I am a liberal. Although what it means to be a liberal is not clearly defined and sometimes comes with a negative connotation, I can reasonably say I am not conservative. My preferred news sources are The New York Times and NPR. If I’m feeling a little neutral, maybe I’ll visit Real Clear Politics, but that’s about it. Memes about Ben Shapiro frequently pop up on my Facebook feed, and — quite frankly — I enjoy them.
I did not realize, however, how deeply entrenched I was in my liberal camp until I landed myself on the front page of Breitbart. As I scrolled through the biased conservative headlines, I then saw the fundamental reason for our society’s rising polarization. When both sides believe that their opinions are based on facts, but those facts are distorted by distinct political leanings, there is no way we will ever reach compromise.
I was perfectly fine with being within my echo chamber because, to me, arguments from the left were the truth — there was simply no way to contest them. While the specifics could be disagreed upon within the left, I subscribed to some general principles shared by most who identify as liberal: Democrats needed to win in 2020, borders should be more open, etc. For example, I just couldn’t understand how some conservatives would think undocumented migrants should all be deported.
There on Breitbart, I felt as if I was uneasily eavesdropping into another secret echo chamber that existed for conservatives. On the news websites I subscribe to, which are identified as left-leaning, a common view was that border patrol agents were culpable for migrants’ suffering. A recent article in The New York Times, for example, was titled “Another Sick Migrant Dies in Border Patrol Custody in Texas.”
On Breitbart, the issue was framed very differently. Border patrol agents played a largely commendable role. They could be kindhearted to undocumented immigrants at times; this article, featured on the home page of the website, was titled “Border Patrol Orders Quick Releases of Families.” For those who rely on Breitbart as their primary source of information, the world must seem very different than the one I envision, and the principles they subscribe to must simultaneously be radically different.
Where is the truth? The point is that there really is no one truth. While such articles are disguised as a neutral discussion of facts and real-life events, their headlines and narratives are inevitably tainted by some form of political bias. And this is not just about Breitbart. Any news source could pick and choose different events to shed light on, and the way articles are headlined is also completely up to the choice of the individual reporters.
This is a major issue. The point of politics is to persuade others to join our cause; that is why politicians spend millions of dollars simply to persuade people to join their cause and support their platform. However, when the two sides simply inhabit heavily insulated echo chambers and subsequently treat their opinions as absolute truths based on “facts” from their own news sources, it is simply impossible for any kind of persuasion — or even any form of productive discussion — to occur.
I urge conservatives and liberals alike to break the little shells of their echo chambers. Perhaps go to a different news source and really try to understand where people come from and why and how people come to believe in certain things. Doubt the validity of your own opinion, be genuinely willing to be persuaded, and more importantly, treat the other side’s arguments as legitimate opinions to be discussed on the table.
It’s cool to be radical. It’s cool to believe in things. But we have to be practical — and practical politics require us to talk to people who disagree with us. And thinning our echo chambers begins with our own agency. That is where real change begins; the people you really need to talk to — those from whom you yourself could be challenged, and furthermore, those whom you yourself could persuade — are out there where you can’t see them.
For me, that would mean interacting with groups like the Princeton Pro-Life, Tigers for Israel, or more generally, the Clio side of Whig-Clio — groups that I previously dismissed as being irrelevant to my world. For you, the nature of the groups may be completely different. The point, however, is that engagement is the basis for any political change, and all of us should be more willing to do it.
Jae-Kyung Sim is a first-year from Sejong City, South Korea. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.