The “echo chamber” effect—our tendency as human beings to seek information that we’re likely to agree with—is well known. To be well informed, we need to seek out and pay attention to sources of information that will offer new perspectives and challenge our own assumptions, rather than simply reinforcing our current beliefs. Thanks to the enormous amount of news and analysis available on the Internet, this is easier than ever before.
The easiest way to move outside your comfort zone is simply to range widely. If you’re an American, read Global Voices Online, a project that aggregates blogging and other material from outside North America. If you are a white American, stop by The Root and other sites offering news and community resources for and by African Americans. Follow links in blogs you normally read, especially when they take you to sources with which the author disagrees.
Diversity can be a little harder to find in traditional media than online media, but there are numerous excellent publications focusing on different political points of view, different ethnic and national groups, and other types of differences. Spring for a subscription or pick up a recommended book on a topic you don’t know about.
Whatever your world view, you can find educated, articulate people who see things differently based on the same general facts. Sometimes they’ll have new facts that will persuade you that they’re right; more often, no doubt, you’ll hold to the view you started with, but perhaps with a more nuanced understanding of the matter.
Challenge Your Own Assumptions
Have you ever changed your mind about something? I hope so.
Evidence matters. One of the most serious critiques of today’s media ecosystem is how it enables people to seek out only what they believe, and to stick with that. Television news programming is especially insidious. As Jon Garfunkel, thoughtful commentator on new media at his Civilities.net site and longtime commenter on my blog, notes:
In October 2003, the Program of International Policy at the University of Maryland polled people about their perceptions of the Iraq war and corresponded it with the media they watched/read. The results aren’t at all surprising:
“Those who primarily watch Fox News are significantly more likely to have misperceptions, while those who primarily listen to NPR or watch PBS are significantly less likely.”
Fox took the lead in featuring commentators with a particular ideological perspective; meanwhile, MSNBC has realigned its commentators so they have a mostly liberal world view. By all means, you should constantly be looking for evidence to support your beliefs. However, it’s also important to look for evidence that what you believe may not be true.
This means seeking out the people who will make your blood boil. Rush Limbaugh frequently infuriates me—not because of what he believes, but because he takes such enormous liberties with the truth and uses language that seems designed to inflame, not enlighten. Even so, I regularly read and listen to what Limbaugh and his allies say, because sometimes they make good points, and I can learn something useful.
Going outside your comfort zone has many benefits. One of the best is knowing that you can hold your own in a conversation with people who disagree with you. However, the real value is in being intellectually honest with yourself, through relentless curiosity and self-challenge. That’s what learning is all about. You can’t understand the world, or even a small part of it, if you don’t stretch your mind.