Under Our Bridge (Echo Chambers & How to Escape Them)

1914035_1197408009039_4102166_n(I’m heavily indebted to Justine Toh’s work on the post-truth society at House Conference for the basis of all these thoughts.) 

There’s a bridge in the middle of my hometown, and if you scramble up the wall underneath it, you can comfortably sit there and watch the world go by.  Every word you say echoes back to you. My friends and I used to sit there and wonder about the world and somehow, we never disagreed. We were always right, and those people who disagreed with us were inevitably wrong… but looking back I wonder if perhaps this bridge we sat under just provided us more of what we wanted to hear. The echoes from the bridge were met with the echoes of my friends and we never heard anything different than our own opinions.  Those particular friends and I drifted apart after I started following Jesus because something just wasn’t right there anymore. We weren’t on the same page. It was hard to exist in that echo chamber when my voice wasn’t speaking the same words as theirs.

Today we’re living in that same climate – we’re all sitting under a bridge speaking words that those around us agree with. Sometimes it takes the shape of social media as algorithms feed us only what we agree with, sometimes it’s our friends who buy the same clothes and care about the same issues and hate the same things, sometimes it’s our sports teams, sometimes it’s our workplaces… the list is endless. We don’t have to engage with those who we disagree with, and if we want to get outside our echo chambers to hear those other voices then we have to put in the effort to do it. And it’s uncomfortable, yet it’s exactly what we seem to be missing at the moment. It’s what we need. It’s what will sharpen us and transform us. Here are three reasons why, partnered with three ways to act on those whys.

Love must go hand in hand with the truth, so we must listen empathetically to those outside of our echo chambers so we can love them well. As the prevalence of domestic violence in the church was uncovered it began a conversation between the echo chambers of church bodies and those of advocates outside the church. The church had to change their rhetoric and their practice all because of this and the outside voices have profoundly shaped the love that occurs within the church. We have learned from victims within the church, who formed their own echo chambers for the sake of their safety, and we’ve learned from those advocates with no religious convictions about what our own convictions can give implicit permission to if we’re not careful about practice and preaching. This love would not be possible if we did not engage in that empathetic listening. We need to continue this listening and continue seeking out those voices of experience which can help us shape our love, because truth without love… it’s nothing.

 

Truth is sharpened through discussion, so we must share our thoughts with others so that they can help us see blind spots, strengthen arguments, or change our practices. A while ago I was speaking with part of my husband’s family about gender issues. He was struggling to see how it is that someone could wake up and ‘decide’ that they’re another gender, and I was seeking to show him that it isn’t quite as simple as that – that there are more factors at play. It was the first time he had spoken with someone who wasn’t under the same bridge as he was, and it was the first time I had spoken with someone I love and respect about this who wasn’t under my bridge. I’ll be honest and say that there was some tension in the conversation on both our ends because it’s hard to see from another’s perspective… but when we left that dinner table my view had been sharpened as I found new ways to articulate the truths of the Scriptures and the realities of this broken world. I found new ways to explain the tension people live within. It wasn’t easy, but it took what had been unchallenged before and formed it into something stronger as I had to understand my own thoughts and his more.

Culture is shaped by many voices coming together to work out a way forward, so we must engage with the world around us instead of becoming our own enclosed part of culture. On a larger scale, there is a cultural conversation constantly occurring around us and that conversation is best when echo chambers collide with one another and engage in the act of listening well and speaking carefully. A way to not do that is to have a postal survey that causes pain, hurt and division (I’m looking at you, Malcolm Turnbull…), but there are ways for it to happen in a civil way. Small scale, we can sit down over a meal and talk with decision makers so that they hear multiple voices – removing hostility and engaging hospitality is a beautiful way to open up that echo chamber. On a larger scale, the power of the written word is to be used wisely and  cautiously. The public perception of Christianity is worsened because of the ignorance with which we have used social media. Our words show that often we do not want to listen to those outside our echo chamber, but simply shout over them… and so they shout back. On an even larger scale, we can support those engaging in higher level decisions and pray for them as they navigate sitting in the political chambers that are full of endless echo chambers themselves. We can encourage them, we can make sure we vote well, and through that, engage in that cultural change. Culture is shaped positively when we step outside of our bridges and move to places where we can all work together.

 

Instead of sitting under our bridges, safe in our echo chambers, we must learn to build bridges between chambers so that we hear, are heard, and are shaped by multiple voices – and can test those voices against the Word of God… but that’s a thought for another day.

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