The Algorithms of Intolerance

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As previously published by Harness Magazine (www.harnessmagazine.com)

Despite having an insurmountable volume of information at our fingertips, how is it that our capacity to tolerate opposing views seems to be diminishing?

We live in divisive times, there’s no doubt about that. On one hand, we are living in the most progressive time in human history; our societies are multicultural, in many countries same sex couples can legally wed, and women in most cultures have the same legal rights as men. But in opposition to the very idea of liberalism we’re seeing a resurgence of opinions and behaviours that show how many in our world are still vehemently opposed to the progressive direction of travel.

I’m not shy about expressing my views and I make no secret of the fact that being called a ‘bleeding-heart liberal’ does not offend me – in fact I have genuine concern for the people who can look at any oppression, abuse or mistreatment of another person and not feel pain or heartbreak. But recently I have become concerned about how even I have slipped unconsciously into a militant state of righteousness about my views. It seems that somehow, in my own way, I have become what I despise – intolerant.

Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not questioning my liberal viewpoint, but I have been reflecting on my reaction to recent events and most importantly, how I have conducted myself when faced with those who hold opposing views. I’d like to think that I’m pretty reasonable and open to being challenged; challenge should make you assess your thinking and reasoning, it helps you to consider the ‘why’ of your viewpoint and then rationalise and articulate it – challenge is important as it helps us to grow. So how, when knowing and truly believing this, have I lost the ability to work through some people’s challenges to my views with open ears and a level head?

To put this into perspective; I live in the UK and therefore have just experienced the most polarising political vote of my life so far – Brexit. I am firmly in the remain camp and if I’m completely honest, I’m still struggling to come to terms with the outcome of the referendum two years ago. Brexit has made me political and for the first time in my life I’ve had reason to share political information which I feel backs up my stance, on social media. My timeline has also been saturated with news and media which reinforces my view and seems to provide me with the “knowledge” required to prove I am right. Throughout the referendum campaign and in the immediate aftermath I struggled – really struggled – to have rational conversations with anyone who voted leave. This wasn’t just my passion running over because ‘my side’ lost, it was because I genuinely and honestly could not understand what on earth made leavers vote the way they did. Didn’t they read the articles, hear what the experts had to say and see the glaring inaccuracies, lies and racism peddled by the pro-Brexit politicians? I honestly could not get it and mostly surmised that they had to be stupid, racist, or horribly misguided by some terrible influence in their life (pretty harsh, I know).

What I didn’t realise until now was that I had unknowingly been blinded. I wasn’t seeing information that backed up my world view because it was wholly right – I was deliberately being fed information and articles that I would agree with, and none that would open my eyes to another point of view. An algorithm was confirming my world view to me, and at the same time, it was doing the same to everyone else, regardless of what that view was. No wonder two people with differing opinions were struggling to have a rational conversation, they were starting from a position of not even being able to conceive how the other managed to arrive at their position.

I’m certain (or as certain  as I can be) that none of the Brexit rationale would have made me change my allegiance, but the crux of my point is, if we make no effort to understand others, we become polarised and ignorant; respect  and communication break down, belligerence and intolerance take root and we create an environment whereby rational debate and conversation cease to exist. With the resulting deadlock, each opposing camp becomes more isolated from any view which does not reflect their own, and now we’re all too damn angry to discuss the matter because surely it’s all so obvious and WHY ARE PEOPLE SO STUPID? Eek!

This is not healthy or conducive to progress – you can’t challenge an opinion you don’t understand, and you are certainly never going to broaden anyone else’s horizons by screaming in their face (sadly, I’ve found this out the hard way!) – people just dig in and become more militant about their views and you have achieved nothing over and above having an argument!

I don’t have any simple solution; we know that the news is far from impartial, regardless of how you consume it, but awareness for me is always the first step towards betterment, and I have had my eyes opened. I’m never going to be passive when it comes to fighting for what I believe in, but I’m going to be a bit smarter about how I go about it from now on; I refuse to continue the mindless consumption of one-sided information fed to me by an algorithm. I’m making an effort to search out articles which I wouldn’t usually countenance reading, I’m trying to respectfully listen to views I disagree with and when I challenge, which I will, I’m trying to do so with respect and objectivity, because over and above everything else, I refuse to be what I despise – intolerant.

 

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