September 7, 2012

We Can Benefit From Exposing Ourselves to Diverse Views

Covering ears

If you express controversial views on the Internet, many people are going to react by unfollowing, blocking, de-friending, unsubscribing, and the like. Not only are they not interested in your perspective, they want to pretend it isn't there at all. They find your disagreement with their worldview to be threatening in some way, and they'd like to wish it away.

Atheists know this all too well. We regularly have religious believers go out of their way to tell us that they are unfollowing, blocking, or muting us. I've always found it quite amusing that someone would need to tell me that they are doing this. What is less amusing is when persons we regarded as our friends in real life or even our family members do this. I've only had a couple of friends do this to me, but I've heard about it happening on a much larger scale to many atheists.

When religious believers do this, I find myself thinking that their faith must be awfully fragile if they need to resort to such measures to protect it from criticism or even alternative viewpoints. I have a much harder time knowing what to make of it when atheists do it.

While neither atheism nor freethought implies that one must be equally open to all perspectives, I've always thought that more dialogue was preferable to less. I've written previously about how I do not want to live in an echo chamber. I've always found that I grow through exposure to new ideas, particularly when they provoke strong reactions or when I feel inclined to dismiss them out of hand. Content with which I disagree often makes me think at a deeper level than that which merely reflects my opinions.

Exposing oneself to alternative viewpoints is an effective strategy for preventing the sort of groupthink that often happens in well-insulated communities. Many of you have seen what happens to people whose only source of information about the world is Fox "News" and who block out all dissenting opinions. It isn't pretty. There is also some evidence of this on the left, and this is one of the reasons I find myself rarely watching MSNBC these days. It is not that I think they are as bad as Fox; it just makes me wary to limit myself to media that confirms my views.

I understand full well why the bloggers associated with "atheism plus" would want to exclude those who offer nothing but abuse. I think they are right to do so, and I'd almost certainly do the same. Where I think they've gone wrong is confusing disagreement with abuse. As a result, the community they've created seems to be increasingly like-minded and not particularly tolerant of dissenting viewpoints. This increases the risk of groupthink and appears to be one of the most prevalent criticisms of the new group.

I recognize that we all want different things from our online experience and media consumption. For some, it is largely about entertainment rather than communication or growth. For others, it is mostly about finding a safe haven within which one can be free from criticism. There is nothing necessarily wrong with these goals; they just do not happen to be ones I share. I'm far more likely to unfollow those who share cat pictures or inform me every time they've liked a YouTube video than those who present material that may challenge my views.

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