Many years ago – I want to say it was around 2001 or 2002 – I went to see Jon Stewart perform. It was a stand-up show, I guess, even though it was held in an outdoor amphitheater instead of a smoky club. Stewart had been hosting The Daily Show for a few years and was immensely popular. We all knew what we were getting into.
I don’t remember most of the jokes from that night, but one has stuck with me. Stewart was talking about the polarization of our culture. He said something like:
The reality is, 10% of people are at this extreme, 10% of people are at the other extreme, and the remaining 80% have shit to do.
I think about this a lot, and about how much our world has changed since then.
Facebook was founded in 2004. You remember 2004, right? Back when you were on MySpace? In the beginning, Facebook was all teenagers and college kids. I still remember the first time I heard about it – from my teenage stepson.
Since then, Facebook has become indicative of our bubble culture. In a world where you have total control over the media you consume, you will consume media that supports your beliefs. This is a natural consequence of confirmation bias, a psychological phenomenon that is well understood and has been shown to be stronger for emotionally charged issues.
This worries me.
It is so easy to stay in your bubble. It is so easy to fail to understand those who think and behave differently from you simply because you don’t know they exist.
And when you find out they exist, it’s often because one of your trusted information sources (which at best has a bias and at worst, an agenda) produces a “HOLY SHIT LOOK AT THIS CRAZINESS YOU SHOULD BE TERRIFIED” piece about the other side.
The day after the 2016 US presidential election, I flew to Guadalajara, Mexico. The trip had been planned for some time, but I made plenty of jokes that day about maybe not coming back. I was one of the people who were in shock that morning.
I spent a long weekend hanging out with a group of American expatriates. We discussed the election many times. When I look back on that trip, I think about how being in Mexico changed the conversation. Although we were Americans, we were, at least temporarily, on the outside looking in.
In public, we joked with our Mexican friends about el presidente. But when we were alone together, our surprise and sadness and fear emerged. We talked about what the election would mean for the US and the rest of the world. But we kept coming back to the shock. How could this have happened?
There were a lot of emotions in the room, but one that I kept feeling the need to express was gratitude. Not that Trump had won the election. Not that we were embarking on a roller coaster ride where many of the progressive initiatives I supported during the Obama administration were likely to be threatened or overturned.
I felt grateful because I saw, perhaps for the first time, that there was another side that could not be dismissed.
That other side had been invisible to me. Sure, I knew it existed in theory. The polls showed that. But because of my bubble, I totally underestimated their passion and ability to affect my life.
I decided I would try not to let that happen again.
The Age of Controversy
When Jon Stewart talked about the 80% who had shit to do, he was talking about people – the vast majority of people – who were largely disinterested. They may have had a pet issue or two, but for the most part, they weren’t paying attention to politics.
Today, the 80% is territory worth claiming. For any given issue, the 80%, or at least the portion that lives in the same bubble as you, can be whipped into a frenzy at the drop of a hat. If you’re in the 10% that has always been on one side or the other, you can use this to your advantage.
Hell, if you’re a foreign power, you can use this to your advantage.
In the age of controversy, a viral video or a single tweet is enough to control what vast numbers of people think and care about. It’s enough to create a faceless other, a force that is against you, a contingent that is objectively wrong, a group that will never win in the face of your resolve.
Until they do.
I don’t know if I’m brave enough to live outside the bubble. I don’t know if I have the emotional fortitude to allow the world to whip me around like that. But I’m determined to remember it exists, and to step outside it when I can and must. I’m determined to think for myself. I hope you will too.