In praise of echo chambers
The first thing to note is that title of this post is, perhaps, misleading. There are a lot of things—for instance, cults—that could be called “echo chambers” that I have no intention of praising. If you think an echo chamber is, by definition, a community so insular that it fosters collective myopia and even collective delusion, then no sensible person could ever be in praise of one. What I am tentatively in praise of is something softer, namely entering into and fostering a community in which there is rough consensus about some number of political and social issues. I recognize that this is a vague characterization—which political and social issues?—and I hope to have rendered matters at least slightly more precise by the end of this musing. I didn’t title the post accordingly both because “In praise of communities in which there is rough consensus about some number of political and social issues” doesn’t have the same ring to it, and because the internet demands that we muster dramatic, if exaggerated, advertisements for ourselves.
I’ve moved left on a number of cultural issues (not that I was ever right so much as a few notches closer towards the center) since the soft end of the pandemic, for lots of reasons, foremost among them that I have since exited what I can only describe as a state of full-fledged depressive paranoia. At this time last year, I was so pickled in the Discourse, so warped by my intellectual isolation, that I truly believed I was at risk of cancellation and social ostracization for harboring left-liberal rather than Gramscian sympathies. When my “Sanctimony Literature” essay came out, I became convinced that no one would ever publish me again, that everyone hated me, that I would be outed as a Rawls sympathizer who hadn’t re-read the Prison Notebooks since freshman year of college and blacklisted for life. Of course, it feels bad when people say bad things about your writing, and it feels worse when they seem bent on misunderstanding your writing for the sake of composing a nasty Tweet. But it turns out that being insulted by a few Brooklynites on Twitter, most of whom I already understood to hate me, changed pretty much nothing significant about my life, except that I started to get more commissions. When I at last exited the vampire’s castle that is life on 24/7 Twitter, I recovered that indispensable buttress, a Sense of Perspective, and realized that my sense of panic about issues like Cancel Culture was at best overblown and at worst completely insane.*
What follows here is an attempt to vindicate what may strike some as a fairly common conclusion—that it’s perfectly alright and maybe even a good idea to surround yourself with people who agree with you about some (not all) political and moral questions—on what I hope are slightly surprising grounds.
A defender of echo chambers on what I might call “the usual grounds” takes the prohibition on being friends with a sexist or a racist to stem from the immorality and inaccuracy of the sexist/racist’s beliefs. On this picture, rejecting the sexist/racist’s friendship is a way of rejecting his views, thereby a way of preserving personal moral purity and perhaps also of signaling solidarity with the victims of sexism/racism. (My own reflections on this issue are prompted largely by encounters with sexist men, so henceforth I’ll stick to the example of sexism throughout. Writing! It’s cheaper than therapy! Anyway, I think most if not all of what I say will apply, mutatis mutandis, to cases of transphobia, racism, homophobia, and so on.)
But there are a few problems with this line of justification. For one thing, it isn’t immediately clear to me why suffering the company of someone misguided should be taken to “taint” the sufferer. I’ve yet to see a very compelling theory of moral taint, and I think that’s probably because there is in fact no reason to believe it’s a real phenomenon. In general, no one thinks that merely being friends with someone commits you to all of their mistaken views. One of my closest friends is adamant that Tess of the D’Urbervilles is a better novel than Portrait of a Lady, and I certainly don’t think that I’m committed to her outrageous conclusion just in virtue of my close friendship with her. Why should beliefs about sexism be any different? Perhaps the tacit theory underlying usual apologias for echo chambers is that prolonged exposure to an immoral (or simply confused) belief or orientation is apt to desensitize us to it. But this theory is at best incomplete and at worst wrong-headed. Sometimes, as in cases of radicalization or indoctrination, protracted proximity to people with crazy opinions does occasion epidemics of craziness—but sometimes exposure to inanity has the opposite effect. I have only become more irritated by communitarian mis-readings of Rawls as I’ve delved deeper into them, and as I’ve heard them repeated by people I am increasingly convinced have not actually made it all the way through A Theory of Justice. I’ve only become more convinced that Henry James is superior to Thomas Hardy as I’ve discussed their relative merits with my friend. All this is to say, the mere fact that friendship with someone sexist likely exposes you to sexism (and of course, in some cases, it may not; perhaps you simply don’t discuss women or women’s issues with your sexist friend) is not sufficient to show that it will make you sexist in the way that friendship with a leper might make you leprous. In fact, you might become more frustrated with sexism the more you encounter it.
Perhaps the mere act of remaining friends with someone sexist is best understood as an instance of complicity or tacit tolerance, regardless of whether the friendly party ends up adopting the sexist beliefs. But is the mere act of remaining friends with the Sexist best understood in this way? If you are challenging all of your friend’s sexist remarks, then it is hard to see how your friendship signals or or evidences your own poor politics. Moreover, it’s not entirely clear why rejecting someone’s friendship or foreclosing the possibility of further interactions with him amounts to a rejection of his beliefs. If anything, refusing to engage with the Sexist allows him to swagger around unchallenged, spouting nonsense about tender Female Essences and the like. A full-throated rejection of the Sexist’s beliefs would probably involve some active refutation, which in turn involves if not friendship then at least engagement.
Why, then, is it justified to terminate relations with the Sexist, if indeed it is? I think the answer has to do with the nature of friendship, and with its necessary conditions. Minimally, in order to be friends with someone, you must regard them as a full-fledged agent who is your fundamental equal in some core sense.** You cannot view a friend as a fragile child, adult in name only, in want of protection and gentle correction. Adult human friendship requires the existence of a recognition-relation: in other words, it requires that there be mutual recognition of humanity. A recognition-relation is not required in our interactions with, for instance, pets or plants, but it is non-negotiable when it comes to friendship (or, for that matter, romantic love, hence my disgust with teachers who date students). I’m not saying merely that it is morally bad to view an adult human in patronizing and infantilizing terms; I’m saying that it is not possible, given what friendship is, to befriend someone you view in such a way. Anyone incapable of viewing me as a moral or intellectual equal could be my babysitter or maybe my jailor, but he could never be my friend. I am the first to agree that disagreement is good and healthy—as well as fun, vivifying, and better for the complexion than any number of overpriced skin creams—but the salutary effects of confrontation are neither here nor there. Whether or not disagreement is epistemically and morally fortifying, and I believe it is, the fact remains that you cannot be friends with someone who cannot stand in a recognition-relation to you. Fortunately, it is possible to stand in a recognition-relation to someone with whom you disagree about a great deal. I can disagree with someone about whether abortion should be accessible to all (I think yes, but I’m not offended by those who think no) or sex work should be decriminalized (ibid) while remaining his friend. But—but!!!—there are some views a man could hold that necessarily prevent him from standing in a recognition-relation to me. We can debate about what, exactly, these views are, but one of them, I think, is a version of gender essentialism according to which women are caring, nurturing, maternal, gentle, and ill-suited to male activities like ratiocination. (To men who think this, I offer this possibly apocryphal Beethoven quote: “You wretched scoundrel! What I shit is better than anything you could ever think up!” Which, let’s be honest, is true almost all of the time.) Moreover, there are many views that are not necessarily inconsistent with the cultivation of recognition-relations with women but that are often, in practice, accompanied by either beliefs or attitudes that prevent a man from regarding a woman as a moral and intellectual equal. (I say “beliefs or attitudes” because a man could have perfectly moral beliefs about women without being able, in his marrow, to regard them as real, robust human beings. I’ve known many such men!)
This is of course a theory of premised on the nature of friendship, which means it explains why I can’t be friends with a sexist, but not why I can “no-platform” him. And that is precisely where I want to end up, because I have quite different standards for public discourse and private exchange, and I do think public debate with bad people is almost always a good idea. The topic of debating your “enemies,” rather than attempting to silence them, is a topic for another day, but suffice it to say for now that I think it can only help matters to explain why someone wrong is wrong.
So here is my answer to the question posed above, the question of which political and social issues we must agree about if we are to enter into a friendly community together. The kinds of social and political disagreements that render recognition-relations impossible are the kinds that do—and, I think, should—yield the winnowing of communities into “echo chambers,” albeit echo chambers in which there is plenty of disagreement about a wide range of things. I couldn’t say more about the actual substance of the necessary political/social agreements, or give you something like a list. That would require me to write a full book of philosophy, which I’ll probably do someday but cannot do today.
*To be clear, I still stand by “Sanctimony Literature,” and I still think that trial by Twitter is unfair, that at-will employment is a great evil, that Twitter mobs are insanely cruel, that it is inhumane to de-person many of the most prominent cancel culture casualties to the extent that we have, and that rendering someone unemployable should not be taken lightly in a society in which there are no social services whatsoever.
**Getting clear on the precise sort of equality required is difficult; I’m thinking through this question in one bit of my dissertation!