A World of Bubbles


“If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.” – John Stuart Mill

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On April 28th, conservative columnist Bret Stephens published his debut opinion editorial in the New York Times. The article, partially about climate change, has led to many liberals canceling their subscription to the liberal New York Times.

Did Stephens argue that global warming is fake? No. In the article he wrote that “warming of the Northern Hemisphere since 1880 is indisputable.” Is it because he said this warming is entirely natural and we have nothing to do with it? No. He also wrote that “the human influence on that warming” is indisputable as well. What he questioned was the abundance of certainty about exactly what will happen a century from now and the tendency to say anyone who disagrees with policy proposals to slow climate change is denying science instead of opposing a political agenda.

Assaulted with opposing views on an issue they hold dear, liberals began canceling their subscriptions to a liberal newspaper.

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We can debate the merits of Stephens argument later, and I fully intend to do so at some point. This is an important issue to discuss and it’s been on my list for quite some time. But right now, I want to focus in on the reaction to the article.

Faced with an opinion they do not like, some people not only tried to ensure it would not happen again, they took to the internet to brag about their unwillingness to listen to other points of view. Think about that for a moment. Liberals across the country thought it was a point of pride to tell the world that in a sea of New York Times reporters and columnists telling them they are exactly right about climate change, it was too much to handle one conservative saying he agrees with them about what has happened but disagrees about the solution. Even if I felt that way, I would be embarrassed to tell my closest friends, let alone publishing it for everyone to see.

Now, I’m not going to pretend liberals are the only ones who try to live in a bubble without opposing opinions. Despite the best hopes of the internet as a democratizing force spreading the truth out to everyone, it has actually made it easier for us to pick and choose only the information we want, and conservatives have taken advantage of that as well. But there is a significant limit on the ability of conservatives to enforce their bubbles.

If liberals only want to watch news that is predominantly liberal, they must only avoid Fox News. If conservatives want to watch news that is mostly of the right, they must avoid everything other than Fox News. Most newspapers are also liberal. It is possible to only visit conservative websites or podcasts, but even then we cannot completely extricate ourselves from liberal viewpoints.

Unless we completely give up movies, TV, music – just about every form of popular culture – it is near impossible to avoid liberal ideas. Most movies and TV shows take it as a given that liberals are correct and conservatives are backward, hateful rubes. I am a big fan of Star Wars and the Marvel universe, and they have compared Republicans to the Sith and Hydra, the ultimate evils in two of the biggest franchises in cinematic history. Try as some conservatives might, it is nearly impossible to escape liberal bias.

Although not preferable, in an odd way this pervasive liberal bias is occasionally beneficial. Because we cannot escape liberal bias, we cannot fully retreat into conservative bubbles. This affords us a much better understanding of liberal ideas and how to counter them than liberals have of conservative ideas. If knowing your opponent is the first step towards beating them, this provides conservatives with our only political advantage.

But regardless of its affects on electoral prospects, political bubbles are harmful to our society. If we refuse to even listen to each other, there is no way we can convert each other to our ideals. And if we cannot convince opponents that we are right, politics will increasingly be less about compromise and persuasion, and more about forcing change on a recalcitrant minority. That may be enough to revise the law, but it is not a victory.

Think of it as opposition research if you must. That’s usually what I do when I read Salon or watch Rachael Maddow on MSNBC. But it is important to remain engaged with the ideas of both sides if we are to have a civil society.