After the 2016 election, there was a proliferation of discussion around the idea of filter bubbles and ideological blinders. For my part, at least, I heard a lot of people applying the idea of a filter bubble to explain why the election didn’t make sense to so many Americans. We stayed in our own groups, the reasoning went, and so we underestimated how different other groups were from our own. It certainly seems like that was part of the problem.
Now, nine months after the election, we are pregnant with our dissatisfaction. Trump’s administration has systematically alienated so many people that even right-wing media questions his capacity to succeed. His administration is less popular at this point than any previous administration has been. Liberals and conservatives alike talk about retaking our country.
But we’re not popping our bubbles; we’re reinforcing them. The people who believe in Trump still believe in Trump, and now they also disbelieve any story that undermines him. The people who hate Trump hate him, and exaggerate any story that confirms his ineptitude. The people who are disgusted and checked out have decided it’s okay to check out, and they confirm that bias, too. The media who focused on every whim of our reality-show presidential candidate have expanded our entire political discourse into a will-they-won’t-they, what-did-Trump-tweet-now, who’s-on-top storm of sensationalism. Instead of seeing the consequence of our preconceptions before the election and changing our approaches, we’re doubling down.
I’m not claiming to be any better at this than anyone else. I still don’t understand how Trump can be appealing to anyone, or how people make national decisions based on gut instead of data, or how anyone can disdain the New York Times as biased and hold up something from BreitBart as valid. I don’t get why some Americans think it’s okay to hate other Americans based on their gender, or race, or country of origin. And I don’t understand how anyone says the role of government is to protect fewer people and make things like health care more expensive and less fair.
But I do think we’re going about popping our bubbles the wrong way. Perhaps the analogy is part of the problem—when we talk about them as bubbles, it seems like just putting one little pin in there will collapse the whole thing. It seems like if you just watch a little Fox News, or read the New York Times with an open mind, or have a conversation with someone who disagrees, your bubble will vanish in a flash.
On the whole, though, that’s not how it works. People don’t pop their bubbles when they see other ideas; usually, they just get pissed off. What we actually have is not a bubble—its ideological armor, carefully constructed of impenetrable assumptions bound tightly together with partisanship and cognitive biases. Even from the inside of our well-fortified positions, we can’t fully grasp the motivations of the many other camps. We don’t even know how many other camps there are, and so out of righteous defensiveness, we presume a single opposing army. Maybe they are each doing the same, isolated enclaves assuming overwhelming opposition in what is really just a deeply fractured society. We’re too walled off to even know what the other sides are really like.
So popping things isn’t going to cut it. Even if we dismantle our defenses and try to meet one another honestly, the walls we’ve built will take generations to crumble. Yet I think, in the meantime, we can contribute to what happens behind those walls. The metaphor of popping a bubble implies that outside force is the answer, but tearing down a wall usually happens from within.
I still can’t understand Trump’s base. I still can’t understand affirming prejudice, attacking Muslims, denigrating immigrants, and denying civil rights to people based on race or gender. I don’t even get the basic motivation; how does anyone rationalize something like that?
But I can change the conversation inside my walls a little bit, so that’s where my energy is going for now. Instead of talking about the Republican congress as a set of bitter ideologues bent on being America’s death panel, I can talk about them as a misguided group of lawyers who think they’re economists trying to be doctors. Instead of seeing monolithic hate, I can see divided, self-interested people struggling along and trying to meet the needs of a few of their constituents, not really thinking about how those choices affect everyone else.
Sure there are a few assholes in there—there are a few assholes everywhere. And there are selfish fools as well. But they’re behind their own walls, and I can’t fix them. All I can do is change what’s on my side of my wall.
Even if I can’t tear down my walls, maybe I can put in a door.
Image Credit: hjl