Millennial students are exposed to an ever narrowing ideological range of opinion. We say it’s time to burst that bubble.
In a March 2011 TED talk, Eli Pariser coined the term “filter bubble”: how search engines and social media were programmed to show people only content they would be interested in. Politically, he claimed, this leads to people mainly seeing content that they agreed with. Matters have gotten worse since. At the same time, technology alone is not to blame for trapping us in echo chambers. We trap ourselves, too, by failing to click on content coming from different political views, and failing to post such content for fear of being vilified by our existing online friendship groups.
This online polarisation is also reflected in the real world. Look at the electoral maps of the UK referendum on the EU, and Trump’s election to the US presidency. We inhabit the same geographical space as people who agree with us. As such, we rarely interact with those with whom we disagree. As Scott Alexander pointed out, whilst about 40% of Americans are against same-sex marriages only 10 or so people in his social circle of 150 believe that; the odds of that randomly happening are one to one quintillion. As he puts it, “social bubble” does not even begin to describe this level of segregation.
Do the experiment yourself. Of the 150 people closest to you how many oppose same sex marriage (UK population: c.40%), want to reinstate the death penalty (UK population: c.50%), voted to Leave the EU (UK population: 52%) or support Trump’s state visit to the UK (UK population: 49%)? We live in a world where substantial proportions of the population seem invisible to us.
This phenomenon is at its most extreme in our universities. The towns of Cambridge and Oxford voted at over 70% to Remain. Similarly the Times Higher Education supplement found that in 2015 only 11% of UK academics planned to vote Conservative. In the US matters are even starker. There, only 5% of academics in the humanities and social sciences identify as conservative.
There are competing theories about the causes of this. But, the fact remains that our universities tend to foster secular, progressive, cosmopolitan assumptions in students – that the most important philanthropy is telescopic, that making the world a better place means chasing innovation rather than treasuring what we’ve achieved, that enough money and power can solve all our problems, that religion has little place in public discourse, that nationhood does not create particular obligations.
There are lots of ways of understanding the world, however: of interpreting real evidence and weighing rival goods and competing rights. Political maturity in a divided society means understanding conservative, classically liberal, socialist, communitarian and, yes, theologically formed viewpoints.
We tend to assume that people’s motivation for acting politically takes four possible forms: (1) for moral reasons, (2) stupidity or ignorance, (3) self-interest, or (4) because they are evil. We typically think that we, and people on our team, are acting for (1); but that others act out of stupidity, ignorance self-interest or malice.
Clearly not everyone can be right. Our view at The Quad is that the bulk of people act for moral reasons, but we fail to realise this because many of us have very different conceptions of what morality requires. As Owen Jones puts it: “sometimes people say things not because they have ulterior motives, but because that’s what they actually think.”
This is because, unfortunately, a lot of people have not been exposed to the moral conceptions of the other side. Most of us would fail the Ideological Turing Test. Given the progressive dominance in academia many students do not get exposed to points of view outside of that paradigm. So some might assume that others act out of ignorance, self-interest or evil.
Here’s an example. Some countries auction off trophy hunting permits to fund conservation programmes; such a scheme was at the centre of the killing of Cecil the Lion. Opponents of such schemes think that those promoting and taking part in them are evil. Defenders of such schemes argue that the actions of opponents are misguided as they will reduce funds available for conservation. But both sides have good intentions, and at the heart of the matter lies an ethical disagreement about whether individual animals can be subject to such trade-offs. Neither side is evil or stupid.
This goes for most of our debates – whether they are about immigration, taxes, life issues, the EU… because of a failure properly to understand the other side we simply attack their personal motives or call their good character or knowledge levels into question.
Fortunately, recent events have lead a lot of people to want to go beyond their filter bubble to better understand how others think. Unfortunately, the polarisation means that most media sources focus on preaching to the choir and the attempts to engage the other side often degenerate into shouting matches. Furthermore, some of the right-wing media do not put forward terribly sophisticated arguments for their view. Instead, they focus more on feeding tribalism.
We created The Quad to fill this gap. We will publish intelligent, high-quality pieces explaining and defending views outside of the progressive and cosmopolitan framework, and commenting on current affairs from a perspective outside the echo chamber of assumptions which British students now inhabit. Our aim is for everyone to be able to better understand the thinking and assumptions of those who disagree with them, and to challenge the hegemony of the “progressive” worldview to boot. We hope that this will contribute to raising the level of our public discourse and to fight the extreme polarisation which has defined political the discourse of the last decade.
In our opening edition our talented team of writers dive straight into some of the thorniest political and cultural issues facing Britain, straddling the difficult practicalities of current affairs and the most important general philosophical themes. Hugh Burling argues that freedom is not an absolute good, while Rachel Ellis and Rajiv Shah critique prevailing orthodoxies on the refugee crisis and on the right to life for the disabled unborn. Michael Anderson defends field sports as a vital part of life in rural England, and Roland Valentine Stewart revisits ancient disputes over free trade, with an eye on the Trump administration’s bellicose noises about protectionism. Adam Wawrzynski considers whether the current laws on “hate crimes” make legal sense, and Christina Bradbury takes the powerful to task over how they try to influence our thoughts with speech codes, too. Jacob Chatterjee casts a critical eye on the ideology of liberalism, and Gavin Rice argues that all Christians should embrace conservatism and limited government.
We at The Quad aim to keep our fingers on the political and cultural pulse, and we hope that we’ll help you to as well. There’s a world of new perspectives out there, and if you’re game for the debate then we are too.
~ The Editors.