Is there an echo in here?

I’m starting to wonder if I might have been too hard on echo chambers.

The standard position these days is that echo chambers are uniformly terrible; that surrounding yourself with people who agree with you on every issue can only lead to closemindedness, toxic ingroup/outgroup dynamics, and increased polarization. Many people have commented on how the rise of partisan news networks and isolated internet communities have led to a society where people never have to have their beliefs challenged, or interact with those who disagree with them. And this is obviously a very bad thing – there’s almost nothing that runs more counter to the spirit of rationality and truth seeking than the kind of self-congratulatory patting on the back you commonly see in intellectually closed-off communities. But despite all this, I still feel an impulse speak up in favour of echo chambers, at least a little bit – I now think they might also serve a useful psychological function. Just as there are people who can benefit from reading Ayn Rand, I suspect there are people out there who could use a little bit more agreement in their life.

I’ve been going through a pretty rough patch in my life lately. I’m still trying to figure out why exactly this is, but I think part of it may be due to a feeling of intellectual isolation. Right now I feel like I’m living in an anti-echo chamber. It seems like almost everything I hear or read – either from friends, or on facebook, or on the general internet – is someone disagreeing with an opinion I hold. And it seems like any agreement people might have with my beliefs is either whispered or not voiced at all. Obviously this isn’t literally the case – it’s probably mostly just selective memory and a very human tendency to notice criticism more easily than agreement. But I do have a lot of weird and semi-controversial opinions that very few people in the world share, and people are generally not shy about disagreeing with those opinions.

Now, normally this wouldn’t really bother me – and from a purely intellectual point of view, it doesn’t. After all, why should I care if other people think I’m wrong about something? I’m pretty confident in my weird opinions (otherwise I wouldn’t hold them), but in the end I’m not afraid of any challenges to my beliefs. If someone convinces me that something I believe is wrong, I’ll just change my mind. *Shrug*. The goal is not to never be wrong, the goal is just to find the truth.

But saying these words doesn’t erase the reality that humans are social animals. We evolved to care a lot about other people’s opinions – in the ancestral environment it was probably extremely relevant to know whether or not the majority of people around you agreed with you. Having popular or unpopular opinions could literally mean the difference between life and death (or, even more relevantly from evolution’s point of view, between mating and not mating).

I worry that ever since [Bad Thing] happened last year, and I lost a major source of intellectual solidarity in my life, I’ve been feeling more and more like no one agrees with me, and that I’m all alone in believing what I do. And I worry that this has been slowly wearing me down, psychologically, and tripping some ancient mammalian brain circuits – circuits that say things like “YOU HAVE NO ALLIES” and “YOU ARE ABOUT TO BE SHUNNED AND EXILED BY THE TRIBE”.

So now I wonder if maybe people need a certain amount of agreement in their lives. If maybe perceiving everyone around you as constantly disagreeing with you is just as bad, psychologically speaking, as perceiving yourself as useless or unwanted or unattractive. If maybe – just maybe, to some tiny, infinitesimal extent – having a self-congratulatory echo chamber among friends is necessary to be emotionally healthy.

And on top of that: in addition to individual mental well-being, I wonder if agreement is more necessary for friendship than I realized. I’ve always sort of implicitly believed that it didn’t really matter if you disagreed with your friends on philosophical or political matters. All that was required for two people to be friends, thought I, was that they enjoy each other’s company, and that they have each other’s back in times of need. And I still think this is at least normatively true, in the sense that this is probably how friendships should work in an ideal world. But I’m less confident that this is how friendships really do work, in the world as it is right now. I mean, who knows? Maybe the more you disagree with friends, the more you sow subtle, barely noticeable seeds of dissent. Maybe you end up gradually weakening ties to your friends with every contrary opinion, because you subconsciously signal to them that you wouldn’t be a reliable ally if they were to ever really need you. Friendship is all about trust, after all, and maybe trust is really difficult in the face of persistent disagreement.

Or, you know, maybe not. I have no idea if any of this is true. I came up with all of this last night when I couldn’t sleep. I was lying in bed, mind racing and feeling generally frustrated about some article I had read, when I realized I was getting way more bothered by other people disagreeing with me than I used to. And so I set about trying to figure why that was, and the result is this post (which I’m not all that confident in). One natural question one could ask is: why now? Why do I all of a sudden feel so isolated when my opinions haven’t really changed that much recently? I mean, yes, I did lose that source of intellectual solidarity I mentioned (and before that I had far fewer weird and semi-controversial opinions). But it could also easily just be that I’ve been depressed lately for whatever other reason, and that in such a state I’m more likely to notice negative things like criticism and disagreement.

Either way, I definitely do feel kind of isolated right now, and all of this is why I’m so glad that [Friend Who Agrees With Me About Basically Everything] is moving to Toronto soon. I think being able to talk with him more frequently could be helpful. Although, come to think of it, despite the fact that we agree on almost everything, our discussions almost invariably end up honing in on the few topics we disagree about. Granted, I enjoy that because our 99%-shared worldview tends to allow for unusually productive disagreements. But still, since I know he’s reading this: we should probably skype sometime and vent about how obvious atheism is, or how much reality is definitely objective, or something.

You know, just so I can hear an echo.