Much to my boys’ consternation at times, I’m an “NPR in the car” parent. If we’re going somewhere they need to get pumped-up for, say to a sporting event or a workout, I’ll let them pop it on music, but mostly they’re regaled to the lilting tones of Morning Edition and All Things Considered.
On Sunday mornings, we toggle between acoustic sunrise (kids in a bad mood so I know they’ll complain) and the TED Radio Hour (got enough sleep and not thinking about Monday just yet). Last week, TED won out, and I got a chance to listen to a great story on a 2011 talk by Upworthy co-founder Eli Pariser.
His was a sobering talk about the advent of “Filter Bubbles,” our new algorithmic masters. The talk is less than nine minutes and very much worth your time. In short, he decried how the most ubiquitous ways we get our information, Facebook, Twitter, Google, Flipboard, are all “personalizing” what you see based on clickthroughs and user information. This used to be only for ads, which I personally never saw as an issue, but now it filters everything from search results to friends’ posts. The result is that the online “world” for us becomes a proverbial bedtime story; gently rocking us to sleep with warm, comforting words. I believe that makes us as a people more self-righteous and thinner-skinned whatever your political slant.
Our outgoing President would seem to agree. Again owing to my NPR-nerd side, Obama spoke in a fascinating, wide-ranging interview with Steve Inskeep, he had this to say about the advice he’s given to his daughters about political dialogue:
“… my advice to progressives like myself, and this is advice I give my own daughters who are about to head off to college, is don’t go around just looking for insults. You’re tough. If somebody says something you don’t agree with, just engage them on their ideas. But you don’t have to feel that somehow because you’re a black woman that you’re being assaulted. But speak up for yourself, and if you hear somebody saying something that’s insulting, feel free to say to that guy, “You know what? You’re rude” or “you’re ignorant” and take them on.
But the thing that I want to emphasize here though is, the irony in this debate is often-times you’ll hear somebody like a Rush Limbaugh, or other conservative commentators, or you know, radio shock jocks, or some conservative politicians, who are very quick to jump on any evidence of progressives being “politically correct,” but who are constantly aggrieved and hypersensitive about the things they care about, and are continually feeding this sense of victimization, and that they are being subject to reverse discrimination.”
I think Obama’s point is a valid one. There’s a delicate, yet vital line between disagreement and insult, and I think we have, collectively, strayed too far as a society toward conflating the two. But what I would add to the President’s insight on this is that while we shouldn’t be looking for insults, we should be actively looking for disagreement. Testing (and sometimes disproving) our assumptions helps us to be better people, parents, and for me, a better coach.
So, to give myself a little pat-on-the-back, one thing I’ve been doing for a while to get out of my filter bubble is that I’ve chosen “Conservative News” as one of my interest areas on Flipboard. I noticed over time that because I was choosing to read more progressive than conservative stories, the Flipboard algorithm was bubbling away and that the conservative stories in my main feed were dwindling down to nothing.
So rather than go to the main feed, I always spend at least a few minutes going directly to the conservative news section. Now, I’ll fully admit, most of what I see I have a hard time getting past the headlines on. Here are a couple of examples of stories I really had to force myself through:
- Islamist Terrorists Continually Slaughter Christians’: Trump Says What Obama Refused to Say: The whole “Call it Islamic Terror” thing has been a terrible dog whistle, and this article has nothing new to say on the matter. There a reason why ISIS is delighted Trump won the election, as they yearn to be taken as the No. 1 threat to Western civilization. So good on ya for playing right into that propaganda.
- Freakout on the Left: I can’t even begin to tell you how much I detest the deflection on the fact that Russia actively hacked into our election process. This kind of editorial backslapping is so filled with misstatements I can’t even begin to go through them all. The larger point I feel being missed by most isn’t the fact that Russia hacked for Trump, but that it hacked at all, and succeeded. That’s not just a past threat, but a pernicious future one that is tremendously worrisome. Articles like this make it that much more difficult to find common ground on what should be universally accepted: it is not good to have foreign powers use covert means to destabilize our democratic process.
But while the lake runs deep with articles like these that make my blood boil, there are ones that I wouldn’t have otherwise seen that stretch the gray matter a bit more.
An article from The College Fix (“Original. Student Reported. Your Daily Dose of “Right Minded” News and Commentary from Across the Nation”) posted a challenging article on a black teaching in Milwaukee who was suspended from his job for giving his 7th Grade students a persuasive writing assignment to defend the KKK.
The article is, to my mind, fairly written—not overly defending the teacher or the parents. The suspension came down over the fact that 7th Grade was too young to ask students to put themselves in the shoes of a hate group, but coming off reading To Kill a Mockingbird, the notion of seeing the perceptions of even the worst of people seems to me a challenging and appropriate assignment.
As a teacher, I could easily see myself making that choice, as arguing for the worst of people is often the best way to understand and ultimately undermine their arguments. Perhaps 13 is too young and perhaps the assignment could have been couched better, but I find it hard to think that a teacher trying to create a challenging and thought-provoking assignment should be suspended. There’s that line between disagreement and insult that Obama was talking about.
As I continued to wade through, I ran across an article that was a nerd’s must-click. This one from The Blaze, best known as Glenn Beck’s online home, emblazoned, “Israeli actress playing Wonder Woman responds to UN giving her character the boot as ambassador.” The flap, for those who aren’t aware, is that Wonder Woman was given a ceremonial ambassador for women’s rights with both the original TV Wonder Woman Linda Carter and current inhabitor of the character Gal Gadot celebrating the long history of the character championing women’s rights.
The Star-Spangled spandex and the animated version’s impossible body-type inspired a petition to remove the Themysciran princess from the UN-appointed roll. Gadot, who has embraced the chance to play Wonder Woman as the roll of a lifetime, was less-than-impressed by the rationale behind the protest. From the article:
“There are so many horrible things that are going on in the world, and this is what you’re protesting, seriously? When people argue that Wonder Woman should ‘cover up,’ I don’t quite get it. They say, ‘If she’s smart and strong, she can’t also be sexy.’ That’s not fair. Why can’t she be all of the above?”
I had to say I was behind the sentiment of the article, but I do take issue with the article’s subtext. Note in the headline the choice to say “Israeli” first. The notion of “cultural imperialism” that some of those protesting WW’s inclusion has absolutely nothing to do with Israel. Indeed her citizenship is entirely irrelevant to this particular story the way it is written.
At the very end of the article, as an aside, there’s this tucked away:
Gadot has come under attack in the past from social justice warriors for her background as an Israeli national, an Israeli Defense Force veteran, and a denouncer of Hamas.
Look how the article bookends anti-Israeli innuendo into a story that has absolutely nothing to do with the story. To me, this is perhaps the worst traditional journalistic practice—the “wink-and-nudge” editorializing within a solid piece of reporting. To me, it undermines an excellent, thought-provoking point about the need to look past labels (or the spandex) and see the value underneath. Indeed, I dare any one of the protesters to sit down and watch the wonderful Independent Lens documentary Wonder Women! and not see the immense and complex contribution to the world that this character has to this very day.
So while I was disappointed by the way The Blaze decided to cover the story, there was still room there for agreement. Indeed, the best defense for Wonder Woman came just days later from Eli Pariser’s Upworthy (wonderfully written—well worth the read). And when the two ends meet, to me that can be the place to burst the bubble and start a real, productive conversation instead of a label-throwing fight that simply puts us once again in our ideological corners.
So whatever place in the ideological spectrum you are, go hop out of the slowly warming pot of water that is the filter bubble. For the more we seek disagreement, the easier it is to find the space for common ground.