The other day, as I was surfing the New York Times website for my Current Events x-block, I came upon an op-ed piece by political commentator and conservative David Brooks. The title of the op-ed, ‘The Decline of Anti-Trumpism,’ caught my attention immediately as an article that would be a fun and interesting read.
I read the op-ed once. Then I read it again. I went riding. I returned to my dorm, opened my computer, and read the article a third time. Each time I read it, I came across a new underlying meaning, a new lens to look through. I couldn’t stop thinking about the article and the ways in which it connected to the environment at Thacher, so I guess that’s why I am writing my own op-ed.
To begin, a bit of a disclaimer: while, yes, David Brooks’s article does delve specifically into the Anti-Trump movement, at its most basic level I found the article’s message on ignorance to be relevant to Thacher.
The article, which you can find here, essentially articulates the feeling that, as humans, we can all relate to: the feeling of being ‘right.’
Imagine sitting at a classroom table with a group of your peers: you say something, an opinion or a thought and are then met with a ripple effect of people nodding their heads, throwing out sentences that add onto what you initially said—agreeing with you. Firstly, there is a sense of validation for your ideas. I mean, if a group of, say, a dozen peers agree with your idea, then it must hold some weight, right? And secondly, there is a feeling that whatever you said must be ‘right,’ even though, in truth, there might not even be a ‘right’ and ‘wrong.’ Regardless, at that moment around the classroom table, where your peers are agreeing with you, you feel ‘right,’ and that’s a powerful feeling.
As humans, we love this feeling of being ‘right,’ and the simple fact of the matter is that it is easy to be ‘right’ depending upon the people you surround yourself with. At Thacher, for example, the majority of the student body and staff are liberal… Naturally, the general perception of ‘right’ is typically aligned with liberal points of view. We gravitate towards the opinion of the majority in order to feel ‘right’ and justified, and in doing so we end up reinforcing a one-sided environment.
David Brooks writes about how, because of the insularity of the Anti-Trump movement, followers tend to get their information about Trumpism from others who are also Anti-Trump; this continuation of people reaching for information from those who will agree with them, those who believe their ideas are ‘right,’ Brooks describes, “is always a recipe for epistemic closure.”
This idea of “epistemic closure,” a term that gained a burst of media attention around 2010 to describe some conservatives, has become a “high-toned abbreviation for ideological ignorance and misinformation” according to a New York Times article by journalist and author Patricia Cohen. An example of epistemic closure would be the belief that Barack Obama was not born in the United States. Today, in an era riddled with fake news, deep divides, and questionable politics, epistemic closure is re-emerging as a relevant issue on both sides of the aisle. Political extremism and narrow-mindedness is cultivated in the very media outlets — the New York Times, Breitbart, the Huffington Post, Fox News — that Americans rely on, creating an atmosphere in which Americans cling to what is projected in their news as ‘right.’
When a culture, like Thacher’s, becomes so engrossed in one side as being the ‘right’ side, people lose the ability to see beyond their own ideas, leading to ignorance, and sometimes hostility toward that neglected side.
Playing into the idea of “ideological ignorance and misinformation” is the concept of ‘lowbrowism,’ as Brooks mentions. As defined by Merriam-Webster, a ‘lowbrow’ is someone who has little intellectual or cultural interest. With the rise of social media platforms like Twitter, however, ‘lowbrowism’ has transformed into meaning someone who ignores normal intellectual standards by consuming short, one-sided news. More and more people, Thacher students included, are receiving their news based on short, vindictive posts, or from biased news sources airing explosive titles. As busy humans surrounded by twenty-first-century distractions, it seems almost natural that we gravitate towards shortcuts like the Skimm to get our current events updates—we are constantly looking for a way to save an extra five minutes.
“The ultimate test of the lowbrow is not whether it challenges you, teaches you or captures the contours of reality; it’s whether you feel an urge to share it on social media,” David Brooks writes. ‘Lowbrowism’ thrives at the hands of this generation that is reliant on the shortcuts that phones provide. When you are getting information, whether it’s from Snapchat or Buzzfeed, stop and think: “am I getting the full picture?” Odds are, you are not. Instead, you are only reading what the editors thought was fiery enough to grab your attention, which probably meant cutting out the real meat of the issue.
The ‘lowbrowism’ that has surged with the rise of social media cultivates a culture of ignorance and bias.
In many ways, living in a culture that is grounded in strictly partisan beliefs is like reading news only from Breitbart or only from the Huffington Post, two new sources notoriously known to carry heavy prejudices. Not only is a biased lens placed on every issue in this type of situation, but that lens is then cultivated in this one-sided, “steady diet of affirmation,” as David Brooks writes. In a predominantly liberal culture, Thacher students and teachers alike seem to unite in their similar beliefs, which leads to the promotion of information fit to our shared ideas—information that makes us feel ‘right.’ This is ignorance. In partaking in this one-sided environment, we are buying into generalizations and oversimplifications of all types, bringing into question the actual integrity of our discussions and culture. Not only that but at Thacher, this way of receiving and regurgitating information is grounded upon the very assumption that everyone believes in this general liberal culture.
And, one wonders why the ‘Thacher Bubble’ is so strong.
David Brooks’s suggestions to combat these issues of today?
He calls for the restoration of the “distinction between excellence and mediocrity, truth and lie.” How does this message transfer over to our situation here at Thacher? Here are my suggestions:
Read more. I don’t mean read more on many different issues, I mean pick an issue in the news that grabs your attention and read more about it from various news sources. Actively seek out the other side and you might be surprised by how it could change your own beliefs.
Argue the other side. It does not matter if you believe in that side but just try it. Not only will you gain a broader understanding of issues by creating an argument for the other side, but you will also be able to exercise a greater sense of empathy.
And lastly, don’t be scared to be the one who stands up to a classroom full of people who are agreeing with each other. Excellence, as Thacher students, is what we all strive for and truth is simply how we get there. One side to a two-sided issue is only half of that truth.