In a famous 1964 speech, “A Time for Choosing,” future President Ronald Reagan joked that “the trouble with our liberal friends is not that they’re ignorant; it’s just that they know so much that isn’t so.”
Though posed as a jestful one-liner meant to zing his opponents, the quote ironically engages with a fact of modern-day political discourse: that those on all sides of the ideological spectrum tend to “know so much that isn’t so,” drawing from different sets of information to reach incongruous conclusions on a number of important matters. These include matters of racial justice, the changing climate, economic inequality, or the future of geopolitics.
It’s no secret that there is demand for partisan news and that major corporations are keen on supplying it.
Our attention—and our virtual footprints—are hot commodities, and tons of people are constantly competing for this digital gold.
For every New York Post or New York Times article that Facebook or Twitter suggests to us, there are thousands of algorithms at work feverishly curating a personalized news feed designed to vindicate our worldview and draw us deeper into echo-chambers.
Targeted ads, auto-fill search bars, and “You May Also Like” tabs are just a few of the ways social media companies nudge us towards specific narratives, firing up our neurons and keeping us coming back for more in the process. These rabbit holes further confirm our suspicions and our preexisting biases, arming us with convenient facts that confirm our vision of reality and the way things “ought to be.” It’s a win-win situation, supposedly; we get to keep seeing what we want to see, and tech giants rake in billions of dollars in profits.
But returning offline can raise different challenges altogether (especially in a time when we are all preparing to do just that, after a year of work-from-home and lockdown mandates). It can be immensely frustrating to have conversations about contemporary issues with friends and family, whether out and about in the real world or over Zoom and WhatsApp. The other side “just doesn’t seem to get it,” and it can be easy to fall back into lazy online habits—to pelt others with ad hominems in the hopes of waking them up, or guilting them into supporting our point of view.
This approach must be acceptable: after all, why wouldn’t we be belligerent to someone who is “racist” or supporting “systems of oppression?”
There may also be a conditioning effect at play here. Through a digital game of Pavlov’s Dog, we have been trained to only digest sources that confirm what we already know to be true.
Inevitably, this leads to further confirmation bias and cognitive dissonance: a recent Pew study found that Americans who chiefly get their news from social media have lower political knowledge compared to those who more frequently consume news from other mediums (books, newspapers, radio). A 2014 study during the Swedish general elections also found that “the use of social media [had the] strongest effect on political participation and the weakest effect on political knowledge.”
Even the language we use to frame and justify our beliefs has increasingly taken on the invocation of armed conflict. We are called to “defend” our positions, “fight” for truth and prevail in the “battle” of ideas. This type of militant messaging has proven particularly effective, as tweets featuring moral and emotive vocabulary were more likely to be reshared, while also generating greater hostility from the opposing political tribe. According to the 1951 classic The True Believer by American philosopher Eric Hoffer, the use of grandeur, moral obligation, and hatred of the “other side” acts as a powerful binding agent and are essential for any mass movement.
Any debate on contemporary issues, no matter how lively, must be rooted in an acknowledgement of base reality. The core concept of Western democracy relies on an ability to produce fact-based discussion and facilitate informed disagreement.
Social media disengagement cycles and today’s truncated dialogues are contributing to an enormous public trust deficit in institutions and in our common civic culture. No doubt that has been exacerbated by over a year confined online, with lacklustre COVID-19 responses roiling most Western governments and prolonging public suffering.
When we see our fellow citizens as irredeemable, churlish adversaries lacking in moral conviction or educated opinion, we can more readily dismiss their place in the nation or the possibility for their redemption. When we construct ironclad notions of right and wrong that fail to account for the range of feeling in a multi-ethnic and pluralistic democracy, events such as the failed January 6 insurrection seem quite inevitable. And while illiberal pressure has been mounting in the United States, the United Kingdom, and other European countries for years, it would be foolish to think that Canada or Australia or New Zealand can indefinitely avoid similar fallout unless active measures are taken to defuse tensions, starting immediately.
After a year of normalizing online interactions, often hostile ones at that, now might be a good time for a much-needed reset: to remember that we are all people, and that most of us simply wish to strive towards the betterment of ourselves, our families, our communities, and our nations. Each of us is imbibed with our own unique qualities, experiences, and incentives that have come together to shape our understanding of the world.
To make progress, we have to move beyond the clannish instinct of lazily resorting to partisanship. It may feel good to bludgeon our opponents into submission, but these remedies breed resentment, not understanding. Our generation is perhaps the most politically engaged generation in history, but productive change can only come from working with those ‘inconvenient others’ with whom we share profound personal disagreements. Not all of us are coming from the exact same ontological foundations, nor arriving at the table with the same cultural lexicon and script. Regrettably, many hard discussions are derailed by semantic quarrels before getting the chance to even breach ideas of any true substance.
It requires humility to negotiate these vexatious crosscurrents, with the added acknowledgement that we have much to learn from our ideological opposites.
Differences should be viewed as avenues for engagement rather than an opportunity to demonstrate our moral superiority or a chance to shame and berate the other side. In politics, forgiveness, empathy, and grace are still laudable and dignified civic virtues. We could do well to practice these qualities as we exit quarantine and re-enter a more contentious and fragmented public space.
With humility, we might find ourselves realizing that we are in fact those who President Reagan once spoke of, the ones who “know so much that isn’t so.”
Steven Hu is a final year International Relations student at the University of Toronto. His areas of interest include military intelligence, applied economics, American foreign policy, Chinese history, and global geopolitics.
Anvesh Jain is a research analyst at the NATO Association of Canada and a research associate with the Canada Tibet Committee. He is a recent graduate of the International Relations program at the University of Toronto, and an incoming JD student at the University of Ottawa Faculty of Law. Please visit his website for more information: https://anveshjain.com/.