It’s ironic, isn’t it? Here we have access to more information than at any time in history, yet more than ever it seems we prefer to get our information from just the handful of sources reflecting only our own world views.
My friends on the left visit websites like Daily Kos, Huffington Post and Talking Points Memo. They listen to 760 AM on the radio and watch MSNBC.
On the conservative side, we read posts on Town Hall, Drudge Report and National Review Online. We listen to 710 AM and tune into Fox News in the evening.
Now, don’t get me wrong— I’m grateful for these sources of information. When there were only three networks on TV, there wasn’t an antidote to the reliably left-leaning news that seemed to proliferate from the 1970s onward. Cable TV and the Internet busted the big media monopolies and allowed for more perspectives in the news.
But somewhere along the way, it got pretty easy just to tune into the sources that reflected our own views. I know this because I do it myself from time to time.
The result of living in information echo chambers is, paradoxically, more parochialism. In the banquet of ideas, we’re starving before an overflowing table.
John Stuart Mill famously said, “He who knows only his own side of the case knows little of that.” He’s right. There is more information in the world than any one person — or group of people — can absorb. Until you bother to consider the reasoning behind another person’s viewpoint, you’re not really competent to challenge it.
And unless your own views have been tested against the best arguments on the other side, your own perspective is limited in a fundamental way.
Something else happens when you give the opposition a fair hearing. You learn that what may appear as bad motives may actually be reasonable in light of new facts.
That kind of empathy is essential to the kind of dialogue needed to achieve consensus on the major policy issues that face our generation and the next.
Rob Witwer, who grew up in Evergreen and currently lives in Genesee, is a former member of the state House of Representatives.