An issue that comes up consistently in discussions of the unprecedented ability of the internet to spread political information to users, is the question of whether this actually improves the quality of public discourse, or whether it is simply an avenue for people who already believe X to find many arguments and facts in support of X, while ignoring content which puts their values into question. The technical term for this tendency is confirmation bias. I’ve written about this issue several times before , including a post about Julian Assange’s assessment of the blog world, which he effectively acuses of being little more than confirmation bias:
In fact, people write about things in general, if it’s not part of their career, because they want to display their values to their peers who are already in the same group. Actually they don’t give a fuck about the material, that’s the reality.
While Julian’s assessment might be a dash impolite, I think he got straight to the point about the dishonesty required to enact confirmation bias in one’s intellectual work – you have to not care about the material. But, to make sense of this, it is required to think more deeply about what “material” is in the context of political or journalistic content, usually textual. Material, or content, is not literally a piece of text, but some assemblage of perspectives, values, analyses, arguments, facts, figures. Any part of material can, if you engage with it honestly, challenge the perspectives, values, analyses, arguments, and facts which motivated your interest in engaging with the material in the first place. This is, I think, the real meaning of “keeping an open mind” (the usual meaning, something like “not making judgements”, is reactionary tool used by power to prevent people from engaging in moral action by keeping them obsessed with their inability to overcome their own particularity).
But why would one engage in material with honesty? There is, after all, a strong incentive to engage material only to bolster one’s existing stories about oneself and one’s role in the world, because these stories allow us to understand our lives as significant, meaningful, worth living. This is true that we need stories, but it is not true that we need the specific story which we happen to have – and when we value the specificity of that story over the need to have a story in general, we leave ourselves open to lying, to dishonesty, specifically to disavowing content or aspects of content which challenge our stories. And if we disavow challenges to our stories rather than work through the troubling confrontations, we are in danger of becoming weak – of allowing our stories to get more and more out of touch with the world in which they might help us work and survive.
In other words, we have to care about the world in which we live more than we care for our stories. And since, in a sense, we are our stories, we have to care about the world in which we engage more than we care for ourselves. Perhaps this is the challenge of not remaining entrapped by confirmation bias – the challenge of honesty as a fidelity to the world which exceeds our stories over the world which is a product of our stories.