My Superpower Fails Me to my Shame

Sometimes my super power fails me. It failed me last February when I tried to read an opinion piece in the new york times. [1] It failed me big time. Normally, I can do something that most people seem to be unable to do. One of my Superpowers is that I can read articles written by people whose views I oppose and think rationally about them. Ok, not that super. But, in a world of filters and media that caters to every bias, it’s pretty easy to consume only content from the echo chamber of your choice. There are many articles and books on describing this as a sickness of culture and of mind. But there also movements that imply that finding your tribe is important. That’s where you can thrive. This is part of the tension in which we find ourselves with modern media.

As Eli Pariser discusses in his Ted talk, everything is becoming more and more personalized. Facebook’s feeds and google searches are being silently edited. Eli shows the results of two google searches. The searches are the same. The searchers are different. The results are amazingly and disturbingly different. And watching the video, one cannot help but agree that this seems a bad thing. People have news hidden from them, because it’s not the kind of news they want to see.

There’s a healthy balance to be had. We can’t constantly consume content that is hostile to our views. Imagine watching that news show that you can’t stand. Do you feel your response? Somewhere in your body there’s a physical reaction. Finding your tribe is valuable. If you’ve been an outsider, you know what I’m talking about. That tension is important. We can’t and shouldn’t live in a pure echo-chamber of our tribe and we can’t and shouldn’t live in a pure echo-chamber hostile to our views.

We all have triggers. The things that light up our fight-or-flight. When we’re reading an article and we encounter one of those triggers, our response keeps us from understanding and probably from even hearing what the other side is saying.

Modern media gives us good reason for having those triggers. In the age of think tanks, sound bites, talking points and twitter, most discourse, political or otherwise, is precanned. It’s not unbaised journalism (if there is any such thing.) It’s probably :

  • The unedited contents of a press release.
  • The biased deification or sliming of some product, candidate (physical political product), or position (memetic political product.) Probably from a conscious partisan or, worse, an unconscious partisan. (Afterall if you’re fighting an existential threat, the ends justify the means, right?)
  • An advertisement masqerading as “content.”
  • Some slimy combination of the above.

It starts with a conclusion and tries to manipulate you. Either for clicks or to change your mind and worm its dishonest meme into your mind displacing something else. So we develop a shell of cynicism or reaction. For most people I think it’s both. This is reasonable in a world where much of the groups that are vying to your attention are being just plain dishonest.

I’m a bit of an idealist. [2] I think we should strive to the best media and the best solutions we can find. Not just the ones that happen to fit with my preconcieved notions.

I tend to read a wide variety of blogs and news sites from across the political spectrum. And I take pride in being able to read many that push my trigger buttons. But when I encountered the Op-ed “Let’s Give Up on the Constitution,” I failed to maintain my detatchment.

At first I thought it was a joke. I include his opening words here.

As the nation teeters at the edge of fiscal chaos, observers are reaching the conclusion that the American system of government is broken. But almost no one blames the culprit: our insistence on obedience to the Constitution, with all its archaic, idiosyncratic and downright evil provisions.

Louis Michael Seidman

But no, this Op-ed was written by a constitutional scholar. I felt my blood boil and stopped reading.

I was pleasantly suprised and a moderately shamed when I found that on one of my favorite podcasts, Econtalk, Russ Roberts would be interviewing Mr. Seidman. The discussion is well worth listening to, and both men, Roberts and Seidman handle the discussion, including their deep disagreement, with reason and grace.

Though I have never criticised nor emailed Mr. Seidman, I must say that I’m deeply saddened by the response he recieved. About ten minutes into the interview we find:

Seidman: Before I do that, I hope you won’t mind if I just say it is a real pleasure to have an intelligent conversation with somebody who is skeptical about my argument. Over the last several weeks, I’ve gotten something over 1000 abusive emails, many of them anti-semitic, some of them threatening violence. So this is a pleasure.

Nearly fifty minutes of discussion later. The interview end with this excellent section. (Cribbed and formated from the podcast highlights)

Russ: You said that you are surprised it took you this long to come to this view. How did it change and how will it change your teaching?

Seidman: Well, I don’t think it changes it a lot, in the sense that I am preparing people to be lawyers. As lawyers, they need to understand Constitutional doctrine, and to be able to understand arguments, and to be able to advance the arguments. And to know what the law is and what the Supreme Court says. So, all that is the same. I also have absolutely no ambition to convince or indoctrinate people. A good class by my standards is one where I have had to think and the students have had to think. Not one where people come away necessarily thinking one thing or another. So, these are issues I certainly discuss in class. I raise arguments that maybe the students haven’t heard before; they argue back. Sometimes if somebody’s been supporting my view I argue back, because I want them to think harder. But I don’t expect or even want people to come away from my classes agreeing with me. What I want them to come away the classes is holding the view they hold in the most sophisticated form that it can be held. And that’s my ambition as a teacher.

Russ: Have these issues–when you were starting out as a professor, you had a different perception of the Constitution, presumably. Is this perspective that we are talking about of Constitutional Disobedience affect how you teach and what you teach?

Seidman: It doesn’t affect how I teach or what I teach. I may raise some issues that just hadn’t occurred to me 20 or 30 years ago to talk about. I don’t know whether you’ve ever seen a law school classroom. The best law school classrooms are Socratic. So, the job of the professor—my job—is to ask critical questions about any argument that a student makes, whether they are on my side or another side. Because the object is to try to get the student to think as hard as the student can think about the issue.

Russ: A very admirable goal.

Thank you both.

Thank you for reminding us what debate can be. Thank you for the long form of the 1 hour interview. You’ve both reminded us why we all need to focus on listening and responding instead of reacting. An Admirable goal indeed.

  1. I orignally wrote this when that podcast came out nearly a year ago. I had not started a blog yet. Now it has a place to appear.  ↩
  2. No really, on Meyers Briggs, I come out as either an INFP or ENFP. Being an ambivert tends to confuse psych tests.  ↩