August 6, 2010

I Don't Want to Live in an Echo Chamber

contractIt is unfortunate that we humans have a tendency to seek out information that confirms our views. In this digital age where it is easy to customize the sort of information we receive with a few mouse clicks, it is tempting to construct virtual cocoons to isolate us from dissenting perspectives. This may be comfortable, but it is comfort that comes at a price. Too much of this self-imposed isolation leaves us ill equipped to function in the world as it actually exists.

I have been guilty of this very thing more than I would like to admit. While I do make an effort to seek out and consume information that comes from outside the traditional channels, I can do better. I read a handful of Christian blogs, but I could read more. I read a handful of blogs written by conservative atheists, but I know there are more out there. My RSS aggregator contains feeds from right-wing and centrist sources, but it still leans heavily to the left.

I am glad that the atheist blogosphere, including the blogs and those who read them, is very diverse. If every atheist agreed with every other atheist on all issues, the world would be insufferably boring. As a blogger, I can honestly say that if every reader agreed completely with everything I wrote, there would be little reason for me to keep writing. It is my hope that I can can provoke thought in my readers, and merely parroting their own thoughts would be unlikely to accomplish that.

In my own reading of atheist blogs, I particularly value those that are written by authors with very different perspectives and/or life experiences. For example, blogs written by former Muslims, ex-Mormons, or former pastors delight me by teaching me about things with which I have had little direct experience. I am also fascinated with blogs written by atheists outside the U.S. who write about their experiences because it shows me how far ahead of the U.S. some other countries are with regard to the acceptance of atheists. I also realize that none of us, no matter how similar, have had exactly the same experiences. I can learn something from almost anyone.

There is one down side to the sort of deliberate efforts to stretch one's comfort zone I describe here. As one ventures out to encounter this sort of diversity, the potential for miscommunication and misunderstanding inevitably increases. Few things are more frustrating for a blogger than when he or she feels that a post has been misinterpreted to mean something quite different than what he or she intended. I have experienced this many times, going back to re-read my post again and again but still unable to figure out how anyone could have derived a such a different meaning from my words.

What I have learned from these experiences is simple but I share it because I think it is worth remembering:
The meaning a reader derives from an author's words is a function of three elements: (1) what the author brings to the encounter, (2) what the reader brings to the encounter, and (3) the interaction of the author's contribution and the reader's contribution.
Misunderstandings are going to occur, especially when we venture out of our comfort zones. But before we act or react out of anger, it can be helpful to remember that such misunderstandings do not mean that only one party is at fault. When cooler heads prevail, we can often resolve these misunderstandings.

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