Getting Out of the Filter Bubble Outside Your Filter Bubble

Re­lated: The “Out­side the Box” Box

As poli­tics be­comes more po­larized, and more peo­ple are try­ing to figure out why, more peo­ple think the an­swer is that too many of us are in filter bub­bles, and are con­se­quently try­ing to get out of them. This seems like the kind of thing the ra­tio­nal­ity com­mu­nity would have tried to do ear­lier than most peo­ple, though whether the ra­tio­nal­ity com­mu­nity suc­ceeded much bet­ter than other kinds of peo­ple is an open ques­tion. One crit­i­cism of a sim­ple ra­tio­nal­ist ap­proach to avoid­ing filter bub­bles is that ex­clu­sively join­ing a com­mu­nity that as­pires to avoid filter bub­bles is it that the com­mu­nity will not be con­scious of its own bias blindspot. So, the com­mu­nity may form its own typ­i­cal suite of bi­ases that goes un­rec­og­nized. The ra­tio­nal­ists I know who have been the most con­scien­tious in not fal­ling prey to a filter bub­ble take this crit­i­cism to heart, and con­se­quently look be­yond the ra­tio­nal­ity com­mu­nity for per­spec­tives on poli­tics. Ju­lia Galef re­cently asked a ques­tion on a similar topic on Face­book.

Now that more peo­ple be­yond the ra­tio­nal­ity com­mu­nity are talk­ing about how one can get out of a filter bub­ble, it’s eas­ier to com­pare differ­ent ap­proaches to do­ing so. Or­ga­ni­za­tions like Jonathan Haidt’s Hetero­dox Academy (HxA) talk about get­ting pro­gres­sives and con­ser­va­tives to talk to each other more, in par­tic­u­lar for those pock­ets of pro­gres­sivism in academia or other elite in­sti­tu­tions that can’t re­late to con­ser­va­tives what­so­ever to learn how to ac­tu­ally listen to them. HxA has a goal of con­duc­ing peo­ple to seek what’s true, and I as­sume they’re rel­a­tively bet­ter at do­ing so than the de­fault ap­proaches ran­dom peo­ple take. How­ever, HxA also has the pri­or­ity of hav­ing peo­ple seek com­mon ground in what we be­lieve is true be­cause they be­lieve do­ing so will lead to a heal­ing of the poli­ti­cal di­vide. That’s a nor­ma­tive goal aside from seek­ing what’s true, and the goal of seek­ing com­mon ground among pro­gres­sives and con­ser­va­tives is in­stru­men­tal to the achieve­ment of the goal of heal­ing the poli­ti­cal di­vide.

How­ever, the way HxA seeks to get peo­ple out of their filter bub­bles doesn’t op­ti­mize for seek­ing what’s true, or the ab­solute min­i­miza­tion of one’s filter bub­ble. That’s be­cause once the goal of heal­ing the poli­ti­cal di­vide in Amer­ica is mo­ti­vated, there isn’t the mo­ti­va­tion to op­ti­mize for what’s true be­yond that. So, from a per­spec­tive fo­cused solely on pur­su­ing what’s true re­gard­less of any­thing else, HxA’s ap­proach is method­olog­i­cally flawed be­cause it doesn’t en­courage peo­ple to con­sider poli­tics out­side the Over­ton win­dow of the United States. Namely, the Over­ton win­dow of the United States is that of poli­ti­cal ide­olo­gies rel­a­tively com­pat­i­ble with liberal democ­racy. Con­ser­va­tive, pro­gres­sive, liberal, or liber­tar­ian, the vast ma­jor­ity of Amer­i­cans of all stripes ap­pear to still sup­port some kind of liberal democ­racy over what al­ter­na­tive poli­ti­cal sys­tems pop­u­lar in world his­tory they could em­brace. So, there are poli­ti­cal per­spec­tives that are so far from any­thing in the Amer­i­can Over­ton win­dow, from where their pro­po­nents are stand­ing, the full spread of Amer­i­can poli­tics looks all the same.

There is a phe­nomenon called the nar­cis­sism of small differ­ences, which is “the the­sis that com­mu­ni­ties with ad­join­ing ter­ri­to­ries and close re­la­tion­ships are es­pe­cially likely to en­gage in feuds and mu­tual ridicule be­cause of hy­per­sen­si­tivity to de­tails of differ­en­ti­a­tion.” One can see this in Amer­i­can poli­tics in how for the last sev­eral decades there has been what is seen as a typ­i­cal bi­par­ti­san Belt­way poli­ti­cal es­tab­lish­ment that dom­i­nates the tra­jec­tory of both the Repub­li­can and Demo­cratic par­ties, en­sur­ing that nei­ther party strays too far away from what the con­sen­sus of elite de­mands. Of course, in the last few years, with the rise of na­tion­al­ism within the Repub­li­can Party, and so­cial­ism at the fringes of the Demo­cratic Party, it would ap­pear the hold this elite es­tab­lish­ment has on both par­ties is break­ing. Yet there are poli­ti­cal per­spec­tives that are still so differ­ent from any­thing hap­pen­ing in the United States that they would look at Don­ald Trump and Bernie San­ders, and see them as es­sen­tially the same be­cause they’re both ‘liber­als’. That is, they’re poli­ti­cal per­spec­tives that are so po­larized they see the fact that the vast ma­jor­ity of Amer­i­cans sup­port some kind of liberal democ­racy as mean­ing there are es­sen­tially no fun­da­men­tal differ­ences be­tween any two poli­ti­cal po­si­tions in the Over­ton win­dow of the United States. From their per­spec­tive, 100% of Amer­i­can poli­tics is nar­cis­sis­ti­cally ob­sessed with their own small and ul­ti­mately in­signifi­cant differ­ences.

Th­ese would, of course, be poli­ti­cal per­spec­tives like an­ar­cho-com­mu­nism or monar­chism. By ex­pos­ing one­self to these poli­ti­cal per­spec­tives, you can get out­side the ‘filter bub­ble’ that is the en­tirety of Amer­i­can poli­ti­cal dis­course. All of this isn’t to say any­thing about the qual­ity of these per­spec­tives ex­cept that these a rad­i­cally differ­ent ways to get out of the broader so­cietal bub­ble many peo­ple aren’t cog­nizant they’re own per­sonal bub­ble re­sides in.

I’ve found the only re­li­able way to be sure I am get­ting out of my filter bub­ble is to ex­pose my­self to these kinds of rad­i­cally un­com­mon poli­ti­cal per­spec­tives that re­ject liberal democ­racy it­self. (This is as­sum­ing, like me, you live in the United States or a similarly liberal-demo­cratic coun­try.) It might seem fu­tile to try to ex­pose your­self to illiberal per­spec­tives, since the last time thor­oughly illiberal ide­olo­gies were as re­motely pop­u­lar as liberal ide­olo­gies through­out the Western world was in the 19th cen­tury. Get­ting out of one’s filter bub­ble by in­ter­nal­iz­ing a per­spec­tive that doesn’t take into ac­count what the world is like to­day could feel a bit silly. What I do is fa­mil­iarize my­self with the his­tor­i­cal ba­sis of an illiberal ide­ol­ogy, and then read the pri­mary sources of re­ac­tions from par­tic­u­lar ide­olog­i­cal com­mu­ni­ties to cur­rent events. The in­ter­net has al­lowed peo­ple of ev­ery poli­ti­cal po­si­tion that has ever ex­isted to con­gre­gate on­line, so it’s not hard to find them. Subred­dits are a good place to start to see what some­one who rigidly holds to a poli­tics that isn’t based in the mod­ern prac­tice of gov­ern­ment, and judges cur­rent events through such a lens.

To look to these kinds of illiberal ide­olo­gies to gain greater poli­ti­cal per­spec­tive in the pur­suit of truth might strike some peo­ple as hairy. After all, isn’t an as­sump­tion of con­tem­po­rary Amer­i­can poli­tics to look at the rest of the world, and see that in his­tory poli­ti­cal sys­tems like the com­mu­nism of the Soviet Union, or the old monar­chies of Europe, have been tried and failed rel­a­tive to liberal democ­racy?

As out of touch with re­al­ity as much of Amer­i­can poli­tics might seem to­day to so many peo­ple, one could be sus­pi­cious that com­mu­nists and monar­chists are even more out of touch with re­al­ity in their poli­tics still. Per­son­ally, I have ap­proached these po­ten­tial con­cerns not by try­ing to solve them as a prob­lem, but by just be­ing aware that an un­pop­u­lar wor­ld­view that is rad­i­cally differ­ent than that held by most peo­ple will prob­a­bly no­tice some­thing im­por­tant most peo­ple miss out on, but that isn’t a rea­son to think it’s less bi­ased than any other per­spec­tive. Much of the lan­guage I’ve used here is figu­ra­tive, and I don’t think it makes sense to think of a poli­ti­cal ide­ol­ogy as liter­ally some kind of agent with a par­tic­u­lar set of typ­i­cal be­liefs. Espe­cially for ra­tio­nal­ists, I think it still makes much more sense to talk about seek­ing what’s true on the level of the in­di­vi­d­ual, or at least so­cial units still much smaller than ‘the set of all peo­ple who ad­here to a par­tic­u­lar ide­ol­ogy’.

Fi­nally, when I started ex­pos­ing my­self to illiberal ide­olo­gies, I also feared I might be taken in by tyranny through my naivete or gullibil­ity. I found this fear wasn’t borne out. If there is any­thing about liberal democ­ra­cies as they ex­ist that you are re­motely sym­pa­thetic to, or would like to pre­serve in so­ciety, than I ex­pect like me it’s un­likely you’ll be taken in by an anti-demo­cratic and illiberal poli­tics with­out even notic­ing, or against your bet­ter judge­ment. I found the very act of pe­ri­od­i­cally ex­pos­ing my­self to rad­i­cally illiberal ide­olo­gies has been suffi­cient to rec­og­nize the im­plicit as­sump­tions that most peo­ple liv­ing in liberal democ­ra­cies hold that I also held with­out con­sciously rec­og­niz­ing it. So, if you’re afraid of ex­pos­ing your­self to illiberal ide­olo­gies be­cause you’ll be un­duly taken in by them, it’s not some­thing I would worry about un­less you’re some­one who can’t help but take ex­tremely se­ri­ously rad­i­cally novel view­points. I’d ex­pect most peo­ple will face the op­po­site prob­lem, in that they’ll rad­i­cally un­der­es­ti­mate just how thor­oughly and ve­he­mently ev­ery facet of cur­rent poli­tics in liberal democ­ra­cies is re­jected. I’ve found it takes much de­liber­ate and con­scious effort to get my­self of tak­ing some illiberal ide­olo­gies se­ri­ously at all.

In the last few years, I’ve come to still hold a lot of those as­sump­tions un­der­pin­ning our cur­rent poli­ti­cal sys­tem, since I still be­lieve some­thing like how liberal cap­i­tal­ist democ­racy is the worst so­cioe­co­nomic and/​or poli­ti­cal sys­tem ever tried, ex­cept for all the oth­ers. How­ever, what those as­sump­tions were, and why I be­lieved them about liberal democ­racy, and how I came to be­lieve them based on the kind of so­ciety I lived in, was some­thing I didn’t re­ally ap­pre­ci­ate un­til I had done a de­cent job of ex­pos­ing my­self to poli­ti­cal per­spec­tives on the Left, the Right, and ev­ery­where in be­tween that re­ject liberal democ­racy out of hand.

Re­turn­ing to the Hetero­dox Academy, none of this is to say there is any­thing wrong with their ap­proach. To fully em­brace an illiberal poli­ti­cal ide­ol­ogy for a coun­try like the United States would be to be­lieve some­thing like a very vi­o­lent rev­olu­tion would be jus­tified to in­sti­tute a gov­ern­ment noth­ing what­so­ever like what the United States has to­day. That would be a goal as in­de­pen­dent of seek­ing what’s true as is the nor­ma­tive goal of heal­ing the poli­ti­cal di­vide. Illiberal poli­tics will ex­ac­er­bate that goal by widen­ing rather than nar­row­ing the poli­ti­cal di­vide. For the record, I per­son­ally am skep­ti­cal HxA’s ap­proach is op­ti­mal for achiev­ing their goals, but I ad­mire their goals, and my goals are cer­tainly closer to theirs than those of illiberal ide­ologues. It’s al­most never the goal of illiberal ide­ologues to get out of their filter bub­ble. I’ve found they see less value in it, since they of­ten fun­da­men­tally trust less the judge­ment of hu­mans who haven’t come to already share their cur­rent poli­ti­cal be­liefs. So, illiberal ide­ologues who don’t also have some­thing like an as­pira­tion to ra­tio­nal­ity don’t make for good co­op­er­a­tors in so­cial episte­mol­ogy. I think for a lot of ra­tio­nal­ists this will cur­tail their de­sire to in­ter­act with them be­yond the ini­tial value of novel in­for­ma­tion they can provide through their unique per­spec­tives.

Ra­tion­al­ists ap­pear to pri­ori­tize seek­ing what’s true to a de­gree rel­a­tively greater than peo­ple whose goals are de­ter­mined by a poli­ti­cal ide­ol­ogy, liberal or illiberal, more than any­thing else. My solu­tion for get­ting out of my own filter bub­ble, not only to un­der­stand peo­ple around me, but to seek what’s true be­yond that, has been to be cog­nizant of the full span of con­tem­po­rary poli­ti­cal dis­course, in­clud­ing those poli­ti­cal per­spec­tives that fall out­side the Over­ton win­dow to the left, to the right, or what­ever di­rec­tion.