Lately I have been reminiscing about how I used to sit with friends in coffee shops and talk about culture and current affairs, moving through disagreements without dramatic exits or the imperative to agree. In recent years, I have noticed a cultural shift in how we react to disagreement in online discussions. Social media, once the space to share family photos and catch up with friends several countries away, has become this arena of dogmatism where differing viewpoints are unwelcome, even hostilely rejected as bigotry.
I have attributed this recent wave of intellectual intolerance to the impersonality of virtual culture, in part. But I have also concluded that such intolerance to differing viewpoints in online forums and Facebook groups is due to the fact that people read within a very narrow framework today—only reaching out to articles that reinforce, instead of challenge, their views. And dare they read something with which they disagree, the author is quickly demonised, her ideas are considered worthless, and online battles or callouts ensue.
All this because certain ideas presented conflict with the reader’s “inner truth.”
Recently I posted a discussion between Camille Paglia and Jordan Peterson on my wall which, like so much of what I put on social media, is not an endorsement of the piece. I often post articles with which I disagree simply because I enjoy challenging my own thoughts. Like all humans, we grow both physically and intellectually and I avoid intellectual ossification through exposing myself to different ideas constantly. To my dismay, the responses to my post were super personal: “I don’t like them” or “they’re anti-feminist.” Nobody offered any substantiative engagement with the content of the dialogue. And when I posted an article about Scarlett Johansson speaking at last month’s Women’s March in Los Angeles, the comments were similar in spirit: “But her views on Israel” and “Why did she work with Woody Allen?” Yes, people are imperfect. But whatever happened to the ability to read across a spectrum of political opinions and—in the process of reading—engage constructively to opposing views? After all, if the criteria for having something to say means being perfect, then we should all stop reading now, right?
As a university professor, my job has been to devise syllabi and offer readings in conjunction with a certain framework, usually a theme, historical period, or theoretical school. I ensured my syllabi represented male and female thinkers as much as I balanced ideological foci from week to week—across different schools of thought, through political currents of the left and right. When I taught Edward Said, I would often teach Samuel Huntington in conjunction; when I taught Judith Butler I would teach Simone De Beauvoir. I am careful to teach subjects within the more realistic and historical accuracy of disagreement and dissent and not a monochrome schema of uniquely leftist politics. Yet over the the past fifteen years, both university curricula and popular media have been streamlined to fit the students’ and readers’ ideology. Why has this shift occurred?
First, reading today is largely informed by the hyper-individualisation of society informed by technology. We spend more time online, isolated, and far less time in libraries, cafés, and book groups where we can exchange ideas and learning about new pieces to read through discussion. Instead, our reading choices are today largely electronically informed—from Facebook adverts which are algorithm-generated, directing us to read news tailored to our increasingly finite reading habits to the apps which suck our user information from browsing histories. The latter is no small affair as these apps collect data from every single action we perform: reminders to exercise; trading algorithms which dictate the political influences of media; watches which record our sleep and heart rates; and even today’s blockchain technology which ostensibly promises security and privacy in this era of government spying. When we see a list of “recommended reading” on our social media, it has been devised entirely from all the above data.
Between the pundits who believe that technology has reduced our critical thinking skills and those who maintain that disagreement is now a “dying art,” I think our challenge here is quite tough. First, we need to understand why we have allowed our reading habits to be swayed by our own ideological dogmatism. Second, we need to act on this knowledge and open our ideological framework. But how?
The answer is painfully obvious: we need to read texts that challenge us by understanding that an article is not necessarily “good” merely because it reinforces our ideas. We need to keep our minds open to being wrong and mostly we need to return to reader objectivity of the sort that our teachers and professors demanded of us as students.
So to you, dear reader, I urge you to be student of the world and read at least one article per day with which you disagree. Challenge your ideas through thoughtful interrogation instead of bathing in the virtual echo chambers of the ego.