I recently read an article in the Times Higher Education supplement about a study that suggested that “equality” courses at universities are inherently biased. Topics such as gender studies are led and studied by an overwhelmingly left-wing demographic which institutionally silences non-left-wing opinions. Course tutors admitted downgrading papers that expressed conservative ideologies and treating students expressing those views less favourably. I’m no great fan of right-wingers, but you don’t need to be an academic to work out why that’s a problem when research is supposed to take place “scientifically”.
It’s not just there though – “echo chamber groupthink”, as I recently heard it described – is everywhere. Think of any situation in which people are gathered together and I’ll show you a bunch of people who will prefer those who express opinions exactly like their own and freeze out anyone who thinks differently. Not that I blame them: differing opinions than you’re own are obnoxious and exhausting and JUST PLAIN WRONG, and it’s really tiring trying to keep your cool when what you really want to do is yell at the person to use their effing brain. Which, of course, they’re doing. Just not in the same way that you are.
So you surround yourself with people like yourself, which is comfortable, but leaves you only exposed to the same old things. Take music, for example: people on music message boards like the same old bands and talk about the same old bands, and reject anything that isn’t the same old bands, so that no new act has the chance to be heard by that audience. It’s how music scenes stagnate and die. I once DJ’d at a goth club in London, and I had a great idea for a song that would perfectly flow on from what I’d just played, so I stuck it on:
Yup. It’s Sugar Ray’s cover of Steve Miller’s Abracadabra, which was a totally non-obvious choice for that venue but worked well in that setlist.
I cleared the dancefloor in about 30 seconds.
“Play some VNV Nation.”
But I have all these really cool songs that you might love and wouldn’t ordinarily be exposed to.
“Play VNV Nation.”
The Hivemind Echo Chamber just weren’t interested. I gave up pretty quickly after that. Stopped going to that club. It played the same dozen records on rotation and froze out new bands until the handful of people that went there got bored and the club eventually closed. There’s no new generation getting into that scene, no new exciting bands coming out, because the Hivemind Echo Chamber only wanted to listen to the same dozen records over and over. It’s like a slash-and-burn approach to music scenes: consume and destroy what you have; leave nothing for those behind you.
The other worst outcome of Groupthink was the sad tale of Goss.
Goss released a single in about 1990 called So What, which by the middle of that week was climbing up the charts and looked like a definite hit. Then, in that same middle of the week, it emerged that “Goss” was none other than 70s crooner Gilbert O’ Sullivan. Support for the single vanished, and the single sank without trace.
I was always rather upset about that, because I thought it was a really catchy song.
When you stay within your comfort zone, absorbing only reflections of your pre-existing biases, then you’ll never be exposed to anything that challenges or provokes you. That means never opening yourself up to the possibility of growing or learning or developing. It also means never being forced to reflect on why you feel the way you do, to feel your resolve strengthened in the face of criticism. It means missing out on the chance of being truly blown away by something – of the eureka-moment when you see or hear something that you never thought you’d enjoy or agree with but now want to share with the world.
No, I’m not suggesting you run off to a Marxist commune or fall asleep to a stack of Hitler speeches, but I’m definitely encouraging you to take a few moments out to listen to rap or country if you hate that stuff, or read The Times if you’re a Guardian reader, or watch a romcom if you’re an action fan, or just do something outside of your normal behaviour.
You might love it.