by Karla Joyce
Geopolitical events are streaming, without filter, to younger and younger audiences. Opinion dominates the airwaves. Decorum is dead.
Welcome to the world, kids.
Risk: (noun) the possibility of something bad happening
― Cambridge English Dictionary
Our decision to discuss extreme rhetoric and partisan hostility in this issue of Pegasus Magazine is embedded with risk and requires (in election-speak) frontloading. The subject, by its nature, taps into the ideological tribalism that quietly divides even us, the Pegasus community. It is my duty, both as writer and role-model to my daughters, to present unbiased commentary; our teachers are held to the same standard. The reason we’ve decided to tackle this subject is because...we can’t not. Name-calling, profanity, and SHOUTING is threatening to inhibit genuine debate and, as a result, critical, independent thinking. Even at Pegasus. And, that is the ultimate risk.
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Bubbles exist for good reason. In the weeks after birth, babies are susceptible to infection because their immune systems aren’t fully functional. So, we keep them home. Following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, studies revealed that young children had developed acute stress reactions from cumulative exposure to media coverage of the event. The Journal of Pediatrics routinely publishes research on the wave-like consequence of trauma —or its mere representation— prior to cognitive, emotional, and social maturity.
Banning television on weekdays or keeping computers out of bedrooms has become Flintstone-ian in its thinking, but the urge to bubble-wrap our children or invent implantable, uber-silencing headphones is real. When second graders have cell phones, they are privy to “presidential” tweets. Hours spent like-ing silly selfies in fourth grade is loose cover for amassing “friends” and, by default, their views, their language, and their links. And, by middle school, online exposure, regardless of usage-limitations, delivers an unending, unfiltered deluge of the distressing information, insulting language, and explicit imagery in our world today.
Let’s face it: the bubble has popped.
Civil Discourse: Oh, How We Took It For Granted
A Pew Research Center survey identifies our era as the apex of ideological division in the United States. Was it the election of Donald Trump that triggered it, or more sinister social-media algorithms segregating us into like-minded factions? (The jury is split.) Most political scientists agree, however, that the 2016 presidential election itself stands out for an unprecedented level of discord in the political sphere. “There has never been a presidential election where you had such a high negative rating for both presidential candidates and where each candidate was distrusted by such high majorities of Americans,” said Larry Diamond, a Stanford University political science and sociology professor and senior fellow at the Hoover Institute. Faster than a fly, the stumpers’ mudslinging metamorphosed into partisan hyperbole, habitual skepticism, and almost war-like division. The electorate, comprised of legal adults, processed the maelstrom to the best of its ability which, to this day, hasn’t been very adult-like at all.
In effect, in 2016, the world came rushing in. Despite every well-meaning effort to keep it at bay, to shield our students to meet developmental readiness, that negativity wormed its way like a noxious gas into the middle school classrooms of The Pegasus School.
“At the beginning of last year,” recalled James Swiger, eighth-grade social studies teacher, “we were noticing that the political and cultural climate in the United States was clearly affecting everyone, including our students here at Pegasus.” (During the 2016-2017 school year, the Middle School social studies team included Amy Weiss, James Swiger, and Jim Conti, teaching sixth, seventh, and eighth graders, respectively.) “Increasingly, we saw people less willing to listen to each other and trying to present their views ‘louder’ than any opposing views.” From the presidential-debate dais to the middle school doorstep, “we were seeing political discussion that included opinionated commentary and, far too often, vitriol.”
“That's just not democracy,” said Swiger, Parenting OC’s 2017 Top 25 Teacher of OC winner. “In a democracy, and in a classroom, you should be able to comfortably bring up ideas that challenge others. But it's imperative that all sides of an issue are respectful, avoid bias, use empirical evidence, and be open to new ideas.” Argument itself isn’t out of the norm at this age, he admitted. “And that’s been the beauty of Pegasus Middle School. We have always allowed kids to voice opinions and exercise these social skills in a way that won’t come back to bite them.” Inherent in that success, however, was the ability to filter out —“not censor,” he insisted — the emotional visual components of current events. “We can no longer do that,” Swiger lamented. “They are simply bombarded with media.” He knew he needed to address head-on what they were incidentally seeing and hearing, from tweets to insults to fake news, and give them the tools to process it all prior to developmental readiness. So, he devised a curricular unit on civil discourse. Together, with Conti and Weiss, he intentionally brought the mechanics of democracy into classroom discussions.
“I think we were effective,” he said. He even admitted to having his personal opinion influenced by a student’s deeper, attentively-unbiased current event report and the ensuing class discussion. “Exercising civil discourse creates opportunities for us all to get to a better place,” Swiger said. “And that's democracy.”
The Illusion of Opinion, Part I: A Moral Matrix
While blaming Trump for (fill in the blank) is tempting, it’s not like we woke up the day he formally entered politics and decided to hate each other more. According to Jonathan Haidt, social scientist and author of The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion, it is our own moral psychology that forms the basis of our political choices and deepening disconnection. In other words, tribalism is a basic aspect of human cognition. Haidt insists, however, that the power to evolve within that framework remains in our hands. Long before Trump he was urging his audiences to “disagree more constructively.”
“People need their views challenged and shaken in both political and theological debate if they want to truly grow,” said Haidt at a TED panel discussion two weeks post-election. “It’s so important to avoid the deadening conformity of getting stuck in a circle of people where everyone agrees.” But the introduction of disgust into our political discourse has transformed debate. “Disgust is different,” he said. “It paints an ideological opponent as subhuman, morally deformed, satanic. And then, of course, we want nothing to do with them.” (He cited recent speaker expulsions on college campuses as example of this urge to silence disagreement by simply keeping people away.)
Less exposure to different viewpoints can breed epidemic intolerance, Haidt warned through analogy. “We are essentially all trapped in ‘The Matrix.’ Each moral community is a consensual hallucination. And so if you're within the blue matrix, everything's completely compelling that the other side is filled with troglodytes, racists, the worst people in the world. And you have all the facts to back that up. But somebody in the next house from yours is living in a different video game, so they see a different set of facts and different threats to the country. What I've found from the middle, trying to understand both sides, is that both sides are right. There are many threats to this country and each side is constitutionally incapable of seeing them all.”
Are we guilty of this as parents? Do our zip codes, friend-circles, or civil associations unconsciously shape our perspectives, or can we still see both sides? Do we espouse critical thinking skills but reinforce consensual hallucination? Do we empathize… not just with the politically-preferred classes of victims but with them, the political other? Do we reach out, listen, and model objectivity?
Surely, we try. Unfortunately, even if our self-reflection skills are spot on, the mushrooming use of online algorithms to curate our very exposure is silently censoring contrasting perspectives, blocking other points of view. And the isolation continues.
The Illusion of Opinion, Part II: Filter Bubbles
Shortly after 9/11, a 20-year-old named Eli Pariser created a website calling for a multilateral approach to fighting terrorism. Within two weeks, half a million people had signed on; two months later it merged with MoveOn.org and he ultimately became Executive Director then Director of the organization’s Board of Trustees. A self-proclaimed progressive — “Big surprise,” he joked — Pariser had always been purposeful about maintaining his relationships with conservatives and followed their links and posts on Facebook... “to learn or thing or two.” One day he noticed that the conservatives had disappeared from his Facebook feed. “I was clicking more on my liberal friends' links than on my conservative friends' links so, without consulting me, they were edited out. They just disappeared.”
His fascination with algorithmic editing of web content led to his 2011 book, The Filter Bubble, which shows how modern search tools, our filter to the wider world, are returning only those search results it thinks we want to see. As web companies strive to tailor their services (including news and search results) to our personal tastes, Pariser said, there's a dangerous unintended consequence: We get trapped in a "filter bubble" and don't get exposed to information that could challenge or broaden our worldview. “Your filter bubble is your own personal, unique universe of information that you live in online. And what's in your filter bubble depends on who you are, and what you do. But the thing is, you don't decide what gets in and, more importantly, you don't see what gets edited out.”
It’s not just Facebook or Google, either. This is sweeping the Web. According to Pariser, “Yahoo News, Huffington Post, the Washington Post, and the New York Times are all flirting with personalization.” Pariser opened his 2011 TED talk with a chilling statement made by Mark Zuckerberg in response to a reporter: "’A squirrel dying in your front yard may be more relevant to your interests right now than people dying in Africa.’" (That’s called censorship, kids!) Essentially, Pariser went on to explain, a web that is based on relevance keeps us comfortably cut off from things that are uncomfortable, challenging or important… a.k.a. other points of view.
Imagine the ramifications in middle school. Two students, hailing from different matrices, embark on a research paper from their home computers and receive vastly different links, culled from family online behaviors. If there was a time when the nightly news posed a threat to young ears, imagine the volume of stealth ads and algorithmic redirection that occured on our computers after the last presidential election!
Pariser, Haidt and Swiger all argue powerfully that this will ultimately prove to be harmful to democracy. Information suppression, moral sequestration, and demonizing rhetoric not only exacerbates the bitterness of the political realm, it seeps freely into our children’s lives. In a strange way, maybe a bubble-free view of this new norm will help students learn to identify groupthink, strive relentlessly for multiple perspectives, and come to recognize that civility applies to the manner in which we debate, not the content of our arguments. Achieving civility cannot be buzz-speak for silencing those pesky dissenters. Meanwhile, technology is continually changing, and human creativity can surely tackle the adverse upshot of progress as it happens; if algorithms can create bias, they can identify it as well.
The takeaway from all three is the same, and works for adults and teenagers alike: make friends with people on the opposite side of the political spectrum; engage in honest conversations; create opportunities for mutual listening and consideration and, maybe, lasting friendships.
And remember: friends don’t SHOUT.
Karla Joyce is an alumni parent, a Board Trustee, and a contributing writer to Pegasus Magazine. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org