This morning on the way to school CBC’s “Q” Guest host Jonathan Torrens had a fabulous interview with Nicholas Kristof about his Op-Ed piece in the New York Times. Kristof is working off several M.I.T. studies that point to the connection between the self selection of news and information to a hyper polarization of common discourse. Here are some quotes.
We may believe intellectually in the clash of opinions, but in practice we like to embed ourselves in the reassuring womb of an echo chamber.
…Americans increasingly are segregating themselves into communities, clubs and churches where they are surrounded by people who think the way they do.
The result is polarization and intolerance. Cass Sunstein, a Harvard law professor now working for President Obama, has conducted research showing that when liberals or conservatives discuss issues such as affirmative action or climate change with like-minded people, their views quickly become more homogeneous and more extreme than before the discussion. For example, some liberals in one study initially worried that action on climate change might hurt the poor, while some conservatives were sympathetic to affirmative action. But after discussing the issue with like-minded people for only 15 minutes, liberals became more liberal and conservatives more conservative.
What does this all mean?
Kristof argued in the radio interview that not only would this lead to further polarization in the general population but that information itself would change. We can note with alarm that newspapers are dying but it is not the forest decimating feel of paper in our hands that we will lose – it is the ability to have an open dialogue in the public sphere. When we can reinforce our own ideological point of view with the type of news we read or by selecting the source of our information we need not confront our own errors.
Kristof’s solution is to actively read a wide range of ideological material. Of course the classic excuse is that we have too little time to spread our attention across the veritable filth that occupies all other perspective but our own. So are we doomed to this narcissistic polarization?