Grant Spencer

Social change impossible from within the echo chamber

Christophe Vorlet

Approx Reading Time-10How are we expected to make social change possible when we pick and choose our exposure alternate opinion? Welcome to the Echo Chamber.


I’d like to make clear from the outset, this article is not to address who is right and who is wrong, but how discussions on this topic can move to an informed place rather than an entirely emotional one.

You may have heard of the concept of the Echo Chamber. This is the phenomenon that occurs when your exposure to points of view that challenge yours shrinks, due to the ability to personalise your choice of media consumption and friends through social network sites. This phenomenon reduces your capacity to cope with a confronting debate or conversation online. It is important not to dismiss the influence of conversation in social media. Not always, but social change can occur at grassroots levels, and these days, that is through platforms such as Facebook and other sites. If these conversations gain enough traction they can become national debates and influence policy.

However, I’ll admit I only really have one friend on Facebook who is the epitome of nuanced and open discussion. In the face of angry opposition he manages to steer an almost loving course toward assisting an education of his point of view. It never comes across as patronising and he’ll draw a hard boundary if someone steps in aggressively. He invites challenge, enjoys a slow development of discourse and absorbs emotional jibes and sarcasm with the patience of a saint. He has decided to wade into a social discourse in a way that remains well within his values of both inclusiveness of the Other and the Leftwing ideals he holds dear. He is a dedicated Christian, but some of those with whom he argues would identify similarly. He commands respect for his opinions and avoids becoming the enemy by revealing himself to his opponents as a kind and intelligent person concerned for the future. He personalises himself and his arguments rather than wielding them as a weapon.

There are times when we are at ideological war. When angry voices are necessary to infect outrage and have people finally sit up and listen. It is sometimes necessary to communicate that you and your rights are not going away quietly.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, everyone has one racist older relative. They rant on at a family gathering and the most common response is to divert the conversation as soon as possible without challenge in order to save the tone of the rest of the day. On social media, the arguments around racism are far less avoidant of conflict and heat. I recently had one such relative say that she had started watching the ABC and SBS and she was quite surprised at the quality of interesting content. Not a month or so later I heard the first sliver of insight, “If I was trying to save my family I would do whatever it takes…but I still don’t want them here.” If this correlation between the consumption of Leftwing media and a change in perspective has any legs at all, I would suggest that it is due to people drawing their own conclusions via the personalising effects that individual stories hold. There is plenty of research breaking down the power of in-group and out-group effects through personalising the Other.

This takes me to the disturbing news that a number of outlets have reported, that according to a recent poll, half of Australia support a ban on Muslim immigration. This kind of sentiment is not new in this country (anyone remember the White Australia policy?), but regardless of the poll’s weaknesses, its high sample size suggests at the very least that the conclusion should not be ignored. How do two sides of a debate, each hostile to the opinions of the Other, have a robust discussion that doesn’t catch fire?

Whether you wish to ban Muslim immigration due to concerns of “national security” or you want to support Muslim immigration due to “basic humanitarian concerns”, how do you negotiate a compromise or assist the education of either side?


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I would suggest that most people don’t wish to spend time on social media – or in real life – in discussion with those that disagree with their points of view. I understand entirely. It is exhausting and you’re probably already working long hours and want to just fall over and watch Netflix at the end of the day. Wading through what seems like hate and distrust can be the last thing on your mind. That being said, there is an instinct to save face by claiming that you’re bowing out of an argument because “It won’t make a difference”, rather than “It is too difficult and I don’t have the energy”. Admitting the latter is entirely acceptable; demonising the Other is a different thing altogether. There will always be people that will not be willing to give an inch. But don’t think that discourse doesn’t have value, regardless of the outcome.

There are times when we are at ideological war. When angry voices are necessary to infect outrage and have people finally sit up and listen. It is sometimes necessary to communicate that you and your rights are not going away quietly. Structural social change certainly can shift with the introduction of legislation through allegiance within a minority, and enough noise. Unfortunately, the sustainability and effectiveness of such change relies, in the long term, on broad social psychological change which is more painfully incremental.

In those cases, it is better that you plant a seed, and let them really feel who you are as you do it.

 

Grant Spencer

Grant Spencer is a psychologist in private practice who wanted to be a writer who wanted to be a rock singer. He has a BA in Creative Writing and Literature, and continues to write poetry intermittently in order to avoid the panic over running his own business.

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