Three Ideas for Keeping Your Mind Open in a World of Echo Chambers

I wish there were a social media platform that automatically forced you to be friends with people on all sides of the political, social, cultural, geographical, and religious spectra, and to listen to them.

Instead, not only are we being persuaded by consumer advertising (of course) but also by pointed and calculated campaigns from politics to parenting and that infiltrate even seemingly autonomous discussions online. These are campaigns seeking to persuade how we spend our time, our money, and our influence. One of their tools? Keeping us in an echo chamber that confirms our own biases (or perhaps the biases we unwittingly bought into).

Until there is a social media platform that enhances our ability to be open-minded rather than pointedly persuaded, here are three things I try to to do to keep an open mind both online and in person:

1. Don’t be right; be curious (or at least be curious first)

Nowhere are arguments and discussions so ripe for derailment as they are online. Though this idea works well in person, it tends to shine like a rare beacon in online platforms, because there — in discussions where bullshitting, exaggerating, and sarcasm runs rampant on a journey to being right — it is especially rare.

You know the type of discussion I’m referring to: someone on Facebook says something about an important topic, and a handful of people’s hearts start racing, pumping blood from their hearts straight to their overeager fingertips, which then pour out a bunch of inflammatory stuff that they may or may not have actually researched:

Post:

“I’m just gonna say it: the safety of innocent children is more important than your right to kill deer!”

First comment:

“Yes! This!”

Cue ragey feelings from gun-owner friend who responds, blood pulsing, with this:

“And who do you think is going to protect your innocent children from the CRIMINALS who I guarantee don’t give a damn about your gun laws and will walk right through them? Who will protect your innocent children from the TYRANTS trying to overthrow your innocent child’s government and take their freedom?”

Next comment:

“Amen!”

Cue ragey feelings from First Commenter:

“Are you blind? Do you even read? Look at Australia: No guns. No shootings. No dead children. Criminals can’t just waltz around and get guns when there are common-sense rules in place about them. And don’t even get me started on tyrants; do you actually think you live tyrant-free right now?”

Problems? Implying that gun-rights activists care more about hunting than about innocent children is inflammatory; implying broadly that criminals will walk through all gun laws is oversimplifying; implying that tyrants will overthrow government unless all adults are allowed to have guns is narrow; insulting is poisonous to open thought; implying that Australia has no violence toward children is exaggerating; and implying that we are under tyranny is fear mongering.

On the other hand: some guns really do kill children, some killers really do get guns the same way hunters do, some activists really are flippant and unsympathetic, some people really do walk straight through laws, sometimes guns really do protect people from harm, some tyrants really do exist and really do oppress nations and people, sometimes this is easier when more things are regulated, Australia really does have some promising results when it comes to guns (there are, of course, some other potential problems in exchange), and there really are some tyrannical things happening in America.

That is, some of this information was correct, some wasn’t. There were pieces of truth, pieces of falsity, and a whole lot of emotional positioning in this example.

Was any one of our hypothetical participants totally and utterly “right” in all respects? Did they really have nothing whatsoever to learn? If you think they already knew everything, if you found yourself emotionally tied to one side or the other, I would advise you more than ever to check yourself on this.

Social needs are, like social studies research, very difficult to completely understand and evaluate. Reducing any societal argument to two polarized sides is a red-flag for controlled thought. Reducing any societal argument to two polarized sides is not only oversimplified; it’s downright dangerous, because it closes off a plethora of solutions and options.

What that conversation needed— what the participants needed — was curiosity.

Poster:

“I’m just gonna say it: the safety of innocent children is more important than your right to kill deer!”

First comment:

“I trust you know the argument is never that simple, but what is it that led you to state that deer-hunting is what you feel people are fighting for?”

Reply from Poster:

“It was just someone on the radio talking about how guns are not all made for shooting humans. It was like he didn’t even care that some of them actually are. Like, literally some guns are made specifically for killing humans.”

Next comment:

“Yes. This!”

Pro-gun reply:

“Right, but what about when guns like that are actually helpful? Have you ever seen the NRA’s statistics on gun violence verses times when guns protected people? Here’s a link. I wonder if there isn’t some good that guns made for killing humans can do against those humans who are the ones trying to harm our kids.”

Reply from Poster:

“I haven’t seen that . I’ll read it. But I wonder how reliable those statistics are. Have you seen this peer-reviewed article regarding the NRA’s pay structure and biases? Social studies research can be swayed, so it’s hard for me to believe it.”

Pro-gun reply:

“Not yet. I’ll read it. What do you think about the argument that criminals will just walk through laws and then the good guys don’t have guns but the bad guys do?”

First Commenter reply:

“I’ve read some promising statistics about Australia that show gun restrictions have helped lower gun violence significantly, even in the face of criminals who don’t obey laws. Here’s a link. I’d like to learn more about that and see if it could be applicable here and sustainable long-term.”

Pro-gun reply:

“Oh yeah, I’d like to see more about that too. Not sure it would quite be ‘apples to apples’ but worth looking at. I would just be afraid of giving the control to a government, since they can do much more harm than even a rogue gunman.”

First Commenter reply:

“I see your point. Do you think that citizens with guns have the same protection against government that they used to though? Weapons have advanced quite a bit. I don’t think an armed citizenry stands a chance against government anymore.”

Pro-gun reply:

“Maybe. I need to think more on that. But regulations can be a slippery slope, don’t you think?”

See the difference?

And I’m not naive; I know that this second example only works in, like, Eden, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a target worth aiming for (no pun intended).

Admittedly-generalized, anecdotal endorsement: I have often been the only curious voice in a thread of arguments, and I have seen one curious comment change at least a few other tones, increasing the overall likelihood for greater education and understanding from participants (myself included).

I’m also not weak; I realize that certain ideas and positions need to be fought for with vigor. There is a place for that. My point is that Facebook arguments with your Auntie might not be the best venue. And my secondary point is that we have too many people fighting with force before even becoming competent on the issue they’re fighting for. Curiosity would greatly reduce that bullshitting and emotional positioning and increase our chances of noticing (and calling out) those traits in ourselves, others, and even in our political and social leaders.

When everyday citizens and leaders make decisions based on more actual knowledge and less emotional positioning, we all win. Getting curious is the first step to on that path.

2. Get down to the principles; don’t stop at practices and procedures

Another vital string to open-mindedness is getting to the principles before addressing practices and procedures, getting to the interests before the methods of implementation. What do I mean? How do you do this? Start by asking yourself and others this: WHY?

Why does a given opinion make you emotional? What are you afraid of happening? What is it that you care so much about?

Let’s look at our gun-rights argument above.

Restricting gun ownership, for example, is not an end in and of itself. What is it that Poster and First Commenter want as a result of the gun restrictions? My guess is that they want safety from physical harm (for themselves, for their families, for their country, for their children).

And of course, refusing all gun restrictions is not an end in and of itself either. What is it that Gun-Rights Commenter wants from sacrosanct gun rights? My guess is safety from oppression (and from potential criminal harm by a rogue gunman against unarmed victims or mass harm by a rogue government) as well.

They differ in what they think the danger is and in how to protect from that danger, but they are both ultimately seeking the same thing: safety.

That common ground is the best place from which to start an open-minded and productive conversation where you can identify and implement solutions that reduce emotional positioning and conclusory thinking and actually get you where you want to be.

Getting down to the principle is a good way to avoid the path of controlled thought. Skipping over the principle leaves you susceptible to a fear response that cannot be consoled, shutting you down to new ideas.

That is, when you get to your own “why” — the principle that leads you to your position — you force yourself to analyze it more deeply before making a conclusion, and you are better able to understand the pros and cons of your position on practices and procedures.

In addition, when you understand others’ “why’s” — the principles behind their positions — you can let them know that their fears are heard before proceeding with facts, reasoning, and ideas, which will better open them up to new ideas for practices and procedures.

When everyday citizens and leaders implement practices and procedures based on a full understanding of the principles behind them, we all win. Getting to those principles is the first step in that process. Jumping to practices and procedures will often shut down the conversation (and the open mind) prematurely.

3. Explain your process; leave the conclusion to reason

But then what happens when we need to implement practices and procedures, you say? We do actually have to discuss more than reasons. Things need to actually work. How do we avoid getting overly emotional and closed to new ideas when it’s time to talk specifics? How do we get our listeners to do the same?

There’s a tool for that as well: explain your reasoning process; don’t just state your conclusion as fact. Why? Because focusing on your reasoning process will help ensure your conclusion is sound and will make it more likely that others will reach (and accept) your same, sound conclusion.

Let’s go back to our gun-rights thread as an example. Is it correct to say that Australia has greater gun restrictions than America? Yes. Is it also correct to say they have had fewer incidents of gun violence than America in the past n years? Yes (at least I think so, based on what I’ve heard). However, does it then follow that if America restricted guns the way Australia does that America would have fewer incidents of gun violence? Maybe. Maybe not.

You may be thinking “Yes it does! Of course it does!” And you may be right. You may be thinking “No! It obviously doesn’t” And you may be right. In either case, you don’t need to say it that way. What you need to articulate is why you think you’re right. What did you read? What did you hear? Who did you hear it from? When did you hear it? How was that information created and compiled? Why do you believe it?

If you go straight to your conclusion without fully evaluating the facts that led you there, then you end up with a talking point. And if you did do the research but then you go straight to the conclusion with someone who disagrees with you, then you end up with a talking point that starts an argument.

Both situations close the doors on open-mindedness.

What did First Commenter say about Australia on our gun thread?

“Are you blind? Do you even read? Look at Australia. No guns. No shootings. No dead children.

Fact. Conclusion. Done.

The commenter is done. Done researching. Done listening. And also done convincing or persuading others.

But change that around to stating logical steps and information instead of bare conclusions, and then what do you get?

“I’ve read some promising statistics about Australia that show gun restrictions have helped lower gun violence significantly, even in the face of criminals who don’t obey laws. Here’s a link. I’d like to learn more about that and see if it could be applicable here and sustainable long-term.”

Instead of skipping over the research and stating bare conclusions — gun restrictions = no dead children — this second example lays out the steps that took the commenter to the place where they found that conclusion — I read this article and it has some logical ideas in it that I tend to agree with.

The second example focuses on the path rather than the destination.

In any opinion you have, you walked a path to get there. If your path was dumb, start over. If you can’t identify the path, you probably didn’t walk long enough. If the path was too long or complex, practice filtering and summarizing; these are invaluable for both your own education and the education of others.

After you walk the path and find your vista — your conclusion, your principle, your practice, your opinion — if you want to share it, first share the path. The path is enough. YOU didn’t need the vista. Why? You realized the path was worth walking before you even saw the vista. Focus on the path when you want others to do the same. They will see the vista soon enough and in their own time (or they might show you an even better one).

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