I would absolutely love to unfriend my uncle on Facebook, as I’m sure you would too. He posted a status about the death of Eric Garner which implored his friends to, “consider the other side,” has shared a distressing number of articles that report “what the liberal media isn’t telling us” and last week, he publicly endorsed The Hairricane™, Donald Trump. For three years, I’ve had to endure the perpetual migraine of his opinions. It’s been a minefield of frustration that could only be alleviated by us cutting our cyber ties. And it would be so easy. But as much as it pains me to say it, consuming his opinionated detritus might be the best thing I can do for myself, at least from the comfort of my own couch.
News and opinion are incredibly territorial. At this point, one can be so selective in what he or she consumes that their political beliefs functionally define the facts to which they are exposed. I could, for example, take the time to regularly watch Fox News. I would learn some legitimate things that otherwise, to my knowledge, would have remained one of Mr. Rumsfeld’s “Unknown Unknowns.” However, to watch Fox is to also consume copious supposition, partisan reporting and other absurdities produced by a well funded and well insulated echo chamber.
To be sure, this is all true of the liberal MSNBC as well, albeit with a different flavor. Instead of a fiery anger, bespectacled anchors deliver an aloof and indignant partisanship, but I am much more inclined to spend time there. It’s a more soothing indoctrination.
This segregation of opinions is a dangerous trend. We are confronted with things that make us angry, but the extent to which this happens is entirely up to us. Entire websites can be defined by a mostly-unchallenged political ideology that one will encounter within them, and very often do so themselves (see Everydayfeminism / youngconservatives). The same can be said of the titles of many articles, which are simply short-form renderings of the author’s conclusion, occasionally with the phrases “you won’t believe,” or “why X is [BLANK].” The result is that, should I be so inclined, it is possible for me to read thousands of words without ever encountering a sentence that makes my blood boil.
And many of us do. It’s very easy to browse the same websites, share articles with the same people and avoid any meaningful confrontation, but the consequences are profound.
First, this type of separation makes me unprepared to mount a strong defense when my beliefs are tested. These are not challenges made by the hackery of comments sections or the strawmen of insular arguments, but by thoughtful and intelligent voices that comprise the best opposition. For all the arguments made by today’s online writers, not enough deal with what the others are saying. When we do peer over the fence, voices rise and rhetoric devolves into the same tired and grating ad-hominem and ad-absurdum attacks.
The second, and more divisive result of this trend is that we misidentify certain beliefs as fringe opinions. At Cornell, loud conservative voices are few and far between, meaning in our community, many conservative opinions sit on the fringes. This is not true of the nation. Arising as a result is this feeling, which I have trouble shaking, that any strongly conservative stance is just an outlier; not worth considering. I feel pressured to believe that people who hold these opinions lack decency, or are simply unable to understand a complex world. The truth of the matter is that tens of millions of people hold these ideas and values, and for me to cast them all aside as unintelligent or unkind is both ignorant and counterproductive. It serves no collective interest to label the opposition as the exception to reason.
But back to my uncle, whom I swear is really the subject of this column. His contributions to my newsfeed, maddening as they are, constitute one of the best opportunities I have to grow as a productive thinker while still living on a college campus. The links he posts are a reminder of how millions of people have chosen to see the world. They are pages in a book I would not have otherwise opened. Each photo and article provides opportunities to advance a genuine dialogue, even if it all happens inside my head. At the very least, they can be a reminder of how much disagreement is bred in a functioning democracy. To be clear, I would not expect anyone to subject themselves to violent or bigoted remarks on social media. But for the rest, leave a space in your mind for the absurd and upsetting, because it may just be the world we happen to live in.
Rubin Danberg Biggs is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. The Common Table usually appears alternate Mondays this semester.