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Emerging from my echo chamber

#debate or #nodebate, should that be a question?

A few years ago I started following people I disagreed with on Twitter. Writing that now, it seems surreal that such a benign act could feel revolutionary. Twitter is a place where who you listen to matters at least as much as what you say. I broadly identify as being on the left, so listening to the other tribe felt tantamount to treason.

Part of the reason for my treachery was that I was bored. It bored and unnerved me being around people I agreed with all the time. I missed arguments. And, yes, I was wary of my echo chamber. I’d witnessed the twin jolts of Trump and Brexit — which nobody in my feed seemed to have thought possible — and realised there was a large chunk of Western civilisation whose voices I wasn’t hearing.

Emerging from my echo chamber was a discomfiting experience. Many of the beliefs I took for granted turned out to be controversial notions, rather than shared social norms. Many of the arguments I read appeared rational, even if I couldn’t agree with them. I felt challenged, angry and, often, as if I’d been physically assaulted (in 120 characters or fewer).

And then I got over it.

Their decency gives them permission to be indecent

When last week I tweeted some idle thoughts about talking with anti-vaxxers and conspiracists — people with whom I was never going to agree — it seemed to strike a chord with others who, for the first time in a while, were having to debate with people from beyond their tribe. I wasn’t talking about the right wing agitators who were leading the anti-lockdown protests in Melbourne. Neither was I talking about people who might have legitimate concerns about government overreach. I was really only thinking about ordinary people who had been sucked into the vortex of misinformation around vaccines and other emergency health measures. People who believed things that were demonstrably untrue.

I was keen to point out something that should have been obvious. Most of the people who have bought into these conspiracies aren’t evil, just as people whose politics or philosophies differ from mine aren’t necessarily evil. The initial responses to this point were positive. Many of us have friends, family or colleagues trapped in a spiral of irrationality. Some people seemed grateful for the radical notion that you could like — or even love — an anti-vaxxer.

But, being Twitter, many others took issue with this idea. How could good, decent people string up nooses outside the Victorian parliament or allegedly attack the daughter of a state politician? Well, exactly. How could they? I argued that it’s the very fact that these are good, decent people that makes them capable. Being convinced their mission is holy permits them to behave in ways that are intimidating, hateful or even violent. Their decency gives them permission to be indecent.

What went unsaid was that there is no real political polarity to this kind of behaviour. While much protest and activism is non-violent, both left and right tend to blinker themselves to the excesses of those whose mission they agree with. Your position on this week’s doxxing of J.K. Rowling or the ongoing tribunal into the online conduct of GP Adrian Harrop probably depends on your stance on how sex-based and gender-based rights do or don’t come into conflict.

The gift of debate is that it protects us against our own ideologies

In an age when we are our opinions, our beliefs become part of our identity, all the more so when we feel condemned for them. The ostracisation many conspiracists feel is a powerful motivator to remain true to their irrational beliefs. Yet again and again, I witness a rush to label people we disagree with as Nazis, bigots or right wing nut jobs (which is not to say these labels are always inappropriate). I’m as guilty of this as anyone. The prosecuting counsel in Harrop’s tribunal said that the conviction of his beliefs, the certainty that he was right, meant “that he saw it as his job to silence those on the other side of the debate”.

This philosophy of #nodebate is widespread in progressive circles. It springs from the well-meaning idea that words can cause harm to vulnerable people. I saw firsthand the trauma that debates around Marriage Equality caused the LGBTIQ+ community in Australia. Debate is painful when the stakes are so personal. But we won that debate. Just as we need to win every debate that matters to us. When we won’t engage and discuss, other arguments don’t go away. They fester and gain strength in the dark. They become conspiracies.

When I first started listening to other voices, it was taxing because I wasn’t used to having to defend the ideals I hold dear. With time, I came to see these challenges as a chance to test my own arguments: to strengthen them when they were sound, to adjust or abandon them when they were not. With each confrontation, I was forced to reassess. Sometimes I changed my mind. Other times, I had to research truths I had held to be self-evident. Some truths, it turned out, weren’t true after all.

The real gift of debate, I realised, is that it protects us against our own ideologies. If we are not testing the logic of our ideas, how can we be sure of our reasons for believing them true? Of course, the great frustration when talking to conspiracists — as many of us will be obliged to, come Christmas — is that their arguments are irrational. They are steeped in an echo chamber that only cherry picks half-truths that affirm their world view. Our challenge, when making our case, is to make sure we’re not doing the same thing.

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