Whether the current furor over “fake news” fizzles or ends in state censorship, there is a legitimate issue beneath all the fear-mongering. Moreover, it’s a problem that has been known for a long time. In daily life, it shows up like this:
Have someone talk politics for just 10 seconds, and I can tell you with 80 percent accuracy where they get their news.
You’ve doubtless experienced the same thing. If certain phrases come up, I know that this person watches MSNCB and CNN, and that they read things like the Huffington Post. If they speak another way, I’ll know that they watch Fox News, listen to certain talk radio shows and read things like NewsMax.
In other words, people who consume news have become polarized, and badly so. This is a legitimate problem, though I’m certainly not endorsing state censorship to fix it… that’d be like cutting off your hand to fix hangnail.
Years ago I wrote a little series of essays for myself entitled Closed-Circuit Thinking, mostly as a way of clarifying my own thoughts. In it, I addressed the problems that arise in groups of people that listen to no voices but their own. As it turns out, I wasn’t the only person thinking along these lines. There’s now a considerable body of work of the subject, generally called Group Polarization.
Group polarization works this way: When a group of people with the same opinion remains in a single room, that opinion moves inevitably to the extreme. Many tests have been done, with widely-varied groups, and it happens every time.
The more outgoing people in any group will always struggle to make their voices heard above the din. To be regarded, of course, one must have something different to say. And since everyone in the room already holds the same opinion, the logical move is to take the opinion a bit farther than it’s already gone. (Taking it away from the extreme would make you appear unfaithful to the group.)
As a result, people in self-contained groups get more and more polarized, and ever-harsher toward any groups they see as opponents.
Don’t Blame The Internet
The blame in this situation rests in us, not in any technical system. In other words, the fault, dear Brutus, lies not in our stars, but in ourselves.
That said, the internet gave this problem a place to thrive. Pre-polarized websites, blogs, and social media channels have proliferated; it’s now possible to enclose yourself in your chosen ideology, feasting on us/them opinions, highly-emotional public clashes, and the demonization of opponents. And it is a problem.
But again, the problem is not so much that these things exist, but that so many people reward them. They want to be told how right they are. They want to see their enemies dismembered. The job of the Washington Post, if we’re to be blunt about it, is to dismember the enemies of the ‘right-thinking left.’ It’s the job of Rush Limbaugh to dismember the enemies of the ‘righteous right.’ (To Limbaugh’s credit, he admits it.)
The choice to limit ourselves to these sources, however, is our own. We don’t have to consume ‘news’ 24/7, and we can certainly pick among many sources.
The fact is that groups do evolve in this way. They will polarize themselves, whether we like it or not. It remains to us to acknowledge it, to transcend clannish instincts and to walk away from self-congratulatory cloisters.
In the end, contrary opinions are good for us. Excluding them can be dangerous. We shouldn’t be looking for pre-digested, comfortable answers.
I leave you with some words of wisdom from George Carlin. Take them to heart and you’ll escape this problem:
No matter how you care to define it, I do not identify with the local group. Planet, species, race, nation, state, religion, party, union, club, association, neighborhood, improvement committee; I have no interest in any of it. I love and treasure individuals as I meet them, I loathe and despise the groups they identify with and belong to.
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A book that generates comments like these, from actual readers, might be worth your time:
I just finished reading The Breaking Dawn and found it to be one of the most thought-provoking, amazing books I have ever read… It will be hard to read another book now that I’ve read this book… I want everyone to read it.
Such a tour de force, so many ideas. And I am amazed at the courage to write such a book, that challenges so many people’s conceptions.
There were so many points where it was hard to read, I was so choked up.
Holy moly! I was familiar with most of the themes presented in A Lodging of Wayfaring Men, but I am still trying to wrap my head around the concepts you presented at the end of this one.
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