1. Imagine if you will a series of concentric circles. At the center there is a small circle, which represents you. The circle just outside of this small circle represents people who are very much like you and with whom you agree on most things. Beyond this circle there is another circle representing those with whom you agree on most things and rather like, all things considered. Outside of this circle there is one which represents those who are not very much like you and with whom you tend to disagree on a number of things, although you still judge them to be reasonable and decent human beings. This circle is encompassed by another, smaller perhaps, representing those who are quite different from you and with whom you may find yourself in passionate disagreement. But these people you respect because they make their case honestly and they are decent, principled people. As we approach the outer edge of the concentric circles there is yet another that represents those with whom you disagree strongly, find rather unreasonable, and yet manage to tolerate. These several circles encompass most people we might encounter. Beyond this, as we approach the periphery, there is a thinner circle representing those with whom you vehemently disagree, find utterly unreasonable, and morally objectionable; these, you suspect, are best ignored. Beyond this are those that you can only judge to be morally reprehensible and intellectually bankrupt, to these you do not give your time except to oppose them when necessary. Finally, at the farthest edge, a circle represents those for whom there is no recourse but to vigilantly oppose and silence.
2. Now imagine another set of concentric circles. This time there are but three. The smallest circle in the center once again represents you. The circle beyond it, not much larger, represents those who are very much like you and with whom you agree on almost everything. The outer circle, quite large and encompassing everyone else, represents those whom you find to be stupid, wicked, and utterly undeserving of even the barest measure of respect that one might accord another human being.
The first set of circles is what we might hope for in a well-functioning society.
The second set of circles is the world we appear to be stuck with.
(a) Is this the world that digital tools of communication created? Or, (b) is this the world digital media revealed?
If (a), how do social media’s (often perverse) psychological incentive structures contribute to this phenomenon?
Or, more hopefully, (c) is this the world only as it appears to those who engage it primarily through digital media?
If (c), is this because we forget that whatever particular, platform-specific filters we choose for our online signals, whatever efforts we make to avoid “filter bubbles,” social media itself is a powerful filter acting on the totality of reality.
(i) the virtues conducive to living well in a pluralistic and democratic society are not default settings and must be learned through practice, and
(ii) social media does not encourage such practices, indeed actively cultivates practices that are antithetical to these virtues.
(iii) While the more finely our experience is tuned to our affinities, the less likely we will encounter those whose views differ markedly from ours except as subjects to be rhetorically DESTROYED! by our favorite celebrity defenders of the obvious and plain truths we and all sane people hold? Which is to say, as caricatures of persons.
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