For the past few weeks, I’ve been consumed by stories of the Charleston shooting and conversations about race in America and symbols of hate and the government’s role in ending oppression. All of it makes me incredibly sad, to be honest.
One thread that I think has implications for educators are the stories of the radicalization of Dylann Roof.
In his online manifesto, Roof identifies the shooting of Trayvon Martin — and America’s reaction to it — as his entry point to the hate that consumed him. More importantly, he identifies the website of the Council of Conservative Citizens — an organization identified as an active hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center — as a source that defined his core beliefs towards African-Americans.
What breaks my heart, however, is that after killing nine people at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in a misguided attempt to start a race war, Roof confessed to police that he “almost didn’t go through with it because everyone was so nice to him.”
Stew in that for a minute, would you? His entire worldview — developed by consuming hate easily found on the internet and by isolating himself from anyone who might openly test that hate — was challenged in the moments right before his decision to kill. Had more of those moments happened — had he surrounded himself with diverse thinking and a diverse community of friends willing to push against his flawed notions — lives would have been saved.
What’s troubling is that today’s new media ecology makes it possible for EVERYONE to live in intellectual echo chambers if they want to.
In fact, look carefully at the results of the annual TV News Poll conducted by Public Policy Polling and you will see that even Americans in the mainstream rarely look for diverse viewpoints when consuming current events. From the summary:
You can really see the disparate ways in which Democrats and Republicans consume news by which outlet they say they trust the most. 56% of Republicans say Fox to 10% each for ABC and CNN. There’s really no competition at all. For Democrats on the other hand there’s a pretty wide distribution of outlets winning ‘most trusted’ honors- CNN gets 21%, PBS 18%, ABC 14%, and CBS and Fox 11%.
You see the problem, don’t you?
While Fox News and CNN may claim to be “fair and balanced” and committed to “moving truth forward” — and while they are nothing like the hate sites that Dylann Roof frequented — they are undeniably biased, determined to advance ideological agendas. Despite that bias, they remain “the most trusted news sources” for the majority of Americans. In fact, I’d bet that the stars of both networks believe that they have a moral imperative to give voice to takes on the news that best represent the individual views of their audiences.
I literally squirm whenever I watch either network. Their hosts regularly demean guests with different perspectives. Sarcasm is common. Scorn is the norm. Conversations about controversial issues quickly become an ideological version of Mortal Kombat with speakers trying to score points by destroying — rather than openly considering — ideas that run contrary to the positions regularly advanced by the networks.
That’s frightening, y’all.
Being exposed to diverse thinking is the key to successful compromise. When we can actively surround ourselves with singular perspectives, our core notions — about race, about religion, about politics, about other people — are never challenged. And in a world where accessing ideas aligned only with our core notions is easy, it is more important than ever that we teach students about the importance of seeking out dissenting voices and welcoming intellectual challenge.
So what are YOU doing to teach students about the dangers of intellectual echo chambers?
Do you encourage diverse thought in class? Can your kids find examples of bias in popular news sources? Are you forcing your kids to look at multiple perspectives when wrestling with controversial topics? Have you taught students the difference between collaborative and competitive dialogue?
The simple truth is that surviving and thriving in a world where intellectual isolation is becoming the norm rather than the exception to the rule depends on citizens who are willing to remain open and able to recognize — and potentially reject — sources that are intentionally representing only one perspective.
Nothing is more important for us to start teaching the kids who are in our classrooms. Nothing.
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