Getting Outside the Bubble

Whether we know it or not, we all live in bubbles. It is human nature to prefer the company — real or virtual — that we find congenial. This often translates, these days, into “people who agree with me”.

So co-religionists flock to co-religionists; party members flock to fellow party members; people in technical roles (accountancy, human resources, IT, etc.) gather with others of their work in industry associations and the like; and so on. This, in turn, fits those we choose to feed our desires for opinions.

When, for instance, a die-hard Conservative says “the CBC is against the Conservative Party”, what is meant is “I didn’t hear anyone on there I could agree with”. It’s easy to find evidence of bias if you’re looking for it. At the start of the G-20 meeting in Washington, for instance, footage of Prime Minister Harper walking with President Bush was shown. Easy to think this was at the conference, but the light seemed wrong: too bright and intense for November. Then, too, it was a shirt-sleeve environment in the shot. This was probably stock footage, rather than live coverage (which is typically by pool cameras in any case and therefore seldom shows anything Canadian) — but it didn’t say so. Bias? or fairly reported. You decide. I think it was just available footage as opposed to anything sinister.

Of course, “we report, you decide” is the slogan of the either deeply beloved or utterly despised Fox News Channel, isn’t it? I can report — having spent a few days with an American friend of mine who is a Fox News junkie and has his big screen on from morning to night — that FNC is actually two channels. Morning and afternoon programming actually does, for the most part, live up to the promise of “fair and balanced”, more so than most other 24/7 news channels. As afternoon starts to slide toward evening, however, it turns into an obvious and often vicious news twister carrying forward messages that support Fox’s party of choice.

How can I mention the CBC and FNC in the same breath? Well, because I do try to get outside my own bubbles of like-minded thinkers.

I found watching FNC in the evening very hard to do, even when I was on the same side of an issue they were reporting in a favourable manner, mostly because they were so obviously so over the top in twisting things. Still, it’s good to check out other bubbles occasionally, and to try and be open enough to them to “peer behind the curtain”.

This is also why, for instance, I stay away from joining a partisan or issue-centric aggregator. Sure, I could have more traffic for this blog (although it keeps growing by word of mouth as more people find it or are referred to it). I might generally support the ideals of the Conservative Party, and do think Prime Minister Harper hasn’t done a bad job overall. (Expecting perfection — or perfectibility — is a mug’s game anyway.) Does that mean he’ll (or his party) have my support next week? Perhaps not. For the fact that I send money to parties — and in the last two years the NDP and the Conservatives have received funds, as have candidates for the NDP and the Green Party — does not mean I am a die-hard partisan. I have standards and principles and positions on issues, but my blood does not run with the rhetoric of “my party, right or wrong”.

But I do enjoy — and consider essential — reading quality writers from all the major threads of thought and political stripe. (I have little time for tripe, and less stomach for it. Nor do I want to weed through masses of screaming, foul invective, outright twisting of the facts or character assassination, regardless of issue or position on the political spectrum. Rabid Conservatives are generally as noxious as are Rabid Liberals (Warren Kinsella, anyone?), Rabid NDPers or Rabid Greens.) Passion is fine, so is commitment: just try to convince me and retain your own integrity while you do that.

We need to get out of the bubbles we inhabit because more and more issues we must deal with — from the economy, to the environment, to the military, to the question of national investments, and so on — don’t “fit” the classic shorthands for allegiance. Party tents may well be “big” (or at least the attempt is made) but we are coming to a time where more and more discussions must cross boundaries to succeed in finding ways to move forward. Listening to only one’s own group of voices can’t do that.

If so many people don’t vote and don’t care to vote, could it be because the system as it is now has nothing and no one for whom they wish to vote?

Think about this for a minute. It’s assumed that if a party has the right policies to put in its “shop window” and a charismatic leader that victory can be achieved. But what if the citizen says “you know, I like this but I can’t stand that”? The presumption of a “big tent” is that that citizen would hold his or her nose to vote for what they like. Perhaps instead people are saying “I’m not holding my nose: figure me out”.

Is this a recipe for further fragmentation in our politics? Most likely, and that implies the need to undertake some structural reforms to deal with that. Why was Chuck Cadman so admired in 2005? Wasn’t his election as an Independent something that gave him, when it mattered, the chance to act on his promises rather than vote a party line? The opposition parties ask — even demand — that the Government listen to their proposals and act on them. When the Government, in turn, takes idea “a” from one party, idea “b” from another and puts forward a course of action that contains these alongside the Government’s own electoral commitments and policies, why do we hear screaming that the Government is acting in arrogance rather than praise for having picked up “a” and “b”?

Echo chambers, that’s why. The number of people looking for co-operative, cross-boundary action is apparently smaller than the number of people who are “to the wall” partisans. Certainly the media’s approach — talking heads fulfilling “roles” in ritualized combat — and the Parliamentary game of sound-bite dominance aid and abet this.

Perhaps the non-voters are part of the cross-boundary community: their voice just isn’t heard on television, on radio, in the papers or in the Commons.

So, if you’re a Conservative, read Liberals and NDP (and so on). If you’re a Liberal, stop despising Conservatives as unethical (they’re not; they just use more moral principles than you do to reach a position, as Jonathan Haidt talked about at the TED conference) and NDPers as “Liberal vote stealers” and enter their worlds. If you’re in support of the NDP … well, you should get the idea.

After all, with new ideas and a disturbing of a “too comfortable” and “closed” mind-set, the bubble you save may be your own.

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