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The Glorious Internet: Closer to Dialogue or Further Away?

Remember all those long-ago TV ads that trumpeted the vast promise of the Internet to bring us all together? Apparently, quite the opposite is taking place.

So says a recent Los Angeles Times op-ed by Gregory Rodriguez. A senior fellow at the New America Foundation, Rodriguez writes that “despite all the newfangled ways we’ve developed to communicate across all sorts of boundaries, we’re increasingly deciding to talk, tweet and Facebook with folks who are more or less like ourselves.”

Why? Rodriguez quotes a fascinating insight from Bill Bishop, author of The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America Is Tearing Us Apart. With the explosion of diversity in today’s world, Bishop writes, people increasingly have to create their own identities. That’s a lot easier when you draw on support from people like you.

I see this as a good thing. In Western culture, at least, we no longer have a social consensus to tell us who we are (or aren’t). Thank God for that, especially since the consensus defined “normal” in very restrictive ways. But as someone with his own eccentric identity, I have seen how isolating the resultant “who am I?” quest can be. Support from like-minded people is a breath of fresh air, and the Internet has made it easier to find them.

The problem is not that we hang out with like-minded people. The problem comes when we only hang out with like-minded people (or only read their like-minded thinking).

By doing that, we drastically limit the number of worldviews we encounter. Our views can easily become more rigid and dogmatic. We might think the answers to problems are simple when they’re not. Moreover, we start to believe things about people not of our worldview—and those things are often inaccurate.

That may be why, for instance, some LGBT people see all evangelical Christians as homophobic, or why some Anglos see all Mexicans as unpatriotic, or why some Americans fear all Muslims as potential terrorists.  And it makes dialogue difficult.

But what if we expanded the spectrum of places we hang out online? It can do wonders for clearing away preconceptions. As our exploration unfolds, we may realize that “all people in x group” don’t have the same perspective, because this blogger in x group has a different perspective. More often than not, we discover that her perspective is well thought out. Maybe we can find ways to at least respect those opinions, if not actually bridge our divides.

Rodriguez quotes former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor on the value of spending time with “them” and their perspectives. To help reach consensus as an Arizona legislator, she’d invite the warring sides over to her house for home-cooked Mexican food and beer. They’d sit around and shoot the bull. In time, they became friends. This can happen virtually too (OK, minus the edibles).

Will this kind of crossover solve all our problems? Of course not. Differences in opinion and debates over policy will never go away, and neither should they: they can contribute to the forging of better solutions. But we can’t even begin to solve our problems if we’re not talking. And we can’t talk productively unless we see and hear others, especially our “adversaries,” for who they really are. If that means reading MoveOn.org as well as nationalreview.com, or The Wall Street Journal as well as The New York Times, then that’s what we have to do.

2 Responses to “The Glorious Internet: Closer to Dialogue or Further Away?”

  • Bill Peltz says:

    One problem, John.

    I subscribe to MANY “right wing” news and opinion services, as well as more ideologically congenial services on what is loosely called “the left”. I have to confess that sources like Newsmax and Patriot Update are increasingly driving me mad with the same old same old vituperative screeds and spin. Not that the “left-wing” stuff isn’t repetitive — but, although it may just be my bias that’s speaking, it seems that the “lefties” aren’t in as high a demonizing dudgeon and they seem somewhat more attuned to what I, from my anthropologist’s perspective, would call “reality”.

    So it can be profoundly disturbing to see and hear our adversaries for who they really are. That is, if they are, among other things, paranoid or believers in fantastic theories.

    Naturally, the perception of who’s paranoid or out of touch with reality depends on where one stands. It’s a discouraging prospect.

    One of my favorite writers, the humorist James Thurber, wrote about a housemaid his family had who would often pronounce, without any preamble, the to-him-disconcerting words “There ain’t no way!”

    Perhaps she’s right and these problems can’t be solved.

    At the very least, to quote Zen Judaism (by David Bader), “The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single ‘oy’.” A deep and heartfelt “oy!”.

    • admin says:

      Your experience is my experience, Bill. For some reason I hate to admit it, but I see most of the truly toxic stuff–not just insults, but actual fabrications, conspiracy theories, etc.–coming from the right wing. I would LOVE to hear a conservative voice prove us wrong, or at least partly wrong, or at least provide a different perspective. Any takers out there?

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