The cracks in society: Escaping the echo chamber is not enough

This year has been a watershed for progressive forces. The West is in the grip of a populist insurgency. Brexit and Trump are a result of this tide.

In search for explanations, one particular buzzword is defining the discourse: “echo chamber”. Many pundits have written insightfully on how progressives are stuck within their own filter bubble and have forgotten how to engage with those who think differently. They are right. But this doesn’t seem to go far enough. Perhaps, it’s too shallow an analysis. It’s not just about the (social media) echo chamber that simply reinforces your own worldview; it’s about the fact that societies have become more self-centred. Digitalisation has led to greater individualisation.

Yes, the digital environment empowers but it also makes selfish. With Fitbits and smartphones we continuously self-track our own activities and performance, in an effort to self-optimise. Facebook and Twitter echo our own views. It’s about ourselves. It’s an ethics of vanity that Edmund Burke warned against. The digital world reaffirms existence. I browse, therefore I am. Being online is who we are. Studies show that, on average, we are on our phones 221 times a day. Five and a half hours are each day supposedly spent on digital media. That number is even higher for younger generations. It diminishes the scope for intimate interaction. But it’s relationships and experiences that change people and make them grow. We cannot build our own individual ladders to heaven and leave the total human enterprise unredeemed, as Reinhold Niebuhr wrote.

The digital environment also breeds immediate desires, envy and painfully illustrates inequality. Algorithms show desirable products. Smartphones show how the most luxurious of society live. It’s now possible to constantly see a greener grass on the other side. Expectations are rising faster than before. And as digital technologies have grown so has participation in mediating institutions, such as trade unions, faith-based communities and civic organisations, fallen.

Alongside these trends there’s also greater isolation. Digitalisation and automation are changing the nature of the workforce in ways we do not yet comprehend, with people falling out of the workforce or falling into the digital self-employed. There are also too many losers of globalisation and people that feel left behind culturally. They feel no longer useful or part of something bigger. It’s like they’re falling out of society.

It is this mix of individualisation and isolation that weakens the social bonds of community and democracy. The World Values Survey has shown that there is a deconsolidation of democracy as particularly younger generations, drawn to digital technologies, are less attached to democratic values. The percentage of people who say it is essential to live in a democracy has plummeted. Less than 30% of Americans, Dutch and British citizens born in the 1980s believe so. Only 36% of millennials in Europe think that a military takeover against an incompetent government would be illegitimate.

Democracy is a system of compromise. But in this digital age, no one wants to compromise anymore. Over the past months and weeks I have met more and more people who are tired of compromise. They say they voted in an election and instead of getting what they wanted, they got a compromise. But democracy isn’t binary. It’s a long, messy, complicated, unsatisfactory compromising process. Populism, however, is the desire for fast, unrealistic solutions to complex problems.

The European Union is a prime example. Compromise has gotten ever more difficult to achieve between the EU Member States. But the EU is built on compromise. Compromising requires leadership. It usually requires the strong to give in and make that extra effort for the greater good. But Europe’s strongest Member State, Germany, has been reluctant to depart from its austerity drive, for example. Similarly with the United States. The US has been providing leadership and been an anchor for a rules-based world order. But with Donald Trump, the United States has voted to give up that role. People felt their country has done too much, given the world too much and that it was time to make America great again. Countless citizens feel that way about their country. Everybody wants to “Make X great again”, as Mark Lilla wrote in the New York Times.

We are moving from the Art of the Compromise to the Art of the Deal. Compromising is self-less. You give up something to find something greater together. Dealmaking is selfish. You expect something for giving something. No doubt, both are necessary in the tough world of international relations. And the EU, too, must engage in dealmaking. But dealmaking cannot stand alone in the world either.

There needs to be a better balance again between compromising and dealmaking, between change and security, between individualisation and community. Individualisation, too, can be a force for good. For example, when it unleashes the creative entrepreneurial spirit and allows people the freedom to fulfill themselves. But individualisation is getting more extreme. Simultaneously ,there is indeed a nascent desire for more community and coming together. The Munich “Refugee Welcome” event was one moment where that desire was awakened. Yet, bonds of society are currently loosening and societal rifts need healing.

That means it’s not enough to escape the echo chamber. One has to actively engage with opposing views and seek how these could be reconciled with one’s own and where common ground could lie. This is the tough question; it is a thin line that separates compromising from collaborating. How far can one go in finding common ground? Principled engagement should be the guide. Engaging and seeking compromise, finding common ground that can advance your principles. It’s the wisdom of the hitchhiker. If the first car that offers you a ride is only going halfway to your destination, take it.

Edmund Burke, the great conservative philosopher, warned against the loss of social wisdom, loss of community, loss of identity, all of which would bring social disorder. He highlighted that politics is not just about the interests of individuals; it’s about preserving a community, a social order. According to Jesse Norman, Burke epitomised the “balance between ego and circumstance, between ambition and constraint, between individuality and society”. Maybe it’s time again for more Burke and less Zuckerberg.

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