about disengaging, but also about retraining my social media feeds, including unfollowing some good friends who I agreed with. I kept up with newspapers, but made sure to skip op-eds. For a year, my Facebook feed was mostly life updates and pictures of animals. I was a much happier human.

What I didn’t say was that I had also been finding it harder to write posts to a standard where I felt comfortable publishing them. And it wasn’t for a lack of thoughts or ideas. I was getting better at anticipating counterarguments, and it was impossible to write something both short enough to be digestible and long enough to be comprehensive. And even if I succeeded on any given topic, there was a crippling meta-premise that I just didn’t know how to handle: Is a challenging perspective worth a reader’s consideration in the first place?

A quirk of mine is that I love hearing people rant. I mean, not just any rant — I know all the standard partisan ones; they’re boring. I love hearing personal perspectives that I don’t normally have access to. Different occupations, nationalities, cultures, hobbies, ethnicities, hometowns, levels of privilege (both directions!), upbringings, genders, political biases, endeavours, different lives. It’s fascinating, the diversity in how people experience life.

If I listed all my favourite bloggers, I reckon there’s a half-chance that you’d defriend me. But the offending blogger would be different for each friend: they’re fairly (though not perfectly) politically diverse. The only reason I don’t think they’d all murder each other if they were ever in the same room is that they all seem to prefer precise pondering over political positioning.

I don’t really understand why I’m so easily fascinated by different views. I get why other people aren’t — differing ideas complicate things. This really hit home recently when a friend chided me for attempting to explore practical factors to a recent political decision: “Not everything is complex and nuanced, CZ.” This got me thinking. Can I find a topic that has absolutely no layers whatsoever? Even an uncontroversial one?

I thought about it for a couple of days. I didn’t find one.

If the first step to overcoming a bias is admitting you have one, I guess I should come clean. I have a bias towards complexity and nuance. I use intricacy as a proxy for expertise in subjects I’m not familiar with. If someone very confidently asserts a simplistic claim, and denies efforts at refinement, I assume they’re not a trustworthy source. I think the world is messy and complicated and disobedient, and we’re all in a never-ending effort to understand it a little bit less badly.

In days gone past, I would tell you that this was why I believed that discussion and engagement were tools for progress. That this was why I believed in discourse. Now, I wonder if I had my causation the wrong way round. What if that was just my way of rationalising my curiosity, of making myself feel superior to everyone who lacked the same thirst? What makes my liking for reasoning and inquisitiveness any less irrational than someone else’s liking for cancelling speakers, provocative infographics or abrasive primetime opinion hosts?

If you look from a different angle and squint a little, it’s possible to cast my rejection of political dialogue in 2018 in this light. On the surface, I was frustrated that most people don’t share my view that engagement with contrary perspectives (not for the purpose of correcting them) is worthwhile. But underneath that, I was struggling to articulate a case for why they should.

It’s not that there isn’t one. The case is fairly standard: you might learn something you haven’t considered. But it relies on a premise that you might be wrong, or at least, there might be something you don’t know that might refine your opinion. And this epistemic humility is something of a circular argument. If you know you’re right, why contemplate the possibility that you’re not? What reason is there to assume that you might be wrong, other than the presumption that there might be more to consider?

Do you ever know enough to qualify as an adult?

At this point, I’d love to tell you about some watershed moment when I started aspiring to epistemic humility, but to be honest, I’m not really sure where it came from. My dad used to tell me, “the more you know, the more you know you don’t know,” but that only made sense after I grew up. I used to sink lots of time diving into controversial topics, which somehow would always be rabbit holes of nuance. Probably my biggest eye-opener came when I got to travel and live abroad — and more importantly, started making friends from all over the world, who would shatter my prior impressions of their home countries and introduce me to new ways of thinking.

I’m very lucky to have had the opportunity to learn from so many people in so many places, and it’ll come as no surprise that I want as many people as possible to do the same. But without some similar experience, I can’t see any obvious reason that my personal journey should convince anyone else to adopt a similar outlook.

If I’m throwing in the towel and retreating into my little comfort zone, here’s what it would be. It’d be an echo chamber where the echoes aren’t copies of the originals. A space where disagreement is cause to explore, not dig heels in. A place whose inhabitants desire to avoid fallacious reasoning, even if it doesn’t change the conclusion. A community willing to start from first principles if that’s what it takes to understand an issue.

I know the arguments against this. Thinking and discussing isn’t going to get us anywhere, there are real pressing problems on our hands. And I know the counterarguments, and I know it’s a false dichotomy.

But I no longer care. If the echo chamber that makes some people happy is one of mutual affirmation, the echo chamber that makes me happy is the one filled with echoes of curiosity. I’m far from a perfect model — I sometimes react strongly to things too, as humans do. But I feel better when it’s not in a positive feedback loop with the people around me.

The world is clearly not this echo chamber. And as far as I can tell, most of you will want nothing of it. But maybe there are more people than I think, and maybe if I put this out there, I’ll find some other people who, feeling similarly drowned out in the noise, just don’t know where to find each other.

Will it work? Let me know.

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