Breaking The Liberal Echo Chamber

I was asked to speak on a panel on election night. About 100 or so urban, left wing millennials gathered into the wee hours of 9 November at an east London venue to drink, jeer, debate and - we expected - cheer for America’s first female president .

Between watching the the electoral college votes roll in on BBC and MSNBC, comedians, activists and journalists were brought on stage to shoot the shit on politics in front of an increasingly liquored-up audience.

The mood was jubilant, but there was also an undercurrent I found unsettling. The Republican party was described as the party of crazies. Trump supporters were referred to collectively as cunts. Everyone laughed, everyone cheered. We, along with anyone else watching the polls, still expected a Democratic triumph.

Even with that promised good news in the offing I was disturbed by the homogeneity of views in the room, how comfortable we had all become in our assumption that right-thinking liberalism and social progress were our primogeniture. One would think the Brexit vote in June would have taught us something.

At around 1am, I got on stage. One of the first thing I asked was: how many people in this room are UK Conservative voters, or GOP supporters, or would have voted for Donald Trump? Two people raised their hands, furtively. And I said: This is the echo chamber. This is part of the problem.

This is even more true now that a candidate of intolerance, sexism, bigotry, racism and dishonesty has ascended to the most powerful job on the planet.

We talk a lot about how people choose their facts now. Either you're a Fox News acolyte or a New York Times reader. But the Great Liberal Echo Chamber that we now need to dismantle goes far deeper than that.

Yes, it is our self-curated social media feeds and the media outlets we trust. But it is also the friends and family we keep close, the public voices we listen to because they echo our own. It is the unpalatable, dissonant views we push away by un-friending or un-following. It is the acquaintances we cut off and the family we distance ourselves from because they don’t share our values. It is the conversations we cut short because they are socially awkward.

Liberals are very good at embracing a multiplicity of identities. Unfortunately we have not done as good a job of grappling with those who hold different values. We have simply turned away. Most of us have been debating ourselves for years, and then patting ourselves on the back for our wit, tolerance and prescience.

We are now paying a very steep price for assuming that others would come around. We dismissed them as racists, cunts, bigots and deplorables. Many of them may be those things, but we've shied away from real conversations with the other side for too long - because we know they are going to be horrible, and gut-wrenching, and endlessly frustrating. That needs to change immediately.

That means being more critical of left wing media. Outlets like Vox, for example, employ some of the same tactics as the right wing Breitbart. They are less hateful and hew more closely to fact, but they also present opinion as fact, partisan spin as incontrovertible truth. I also happen to agree with them most of the time. But a healthy democratic discourse that does not make.

That means taking right wing invective more seriously, and making a concerted effort to understand the internal logic behind it rather than crying bigotry and ignorance. There have been few serious journalistic attempts to do this, in part because delving into the annals of conservative talk radio rhetoric and alt-right 'news' generation is a viscerally painful exercise for most journalists. We can no longer afford to dismiss it as crazy and fringe. Fears about validating it by taking it seriously are now moot. WNYC's The United States of Anxiety podcast has made some serious efforts in this direction. We need more journalists to act as translators.

And that means not cutting off our Trump, or Brexit, or Marine Le Pen supporting family and acquaintances, as tempting as that might be right now. Those links are lifelines.

Here's the thing: today we can be angry and shocked. I am, like many, devastated: by Trump's victory, by Brexit, by the rise of right wing parties across Europe. I heard the deep anxiety in my American stepmother’s voice over the phone on election night as it became clear which way this thing was going to go. I just nearly ripped the head off a colleague who tried to argue that Hillary Clinton is a criminal and that is why she lost. I think many of us feel that everything we value and everything we have built is being reviled, if not outright attacked.

But tomorrow we need to wake up and start breaking out of the echo chambers of liberal consensus we have built for ourselves, because that is part of the reason this has all gone so terribly wrong. We already cut off half of America, and this election is the result. In the UK, it was Brexit. Next it might be France.

I think we all need to wake up tomorrow and fight our corner loudly and ferociously with people who espouse values we can barely fathom, and most painfully of all: we will need to treat them as equals as we do it. We will need to listen, seriously and carefully.

That is the only way out I can see.

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