For the last week, as the Supreme Court heard oral arguments for and against Proposition 8* and DOMA (Defense of Marriage Act), many Facebook users changed their profile picture to a red equals sign to show support for marital equality. It was a grand gesture by sheer volume of participation, and members of the LGBT community could feel comfort knowing that their friends were supportive. Many profile pictures involved variations on the standard, with everything from bacon strips to crackers acting as the mathematical equals sign and supporting the cause.
While our college community—and virtually every other institution of higher education across the nation—has embraced the idea of same-sex marriage, there are many others within the United States who refuse to endorse full marital equality. In speaking of variations on the standard, some of these people have made profile pictures with a red “approximately equals” sign and a red “never equals” sign, as if to imply that different kinds of marriage are either approximately equal or never equal. Given that Internet users tend to be more left leaning than the population as a whole, these contrary signs did not seem to flood Facebook nearly as much.
Breakdown of Americans who changed their profile pictures to support marriage equality (www.huffingtonpost.com)
But even if Internet users have slightly different leanings than the population as a whole, that does not explain why there is a dearth of these contrary pictures on most of our news feeds. Perhaps Georgia natives may see this conflicting view more often on Facebook, but for those of us from the northeast, the news feed is a safe haven of political opinions and viewpoints that reinforce what we already believe. It is rare to see conservative arguments at any time, except when quoted to be ripped apart.
The communities we grow up in tend to shape our views and, more often than not, the views of the community tend to homogenize, with little to no competing arguments near us. Our friends are primarily people we have grown up with and gone to school with, and the people we associate with the most. We are less likely to associate with people outside of our community and, in the case that we do meet an outsider, we are likely to make less of an effort to maintain a friendship if his views differ from ours. The net result is that liberals only talk to liberals, conservatives only talk to conservatives, and the populace asks the somewhat obvious question of why Washington is so polarized. None of these concepts are particularly new, but the effects are amplified when applied to the Internet.
In Cass R. Sunstein’s Republic.com 2.0, Sunstein analyzes how our ability to isolate ourselves from outsiders and choose what we read undermines the public good. By only understanding one side of the argument and only reinforcing that belief, never to be challenged, we deprive ourselves of careful deliberation and, worse yet, cannot optimally perform our duties as citizens of a republic. Democracy does not work, Sunstein argues, if the citizens are not well-informed, and reading nothing but the New York Times does not meet that goal. To put it another way, how many of us watch MSNBC and Fox News? Our physical communities mirror our electronic communities, and the news feed is basically a summary of everything we already believe. In addition, we can “Like” several pages, from The New Yorker to The Wall Street Journal, an ability that effectively allows us to choose what viewpoints we want to see and what viewpoints we want to ignore.
We can rejoice that so many of our friends support marital equality, and we can be happy that we live in a warm, accepting community. But let us also realize that someone else’s news feed has one “never equals” sign for every equals sign we see. It is important that we speak about the issues we feel passionate about and express our views, but we must keep in mind that expressing our views adds nothing to our society if we are always preaching to the choir. Our voices are needed most on the other end of the political spectrum. On the flip-side, it is equally important that we not simply tune out our polar opposites, labeling them “crazy,” even if that is how we really feel. It is tempting—and perhaps not even completely incorrect—to champion Steven Colbert’s claim that reality has a well-known liberal bias, but this belief cannot substitute for the art of civil argumentation and debate, both of which involve listening and understanding the other side. I am not advocating for a large overhaul in our behavior; all I’m saying is that we could benefit from reading National Review every once in a while.
*Proposition 8 was proposed by California and passed in 2008 legalizing same-sex marriage
(Photo courtesy of www.listener.co.nz.)