Safe Spaces and Echo Chambers
Not long ago, I ended up in a social media argument (I know, the best...) with someone regarding moderate attitudes in the political sphere. They took exception to the idea that I no longer believe in compromise attitudes surrounding issues like climate change and civil rights. Over the nearly forty years of my life, I’ve watched the spirit of compromise, paired with extremist views on the right, pull our social discourse further and further from the possibility of positive action. As MLK expressed, I’ve become comfortable with the idea of tension. Particularly, when the alternative is having my existence outlawed, and no action taken on the impending climate crisis.
This was maybe the tenth time that they’d posted epic rants demanding a centrist perspective from me in response one glib meme or another. In the discussion that followed, they would, as many people with privilege do, refuse to acknowledge social power inequities, tone moderate, “slippery slope,” and “strawman” with the best. I’d patiently spelled the context out, share relevant links, all to no avail. Discussion went nowhere. They were on their soapbox and they were tone-moderating hard. “We (meaning minorities) needed to be more compromising and tolerant if we wanted change.” that classic chestnut, “I’ll be your ally as long as you’re a ‘nice’ minority.” AKA “I’m not an ally at all.”
Eventually, I pointed out that we’d been through this multiple times, and that their arguments had been rebutted time anon and did nothing at this point to change my perspective. I pointed out that there were norms in discourse about this sort of thing, in order to have productive conversation. These include things like, understanding our privilege to the best of our ability and acknowledging it. Recognize when we do not have the perspective to see inequity, and so forth. I pointed them towards resources that helped me better understand racial privilege (I’m white) and queer issues (I’m transfemme/nb/queer). I shared that I read MLK’s letter from Birmingham Jail every couple months and encouraged them to read it as well to better understand some of the issues of social justice; the philosophy, and the nature of direct action.
This went nowhere. Eventually, I expressed that I was not going to play host to these rants anymore. They could either go do their homework, or they could leave me alone.
They stated that I was coercing them to be a certain way and that was creating an echo chamber.
This gave me pause, not about coercion. We are not obligated to play host to anything in private or personal spaces. That was a classic strawman. But, was I creating an echo chamber? I deeply value the need for alternative perspectives, particularly when they are framed in a way that facilitates growth and a deepening of understanding on one or both sides. These were not productive discussions. I neither honed my arguments, nor gained any novel perspective. And I was no longer hopeful of any sort of shift on their part. Am I preventing growth by drawing these boundaries?
To answer this, I have to consider a few things: First, What is the purpose of my personal social media account? To be sure social media can be used for political activism and marketing. But it’s also a space of general conversation, jokes, personal news sharing and yes, discussion. In the past, I certainly played host to discussion and debate along certain lines of thought. And I have historically allowed wildly varied discussion and ideas to play out as long as people maintain good rules of etiquette and don’t engage in logical fallacies. In a sense, it has been somewhat of a “safe space” to have certain kinds of discussion.
So does it become an echo chamber if I curate certain perspectives viewpoints and discussions?
I don’t know that I find that problematic at this point. I am further along in my gender transition than I was a few years ago. I am reinventing myself, forming a new family, and searching for a new home. I no longer have the emotional bandwidth to engage in extended debates in my private community about certain topics. I am clearer on my worldview than I once was. And I see compromise positions in certain areas as tantamount to complicity. How does one compromise when someone wants to eradicate or enslave you or your community due to inborn traits? It’s not actually possible. it can only be fought.
Here is where an awareness of purpose is important. My social media accounts are places where I present a side of myself to the world. That is all. the extent of value in their use is where it is productive and helpful to me and my community. It is entirely my prerogative to change or maintain that access point as my personal needs, interests and desires change.
The real risk of an echo chamber is when groups become unhinged from reality. When they lose grounding in the world at large. When contrary perspectives are missed, overlooked or lost due to censorship, then you end up basing your concepts on false premises.
I think this is rather impossible in many ways for most integrated minorities. I am not speaking of groups that have completely isolated themselves like certain religious sects and communes. But to those of us immersed in the world at large, our daily life *is* having contrary perspectives forced upon us from every direction. Often to the point that we lose even ourselves. It comes from the government, mainstream media, family, and the community at large. If we participate in society at all, we get them from strangers on the street, zealous coworkers, religious leaders, and family members. We are forced by the nature of being atypical to have a broader more nuanced view of these issues.
So to us, the need arises to have safe spaces, whether virtual or physical. These are arenas where we mute the normal arguments, long enough for our own thoughts to become voices and be heard, reinforced and understood.
After the 2016 election a large portion of the Democrats were shocked by the presidential results. I was not. Most of my brown and black friends were not.
Heartbroken. Grieving. Upset-Yes, absolutely.
It hurts to be sold out by your country for an obvious huckster.
But we were not especially shocked. Many of us saw the writing on the wall early in his campaign. We were all more than aware of how bigoted much of our nation is. Even so, it is always hard to accept.
On the other hand, Centrist democrats were shocked and dismayed. They couldn’t believe that their “safe” candidate who was “qualified,”could possibly have lost to a fascist demagogue. But then, they’d worked so hard to silence their own populist candidate. They sold out the minority groups they claimed to represent time and again to their corporate interests. Safe business as usual party politics were the way forwards. And here is where the echo chamber becomes a problem. When you are a majority member, and the DNC is most certainly a majority party, you cannot afford to lose your pulse from the street. They sat in their self-congratulatory committees, certain that they couldn’t possibly lose, and lost.
But this is not my social media accounts. This is not my personal community. This is something to concern those who wish to rule. I no longer worry about drawing these boundaries on my personal social media. We are fighting an ideological war in this country. And while the only hope we have of collective progress is finding ways to speak across the divide, there is only so much space and energy for tolerating what is tantamount to verbal abuse. I do still think it is important to educate, to tolerate temporary discomfort in order to teach the norms of discourse. We must teach others how we wish to be treated. Otherwise there is no hope for growth. How can they know?
But, if there is no movement, and the other will not do any of the personal work to respect these boundaries. If the relationship becomes more chore than healing, it is no crime to deny them access to yourself. This is protection and self care.
Besides, detractors aren’t a scarce resource.