Thursday, November 15, 2007

Echo-Chambers - (and drinking the cool-aid)

There's a lot of things floating around in my head about this topic, but I'll see if I can keep it focused. What finally crystalized my thinking enough to attempt a post was this article, in particular, this quote from the article:

I think it's a very firm part of human nature that if you surround yourself with like-minded people, you'll end up thinking more extreme versions of what you thought before.

I think this is particularly evident in the blogsphere where you have blogs that actively moderate out anyone who disagrees with dominant paradigm. It probably does not even take active moderation, but simply having a group of 'enforcers' who rabidly attack anyone who deviates from the central tenets of whatever group there is there. And from what I've seen, it doesn't even take much deviation - just a hint of deviation will oftentimes result in all manner of nasty opinions being thrust upon a poster, ventrilosquist-like, to then be denounced. This has happened to me, as was evident here and here.

One could dismiss these incidents as nothing more than the shortcomings of the people involved, or the misandry evident at IBTP, or other such negative points. And I'm sure that is a factor. But as the article on salon noted, you can get extremes like that just from nothing more than limiting a conversation to people who are all on one side of the spectrum, even when those are fairly "average reasonable" people. As the article notes:

The way our Colorado experiment worked is, we got people from Boulder, a liberal place, together in small groups to talk about climate change, same-sex civil unions and affirmative action. On the same day, we got people in Colorado Springs, a conservative place, to talk about the same three issues. We asked them to record their views anonymously first, then to deliberate on them in small groups, then to record their views anonymously afterward. What we found was that on these issues, the Boulder people, before they started to talk, were pretty liberal, but there was a distribution of views, a degree of diversity. After they talked, they were significantly more liberal and less diverse. So, deliberation among our liberal citizens of Boulder produced more extremism and less diversity. In Colorado Springs, after they talked to one another, they went far to the right. They started out somewhat open-minded on these issues, somewhat diverse, and after discussion the diversity was squelched and the extremism was increased.

I think this is a clue to what is happening in the political domain all over the United States: People through their own voluntary behavior are replicating our Colorado experiment. Or, savvy political entrepreneurs are creating the conditions of our experiment because they want to decrease internal diversity. Karl Rove could be described as a "polarization entrepreneur." The left isn't quite so good at this, but they're learning.

I've seen this happen to myself, like where I wrote what I thought was a pretty darn good legal paper when I was in law school, one that garnered me the award for the best paper in the class, but that, when shown to others, was not seen to be as good as I thought it was. It turns out, the professor probably shared some viewpoints of mine and so that may have made it seem better than it actually was (though I am still proud of the paper and how I did with it). It may also be that the politics of the issue are mostly against me. In any case, I had a false view of the paper from my only having discussed it with someone who probably agreed with the basic premises in a way that many would not.

After seeing this phenomenon in action, I've come to the conclusion that one must take steps to counter this or else you will just get an echo chamber, with the attendant piling on and stagnation of ideas. (And a descent into radical extremism that will probably eventually be a pretty severe break with reality - when I've read the IBTP comments, at times I think I'm listening in on inmates in an insane asylum, or just people in another world, one where this vast conspiracy is afoot that apparently is visible only to a select few (i.e. the posters)).

I think one of the first, best ways to avoid it is to avoid even the hint of moderation of certain viewpoints - like having a 'feminist only space' like they have on Amp (to use the most recent example). Even without such active moderation, you can have the same effect by piling on. This is not to say that moderation of a neutral nature is not a good thing - but you have to be careful about that. Moderating to keep people from just insulting each other is good, but not if you cut more slack to some posters over others based on viewpoint - then you are back to square one. For instance, in Amp's thread, despite a rather nasty ad hominem attack on myself, putting words into my mouth that I never said, the attacker, even after I asked for an apology, was never asked to apologize to me and Amp gave no acknowledgement that the attack even happened. Instead, I was attacked, again, based on viewpoint. Which probably explains why I sometimes get the sense that the views held by the regulars at Amp are pretty extreme, though not as bad as elsewhere. I'm not trying to pick on Amp, btw, just using the site as a convenient example.

Ultimately, I've come to the conclusion that most sites online are not interested in discussing anything, or discovering anything, they are instead mostly looking to reinforce already held beliefs, sometimes using rather nasty, ruthless enforcement mechanisms to do so.

It is part of why I would never have such a moderation scheme in place here. I try to encourage open discussion. I am always up for a good discussion or argument. I don't insult those who post here, even after heated disagreement. I try to discourage others from doing so, mostly by example, and I welcome all voices. Even when I'm arguing a particular point one way, just seeing the other side always gets me thinking. I have changed my mind (sometimes several times) based on things others have said to me, or what I've seen said elsewhere, even if that is not immediately apparent.

Oh, and just to respond to any who would come to defend spaces that do have viewpoint-based moderation - while I'm sure there are all sorts of wondeful-sounding reasons for them, in the end, what they will inevitably lead to is extremism - and those on the 'inside' probably won't even realize that it has happened. I think it has already led to that in many places. For those of you at Amps, think of all of the regular posters, say, to Bill O'Rielly's or Michelle Malkin's or Rush Limbaugh's place. Do you really want to go down that path in the other direction? People at MM's place don't think they are extremists, they think they are just 'normal Americans' and that those who don't share their views are the extremists. They can't see otherwise.

I try to keep an open mind on things. I try to explain why it is I have the views I have. I think that is important, in part because, if it turns out my 'whys' don't make sense, that allows someone else to challenge them. I don't send someone off to a '101' blog when they ask me why I think the things I do - I try to answer as best I can. I would think that if I could not, this is evidence that my views aren't based on anything more than ideology, rather than reason.

Ok, this is another one of my long, rambling posts. Hopefully there is a kernal of something that makes sense in here. Perhaps that kernal is just what I've quoted from the article.

Oh, one more thing that comes to mind. I have worked on cases where the law is somewhere in a grey area. I know what my own biases are when it comes to certain legal issues. One way I counteract them is by going to someone who I know holds contrary views and asking for his legal opinion and reasoning on the issue. I also offer him my take and get his reaction. I find that is much more useful than talking to someone whose take on the issue is close to my own. If I just talked to someone similar to me, I'd go away thinking I had it all 'solved' with the reinforcement of another voice when in reality, I could be way off in left field.

That's part of the problem I see with movenents online, such as feminism. The best feminists are those that engage in active, even heated, discussion and arguments with people that some might derisively call MRAs (though they themselves would not call them that). That's how you keep yourself honest. Convincing someone already in your camp doesn't test an idea. You can only test an idea by putting it into the cauldron of discussion with someone who does not just reflexively share your ideology or viewpoint or assumptions to begin with.

People who think that they are going to solve anything or make major societal change by only talking in small groups with people with the same views (views which will then get more and more extreme as time goes by from the isolation and from the elimination of alternate views) are suffering from a delusion. It might be a pleasant delusion, but it is a delusion nonetheless.

The great orators are those who can get those who do NOT agree with them to come to some agreement, or at least to some compromise. The alternate to that is 'preaching to the choir' - something that is not the way to win converts to an idea.

I don't claim to be right about everything. Hell, I can have trouble even making it through a blog posting without partially changing my mind or at least changing tacks as I write it. Sometimes I shoot from the hip when I make a comment or a post. But in the end, I figure that is ok. I can always write more later to clarify, to answer questions or just as things become clearer in my own mind after I've thought about something for a while.

You can usually tell the difference between someone who wants to have a conversation and someone who just wants to slam you or score points. Someone looking to score points will nit-pick at tiny things that were said and that were probably not all that important. Someone looking to slam will just look to say harsh words about the 'easy' points and will avoid talking or answering the hard ones. Someone interested in a conversation will answer all points, conceding where there needs to be adjustment. I want to have a conversation.

It can be frustrating when there are many who are just interested in slamming or points, usually found in drive-by comments, which are another symptom of someone not interested in really addressing points or having a conversation. I have had plenty of those. I'm still disappointed that Amp (and others) never responded to me in this post, that TG never responded to this one, and that many never responded in this one. Oh well. Maybe someday...


hedera said...

Having read only your post, and not the Salon article, I still find the experiments they (and you) describe very interesting. Good for you for testing your ideas against Devil's advocates. You're unfortunately right about the echo chamber; sigh. The trouble with all our great ideas is that they have to be implemented by - us...

Sweating Through fog said...

Great post, and some very valid points about the way echo chambers foster extremism.

I'm a new blogger, interested in many of the same issues you are, so I've visited many of the blogs you mention. TG, when she was posting, was always very interesting, but I found that she does not not react well to having her thinking challenged.

I just recently had a very productive exchange on Amp, where I found someone who agreed with my position on an issue, to my surprise. I say surprised because the first reaction to my comment was sarcastic. I thought of responding, but I let it slide. I then discovered in some subsequent comments that there was actual agreement.

I mention that because I think I've discovered a lesson. I don't have to respond to a comment that seems dismissive or sarcastic. I don't have to take it personally. I need to remember the commenter doesn't know me, my background, learning, or my opinions on a whole host of issues. By letting some things slide, I can continue focusing on the core issue I want to address. I am reassured in this by this that a reasonable person, reading the flow of discussion, will recognize what is going on. I don't have to point it out.

I'm new at this. I'm beginning to realize that most of the people that get the attention, the buzz, get it because they are polemicists - people love that. People love to have their hatreds and biases justified in clever ways. People like me, and you I think, that are not extremists, and genuinely want to learn - by being shown we're wrong by facts and argument, aren't as interesting.

I'll keep at it because I love writing, and I love learning and growing.

One caution if I may. You write well, are interested in many things, and are open minded. You will get a following. when it happens, remember not to let that following become an echo chamber of your own.

Miss Breeziness said...

Hi, I'm new here, but I've been reading your blog a lot and have generally enjoyed it. Especially your discussions on "privilege". My liberal friends can get pretty worked up about it...

You bring up a very interesting issue in this post, and I will have to agree with your conclusions. I must say I don't discuss politics with liberals very much, myself, because some viewpoints upset me terribly. I know, I'm being the same as those people who want a "safe space" free from any criticism whatsoever.

Still, I wonder if people need spaces like that. At the same time, there is the problem of never seeing what you may be doing wrong.

Funny that the study was done in Boulder. One of my rich white upper-class liberal friends lives there. :)

I think you may be interested in this Spiked article which talks about how the process you mentioned is going on throughout America, with people literally choosing to live among those who share their political beliefs. The fact that you can name "liberal" and "conservative" towns proves it.

DBB said...

Miss Breeziness - I'm glad you enjoy reading my blog. I've enjoyed writing it (though I'm finding it a bit harder to find the time right now due to a new job and a relatively new baby - but that will stabalize soon enough).

You say you don't like to discuss issues with liberals - what would you say your particular political persuasion is, if you even have one?

I would argue that we really don't need "safe spaces" like that because they don't really do anything but foster extremism - good ideas are ideas that survive where they actually have to fight doubters for survival rather than survive by default as all dissent is squelched.

That doesn't mean you can't discuss things with like-minded people, it just means that you should not limit the discussion to like-minded people either directly or indirectly, or else you are going to go off a cliff (and you won't even realize you've done so).

Anyway, welcome to my blog! I hope you feel free to comment more as the mood strikes you.

Miss Breeziness said...

Thanks for your response. It's okay, I understand that you are busy. Especially with a new baby!

As for what my politics are, I definitely lean towards libertarian.

You're right, I was thinking too much in terms of psychology instead of philosophy or politics. I know that people who have low self-esteem and have been criticized by others often need a space where they are accepted "as is", but it is indeed a bad idea as far as politics go.

The trouble is, as I see it, lots of people feel - whenever someone criticizes their politics or philosophy - as if it's an attack on them personally, and they therefore complain about the criticizer being "privileged" or "attacking them" or so forth. (I am certainly not immune to that mindset myself. Truth be told, I don't usually go to disagreeing blogs and argue points - because then I find myself on the receiving end of that. It happened once, and was very painful for me.)

Having said that, I definitely think that people of all political stripes should lay off on the ad hominem, name calling, and claims to being offended. These do nothing but get in the way of discussion.

DBB said...

MB - That's a good point about the need for belonging. I think that's the trap some fall into, though, where the need to belong overrides independent thought.

That said, everyone needs a circle of friends and family for support. But I think that should be something separate from politics.

I think a good way to avoid the feeling of being attacked is to focus on the ideas under discussion and not the person - avoiding ad hominems, as you say, is a good way to do that.

As you can probably tell from my posts on privilege (if you've read even half of them) I find claims of "privilege" to be rather bogus and they seem more an attempt to shut someone up than discuss anything.

When you say you were on the receiving end, do you mean you have a blog where others came to respond after you made a post?

I find the lawyer in me loves to argue when I see something that I either disagree with or that just sparks some train of thought and it just comes right out. Though I have since learned to avoid posting on the pure echo chamber blogs, mostly because it is a total waste of time. People at places like IBTP aren't interested in a discussion, they are interested in syncophantic worship for the "ins" and viscious attacks for the "outsiders".

Miss Breeziness said...

DBB, thank you for your kind words. I totally agree that the "privilege" charge is used to stop discussion instead of to facilitate it.

Actually, it was my mistake. I made a post criticizing some elements of the "the-world-all-sucks-and-is-against-us" thinking on a new friend's blog. You see, she discusses transsexual issues. (It isn't the fact that they were transsexual that bothered me, it was that general feeling of "everyone apart from us is against us!". Come to think of it, I think some of those feminist blogs you visited are probably similar.)

I think I hurt some feelings there, and I got called "privileged" for being, well, a normatively-gendered person. Come to think of it, I think I argued badly - The issue I wanted to target was "the world doesn't suck as much as you think it does", but instead, I made the mistake of making the main gist of my argument "Believe in yourself and don't let other people's stupid opinions bother you". However, I definitely tried my best to be nice.

Afterwards, I got defriended, my friend saying that they needed a "safe space" to discuss trans issues. Being someone who has been criticized severely myself, and someone who feels personally attacked even when it wasn't the others' intention, I felt sympathy for this viewpoint, but I definitely think they are in great danger of becoming an echo chamber...

Basically, they told me that discrimination against transsexuals wasn't just in my imagination and was a real problem. Unfortunately, said person who told me that also swore constantly and was dripping with venom, so that I didn't feel that receptive, let me tell you that! :) (I'm very proud of the fact that I never got angry back.)

From then on, I never brought up controversial issues at other people's blogs again. It's like every single time the US intervenes politically in the Middle East - a giant hornet's nest is stirred up. I do write about politics at my own - if you would like to visit, it's here - Ha. Be warned, I also write about other things, like anime for instance! :D

DBB said...

MB - I will check out your blog when I get the chance.

It just occurred to me that "privileged" is like a dirty word used to shut down discussion on some left-wing blogs and, ironically, "liberal" is the word used to shut down any dissent on right-wing blogs (where they allow comments at all).

Miss Breeziness said...

Aye, aye. If I were to jump into a conservative's livejournal and talk about why gays should be allowed to get married or why America shouldn't interfere with other countries' political affairs, I'd probably get the label "liberal" posted all over me, and the same venom-dripping and claims that "cultural degeneracy in America is a real problem, you can't just ignore it and hope it goes away".
It's sad that political discussion has degenerated to such a level on every side.