Escaping the echo chamber

This week, I watched John Oliver deliver a thorough and thoughtful presentation on Donald Trump. I like Oliver. He’s entertaining, he’s sharp, and he’s not above laughing at himself when the situation calls for it. As a graduate of the Jon Stewart/Stephen Colbert school of political satire, you can see where he took his cues from, and can usually say where he’ll fall on most issues. While Oliver is, again, usually very smart and thoughtful, it’s rare that I’m surprised by anything I see from him.

So when he talked at length about Trump, it went as I expected it would. It wasn’t anything that shocked or surprised me, really.  It was entertaining, it was concise, and it delivered hammer after hammer of depressing truth, interspersed with enough laughs that he could still call himself a comedian. While he’s been mentioned a lot in the opening paragraphs, I’m not going to spend a lot of time here opining on Trump, because that’s not the point of this post. I wanted to talk about something else that bothered me.

Someone I follow on Twitter made what I thought was an excellent point when he mused that people like Stewart, Colbert, and Oliver and their culture of political satire probably contributed to the rise of someone like Trump. Trump has done an excellent job tapping into an underlying resentment against certain political elements, and exploiting the immediate, reactive nature of this age of social media. He’s also done a great job being the centre of attention, but again, that’s a different post (that I probably won’t write, because others have done it much, much better). But it got me thinking about how we consume media, how we present it, and how we often let it divide us.

While I’ve probably seen a shift in my values as I’ve had my political identity crisis over the last several years, I think some soul searching generally does one a lot of good. So my train of thought started here: it’s easy to watch someone like Oliver do his comedic commentary, and point and laugh at Trump, and shake our heads at people who would support him.

From that, I had a few questions about the Oliver diatribe. What was the point, really? Who was watching it that doesn’t already agree with him? What does it accomplish other than making us who do agree with him feel better about ourselves? We’re entertained, sure. But Oliver himself would admit that Trump has evolved well beyond a joke, into someone who will more than likely win his party’s nomination to run for president.

Again, I like Oliver. I think he’s usually good, and more truthful than those of opposite minds would admit. It’s clear from the presentation that Oliver was trying to reach people and change minds, but he can’t possibly do that because of who he is, and the reputation he’s established. Because of his reputation, he was only preaching to his own choir. I don’t think anyone who supports Trump watched it and changed their mind because of it. So I wondered about the value of what Oliver did.

This isn’t really Oliver’s fault, he’s a just a product of a media that’s more concerned about entertaining than engaging, or elevating the conversation, or addressing actual issues that exist. His show is designed for people who would probably already agree with it. In an age where we have more choice than ever about what we consume, we can ignore everything we don’t agree with, and that’s not necessarily healthy. So we stay in our lanes, never thinking, and never being challenged on what we think.

I see this happening more and more, as opinions and information are reduced to soundbites and quips that make for easy points scored in a debate (something Trump himself is also a master of), and a quick sense of smug superiority that we can compress into 140 characters. We put up a picture with a snappy quote, get the likes, and score points with people who already agree with us. But nothing of substance has really happened. All we’ve done is dig the trenches deeper.

It’s far too easy to lump people who have certain viewpoints into a comfortable box, and dismiss them to the fringes. I know I’ve done it, often without really realizing I have. That’s the easy thing to do, to let ourselves be entertained, have a laugh, and bask in our own sense of superiority over other people. Not that we shouldn’t laugh or have fun, or think critically about things, but I struggle with how reductive and smug political discussions have become, and how we so often stay in the comfortable bubbles we’ve established.

I’m not sure how to change that, but I want it to be better. I want us to have better conversations. When I see someone who thinks differently, I want to find a way to understand them, rather than dismiss them because they think differently than me. Some of the best learning I’ve had was from people who had much different opinions that I do, and I think that by opening ourselves up to hearing those opinions we can (sometimes) learn a lot.

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One thought on “Escaping the echo chamber

  1. qthiessen

    The older I get (I find I’m starting a lot of sentences that way these days), the less I like the way we’ve all gotten used to the hit and run style of dealing with people that have different opinions than us. I, too, like John Oliver but totally agree with you that his style doesn’t exactly promote positive change. It just allows us to sit in our safe silos and lob grenades at TBOT (those bastards over there). Thanks for the post.

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