Technology is making us less open to divergent views

Social interactions have shifted from avoiding political and religious discussions to embracing them, as people now surround themselves with like-minded individuals. Social media platforms enable users to mute differing opinions, reinforcing their existing beliefs. We need to consciously engage with diverse viewpoints rather than allowing technology to further entrench tribal behaviors.

This article was first published in The Mint. You can read the original at this link.

In her book Uncivil Agreement, Lilliana Mason makes a remarkably perceptive statement. There was a time, she observes, when religion and politics were never discussed at dinner parties. The guests we invited to our homes came from such diverse political, religious and cultural backgrounds that etiquette demanded that certain topics were just not raised for fear of accidentally offending someone.

This is no longer the case. Politics is, more often than not, the centrepiece of our after-dinner discussions and we can rely on many hours of postprandial entertainment as we freely dissect the latest political events without fear of causing offence. Why is this so? According to Lilliana, it’s because we now only invite into our homes people whose views coincide perfectly with our own.

In the past, the face-to-face nature of social interactions forced us to keep our personal views on contentious topics, such as politics and religion, to ourselves. Today most of our interactions take place asynchronously on social media and we no longer feel the need to apply filters to what we say. This is why people’s posts on WhatsApp and Facebook are far more extreme than anything they would tell you in real life. It is also why we now feel we have a better sense of what those around us really think on contentious issues and why we no longer feel we need to put up with them or their views.

Social media platforms give us the ability to mute opinions we’d rather not hear. This makes it easy—too easy perhaps—to use these tools to remove from our newsfeed posts we find even mildly distasteful. What we don’t realize is that by doing so, we are signalling to the algorithms, which silently curate content for us in the background, that we’d rather not hear from this person anymore. This results in permanently blocking content from anyone whose belief system differs from ours, allowing us to choose to not hear what they say rather than deal with the discomfort of having distasteful views clutter our newsfeed.

What we are left with are posts from people whose beliefs cleave more and more perfectly to our own—who reinforce our view of the world with thoughts that amplify ours. These are the people we call to our homes and whom we now hang out with. This is why we feel we can freely discuss religion, politics and a whole host of other topics that previously were taboo in social gatherings, safe in the assurance that no one around us will take any offence to anything we say.

The unfortunate consequence of all this is that we’ve lost the ability to have conversations with those with whom we know we will disagree. The more closely we identify with our “in group", our own particular tribe of thinkers, the more vehemently opposed we become to the ideas of those we identify as members of an “out group"—to the point where we’ve begun to blindly assume that every statement made by someone we perceive to be a member of the “other" tribe, no matter how reasonable, must be disagreed with.

This is why public discourse has become so fractious and why the views of those who occupy opposite ends of the spectrum seem so utterly irreconcilable. It explains why we’re increasingly given to taking hard positions and tenaciously holding on to them—refusing to listen to even the reasonable arguments of those who hold an opposite view.

It is impossible to ignore the role that technology has played in all of this. Social media, always-on networks, and mobile phones, using which we can fire off a response at any time of the day or night, has given everyone a platform and in the process has encouraged us to become more firmly entrenched in the views we publicly espouse.

However, it is important to recognize that technology merely amplifies behaviours already inherent in us. Tribal behaviour is as old as civilization. What we are witnessing today is just the latest manifestation of it. Granted, this is the first time that membership of a tribe is not limited by proximity but instead extends to wherever there is an internet connection, but the underlying behaviour is no different from what we have done for millennia.

Rather than blaming technology for this or expecting that our salvation lies in strictly regulating it, we need to consciously adapt our behaviour to account for the ways in which technology exaggerates in-group-out-group dynamics. This might mean actively engaging with those who have different viewpoints from our own, even if doing so means having to put up with arguments and viewpoints that make our skin crawl. It might require us to try, against our better judgement, to engage with those who seem intractable, refusing to believe that merely because of the vigour with which they express their views that there exists no common ground between us.

In the run up to the elections we are already beginning to get a taste of what this will look like. We’re being bombarded by statements and views designed to trigger our tribal instincts and incite us to vigorously oppose out groups simply because we see them as not part of our “tribe". Technology is fanning these flames allowing messages to spread virally or targeting them accurately so that they push exactly the right buttons and force us to react intemperately. What we need to do is consciously force ourselves to think back to a time when society required us to be more accommodating of divergent viewpoints.

The best way to do that is to engage.