There’s an internal struggle that I myself have been experiencing lately, but that I think may also extend to a larger population. It’s an effort to balance one’s own self-righteousness with their ability to discuss and listen to perspectives that threaten their own.
This past election and current political climate has given rise to a pronounced discussion about echo chambers, and how they prevent discourse and compromise. Loosely defined, echo chambers are generally self-imposed loops where you block out each and any idea that contradicts your own. This usually happens through unfriending or blocking people on social media, watching or reading exclusively partisan news publications, or even arguing with others without really hearing them. Post-election, the predominant narrative has been that echo chambers are responsible for increased hate and miscommunication, not to mention an exponentially polarized America.
For the most part, this is true. Understanding and education on various perspectives are incredibly key. I dislike echo chambers for the same reason I’m wary of safe spaces: they prevent active discourse and dialogue and impede upon the opportunity for education. However, there is an issue with how readily and excitedly we are currently breaking down and compromising our beliefs. Engaging in discourse across political ideologies is only effective when it occurs self-consciously (or naturally). Currently, however, it’s a phenomenon that has arisen through the shaming of others (primarily liberal voters).
This isn’t a new conclusion. One of my closest friends, Max Foley-Keene, succinctly outlined the issue in an article for one the University of Maryland’s newspapers, the Diamondback. “After the election,” he writes, “liberals were told we live in a political bubble. We were shocked on Nov. 8 because we don’t understand the Trumpista’s pain…A primary cause of liberal callousness, the narrative went, is the ideological uniformity of our news feeds. Maybe, though, if liberals read news with which we disagree, we will make peace with the inscrutable Trump fan.”
The danger of embarking on this empathy project is that it’s easy to be swayed by eloquent, educated, seemingly liberal-friendly conservative voices. Just because not all conservatives publicly call Mexican immigrants rapists, talk about sexually harassing women with pride, or exhibit blatant Islamophobia does not mean that they aren’t swayed or motivated by equally as insidious beliefs or value systems. Do not let your moral standards be so lowered by our president-elect that they give credit to conservative writers like David Frum or Andrew Sullivan (anyone who exhibits the minutest form of charisma or eloquence).
I have been guilty of this line of thinking myself. Just last week, I got into a heated argument with a formerly close friend of mine over a destructive line of thinking masked as something more intellectual. She’s a Trump supporter from a family of conservatives, but that has never really affected our relationship prior to this moment. Recruitment flyers for the Ku Klux Klan had just been found near the College of Wooster campus, and there was a Unity rally planned for the upcoming weekend. While discussing it with friends, this particular individual made a comment along the lines of “I wish I could go to a KKK rally just to observe and get a better sense of their culture, and why they believe what they do.” The problem with this line of thinking, in my eyes, is that the KKK isn’t something you just go to observe. The KKK has a bloody, bigoted, and violent history including extreme anti-Semitism, hate towards all minorities, and the lynching of African-Americans. They have existed for years, and are both well-documented and prevalent. This current national exhibition of white identity and supremacy might be larger and more pronounced than in recent years, but it is far from new. There is no reason to attend a KKK rally whatsoever, and if your goal is to learn more about them, there are easily 10 other ways to do that. Particularly as a white individual not threatened directly or endangered by such a rally, this is an extremely nasty thing to hear if you’re anyone who is in danger.
After thinking about it over the next few days, I was worried I made the wrong call. Had I just shut down an opposing viewpoint because I didn’t want to hear it? Isn’t understanding what I always advocate for? But this is a perfect example of what I’m warning against. Do not get trapped in this guilt and empathy. Understanding is key, as is compromise and depolarization, but not when it comes at the expense of your value system and support for those in danger or oppressed. There is absolutely zero reason to ever even entertain the thought of going to a white supremacy rally, and at the very least no reason to engage in it.
John F. Kennedy was paraphrasing Dante when he said “The hottest places in Hell are reserved for those who in time of moral crisis preserve their neutrality.” Being pulled towards liberal conservatism is understandable and an entirely valid move, but do not fall into the trap of trading your beliefs for others because you’ve been shamed into it. Understanding and compromise is not always the highest, most moral goal.
Originally published 8/29/17.