"What we learn in retrospect is that seeing political parties or significant social decisions as binary ignores the complexity of context...We need to read to form a view, not to reinforce one."
Raised by a feminist mother, and politically informed by leftist Sydney-University debating coaches since the age of 11, I have always identified myself as progressive and exceptionally informed. Labour looked out for the people, Liberals looked out for the economy. Tony Abbott sucked. I thought I knew it all because I read the Sydney Morning Herald and the New York Times.
Then, in 2016 Donald Trump was elected. I was horrified and confused. Why had this man been elected if everybody in the country hated him so much? Their sworn hatred for the guy had been all I had read since he ran for election...and I inadvertently found myself always agreeing.
It then hit me. I had only read hate. I had no idea about the real fear some Americans felt about the neo-liberal elites market dominance and how Trump’s election promised to redistribute wealth and power. I had no idea how many people hated Obamacare, or how many people wanted to get their jobs back. Irrespective of whether the Trump presidency would be able to deliver on these promises, the fact was that I had not read, or seen, a single positive or optimistic article. I was only exposed to one side of the coin.
This is not to say that I agree with his presidency...it is simply to say that I didn't know anything about it. Everything I had read about his ableism, homophobia, racism and sexism prepared me for an inevitable and embarrassing defeat. It was all too easy to read what I had wanted to read.
The strictly partisan society we live in allows for this. We thrive off reading information that supports who we are and what we believe. We love comfort and reassurance, rather than questioning and reasoning. Why would I want to read about one of Trump's achievements when I hate him. Ignorance seems preferable.
Social media plays a huge part in creating these echo-chambers for our political perceptions. Facebook makes no effort to conceal in its FAQ for ad preferences that what is marketed and displayed to us is actually a result of algorithmic data aggregations that funnel information according to your political orientation.
As perfectly expressed by MIT professors Marshall Van Alstyne and Erik Brynjolfsson, on the Internet we are “empowered to screen out material that does not conform to [our] existing beliefs” leading to the formation of “virtual cliques” and insulation from “opposing points of view to reinforce [our] biases.”
Print newspapers are no different. A 2016 Oxford Study found that when right-wing tabloid, the Sun, drastically altered its content according to progressive ideals, its audience gravitated towards the left.
Neither are News channels. In an analysis of American cable in 2019, two Stanford economists discovered Fox news broadcast material intended to push their entire audience to the right rather than to accomodate for its left wing audience. This led to a 6% swelling of the Republican vote share in 2008.
But why does this all matter?
The answer lies in the political stalemate of our decision making authorities. In debating you can't win an argument unless you know exactly what the other person is arguing. To make a point fallible you need to turn it from the inside out. The Carbon Tax, Adani, the building of a wall on the border of Mexico, Brexit. Each of these decisions have been paralysed by people unwilling to compromise or negotiate their position because of an oblivion towards alternate views. What we learn in retrospect is that seeing political parties or significant social decisions as binary ignores the complexity of context. Brexit was not solely attributable to the racism of old white people. There is more to Queensland and the Liberal party’s support of Adani than disregard for climate change.
It also matters because it divides our society in an irreconcilable way. If we lack empathy or understanding for another’s view, it is all too easy to patronise or demonise them. Hillary Clinton’s claim that Trump supporters were a ‘basket of deplorables’ illustrates this. My awkward fights with my Dad’s conservative friends over terrorism illustrates this.
We need to read, and read wide. We need to read to form a view, not to reinforce one. As an informed and intelligent species, we must read to find mutual understanding and cooperative solutions to the problems before us.