I admit it, I am an avid Facebook user and unapologetically so. When I was teaching 8th grade, my students would tell me that Facebook was “so yesterday Mr. G.” Apparently I am supposed to be using Twitter or Insta-Something if I am “up on things.” Does anyone even say “up on things” anymore? I don’t really know. I’m from a generation where “hooking up” is something that you do when you want to meet somebody OUTSIDE of a bedroom rather than in. (Chuckle) I’m ok with social-media-dinosaur status. Heck, I still have an AOL email address so what do I care?!
Through the woods behind my house is a nudist camp. My wife and I will walk our dogs up and down the road that leads to it. I’m telling you this because our observation is that the vast majority of “campers” are elderly. I think that when you are young you care more about how you look and what people think of you. When you get past fifty, which I am, you care less and less about what people think. You become more apt to “let it all hang out” no matter how good or bad “it” looks, and I am finding that I am not immune to that phenomena. I’m not saying that I will be frolicking through the woods in my birthday suit any time soon (a sure relief to my adult children) but I do live my life more transparently than I ever have and especially in the intellectual realm. What? You don’t like what or how I think? Go pound salt for all I care and welcome to Barry’s nudist camp for brains. (Chuckle) Life is a vapor and I can already envision mine dissipating like a morning’s mist. There exists a judge whose appraisal concerns me but that judge does not live here on planet Earth and therefore that judge is not you.
I’ve told you all that because Facebook is a place where I can let it all hang out. I have about five hundred friends, real people, 99% of whom I have personally met and have had some measure of personal relationship with at some point in my life. The other 1% I am looking forward to meeting in the future but for now they are just friends of friends. Every now and again I will lose a “friend” and it’s hard to tell who because Facebook doesn’t tell me. “Barry, your remarks about Donald Trump have deeply offended USER592 and they have unfriended you and thrown you into the lake of social media fire.” (Chuckle) It would be so much easier if they actually did that because then I would know who to make amends with. Speaking of which, have I ever told you that I ran for President in 2016?
After watching the first Republican and Democrat debates I decided that I didn’t like anybody and I didn’t want to end up voting for somebody I didn’t believe in so I registered with the Federal Elections Commission and legit ran for president because I still believe in me. I started a Facebook group and it was “dope,” to borrow a phrase from my students, that I don’t fully understand. It featured some really great humor pieces about the major candidates plus serious discussions about public policy and whatever issues were in the public mind. At the height of its popularity the group had over 1000 members. It was all hugs and kisses until the conventions. Right after the DNC and RNC finished nominating candidates for President, people suddenly lost their sense of humor. I say humor because in that group I would post as much humor about the election as I would serious commentary. What used to be funny wasn’t funny anymore and week after week the group would bleed members. By the time the election was conducted it had shrunk to about 930 members. Why? because people don’t want to hear what they don’t want to hear.
We like to tell ourselves that we are tolerant and accepting and we seethe with self-righteousness as we do. We are such good people because we love our neighbors as ourselves. We don’t exclude people because their lifestyles are different than ours, no, until they differ politically or intellectually from us. If you doubt me then why does Facebook have as a feature the “Hide all posts from This-User” option in a pull down menu attached to every post? Facebook at its heart is a marketing tool that relies on people being connected to each other. Back in the beginning, if a user cheesed you off you would unfriend them so you didn’t have to see their “offensive” posts. That was bad for Facebook business so now you can choose the “hide posts” option and still technically be friends. You will never have to see another post that disagrees with your already held beliefs. Problem solved. If you do this enough you can create for yourself a Facebook echo chamber.
An echo chamber is literally a room that reflects sound rather than absorbing it. Metaphorically speaking, an echo chamber is a social environment where you don’t ever have to deal with anything that challenges your current thinking. All you ever hear are the “echoes” of your own voice/thinking. Nothing is ever absorbed by the walls, just self-affirming thoughts and philosophies bouncing around endlessly, building to an intellectually deafening cacophony. The cold hard truth is that echo chambers are a function of intolerance. When we build an echo chamber we do so because we are intellectually intolerant. You can tell yourself whatever you think you need to justify yourself, but is it really so hard to scroll past a meme that you don’t agree with? As the comedian Steve Hughes jokes, “Nothing really happens to you when you are offended.” He continues sarcastically, “I was at the comedy club last night and the comedian said something about the Lord and I was offended. The next day I woke up and I had leprosy.” (Chuckle) That Youtube video makes me laugh out loud every time I see it and I see it often so I don’t fall into a depression over the intellectual intolerance that plagues the horribly misnamed “social” media.
So, how do you build an echo chamber for yourself? It’s really quite easy.
1) Surround yourself with friends who think just like you. Keep one or two non-conformist friends around just for display, like freaks in a circus. You need to be able to tell yourself how tolerant and diverse you are and they are the proof.
2) Don’t watch any news outlet that you don’t agree with. If you are a right-of-center person politically then your only choice is Fox News. Watch them religiously, morning, noon, and night. CNN? Never. Tell yourself that they are the Clinton News Network. You can’t possibly watch them because all they do is tell leftist lies. Are you left-of-center? That’s easy peezy lemon squeezy, watch anything but Fox News. (Chuckle) You are completely safe from ever having to hear anything that might challenge your preconceived beliefs.
3) Use social media judicially. What I mean by that is be a boss. Anytime you see a meme that agrees with your mindset, share it and show all of your friends just how much you care. You don’t need to fact check it because you’re never wrong and since that meme agrees with your prejudices it must be true. Eureka! If any of your “friends” challenge the meme, tell them that they are intolerant before unfriending them. Your power in these situations is god-like. Use it to your advantage. If you see any meme that offends you, you can either choose to “hide all posts” from the hosting user or you can “hide all posts” from the user who plagued your news feed with such horribly untrue and slanderous garbage. You use Facebook for fun. How dare anyone interrupt your happy stream of puppy videos and dinner plate photos by challenging your intellectual positions? The nerve of some people! You are better off without them so just unfriend them. Better yet, write a post that threatens all of the people on your friends list with an announcement that you are going to weed out all of the troublesome people. Cull the herd! That will teach them. Put the fear of god into those damnable heathen. Let’s see how many of your friends respond by groveling, expressing hopes that you won’t unfriend them. Your power is immense and your righteousness in judgement is unquestionable, so by all means “go for it,” you’re the boss. (Chuckle)
At this point you should have successfully silenced 95%+ of all of the voices that might be a challenge to your current thinking. All you will ever hear are things that you already agree with. You will have succeeded in building an intellectual echo chamber on the order of the Notre Dame cathedral, a masterpiece of architecture where you can hear a whisper from a hundred feet away. Hail to yourself! Because that’s all you will ever hear. The problem, if you haven’t already been able to discern it, is that you have also built for yourself an intellectual prison from which escape is improbable.
I used to be an exclusively right-of-center thinker. My Liberal friends still think that I am a Conservative but the good news is that my Conservative friends now think that I am a quasi-Liberal so apparently I have grown. Over the years I have moved away from myopic positions of “intellectual incest” which is just a synonymous phrase for an echo chamber. I used to be pro-death penalty. I used to also be pro-life. Being the child of a teenage mother, embracing a pro-life stance was easy. I was one of the lucky at-risk fetuses that survived my mother’s womb to experience life in the post-uterus world. It’s hard for me to accept the idea that I had no rights to live the life I had been granted by the Creator just because I was small and helpless at one point in my life. I have a friend who was a sort of pseudo-Mennonite who kindly challenged me about my death penalty stance. “How can you say on the one hand that it is wrong to extinguish the life of a fetus because that life is God given but yet you have no problems extinguishing the life of a criminal; a life that was also given by God?” Without actually considering the reasonableness of her question, (because I am always right in my own mind) I responded with the standard response that the fetus is an innocent life and the criminal is a guilty life. I was stuck in my echo chamber, an intellectual prison and all I could hear was my own voice. She did not push me but chose instead to allow God to convict me. Weeks later it dawned on my mind that God’s desire is to save all of mankind, which means the criminal as well. If I believe that eternal judgement comes in death then why would I support the extinguishing of a life that is clearly in need of repentance before they face their Maker? The bi-polar nature of my simultaneously pro-life and pro-death penalty mindset suddenly became clear and I repented. I changed my mind and now I embrace the idea that we need to keep life-sentenced criminals alive as long as we possibly can in the hopes that the Holy Spirit will save them by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone; the free gift of God so that no human can brag about her or his own salvation. (Like they actually had something substantial to do with it) My jail break led me to change my mind on many other policy issues as well. Instead of conforming to a purely left or right political ideology I found myself finding truth on both sides; two wings of the same bird. I am so thankful to have escaped the echo chamber of my youth and now I enjoy a free thinking life outside of the prison.
So, now that we know how to build an intellectual echo chamber, let’s finish by discussing how to disassemble one. It’s really quite easy.
1) Surround yourself with the most diverse group of friends that you can; diverse in age, gender, culture, ethnicity, the “whole shooting match.” Find people who will challenge you, forcing you to think about why you think the way you do. In the education field, we’ve invented a fancy word to describe this so that we feel more professional than we are. That word is “meta-cognition”; thinking about thinking. Learn to challenge yourself and don’t be afraid to change. Do you believe what you believe because that’s the way that everybody else in your social circle thinks or do you believe things because they actually make sense and you have fully thought them out? Be a free thinker, not a follower thinker.
2) Spend 50% of your time watching news channels that don’t reinforce your preconceived notions. You may think that it won’t be that difficult because you see yourself as a paragon of tolerance but you are mistaken. You will be shaken and stirred like a James Bond vodka martini and some of the reports that you will force yourself to watch will set your teeth on edge. Yes, you are that intolerant, trust me. Back in the day I bought the t-shirt after meeting the band.
3) Embrace everybody on social media. Sure, intellectually fight it out peaceably but blocking people because you can’t tolerate their posts is juvenile. Un-bunch your under-garments and start “adulting”; to borrow a phrase from my beloved Millennials.
To conclude, life is short, too short to live it as a pinhead. Life in the echo chamber can be cozy but it is also growth stifling. Your intellectual prison, like Tolkien’s Ring of Power, will bind you in the darkness. Sincerely strive to be free and when you are older your brain will be able to hang out at Camp Barry in all of its naked glory, without fear and without shame because you have shaped your thinking in honest reflection in the light of the Sun of all suns.
Addendum: This post was inspired by a quiz from the PBS News Hour entitled, “Do You Live in a Bubble?” Not to brag (I’m not competitive at all) but I scored a 78, one of the highest scores among my soon to be elderly friends while my young and virile man-of-the-world eldest child, Mr. Internet, Mr. Information Age, Mr. Computer Programmer Extraordinaire scored a measly 50-something. I have since renamed him Bubble Boy. You can see if you are a Bubble Boy as well by taking the quiz HERE.
A friend of mine dubbed me “The voice of reason in a very unreasonable world” which I am flattered by because I am less than that. Having said that, if you enjoyed my writing I invite you to scroll to the very bottom of this page where there is a button labeled “Follow”. If you press that button you will receive a notification whenever this blog is updated with new posts. Thank you for reading.