Election Day’s rapid approach has birthed the latest of the social media trends: the “Biden vs. Trump” poll. In an effort to weed out Trump supporters, Berkeley High School (BHS) students have taken to asking followers to choose between the two candidates on their Instagram stories. Those who click “Trump” are immediately blocked.
Though this response is understandable, especially in light of today’s polarization and Trump’s incendiary rhetoric, it is a symptom of a deeper problem: echo chambers.
The more divided a society becomes, the more tempting it is to stay in a bubble where everyone shares the same opinions. This bubbling creates the echo chamber, a situation where a single dominating belief is reinforced by constant repetition without any exposure to opposition. As a result, we become reluctant to reach across perceived divides to start dialogues, as it is often intensely uncomfortable. Berkeley, a progressive community that is often at the forefront of change, must be particularly vigilant about avoiding this condition.
Another dangerous outcome of echo chambers, as seen with “Biden vs Trump” polls, is that we become quick to denounce and block those who hold different beliefs, without bothering to inform them why their beliefs are harmful. In the case of “Biden vs Trump,” this is unproductive; as young people, our political opinions may not yet be fixed.
Instead, we must initiate conversation. In order to educate others about why their beliefs are harmful, rally new people to our cause, and break down echo chambers, we must engage in dialogue with those who hold different beliefs than ourselves.
For BHS students, it is imperative that such dialogue takes place beyond social media comment sections or direct messaging (DM), where conversations often deteriorate into accusatory and defensive arguments, and neither party hears the other. We must reach across divides in a space where we are able to truly listen.
Dialogue is no easy feat. In today’s fraught climate, it can seem like an overwhelming challenge to engage in civil conversation with someone of opposing beliefs. Even on the scale of a single family, influencing the beliefs of a relative, particularly one from a different generation or political background, can appear daunting.
Like many other BHS students, Mary Calderon-Sanchez, a junior in Berkeley International High School (BIHS), knows this struggle. Whenever Calderon-Sanchez mentions abortion, her pro-life aunt rejects her every argument, using religion as a shield. Conversations with her grandmother, who is staunchly against feminist protestors, follow the same pattern. When Calderon-Sanchez reminds her grandmother that she is a woman herself and should therefore understand the struggles that feminists protest against, her grandmother counters that women must simply live with it, and feminists are doing the work of the devil. Furthermore, her relatives often contradict themselves, resorting to deflection when they run out of rebuttals.
Calderon-Sanchez raises questions shared by many who have experienced similarly frustrating conversations. Given the seemingly unbreachable divide between beliefs, generations, and even family members, why should we converse when dialogue seems fruitless?
Clearly, there is a valid reason why the divide has become so deep. The opposite beliefs may be objectively untrue, harmful, or immoral. The other side may not be willing to converse reasonably, as in Calderon-Sanchez’s experience. We are not suggesting that students learn to agree, justify flawed reasoning, or necessarily seek compromise. Calderon-Sanchez did not change her relatives’ minds, as beliefs held for a lifetime do not shift so easily. Nonetheless, the benefits of conversation extend far beyond only educating others.
In conversing with her aunt and grandmother, Calderon-Sanchez gained a valuable understanding of how those of the opposite viewpoint see the world. She saw firsthand how a religious upbringing could shape someone’s views, and personally felt the power of religion in forming political divides. This knowledge is crucial — to defend abortion and women’s rights, Calderon-Sanchez must first understand how opponents reason and what led them to oppose those issues. Even if civil conversation breaks down, we will still walk away having deepened our understanding of others and the roots of society’s divides.
Additionally, conversation encourages us to recognize that we are more than our differences.
Although Calderon-Sanchez shares few experiences and opinions with her relatives, they are still her family. Alienating or neglecting those with different beliefs will not miraculously make opposition disappear, especially in large countries like the US. Instead, through seeking to understand our differences, we broaden our worldview while promoting critical thinking and empathy. This is the first step to breaking down echo chambers and bridging the rift in our nation.
Generation Z has an incredible capacity for empathy and a deep investment in fixing society’s most pressing issues. Whether through walking out against rape culture or phone banking to flip the Senate, we have shown that we are passionate about change, particularly when faced with what could be the most important election of our lives.
As a generation, we must channel this energy into fostering acceptance. It is our obligation to create dialogue in order to bridge the toxic divide the nation will face when it is placed in our hands. We must start conversations with the broader purpose of unifying humanity over time-sensitive issues that are much greater than political disputes, such as ending global pandemics or mitigating the inevitable effects of climate change.
Our community has empowered us with the tools to build a better, more just world, and simply sitting down with someone of a differing opinion and starting a tough conversation is enough to begin a shift towards that goal.