Social Issues

safe spaces or echo chambers?

[content note for discussions of violent racism]

I’ve been paying close attention to the conversation my country is having about the realities of racism in police action for four months, ever since Darren Wilson killed Michael Brown. Thankfully, the discussion has expanded beyond just Ferguson and I am hopeful that this could be a lasting, substantial movement. I’m going to attend the Justice for All March, and if any of you are within the Washington D.C. area and can make it Saturday morning, I urge you to come and be a part of this. I believe it will be a significant moment.

However, since August, I’ve had to avoid conversations about Ferguson, police action, and racism in my private life. I’ve hidden and unfriended so many people on Facebook over the last few months and I still can’t get away from it. Last week a friend of mine commented on an article a friend of hers had posted about Ferguson, and curious, I went to see what she’d said.

Right above her comment was a picture of a semi-truck that was covered in what was obviously supposed to be blood; the caption was “I drove through Ferguson. Didn’t notice any problems.”

I thought I was going to throw up.

And now, scrolling through my Facebook feed makes me nervous. If something even hints at being about rape or racism or sexism I steer far, far away from it; and I also know that I’m not the only person doing this. I’m not the only person who has to mentally steel herself before checking social media, who spends half of the day flinching.

I’ve talked about my desire to create safe spaces for myself in my personal and online spaces and have been accused, more than once, of trying to build myself an echo chamber, and since I talked about one of the dangers of echo chambers last week, I thought it might be a good idea to talk about the difference between safe spaces and echo chambers.

One of the things I want all of you to know is that you do not have to tolerate the presence of assholes in your life just for the sake of “trying to keep an open mind” or avoiding the idea of an echo chamber. If you are in a Facebook discussion with a friend, peer, colleague, or relative, you are not obligated to continue a “discussion” you find unpleasant, and you don’t have to have anything specific to point to in order to have a valid reason for abandoning it. “This is making me upset” is the only reason you need, and you do not owe it to anyone to explain that.

Another thing that’s important to understand is that you don’t have to constantly be engaging with people who viciously disagree with you in order to avoid being in an echo chamber. When I feel mentally prepared, I go and look for articles written from a perspective I disagree with. I read things from Breitbart, and Fox News, and The Blaze, and Christianity Today, because I think it is valuable to at least be aware of what those sorts of people are saying—but I only do that when I am in the mood.

You don’t have to douse your life in perspectives you find distasteful or disagreeable. Being conscientiously aware is possible without having to face it every single time you log in to Facebook.

I am also selective about the sorts of conservative friends that I have a dialog with. I am still friends with many conservatives—online and off—and I enjoy talking to them about things because we are capable of having an actual conversation that doesn’t devolve into Bible references and invectives. There’s a difference between talking with my staunchly pro-life college professor and the man who posted that picture of the blood-spattered semi. One conversation could be productive, even insightful: the other is guaranteed to be a trainwreck-level nightmare.

And lastly, from my personal experience of running a blog, I think it’s pretty much impossible to build an echo chamber unless you intentionally and systematically go about cutting yourself off from every single source of information and every single person who doesn’t totally agree with you. I have a lot of very progressive, very liberal, very feminist, very queer friends, and a few months ago I got into a discussion with one about whether or not Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines” contributed to rape culture. She said it didn’t, I said it did.

That sort of thing happens a lot. From the interactions I’ve had with many of you, most of you are here because you enjoy the sorts of things I say or the way I say them or something—but that doesn’t mean you agree with me about every single thing I write always. I love that. I go out on a limb with some of the things that I write—writing them in such a way as to inspire discussion. I can’t tell you how much I appreciate it when it happens.

Just the other day, a commenter pointed out something that she thought I’ve been doing wrong in the way I’ve handled Grace’s participation in Real Marriage, and after reading her comment, I agreed with her and committed to not doing that thing anymore.

So, even if all of the people you talk to in your real life and online agree with you on several basic principles, you’re still probably not in an echo chamber.

Which begs the question: when are we in echo chambers?

Personally, I feel that I’m shutting myself up in an echo chamber when I start seeing the people I disagree with as inhuman—and that is a struggle some days. Yesterday Matt Walsh posted a … I don’t even know how to describe that thing he put out on the internet. It was the post of refuse, the post of filth, the post of putrescence. Rubbish, Filth. Slime. Muck.

Anyway, when a man writes something like that and flings it out into the void, it does make me wonder if he is an actual human being with a heart—and that’s wrong. I think what Walsh does is monstrous, but he is still a human being created with the image dei and beloved by God.

As hard as that is for me to imagine.

Walsh is an extreme example, but when we reduce those who disagree with us to “opponents” or “conservatives” or “liberals”—when we take the position that this one thing that I disagree with you about right now is all you are, we are doing something wrong.

Photo by Brian Smithson
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  • Matt Walsh is the WORST!

    • Sarah

      Agreed. There’s a website I like to read caled “what matt Walsh is wrong about today” excellent stuff. I found it one day while asking myself “doesn’t anyone disagree! ?” Thankfully, plenty do

  • Caddy Compson

    I needed this today–I’m about to head home for the holidays and I just know that we’re going to be sitting around the dinner table and someone’s going to say something offensive about Ferguson.

  • Walsh is an extreme example, but when we reduce those who disagree with us to “opponents” or “conservatives” or “liberals”—when we take the position that this one thing that I disagree with you about right now is all you are, we are doing something wrong.

    This is something I struggle with. You’ve done a lot to help me with it, simply by being who you are now, and who you used to be.

  • Crystal

    Samantha, I LOVED your article so much, I’m going to reread it! Hugs for the article! So insightful and great and good and thoughtful!!!!

  • Margaret N

    Thank you for this. thoughtful.

  • My friend’s phone once autocorrected Matt Walsh to Matt Waldo. She said, “I wish he’d get lost like Waldo!” LOL! That’s a friend for life right there.

  • EvaM

    I recently had to cut an old friend out of my life because he crossed the line. He’s never been a fan of feminism or been particularly interested in anything the movement does or says and that was fine. Then one day I tried to talk to him about an anxiety attack I’d had because a lecturer had made a rape joke in the middle of a biomed lecture. His exact words were “Eva, sorry, but how does this affect MY life?”
    Well EXCUSE ME for thinking my so-called ‘friend’ might be interested to hear about my boring old anxiety problems that make me scared to leave my flat or even answer my phone. There are just people that you really don’t need in your life.

    As for Matt Walsh, I couldn’t even bring myself to read that garbage. His Facebook summary was more than enough for me to handle at 7am. All I would add is that when I was being questioned by police after reporting my rape, it was more like I was the one being accused. “You and he were previously in a relationship? Have you ever had sex with him before? We’re you drinking at the time? What were you wearing?”
    I’m pretty sure the only reason he was eventually charged with anything was because I was FOURTEEN years old at the time and he was 17 (over the age of consent in Scotland). And then came the cries of woe; “his life is over!” “How will he get a job?” “How will he afford university?” “What will he tell his future kids?”
    Maybe he should have thought of all that? Meanwhile where are the people worried about me? Or my future? Nada.
    I sincerely hope Matt Walsh never ever has to watch his daughter go through something like that. Especially seeing as the messages he’s surrounding her with are so poisonous. Society sides with rapists and entitled men so much more than it sides with victims. Even when the victim does what they’re “supposed to do” and reports it; even when the rape was “real” or “legitimate” I believe is the word. Even when the victim is underage, as I was, people will try to see the fault in the victim.

    • Eva, very sorry for your experience! Awful. Don’t think I’m familiar with Matt Walsh, and I’m pretty sure I don’t want to be.

  • I unfortunately just went and looked at matt Walsh page. I didn’t even read his post but what he and others who agree with him are saying over there literally makes me want to throw up in my mouth!

  • Some good thoughts here. I left Facebook several years ago because I’d gotten tired of having to “steel myself” before logging in. It wasn’t anything serious, per se. I had just grown tired of all the ridiculous drama and politics.
    What I was not prepared for was how quickly I adjusted (maybe two days) and how little I even think about fb these days.

  • May I suggest that, when you feel the need to listen to alternative voices, you look outside the US? For example, David Cameron, the Conservative UK Prime Minister has said:

    “I don’t support gay marriage despite being a Conservative. I support gay marriage because I’m a Conservative.”

    And yesterday, on the subject of torture, very clearly said:

    “Let us be clear – torture is wrong, torture is always wrong.
    For those of us who want to see a safer more secure world who want to see this extremism defeated, we won’t succeed if we lose our moral authority.”

    ‘Conservative’, outside of North America, can actually be quite sane, apparently.

  • Tim

    I agree with you about the need for a safe space in the digital world as well as the real world. At the same time, your previous post talked about how isolating yourself in an echo chamber can actually contribute to being toxic in a relational sense. So obviously some kind of balance has to be struck between these two ideas. It’s a natural human tendency to want to be safe, and so I think the attempt to create what we feel is a safe space for us, personally (which looks different for different people, obviously) is more often the default for the majority. The desire to be safe is healthy – people who are unaware of that need have a whole other issue to deal with – but I think it can very easily turn into the isolation echo chamber for many. There is sort of a natural reason that most people in the US continue to live in neighborhoods that are largely segregated.

    You said, “Personally, I feel that I’m shutting myself up in an echo chamber when I start seeing the people I disagree with as inhuman.” I think that is a key indicator. I think when we’re confronted with a point of view that’s so far from our own that it seems almost insane, there are two types of cognitive dissonance. The first is, “How can someone think that?” But the second one, which I believe your statement gets at, is, “How can someone want to think that, or be comfortable thinking that? How can someone feel that way?” And the tendency is to think that they could only feel that way if they lack some essential human moral or empathic capacity. Once we hear their story, sometimes we can get beyond that. We may never feel the way they feel, but we can understand why it’s possible for them to feel that way. Developing that kind of understanding seems important to me for multiple reasons. It makes possible finding solutions that are more nuanced than simply using the power you can gather to compell someone to comply. But more than that, I think it makes us more human.

    I think there are other reasons to avoid the echo chamber as well, even at some risk to our safety, but I have a pre New Year resolution to stop talking so freaking much, so I’ll just end here.

  • Elmo

    Eliminating abusive [expletive-of-choice]s from our life is not creating an echo chamber. A recent Google+ posting “Hey it’s me your old high school friend who never left our hometown and thinks Olive Garden is fancy. Anyway, here’s a racist article.” got me to thinking about that. There are people I went to high school with who are caught in a right-wing echo chamber and continually post some things I find heinous. It’s not that I deny them the right to express an opinion so much as it is that they seem to be factually challenged in much the same way that Senator Inhofe is when it comes to climate science.

    I don’t want to cut these people out of my life (there are other reasons why they continue to be my friends) and experience has taught me that it’s difficult to persuade them with facts. So mostly I ignore them although when the opportunity presents itself and I can add a comment using an image, I do that. It’s a gentle approache.

    But when their friends see what I have done and start making ad hominem attacks I refuse to get into flame wars although occasionally I may respond with something along the lines of “I’m wounded — no one ever called me a libtard before”. If the platform allows me to block or mute them, then I don’t see their nasty comments. However, on the (admitedly rare) occasion when I am mistaken, I will admit my error. I think it gives me a little more credibility.

  • KP

    “Walsh is an extreme example, but when we reduce those who disagree with us to “opponents” or “conservatives” or “liberals”—when we take the position that this one thing that I disagree with you about right now is all you are, we are doing something wrong.”
    I actually make a pretty clear distinction between “those who disagree with me” whom I actually have the opportunity to meaningfully interact with, and those who disagree with me and who are largely only real to me as media constructions. The former group includes family and friends and colleagues and maybe the guy at the bar spewing some unsavory blather, but it also includes primarily online contacts who operate on a scale on which my voice could conceivably be heard (Samantha and the commenters on this blog, for example). In the latter group are people like Matt Walsh who have intentionally set themselves up as media constructions of the position they are espousing. Because people in that group present themselves to the world as this set of opinions and not really as real people, I have no problem interacting with such simulacra of people as if they are not really people. If I’m mad at Matt Walsh, I’m not mad at a person but at an idea and inflammatory writing, because to my reality, the person of Matt Walsh doesn’t really exist. And the person Matt Walsh, who I have no meaningful access to, has deliberately created this persona who looks the same but may or may not bear much relation to his real self. I find no compelling reason to think of and treat a self-constructed media persona as a “human being”; they’re simply something different than that for my own experience of them.

    • Tim

      I get what you’re saying. I think there is a continuum between people we are very close to (my sister is renting a house from me about three blocks from where I live, her kids play with my kids all the time. If we have a disagreement over something it could have large implications along multiple axes for multiple people) to people who we are separated from in the sense you suggested (i.e. if we disagree with them, not only would it have no immediate and direct impact on their life or ours, they would never even really know it; our individual voice would never even be heard by them, except through media as an infinitesimal component of a number in a poll or the like). I think it is more of a continuum than binary, and I think there is some rationale for treating people as people along the continuum, even though, for example, blogger Matt Walsh is not really Matt Walsh and will neither hear nor care about anything we might say about “him.”

      I agree with you about the construction (even self-construction) of media personae, whether they are “Matt Walsh” or “Black teens” or “Liberals” or “Fundamentalists” or “Republicans” or “Gays” or “Jews”. However, I think that when we feel free to (honestly) allow ourselves the emotional pleasure of hating an idea of someone or some groups of someones on the grounds that they’re simulacra and can’t be affected by it, that can very easily lead (and historically has lead) to actual hateful actions against actual individuals who we run into in real life who happen to bear some label. It is possible (and in my mind preferable, though I’m not much of an exemplar) to speak to an idea that we feel is wrong without expressing animosity toward ideas of individuals or groups that express or represent that idea. That’s just my perspective.

      • KP

        Yeah, I guess it is more of a continuum than the binary I originally described. But I definitely did not intend to imply that I was referring to groups, largely because while I’ll never meet Matt Walsh the person, I do meet people who are “Black teens” or “Liberals” or “Fundamentalists”, etc., even though those labels don’t fully encompass their identity. That these labels correspond to a group of people is something of a social construction as well, but I think it’s a different kind of construction than a media persona. That’s a key difference for me. A social grouping is a construction that one usually has little control over even if one chooses to inhabit that group (in some cases, some people in the group had agency of self-definition, but most people in the group really do not), and the group is always much more complex than the label implies. An individualized media persona is a construction of a single person, often largely produced by that person (though not always, and in that kind of case, I can see having more sympathy for the person), and while the person is more complex than the persona, the persona is usually intentionally simplified to fit the rhetorical purposes of the person enacting the persona. That persona is not a person with whom I can have any meaningful discourse, so I have a hard time seeing it as fully human. On the other hand, rather then actively hating them, I also don’t think we should pay such personae much attention. The world would be a much better place if everyone collectively ignored these particular kinds of nonhuman entities. They would starve and die without the attention.

        • Tim

          I appreciate the distinction you’re making between the social media construction of a group vs individual. I agree there are real differences and I think you’re right to consider them differently for the reasons you stated. If your bottom line about socially constructed media persona is that the world would be a better place (and we would probably be happier) if we did not waste an ounce of emotional energy on pondering the “person” behind Matt Walsh’s blog, Miley Cyrus twitter feed or Dick Cheney’s editoral column, I think I pretty much agree with you. Although it can be hard. (Whatever happeend to you, Hannah Montanna?!?) Actually it’s not that hard, and in practise I do mostly ignore media persona unless someone else brings them up, although my ignoring them doesn’t seem to have much affect on them going away, so far.

          I don’t disagree with any of that, and I got that your initial comment was about individuals vs groups. I only mentioned groups because our ideas of groups (just take the word “fundamentalist” or “fundigelical” here on an ex-fundamentalist’s blog) are so powerful and the tendency (not that you were displaying it) to broad-brush a group that represents bad ideas as a group of bad people is so strong. The thing that I most appreciated about Samantha’s post awhile back on the appropriateness or not of getting a laugh at the expense of the media constructed concept of the teen evangelical girl was the way she made made the simulacra “teen evangelical girl” real: “When I wore a purity ring …” or words to that effect. It’s so, so easy to forget that. Again, I’m not saying you were doing that or advocating that. I just thought there was a chance that someone might take you that way.

  • Crystal

    I’ve reread your post, just as I said I would. This is so wonderful I’m going to share and copy it. Thanks again for writing it and expounding on your beliefs on this topic. Now that I understand where you’re coming from, I feel I can educate others and interact online with people, including you, more respectfully and confidently than I ever have.

  • This post is definitely making me think a lot about what it means to engage in thoughtful conversations with others, especially through social media. Posting anything online is difficult. We’re putting our thoughts into an artificially created discussion that lacks the benefits of hearing tone of voice or seeing body language, and then trying to communicate about complex issues – sometimes in “140 characters or less” with people who may not have voluntarily exposed themselves to the conversation. Sometimes I wonder if it’s insanity or narcissism to start these conversations, but at the very least, they should put us under pressure to be open (but not to our own detriment, as you did a good job of describing in this post) and tactful at the same time. I know I feel that pressure, especially as a new blogger. It’s nice to read discussions about how to deal with controversial conversations from people who have more experience at this than I do. Thanks for sharing your insight!

  • JeffMiller

    I clicked over to the Walsh piece, because…I don’t know, sometimes I’m a bit of a masochist. The only thing I would add to your description about it is that his contention that he would document all “factual claims” sure fell by the wayside in a hurry.

  • If you want my two cents, I think in addition to what you are saying, a key indicator of the establishment of an echo chamber is what I call the “Bill O’Reilly Principle” — where anyone who says anything that isn’t a variation of “Wow Bill, you are just so awesome” gets their mic cut, or banned in this case. So, my point is, I really don’t think you are in that zone at all, in stark contrast to simply banning assholes.

    If anything, I see you making an effort in the other direction of engaging even fairly odious people, sometimes past the point where I’d personally liberally apply the banhammer.

    So I think it’s something you are very conscious of and I think for that reason you’ll avoid creating a true echo chamber. Non-trolls who frequently respond to your comments are largely going to agree with you, yes, but that’s just the nature of the beast, and doesn’t constitute an echo chamber, at least in my mind.