In defense of echo chambers

Everybody agrees that there’s a certain pleasure in getting together with people of like opinion to reinforce each others’ beliefs.  It’s generally thought to be a spiritually unhealthy pleasure, like the pleasure of looking at pictures of pretty girls naked.  I’ve heard the internet criticized for making it easier for people to seek out the like-minded.  It does annoy me a bit that liberals in academia would criticize us for this.  They get to spend their whole lives in a cocoon of unanimity.  Without the internet, I would never have met anybody who agrees with me.  Who are they to begrudge me a small piece of the pleasure they enjoy all the time?

I admit the self-selection effects on the internet are surprisingly strong.  When I started this blog, I had expected most of the comments I’d get to be of the “How can you say such a thing, you horrible Nazi!” type.  That’s certainly what would happen if I went to a bar, restaurant, or faculty lounge and opened up with any of the opinions I’ve shared here.  Actually, I’ve gotten none of that.  We sometimes have disagreements, but one must admit that Throne and Altar has more helped to put me in touch with people of like sympathies.

Is this bad?  I don’t think so.  I agree that it would not be good to only hear one point of view, and never another.  Still, there are some conversations that can only profitably be had by people already sharing a common commitment.  Let me give an example.  I remember once reading a post on American Catholic throwing out the idea that pro-lifers should support the health care bill, because a larger government presence in health insurance would give us opportunities to restrict coverage for abortions.  There followed a lively discussion in the comments about whether or not this was a good idea.  Then a pro-choice commenter posted, making some critical remark on the level of “you Nazis all hate women!”  Then followed a battle between the pro-choice commenter and various pro-life commenters on the morality of abortion.  Those who have been living in a cave for the last fifty years and have never heard the main arguments on both sides of this issue might have found the ensuing debate interesting.  For the rest of us, the exchange was very tedious, and I stopped reading a half-dozen comments in.  The interesting discussion had been buried.

It’s not that the question of whether or not restricting abortion is a desirable thing isn’t an argument worth having.  (Of course, I wish moral imbecility wasn’t so common that we need to have it.)  But there are other questions that arise once that one is settled, such as how to go about introducing abortion restrictions.  That’s a question that pro-lifers need to debate on their own.  Similarly, a question like “how are grace and free will compatible?” can only be profitably debated by a group of Christians, that is, those who already accept the premises that make the question a live issue.

This site is a work of conservative dogmatics, to repeat my favorite Roger Scruton quote.  The goal is to systematize and apply the conservative worldview, mostly for those already committed to it.  A liberal reader would probably not find this worthwhile, or even interesting.  He would certainly find my blog boring; I hope he would at least not find it too abusive.  My  goal is  to think, not vent.  I admit that I often fall short of this ideal.

4 Responses

  1. To closely paraphrase Donoso Cortes: “What is the voice of a journal? A choir singing ‘Holy! Holy! Holy!’ [to a political party.]”

    So long as one doesn’t mistake the development of conservative thought among conservatives for two other things, it is good. First, one shouldn’t mistake it for intellectual engagement with others from outside the traditionalist/conservative tradition. Second, one should not act in journalistic fashion, and cheer on the side on which one is, and mistake this activity for the development of thought. Both of these mistakes are typically made by members of the MSM and unfortunately by Catholics.

    But, the development of thought within a tradition is most important; indeed, it helps make engagement with those outside of a tradition easier. I’m a Catholic, and I might rather argue with a theologically informed, philosophically astute Protestant than with an ignorant one–it is not only more interesting, but the ability to have something to push against makes it more likely that the encounter will be useful.

    As MacIntyre writes, there are no universal standards of human reason acceptable by all minimally rational individuals, sufficient to build a worldview upon them; because of this, traditions can only be destroyed from the inside. But this operation requires that they have enough of an inside that one can find contradictions and incoherences in it.

    But I see I have strayed from my original comment, and so I end.

  2. Hello Anodos,

    I’m glad you brought up MacIntyre’s “Whose Justice? Which Rationality?”, in which he shows that one can do real intellectual work within a tradition, and not just in antagonism to it. That’s the sort of work I hope we’re doing in the reactionary “echo chamber”. Of course, we must always try to make sure that we’re doing real intellectual work–ironing out our own worldview–and not just what I called “venting” and you called “cheering”.

  3. I am definitely not a conservative, either of the Reactionary type or the American Republican type, but I still find this site fascinating and instructive. I thought your essay on American conservatism was choice, and also unbelievably true in many ways.

    I feel a sort of fascination-repulsion with political viewpoints outside of the mainstream, perhaps because I am fed up with the mediocre drivel that forms current US political rhetoric. It seems to me that the internet really did give a voice to the myriad thousands of disaffected thinkers in this country who feel, on some level, that things are not as they should be, whether these thinkers are on the Far Right or Far Left.

  4. Dear David,

    Thank you for the appreciation. I’m glad that I can fascinate and repel you.

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