Okay, before you get your stress response hormones pumping too much, I’m not here to say that echo chambers are always a fabulous thing. As anyone who has followed this page ought to know by now, even if we do hang out in spaces where we find people who think like us, I think we definitely need to sally forth to interact with those who think differently. And when the beliefs are toxic, to resist such behaviors.
In fact, I’m in strong favor of open systems—ones in which we are regularly exposed to differing views, and expose others to our views—as a healthy way to live life when we are able.
When We Need Likeminded Groups
But what I’m confronting today is the way finding groups of likeminded people get put down in our current rhetoric by calling them echo chambers. Because here’s the thing: like-minded groups, up to and including what I’m calling “porous echo chambers,” have a particular place and time.
We often need likeminded groups to help us feel safe and supported. And that in turn can give us the feeling of confidence and support we need to sally forth into the outer world. Creating “porous” likeminded groups that make actual room for healthy dissent and outside fact-checking and input is not easy, either.
No group is perfect. And figuring out ways to allow healthy dissent without enabling bullying or devaluing/disconfirming of others is hard, for reasons I’m about to discuss.
Defining Echo Chambers
But before we get too far in here, let me define the term echo chamber, because definitions help ground us. According to Merriam-Webster, an echo chamber is “a room with sound-reflecting walls used for producing hollow or echoing sound effects—often used figuratively.”
The Merriam-Webster sample sentence is from James Surowiecki: “Living in a kind of echo chamber of their own opinions, they pay attention to information that fits their conclusions and ignore information that does not.”
The Problem with Imprecise Use of the Term
The thing is, there’s rarely a true echo chamber in the Surowiecki sense unless you have groupthink going on. And since many of us naturally select the narratives we follow, we all tend to ignore dissenting information at times—which doesn’t mean that we haven’t at one time looked thoughtfully and analytically at that category of dissenting information and won’t again.
Why It’s So Hard to Hear We’re Wrong
That doesn’t mean we always like to hear we’re wrong. The communication studies term for the strongest form of confirming communication, endorsement, helps us understand why. Endorsement is defined as communication that shows agreement and/or shows us we are of value.
Take a second to think about that. As humans it can be devilishly hard to disconnect others’ agreement from our senses of being valuable and valued human beings. (I believe this is why pride and shame are also tied more closely together than most of us would like to admit.)
So Yeah, We All Tend to Feel Safe Around Those Who Agree
So yes, we all have a natural tendency to find it confirming for others to agree with us. That’s human nature. And it’s awfully hard to keep those expectations from seeping into our identities. We tend to look for groups and relationships that reflect those identities.
Overall, because of all of this gushiness around the concept of endorsement rooted in questions of self, it’s just hard for all of us at times to be told we are wrong, especially on things we consider to be close to our identities (this is why discussions on race and gender and class, etc. are so hard).
We Can Get Sick If We’re Put Down a Lot
As we’ve discussed in past articles, the kind of stress and shame problem that can come from being disagreed with in aggressive or abusive ways can literally bring on illness.
The fact that large amounts of stress from disconfirming communication can lead to anxiety and illness is why experts often recommend that people who have been abused find safe spaces to retreat to. These spaces often require as much separation as possible from those who have abused them.
In recommending that, experts are not suggesting some sort of extreme “echo chamber lifestyle,” mind you. But they are suggesting either a temporary or permanent separation from certain people with consistently disconfirming messages. Abused people often need that for recovery and growth.
It’s no accident that experts also recommend support groups, in which people who have gone through similar things can offer a healthy place for literal as well as metaphorical healing and support.
As I gestured toward last week, my students intuitively know how this works. Even those that I believe would find being in a formal support group “shameful” tend to describe their searches for social support as often looking for those they know will listen without disagreeing.
And yeah, sometimes we straight up need that.
Endorsement/Support Doesn’t Have to Equal Agreement, Though
Other students, importantly, were looking for those who had been through similar things. This is key because these students were not only looking for people to agree with them. They were looking for spaces where those people could offer them empathy. But they were also looking for more solid advice.
In other words, yeah, sometimes we seek out people who have been through similar things and think similar ways. We do this because we’re looking for either agreement OR disagreement that we feel we can trust more.
That’s not always a broken thing. Sometimes it’s just a human thing.
Let me say that again. We all need support. We all need spaces where we retreat to for support. Sometimes that means we need people to agree with us.
But sometimes we don’t need people to agree. Sometimes we’re just looking for experts we can trust to give us the best advice for stressful situations.
The Challenge of Finding Healthy Support Systems
The problem, of course, is that we all have differing criteria to know which experts, ideologies, and beliefs are trustworthy or untrustworthy. And unfortunately sometimes we choose…poorly, as the old knight said in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.
And yes, because of that, not all support systems, whether or not they are full echo chambers, are healthy. If we put our money on the wrong horse—we trust someone, or a set of sources, that are inherently untrustworthy, we can be led astray.
And that’s when we can fall prey to fake news. Or cultish authoritarian demagogues, etc. etc. etc.
How to Stay Healthy
And that’s why it’s important to pay attention to what kind of healthy disagreement may be going on in our support system “echo chambers.” And to pay attention to your own personal track record of how often you read, listen to, or enact with those people and sources who disagree with you.
But here’s the thing. When we’re trying to look out for the common good, not all spaces need to have radical free speech of the sort where everyone’s comfortable hearing every kind of “free speech.” It’s okay for us to bow out of such spaces, at least temporarily, to rest and recover.
And when we do, it’s okay to hang out with those we find safe. It’s even okay to hang out in groups with likeminded people that some may label as echo chambers.
Important to Get Back Out There When You Can
I just urge you not to stay forever in those safe spaces. Keep working to get back out there yourselves however you can. And encourage others to get back out there while you rest. And make sure you’re occasionally opening yourself up to outside information.
The thing is that it’s important to remember who might not have access to these safe spaces. We should also be looking out for who may being marginalized and/or oppressed by the larger public discourse.
Everyone deserves to have safe spaces where we can healthily disagree, including those with less access to safe spaces. And a public sphere in which the loudest voices happen to be those advocating for bullying and abuse and dehumanization is definitely not in the common good.
As we’ve discussed before, that means speaking up toward healthier public sphere communication climates.
Summing Up and Moving Forward
Let’s choose healthy support systems to retreat to, sure. But let’s work to even make those “echo chambers” places where diversity and difference of opinion on commonly held ideologies is not just okay but welcomed.
And let’s look for evidence to back up what we believe, and try to stay open to disagreeing sources, even as we’re looking for support. Let’s learn about the patterns that tell us what is toxic and what is not, so we can avoid supporting something toxic without realizing it.
Let’s realize that there are no purely “safe spaces” that are always right or always pure. That’s why we need spaces where disagreement is okay. That’s hard and important work for all of us to do, even in our “echo chambers.” And that’s why we also need those to be willing to sally forth into other spaces to confront toxicity.
May we all be as safe a community for one another as possible. Go team #AssertiveSpirituality!
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