Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Some Thoughts about Digital Tribes and Book Clubs

Bret Stephens
(image from Wikimedia Commons)

Bret Stephens, a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, recently wrote an excellent piece about what he calls “The Dying Art of Disagreement.”  The gist of his message is that Americans cannot respectfully disagree with each other, especially when it comes to politics (emphasis on respectfully).

After the polarizing election of 2016, I’d encourage all to read Stephens' thoughtful commentary.  Here, I’d like to highlight one point implicit in his article that’s close to my heart (particularly in the context of media ecology, or the study of how technologies change the way we live and think).

A Technological Paradox

Stephens points out that political polarization isn't just geographic (rural versus urban) or personal (liberal versus conservative) but also “electronic and digital”:

Americans increasingly inhabit the filter bubbles of news and social media that correspond to their ideological affinities.  We no longer just have our own opinions.  We also have our separate “facts,” often the result of what different media outlets consider newsworthy.
The paradox of digital technologies—from cable TV to Twitter—is that even though we’re interconnected more than ever before, we’ve isolated ourselves inside bubbles of information.

If you want news that conforms to your political bias, simply turn on your preferred programliberal, conservative, or reactionaryor just Google any website that confirms whatever you want to believe, regardless of the facts.  As a result, we’ve balkanized ourselves into digital tribes.

Digital Tribalism vs. Liberal Education

Digital tribalism contrasts sharply with open-minded analysis (e.g., what psychologists refer to as deep reading and listening) and sustained question-and-answer dialog (i.e., what the Greeks called dialectic).  One way to exercise those faculties is to unplug and immerse ourselves in books and conversation—or what's known as a great books curriculum.  To quote Stephens once more:
What was it that one learned through a great books curriculum? Certainly not “conservatism” in any contemporary American sense of the term. We were not taught to become American patriots, or religious pietists, or to worship what Rudyard Kipling called “the Gods of the Market Place.” We were not instructed in the evils of Marxism, or the glories of capitalism, or even the superiority of Western civilization.
As I think about it, I’m not sure we were taught anything at all. What we did was read books that raised serious questions about the human condition, and which invited us to attempt to ask serious questions of our own. Education, in this sense, wasn’t a “teaching” with any fixed lesson. It was an exercise in interrogation.
To listen and understand; to question and disagree; to treat no proposition as sacred and no objection as impious; to be willing to entertain unpopular ideas and cultivate the habits of an open mind — this is what I was encouraged to do by my teachers at the University of Chicago.
It’s what used to be called a liberal education.
Liberal education (“liberal” here just means in the spirit of liberty, nothing political) frees the mind to challenge itself and others, as opposed to isolating itself in an echo chamber of self-confirmation and vehement disagreeing with others, which is what tends to happen with digital technologies, especially social media such as Facebook and Twitter.

Social media certainly has a place in today’s world, but in the realm of civic education, it’s clearly a part of the problem, not the solution.

How to save civics

So how do we save civics?  I’ve no ultimate answer, but here’s an experiment I’ve been up to: organizing book clubs.

There’s something special about sitting with individuals of varying perspectives, reading other peoples’ viewpoints, and trying to understand and discuss areas of agreement or disagreement.  We don’t read, listen, and discuss to agree or disagree.  We do so to understand.  Then, when we do disagree, we understand why, which helps us do so respectfully or, when possible, synthesize or modify our own views.

Book club conversations, I believe, are a better model for civic engagement than posting on social media.  However, the two can be complementary.  For instance, I use Facebook to organize events for my book club, but once the book club begins, we unplug.  Social media, I’ve determined, is great for organizing events, while books and in-person conversations are better for civic dialog.


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