Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Breaking Out of the Echo Chamber

Dan Leger of the Chronicle-Herald ran a thoughtful piece yesterday with the rather cumbersome title of "The insularity of Internet opinion factions".

As you might have guessed, this has only encouraged all the usual insular internet factions to spew forth in the comments section.

Leger's point - that the internet allows people to stay within their own self-reinforcing 'comfort zones' without ever having to hear or read a dissenting opinion - is one that has been made before. Somewhat more controversial is his assertion that mainstream media is somehow, by nature, the remedy to this. While I see his point, I have to disagree.

It is true that it's much easier to avoid stories you might disagree with on the internet than, say, while thumbing through a newspaper. Unfortunately, while most Canadian newspapers and broadcasters still make at least a token effort to present divergent points of view, one need only look south of the border to see how easy it would be for them to descend into tribal factionalism. Some would say it's starting already.

I know I've been guilty of spending time in the echo chamber myself. I tend to avoid reading articles in the National Post or watching documentaries I know I'll disagree with, and while on a recent trip to the States I kept the radio dial set firmly on NPR. I tell myself that I already know the other side of the debate and don't need to hear it again, but truth be told I just find it easier to tune it all out rather than try to sort out the crackpots from the voices of reason.

There is, however, one method I have found to make sure I do hear dissenting points of view. One venue where I am certain to hear a wide range of voices and opinions on just about any subject, and where I can debate and discuss the issues of the day rationally with others without rancour or malice.

It's called the pub.

It doesn't have to be a pub, of course. It could be a coffee shop, or a club, or anywhere where friends and acquaintances gather. In my case it's a local watering hole where a group of singers from our community choir gathers weekly after Tuesday night rehearsal.

You wouldn't think so, but it's a remarkably diverse group.

Some are from other parts of Canada and the world - Newfoundland, Kenora, Scotland, the Netherlands. Many are teachers and nurses. Some work for the Town of Milton. Some are commuters. Some are students. Some are retired. My friend Jim was in the Canadian military - I've learned a lot from him, although we still disagree on many things.

We are conservative and liberal, rich and poor, young and old. We talk about music, and sports, and our kids, and current events in our town and the wider world. We often disagree, but we're never disagreeable. I have learned a great deal at these Tuesday gatherings and have even changed my mind on a number of issues due to conversations with these good folks.

I like to think of them as my own personal focus group.

If you aren't lucky enough to have a group of friends like this, you might consider doing what one woman in Etobicoke did: she just started inviting her neighbours out to the pub. Or join a club. Or something - anything - just to open the doors and windows of your mind and let a little fresh air in.