September 13, 2008
Y’all? Sorry I haven’t been around much. I’m doing this work-and-school thing, you know? And all my blog-reading time has been completely soaked up. But I did want to respond to something from over in yesterday’s open thread, where Jake wrote,
I mean this in all seriousness, since I was seven when Dukakis coughed up a 30 point lead. Is this the beginning of a meltdown, or is this something where people who see this as ridiculous on its face [are] just having a really good time with this?
I’m in Spain and kind of self-select my media through RSS. What kind of serious discussion is this getting Stateside?
and Cindy replied,
Jake, after 8 years of Bush/Cheney, it takes a lot of stupid to bring on a meltdown. I will say, though, that I was happy to find colleagues at work discussing the interview when I arrived today, and it was featured on NPR this morning.
So. At school on Tuesday, in a class that has a different guest speaker every week, we had a great session with Ethan Zuckerman, whose basic argument was that while the Internet provides us with this unprecedented ability to exchange ideas with people from all over the world, in fact what tends to happen is that we hang out online with people who have very similar lifestyles, values, and opinions as ourselves. And so sometimes we don’t realize that everybody else doesn’t think the way we do until it’s too late. He gave as an example the profound astonishment and disappointment of Howard Dean supporters in 2004. Insert your candidate of choice here.
Ethan’s preferred word for this flocking tendency is homophily, “a remarkably useful term, a compact word that succinctly expresses the idea that ‘birds of a feather flock together’—that you’re likely to befriend, talk to, work with and share ideas with people who’ve got common ethnic, religious and economic background with you.”
He goes on, in a blog post that covers much of what we heard in his talk,
Why is homophily a trap? Cass Sunstein argues that it can polarize us—in Infotopia, he cites a study he helped conduct that demonstrates that deliberation of political issues with like-minded people leads subjects to a more politically polarized stance. From this, and from a close reading of political polarization in the blogosphere, he argues that the Internet may make it easier for us to share information with likeminded individuals, and that in a political context, this could be a bad thing.
I’ve made a much less persuasive and elegant argument summarized by the aphorism “Homophily can make you stupid.” My argument, basically, is that it’s possible to miss huge trends, changes and opportunities by talking solely to people who agree with you. I use myself as an exemplar of this sort of stupidity—I found myself so baffled by the results of the 2004 US Presidential election that I invited Republicans to come have a beer with me to explain what they were thinking. (One did. Thanks, Ian.) If homophily is capable of misleading Americans about local politics, just imagine what we fail to understand about Egypt, Pakistan and Fiji by virtue of not consuming media recommended by people from those places?
There’s a lot more where that came from; you should read Ethan’s whole post, and check out the links, as well. There’s a lot of text over there, but I think—because we have this wonderful, cozy homophilic relationship—that you’ll find it worthwhile. And take a look at Global Voices, the website Ethan cofounded that aggregates news from outside the United States—news that is extremely scarce in the U.S. media, online and off:
So . . . my point is . . . we may not be qualified to say whether this issue is getting any serious discussion. Coverage on NPR doesn’t mean shit, because who listens to NPR? We do. (Well, you do; I don’t do radio.) You know, we liberals. And those other people are listening to Rush, and watching O’Reilly, and nodding along and asking, “Yeah, why can’t those stupid liberals see what’s right in front of their faces?” By not talking across this political divide, which has been getting wider and wider over the last eight years, we’re saying, “I hope that the people on the other side are even more unjustifiably deluded about their candidates’ chances than I am.” We’re guessing. We’re betting. We’re sticking our fingers in our ears and singing, “La la la la la I can’t hear you.”
Put another way, we’re not swinging any voters by sitting here talking about what a fucking laughingstock/monster Sarah Palin is. We could be raging about her to people who don’t think she’s ridiculous. We could be finding out why they don’t think she’s ridiculous, and why they don’t think a John McCain presidency would be disastrous for this country. And maybe we’ll both learn something. Have you had a beer with a Republican lately?
For my part, I know all of, like, two. My brother is one of them, and I’m ashamed to say that I don’t know anything about his take on this election. I mean, I’m assuming that he’s planning to vote for John McCain, because he’s perpetually defying what seems to me to be plain fucking common sense. But he’s not doing it just to exasperate me, and he’s not a stupid person. He also is not a religious fundamentalist, is not an oil company executive, is not a hayseed, and probably doesn’t equate a fetus with an adult. We went to the same schools through twelfth grade, watched the same TV shows, listened to the same records, had a lot of the same teachers, and were raised by the same parents. Yet as far as I know, our political opinions could not be more different. As far as I know. I don’t know, because I don’t bother talking with him about it, because I know he thinks I’m an idiot for thinking differently from him, and why should I try to have a serious discussion with someone who thinks I’m an idiot?
Because I think I have to, and not just because I don’t want McCain to win this election. Because after the election, whatever the result, we’re going to have to find a way to depolarize this country before it tears itself apart.
I’m going to talk to him, and I’m going to try to listen.
Dear Clusterflock, what are you going to do?
* “How News Shapes Our World” by Alisa Miller, Public Radio International, www.pri.org. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.