Wednesday, 30 November 2016

On internet conversations, echo chambers and the complexity of human life

There’s been a lot of talk going on about how 2016 has been a terrible year for the human race, in general. Between the disgusting, monstrous atrocities being committed in Syria and the hateful rhetoric being spread and consumed by people worldwide, I guess we’ve got the basics of a truly rotten year covered. Everyone is scared and annoyed and frustrated. Everyone feels powerless against a world that keeps on screwing them over. So when I open my social media accounts and see people projecting this desperation in forms as wide ranging as thought-provoking videos, to deftly worded 140 character opinion pieces, to even long, angry rants, I’m not surprised. I understand the need for sharing our experiences, for telling other people that we exist and we matter, and for having the decisions we make be valued by the society that we live in. I understand it and I support it. At the same time, however, I think that although the internet has made communication easier and faster and more inclusive, it hasn’t necessarily made it more efficient.

Let me explain.  

We like to put people in little boxes so that it’s easier for us to comprehend their actions and engender a response which stems from our own preconceived biases. It’s the easy thing to do. You think Modi’s demonetization scheme is a sham? You’re anti-national. You voted for Trump? You’re a racist. You think UK made the right choice to leave the EU? You’re clearly an idiot. I know these are not trivial issues. What they are, however, are extremely polarizing. You either belong to one group or the other and you have to pick a side. What gets lost in all the conversations – and I use that word grudgingly – on the internet is the nuance that is associated with each of these issues. I look at my social media (my own private echo chamber) and I see people validating my beliefs but I also see people rejecting, and outright insulting the people outside of my echo chamber. Notice how I say people and not beliefs. Because, although there are articles that criticize the belief itself without being condescending, there is an abundance of content which equates having said belief with lack of intellect, morality, humanness, etc. And so, I’m lead to believe that everyone outside of my echo chamber is a caricature. In my mind, they’ve already been dehumanized to an extent that I don’t find them capable of cogent thought. And here lies the problem. Because now, I refuse to associate any merit to their arguments. I can’t agree partly with them because that would mean I’m somewhat like them and my echo chamber has already convinced me that they are not “good” people. I can’t say, “That makes sense,” to anything that they put forward because I consciously or subconsciously believe that they are idiots. So instead of having an intelligent conversation that leads to an exchange of ideas, we’re stuck with two groups equally disillusioned by their own moral high grounds, spitting out argument after argument, completely oblivious to the perspective of the other side. This is counter-productive since not only is there no positive outcome of such shouting matches, as arguments turn to insults, we are also closing the door on any future conversations.

I’m not saying that we justify everything even if it doesn’t fit with our definition of ethics or morality. I’m saying that we change the present narrative from “I’m right and you’re a complete idiot” to “I believe that I’m right but I’m willing to listen to you and even if we don’t end up agreeing a hundred percent we’ll at least leave this conversation with a more nuanced worldview than before”. I’m saying that we try to understand where the other “group” is coming from. You don’t have to agree with them. But you have to acknowledge that differences exist and that there is a divide that we need to bridge over together. It’s probably utopian to think of a world where both sides would acknowledge this divide and have a respectful conversation about it or reach the elusive ‘middle ground’. But one can try. I know the very thought of having a conversation with “those” people can sound revolting but we need these conversations to happen. We need to get out of our echo chambers and engage. In the end, we need to realize that we’re all people: beautiful, complex beings with the capability of intricate, intelligent thought, with lives that cannot be reduced to a label.

So talk. Because honestly speaking, the only thing that I’ve learned from 2016 is that we’ve forgotten how to do that.


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