In August 2017, a television series, Comrade Detective, debuted on Amazon Prime Video. Billed as a restored lost video from a detective show sponsored by the Communist Romanian cultural affairs department, it showed eastern European communism at its virulent best. The series seemed so real for a couple of reasons. First, the original version was in Romanian, and it had been filmed in Romania, although dialogue had been dubbed by American actors. Second, it rang true to what most of us believe about 1980s communistic societies. But it wasn’t real. It was a clever American creation.
Comrade Detective is a fake, a spoof created by a team led by actor/producer Channing Tatum. Yet it is instructive on two levels. First, on its face, it models a society dominated by the shared belief that communism had made it a place of perfection, only marred by incursions from the West. There was only one way to think, and anything else was evil. Of course, children should inform on their parents, and people should be arrested for having foreign goods in their homes. We must protect the purity of our society, even if it means that police interrogations are brutal, and smugglers of Western products are executed.
Comrade Detective also works on the level of our cultural viewing of it. We assume that this must have been the way it was in 1980s Romania, that everyone was dominated by ideology, and that dissenters were few. We see a monochromatic society portrayed through a detective show and assume that this is what “those people” were like. We stereotype them because they were the enemy (not to mention the fact that the show portrays Americans as fat, hamburger-devouring slobs). Romania and the West are two distinct entities, each believing the worst of the other.
This column is about silos, about the fact that we are increasingly, as Eli Pariser put it, caught in filter bubbles—monochromatic views of the world. I know that Pariser’s views have come under criticism, but I’m referring to a more pervasive kind of filter bubble that permeates all of our interactions with information.
I have two Twitter feeds. One is comfortably liberal, a place where I feel at home. There I find George Takei and his “oh my” videos, Ellen of talk show fame, and some of my favorite information literacy librarians from the U.K. This feed is uniform and only hints of another side when posts criticize that side.
The other feed, based on my exploration of the far right and QAnon, is much darker, with podcasts from Blunt Force Truth podcast and a long string of crazies promoting the kinds of conspiracies we have come to expect. Few of the comments on this side’s posts criticize the views expressed. Instead, they major on “Yes, yes,” and “Me too.” My own worldview is the oppo site of this feed, but I picture people steeped in it, never seeing anything else except when it is being criticized. Why wouldn’t they believe the nonsense world in which they are living?
Those two feeds deal with evidence differently. My liberal feed is open to criticizing itself, if that’s where the evidence goes. It believes that scientific and other forms of academic evidence take precedence over unsupported opinion. The other feed majors on headlines that manipulate the truth or focus on one aspect, thus distorting our picture of the whole. Its readers tend to view opinion as a valid path to discovering what is “really going on.”
Do you see what I just did there? I privileged my silo over the other silo by explaining why mine is better. And I really do think mine is better. But what does loving my silo say about my ability to look–really look—at the other silo and perhaps find some value in it? Is Blunt Force Truth always wrong? My preference would be to believe that this is the case. But am I really looking at what I am seeing in this dark feed?
We are creatures of our upbringing, our social circles, and even the region where we live. This creates presuppositions, untested but undoubtedly true, because that is what we have always known. Thus, you hear, “I’m a (name the political party). I was born to it, and everybody around here knows that it’s the only party that tells the truth.” Our religious beliefs and patterns of discourse—even our approach to evidence—are shaped by our upbringing and social environment.
In some ways, this is good, because all of us, plagued with uncertainty and anxiety, require a foundation for our lives and a culture that defines us. When a parent says, “No, you can’t hit your sister,” that is a brick in your life’s foundation, and it’s a highly beneficial one. Children who receive a contradictory foundation, or no foundation at all, struggle to survive in a society that punishes bad behavior.
But presupposition is also something that ultimately needs to be overcome, or at least modified. We live in a seriously polarized world, where people don’t listen to one another. If I know what I believe, why should I pay any attention to what you believe? Why should I try to understand you, empathize with you, or even (horrors) be influenced to come over to your side?
We tell our students to follow the evidence wherever it goes, even when it contradicts their cherished views. We assume that open minds function better than closed ones. Yet, unfortunate ly, we have to reckon with the fact that we are still shaped by presuppositions. Like the mythical Comrade Detective show, which sees only one interpretation of life, we constantly have to deal with the reality that our interpretations are shaped by our worldviews. An “open mind” is an illusion.
The student journey
As I began serving as a librarian and teaching students, there was one thing that I wasn’t prepared for: how inherently conservative students are. The idea that students are radi cals is belied by two facts: Their critical-thinking faculties are under development, and they have been shaped by the presuppositions they have grown up with.
Students are often suspicious of our encouragement to listen to all sides. Sure, they believe in such openness in principle, but they are convinced that most decisions, in the midst of contro versy, are easy, and that finding the right answer is more important than dwelling on the debate. Part of this is a result of our Google-oriented information system, which tends to ig nore debate in favor of just coming up with a solution.
What is more, students tend to be blind to their own pre suppositions. Expressions like “Everyone knows that …” and “That’s what I believe …” show a commitment to their over riding assumptions. As they develop the ability for critical thinking, their viewpoints will hopefully expand more, but helping them grasp the limitations of their presuppositions is a key task of information literacy instruction.
For students living in a world where new ideas and previously hidden knowledge are thrown at them every day, it is difficult to develop a mindset that opens to all possibilities. What if I get my views changed? What if everything I believe ends up in the trash? These fears are real, and higher education does little to support students in the struggle of grappling with a multiplicity of ideas. Some students dig in and reject anything that contradicts what they “know” to be true. Others become confused and go through a period of angst and insecurity until they find a new normal for their belief system. Most will tell you they had no idea that common issues were so complicated.
But this is the very essence of scholarship: to get in a room with the academics and bat all the ideas around. This is a part of conversation, and it is normal. Joining the discussion takes students out of their silos into a world which, while risky, provides the opportunity for growth. If I can truly listen to the voices in the room, my conclusion, even if it is the same one I started with, has a much more solid basis. Unexamined beliefs are weak, facing overthrow by evidence.
Overcoming the Danger of Shared Belief
Is democracy really the best form of government? Is capitalism better than communism? If the environment is highly adaptive, is warming the planet a few degrees all that bad? Should everyone be allowed to vote? I’m tempted to give the same quick answer to each one: “Yes.” Why? Because these are questions that poke at the core of what I know. True, oth er folks may answer “No” to all of them, but they are also likely to do this quickly, drawing on their shared beliefs.
Shared belief is foundational to human society. Without it, we degenerate into chaos. But it is also at the heart of what divides us. The fact is, shared belief exists in clump s, in silos that signify belief identities. We may share common notions of what is true, which means that we are not isolat ed, at least not from those in our silo. But silos enclose us, preventing us from seeing past our walls. Our shared view of the world empowers us to stay in the silo, where we have the support of a community. Look at what happens when someone changes their beliefs and ends up outside the silo. It’s not pretty.
The answer is not to break down all silos. That would never work, because silo members are fiercely protective of their environment. We could hope that encouraging inter-silo dialogue would lead to some sort of silo wall meltdown, but this rarely happens. Maybe our best solution is respect. By re spect, I mean that we recognize the following:
- That people in other silos are not monsters, just holders of different beliefs
- That we need to hear those other beliefs, not necessarily to change our own thinking, but to be sure we understand theirs
- That silos prevent us from supporting our own views, since beliefs are best confirmed by a frank look at all evidence, not just the evidence-loop within the silo
- That we can find a path to ongoing dialogue and increased harmony if we respect the reality of the other silos
Silo walls don’t break, but, given the right kind of effort, they can become a bit porous.
A silo is a place of comfort for its members. Is it really worth the disruption to this comfort that is brought about by inter-silo dialogue? People have always misunderstood one an other, based on presuppositions and worldviews. Healthy sharing of divergent views seems to have vanished. Why not admit that there is no accounting for taste, no middle ground where we can agree, or at least agree to disagree?
My answer is that polarization is a profound threat to society. It’s not that I want everyone to play nice because I’m uncomfortable with warfare. It’s that the very notion of soci ety depends on dialogue. If I can’t reach out of my silo to engage with you in yours, I risk the fragmentation of the social contract which acts as a glue to our shared lives.
For the sake of our students, we need to overcome their inherent conservatism or commitment to the ideologies of their parents, not to win them over to our side but to teach them how to embrace a multiplicity of viewpoints. The vision of Comrade Detective, where everyone knows there is only one way to think about things, is not the vision we want to inculcate in our students. They have to learn how to engage with views that challenge, even upset, them. If scholarship is a conversation, a give and take of interpretations, then its participants need to learn how to listen—really listen—to one another.
I fear that social media has taught us a pattern of thinking that says, “Find your place in the world of ideas, build a wall around it, and don’t let anyone persuade you otherwise.” Once in our lonely silo, we are content, certain, and profoundly doomed to be part of the disintegration of society.