Global political polarization is on the rise, populations are more depressed than ever, and the Fast Information Revolution — aka a smartphone in every pocket — has counterintuitively created only more disconnect in the world.
“In a very deep sense, polarization is a reflection of a collapse of curiosity,” said best-selling philosopher Dr. Micah Goodman this week.
Goodman spoke with ToI Deputy Editor Amanda Borschel-Dan, and said that liberals only watch liberal programs, attend liberal lectures, read liberal books — and the same can be said for conservatives.
“Instead of our intellectual worlds liberating us from our political worlds, our intellectual worlds are trapped within our political worlds,” he said. “A polarized world is a world that lost its curiosity, because curiosity at its best, what it does, it cracks our world, it opens our world. And today our intellectual world is shrinking into the size of our political worldview.”
And while social media was designed to connect between people, it is only aiding and abetting societal factionization in that its algorithms force to the front like-minded individuals. Calling it the “attention industry,” Goodman said social media rivals the oil industry in coming up with new technology to “drill,” in this case for users’ attention.
“We all have a weakness, and it’s a universal weakness,” said Goodman. “It is a weakness called ‘confirmation bias.’ One of the aspects of confirmation bias is that we love our own opinions. We love listening to other people saying out loud what we already think. It gives us a high,” he said.
Facebook, he said is aware of this weakness and knows that if a user is confronted with a view that challenges his own, the user will leave the site. Therefore, the algorithm is always giving back to the user different brands or versions of his own worldview, which innately causes more engagement with his own ideology.
I am brainwashing myself to believe with absolute certainty that I am right
“What happens to many people on Facebook is the following paradox: They think they’re exposed to the world, but they really are exposed to their own worlds. And what happens is very dangerous,” he said.
When an individual has his own view constantly reinforced, “that is brainwashing,” said Goodman. “This is an interesting form of brainwashing. We’re not taking an outside message and repeating it again and again until it becomes my worldview. No, it’s taking my worldview, and repeating it back to me again and again. It is ‘auto-propaganda,'” he said.
“I am brainwashing myself to believe with absolute certainty that I am right and as a result, when we meet someone who is brainwashed by his own views, we can’t understand each other, we can’t appreciate each other, and as a result we are polarized. That is a paradox of our time,” said Goodman.
These personal echo chambers lead to poor mental health, which Goodman says is one of the major problems of our time.
“Global warming is threatening our planet. Political polarization is threatening our democracy. Our democracy is contaminated by political polarization,” he said. But this global mental health crisis of depression and anxiety, which he pegs to circa 2010, was not born in a vacuum.
Democracies are contaminated the same time planet Earth is contaminated, at the same time it seems like our emotional world is becoming weaker
“So one has to ask him or herself, is it a coincidence that the same time that we have a political crisis, we’re having an emotional crisis. Or is it interesting that democracies are contaminated the same time planet Earth is contaminated, that at the same time it seems like our emotional world is becoming weaker and weaker and in some ways, you could call it, contaminated,” he asked. “And these are pandemics that began before corona.”
Belonging to a community, said Goodman, is what liberates us from tribalism and loneliness. “This is something that our tradition always understood.”
However, being part of a community can’t redeem anxiety-causing uncertainty, he said. “It does something else: It helps you accept uncertainty.”
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