All the World’s an Echo Chamber

One of the many criticisms leveled at the atheist, skeptic, and feminist community (and its related intersections) is something along the lines of “you all form your little communities and then you all just nod and agree with each other all the time.”

What, may I ask, is wrong with that?

Of course, there are intragroup disagreements. In fact, those are quite common with groups like skeptics, atheists, and feminists, due to the huge diversity in viewpoints in said groups and the fact that said positions are often viewed in opposition to those of the mainstream. When disagreements and conflicts come to light, we are accused of “in-fighting,” while agreement is criticized as an echo chamber; there really seems to be no way to win, as Natalie recently pointed out.

So-called “in-fighting” aside, most of us who have (at least on some level) challenged the status quo are often accused of forming “echo chambers” when we try to and succeed in creating spaces like, say, a certain skeptical feminist blog.

When criticizing the echo chamber effect, especially online, it’s quite easy to single out minority communities. Those inclined to do so find out where such communities exist based on their descriptors and say “Ha! You all sit around agreeing with each other! LOL circlejerk!” They then pat themselves on the back for exposing themselves to such a diverse mix of worldviews, for participating in arenas where not everyone (or maybe even no one) agrees with them, for making and keeping friends with disparate opinions — in other words, for keeping an “open mind.”

What the aforementioned critics fail to realize is that for those with privilege such as they have, the affirmation that they criticize within specific communities is, for them, everywhere. Affirmation is exactly like breathable air in that only when we lack it do we ever stop to think about it. People with more mainstream views and lives have them affirmed in overt and subtle ways by as many means as can be imagined. Even if they were to go out of their way to try to challenge themselves by exposing themselves to alternative perspectives, most of the time, their lives would be filled with messages that match and confirm their worldview.

Just because their echo chamber is bigger and less clearly delineated than others’ doesn’t negate its status as echo chamber.

One issue related to this is that many of us who have had our views changed drastically from conventional to unconventional feel the urge to constantly seek out challenges to our viewpoints and/or to challenge others’ points of view whenever we feel we should. After all, we think, we were once just like them: unchallenged. We don’t want to end up stagnant in our views or depriving someone else of the chance to change theirs, right?

In the case of the latter, we should not feel obliged to constantly engage with and entangle ourselves in explaining to people how they are wrong; after all, activism has its price. In the case of the former, it is entirely improbable that anyone with a non-mainstream perspective would be able to live a wholly unchallenged life. Even if you were to form a colony comprised of only people with whom you agreed, you would have to deal with, at the very least, the government and a supplier of goods of some kind. Preclude that extreme option and you end up living quite the questioned life.

As Greta Christina puts it:

Many atheists spend time with other atheists — i.e., in the supposed “echo chamber” — because we need respite. We need community. There is real bigotry and discrimination against atheists, and we need emotional and practical support.

When all of society is incessantly questioning your views, your identity, your personhood, your agency, and your very right to exist, you don’t need to work all that hard to challenge yourself. And, given all of that, it’s perfectly fine to want to dig yourself a cozy burrow someplace where you can feel safe and affirmed whenever you need it.

Main image via. Special thanks to Dan for significant feedback on the genesis for this piece.

Heina Dadabhoy

Heina Dadabhoy [hee-na dad-uh-boy] spent her childhood as a practicing Muslim who never in her right mind would have believed that she would grow up to be an atheist feminist secular humanist, or, in other words, a Skepchick. She has been an active participant in atheist organizations and events in and around Orange County, CA since 2007. She is currently writing A Skeptic's Guide to Islam. You can follow her on Facebook, Twitter, or Google+.

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  1. You link to “a certain skeptical feminist blog” is broken. Just thought you might like to know. =P

    On of the most productive things for me about the atheist community has been its diverse nature. Each individual youtube channel, blog, comments-section, personality, podcast has a tendency to be inclusive and act as an echo-chamber to the main driver behind it. But switching between them? Boy oh boy (girl oh girl?) have I got my mental ass-kicked so many times, and have learnt a lot this way, when commenting on a conflicting topic.

    I’d say there is no single “atheist echo chamber”. Unlike in religions, there are LOTS of little echo chambers and you are free to pick and choose, mix and match – with no central authority piping the same message for each room to echo.

    1. To be fair, you’re view of religions seems a bit narrow. Although Catholicism certainly relies on a central authority to hand down doctrine, there are a lot of Protestant denominations that are quite diverse, with many subgroup “echo chambers”.

      I think there is a strong tendency in any group, atheists and religious folk included, to view outside/opposing groups as being monolithic and uniform. In my experience, having interacted with both sides, religious groups and atheist groups are about equally diverse. And often equally judgemental.

      1. Hm, I never specifically addressed religious people. Let me elaborate: I consider a world where asking which church someone attends is considered acceptable, while declaring oneself to be an atheist is considered offensive, to be an echo chamber for theists.

        In terms of specific denominations, that’s another story, but overall, the world is an echo chamber for belief in a deity of some kind, at least.

        1. Sorry for the confusion – my comment was in reply to @dxman, above. These nested replies can be hard to parse!

          I agree with your post. It’s perfectly reasonable to have places (in both real life and on the internet) where you hang out with like-minded folk. Especially, as you say, if who you are is constantly being challenged by the world around you. It would be odd NOT to want a few echo chambers in that case. What I really love about Skepchick is how LITTLE of the echo chamber effect is found here. There is a really healthy variety of views and posters here, and I have found my mind expanded greatly by hanging out here over the years. I stopped paying attention to PZ’s site long ago because the echo chamber effect seemed VERY strong. Maybe it’s just a natural byproduct of the multiple-posters nature of this site as opposed to his.

  2. Even the so-called “echo chambers” erupt in disagreement all the time. Back during Thanksgiving PZ found himself on the opposite side of a huge chunk of his regular readers/commenters. It happens, and it is no big deal.

    On the other hand, the WHOLE WORLD is an echo chamber to rich/middle-class white Christian men. They are considered to be the norm, and everything else in society is defined by how far you deviate from that norm… so they can fuck right off whining about other people creating spaces where THEY get to be the standard. It is the height of privilege to walk into one of the few places not devoted to you and demand that your voice be equal weight.

    Reminds me of an episode of The Atheist Experience, where someone called in and demanded that the one and only atheist show in Texas, probably the only atheist show many people have ever seen in their lives, have a Christian co-host because otherwise they were being unfair. There are entire networks devoted to Christian programming, there are shows on the same public access channel just for Christians, and Christians demand that it is unfair that for one hour once a week atheists get a show geared towards them.

  3. I don’t think it IS an echo chamber in the atheist community. Being an atheist isn’t some kind of unified faith. The only thing unifying is non-belief in god.

    It’s a bit like Islam, people perceive it as a monolith, but it’s definitely NOT. Atheists have very different beliefs and many could care less about being activists.

    Feminism I think is a bit more unified. And yes, you’re right, it’s a good thing when people have the same ideas on smashing oppression.

    1. The longer I identify as a feminist the less I see it as unified. There are still SO many women who base feminism on the notion that women and men have tons and tons of biological differences that affect all out behaviour and being and we should “celebrate” that. It makes my blood boil that they’re allowed to be called feminists.

      1. Yes, biological differences should be downplayed when talking about most any people I feel…
        As a relatively newly minted feminist (or feminist ally?), I’m going to have to mansplain to my girlfriend what mansplainging is X]. It’s odd but when talking about gender inequality I get the most resistence from women, but then since I’m trying to listen to them I kind of get confused hearing “we are not disadvantaged in x or y”.

      2. Yes, biological differences should be downplayed when talking about most any people I feel…
        As a relatively newly minted feminist (or feminist ally?), I’m going to have to mansplain to my girlfriend what mansplainging is X]. It’s odd but when talking about gender inequality I get the most resistence from women, but then since I’m trying to listen to them I kind of get confused hearing “we are not disadvantaged in x or y”.

      3. Of course the longer you’re part of feminism the less unified it looks; the closer you get to something, the larger the various cracks in its surface unity appear. From outside, atheism, feminism… most isms of any kind… look uniform, but they have their gradations and variations in thought. I imagine many of have those something along the lines of “Those X are all the same” or even “Those Y are causing problems”, mentally excluding the X or Y who are not like that… we don’t mean ALL Christians, of course… certainly not our saintly grandma… just the loud Santorums.

        It’s part of the nature of groups, and something I try to watch in my own behavior.

  4. A recent sampling of topics (Penn Jilette’s rant, Rebecca’s being hit on in the elevator, etc.) posted here, and on other atheist and/or skeptic and/or feminist blogs and websites shows that we are not living in an echo chamber.

    On Twitter, the atheist community is no echo chamber either. I’ve blocked several atheists/skeptics because of their misogynistic outbursts. We do have a fairly uniform stance against Christians trying to force their beliefs upon the country and minorities through laws and constitutional amendments.

    1. //We do have a fairly uniform stance against Christians trying to force their beliefs upon the country and minorities through laws and constitutional amendments.//

      True although I could care less about public displays of faith or people being able to say “merry christmas” in public life, etc.

      The amendments against women’s choice and against LBGT I think are the core thing atheists are unified on. But hey, even the libertarian ones may say “it’s up to the states to decide” :).

  5. I agree with dxman about getting my mental ass kicked – Marilove makes sport of it.

    Since I first heard someone complain about MRAs on these forums and said “Hey what’s wrong with men’s rights?” I’ve thought a lot. Your line about affirmation sums up the state of mind I was in. I had ventured into a place that wasn’t all about me and was thrown off-kilter. I’ve been trying to learn more about feminism (Godless Bitches helps a lot), and this article is kind of a capstone to my exodus of thought on the matter.

    I wrote your line about affirmation up on my whiteboard next to Hitchens.

    1. I’m so glad that you’re challenging yourself, and rather touched re the quote. Out of curiosity, which bit in particular is it and which Hitchens quote accompanies it?

      1. “Affirmation is exactly like breathable air in that only when we lack it do we ever stop to think about it.” alongside “What can be asserted without proof can be dismissed without proof.” among others.

  6. Nice post, I agree completely. Ultimately, any online community that’s sufficiently tight-knit will, over time, become an ‘echo chamber’ to some extent. That doesn’t require any conscious effort, it just happens that certain opinions become the community consensus, people who agree with those opinions are more likely to join and stick around, and people who disagree are more likely to leave. Even a site as big as reddit shows this phenomenon. It’s more obvious in small blogs, but in the end, most online communities are echo chambers, in the sense of having certain opinions that everyone agrees on.

    And when you think about it, how could it be otherwise? If there’s nothing that everyone agrees on, you can’t have a community in the first place. There always has to be some common ground as a basis for discussion, otherwise people will keep arguing over the fundamental topics over and over again. On atheist blogs, the common ground is not beliving in God, but beyond that pretty much anything goes. Other sites have more community beliefs, but I doubt there’s any community that doesn’t have any.

    Is it a problem, then, when people spend all their time reading and participating in sites they agree with? Yes, to an extent; it’s always good to expose yourself to contrary views sometimes. But the answer isn’t that blogs need to introduce more contrary views, so (say) an atheist blog must feature religious bloggers to be more ‘balanced’. The responsibility for viewing a diversity of opinion must be with the reader.

    That’s not to say that blogs should accept no criticism; critical articles are good and to be welcomed. But if you’re criticising a blog for not running articles that criticise its fundamental common concepts, you’re either missing the point or just trolling.

  7. And furthermore – yes, when a view is outside of the mainstream, there’s all the more need for it to have online communities that serve as ‘echo chambers’, simply to help people who share that view find and communicate with each other when they can’t in real life. The ‘echo chamber’ complaint is more valid against sites that do represent a widely-held mainstream opinion, where the absence of dissenting voices only reinforces that opinion’s dominance.

  8. There’s dissent even here. I’m not even talking about the Elevator crap, or the Reddit stuff recently. A few other people have piped up recently about their faith, and how they don’t always see eye to eye regarding religion.

    Also, we had some dissent regarding the most recent doctors+woo post.

    Other than that, it seems when it comes to some stuff, we’re all pretty solid and in agreement (vaccines and climate change, for instance, and most woo-woo), but other stuff (especially certain “isms”) can have some pretty differing opinions among skeptics.

  9. When you put the right kind of atheist in a room with the right kind of skeptic you can get fireworks. I left the San Diego “Brights” after a short visit because they were infected by, of all things, 911 truthers.

    I don’t think you can call our community an echo chamber in any meaningful way, but I certainly think that the people who watch Faux News, Glenn Beck, Rush and such are about the least original thinkers you’ll ever come across. I’ve yet to meet a teabagger that isn’t lock step with the party talking points, but boy oh boy, get some skeptics talking about DBAD or elevators and the shit hits the fan.

    1. I think I might’ve been that atheist when placed in a room with certain skeptics of whom I am aware. Very apt example.

      And really, Truthers? That’s awful. We have kind of the opposite issue here in Orange County; there is a vocal minority of people who espouse contrarian views when it comes to things like global warming and are lauded by others as “skeptic’s skeptics.” Can anyone say “ugh?”

    2. Yep, in fact the guy who the San Diego brights was one of the founders of the “Architects and engineers for 911 truth” or something like that.

      I found the OC Skeptics in the pub to me a much friendly group to hang out with, but I’m no longer in the area unfortunately. If you get a chance though you should go to one of their events. Great people. Their gatherings tend to be social in nature and very little skepticism is actually discussed.

  10. It’s a ridiculous argument. It’s human nature to want to spend time with people who share similar interests whether it’s sports, comics, cars, art, science, religion or whatever. Everyone wants to socialize with peers.

  11. I don’t see a lot of this as echo chamber, though I admit to engaging in a bit of contrarian-ness with people here and elsewhere. But often as not it is precisely because I agree with someone and want to suss out for myself why I agree, if that makes sense.

    (I’m one of those people that unless I kick around arguments a bit I am never that confident that I believe them, I guess. I’ve been told that I am demanding characteristics of ethics that we demand of physics, and I’ll plead guilty to that).

    I look at it like sparring. (Full disclosure: I teach a martial arts class on occasion). If you never do it with people in a safer space you won’t be ready to fight in an unsafe one, nor will you figure out where the holes in your strategy/technique are.

    But yeah, the whole thing seems a bit weird reasoning. Every social group is an echo chamber to some degree. That’s why it’s a social group, duh!

  12. If I may venture a contrarian option – you are trying to meld two diametrically opposed concepts: skepticism and (to use your term) affirmation.

    A skeptic is above all else evidence based. To pick a farcical example, right now we all chuckle a bit at those who try to push homeopathy, but if by some miracle a scientist were to discover that it actually worked and won a Nobel Prize in the process, as skeptics we’d be forced to change our views and sing homeopathy’s praises. We go where the evidence takes us.

    In this context, the concept of an echo chamber makes no sense. There is no need to affirm ones views, in fact the opposite need is true – skeptics desperately search for someone to poke holes in our theories in order to get closer to the truth.

    But when the topic turns to feminism or politics (especially on this blog) walls begin to erect themselves, suddenly people start looking for ‘affirmation’, and contrarian views – valid contrarian views – are shouted down (e.g. Dawkins).

    Side note about politics – even in the comments to this post, someone could not refrain from taking a swipe at “Faux News”. I’ve not read a similar comment on this blog referencing the “New York Slimes” or the “Washington ComPost”, even though both are equally valid. The political echo chamber here is deafening.

    Back to the topic at hand – I have no problem with a website being devoted to affirming the views of specific community members. The internet is a big place, and there is certainly room for everyone.

    But please realize that the farther down the trail you go searching for ‘a cozy burrow someplace where you can feel safe and affirmed whenever you need it’, the farther away you get from skepticism and the evidence based community. If you’re fine with that, I’m fine with that.

    1. You’re not offering a contrary view, you’re straw-manning my argument. I never said “just hang out in places where you are affirmed and shout ‘la la la I can’t hear you’ with your fingers in your ears when faced with an opposing view.” All I said was, and I quote directly, “it’s perfectly fine to want to dig yourself a cozy burrow someplace where you can feel safe and affirmed whenever you need it.” I repeat: “whenever you need it”– not, I repeat, not, “all the time.”

      “In this context, the concept of an echo chamber makes no sense. There is no need to affirm ones views, in fact the opposite need is true – skeptics desperately search for someone to poke holes in our theories in order to get closer to the truth.”
      There is a need, as a person, to feel accepted at least some of the time. Maybe you’re super-human and never need to feel accepted and affirmed, but for the rest of us, we might occasionally want to feel somewhat validated. Spending your whole life constantly fighting is no way to live for most people.

      “But please realize that the farther down the trail you go searching for ‘a cozy burrow someplace where you can feel safe and affirmed whenever you need it’, the farther away you get from skepticism and the evidence based community. If you’re fine with that, I’m fine with that.”

      I completely disagree. I think it’s entirely possible to occasionally seek out affirmation while at the same time be challenged and seek new views in other contexts. I never said to sequester yourself in the burrow, just that there’s nothing shameful, wrong, or anti-skeptical about occasionally needing it. It’s called being human and wanting to occasionally feel happy and content.

      When did “skeptical” start to mean “never content or happy and never spending time with people with similar views”? I never got the memo.

  13. Echo chambers are dangerous, because they weaken your arguments. Nobody is perfect, nobody is right about everything. The only way to test the strength of your ideas is to submit them to debate, to experimentation, to opposition. Surely a sceptical blog of all places should understand this.
    Feminists talk about safe spaces, about protecting women from abuse from privileged males. So you debate in your own little spaces, censoring criticism, and shunting down debate. Which is very nice, until you try to change the real world.
    A classic example is the debate over sex trafficking in my country. It was widely believed that large numbers of women were being smuggled into Britain for sex slavery, some put the number at 4000 a year, some as high as 25000. These numbers were taken so seriously the UK government launched a nationwide operation to find these women, rescue them and prosecute the people holding them. The government seem strangely reluctant to publish the results of this operation. An article in the Guardian, for Americans this is a liberal centre left paper, revealed why. The operation had failed to find all these trafficked women, in fact the number of convictions for the whole operation barely reached double figures, with the only trafficking convictions dating from before the start of the operation, and there were only 2 of those.
    The figures came out of the echo chamber from true believes. The 25000 figure, which was widely used by British feminists, actually came from a tabloid newspaper. The 4000 figure came out of the poppy project, but the research was deeply flawed. However the people involved never looked at the figure objectively, they ignore criticism and only listened to true believers. As a result they massively damaged their credibility and set back their own cause.
    So if you wish to live in a nice comfortable echo chamber, were everybody agrees with you, fine, but it you want to influence the world, if you wish to change it, you have to engage with it. You may well fine that the arguments and evidence that look strong in the feminist echo chamber, are destroyed in the real world.

    1. I agree with you. I never advocated living in an echo chamber or speaking exclusively within one, just allowing for minority groups to occasionally seek respite within them.

      1. Except they don't find respite within them, they live in them. The censorship on many feminist forums is very strict, not just abusive comments, but anyone who disagrees with them. You see the effect of this when feminists come on to more open forums, like cif at the Guardian. There is a tendency to call anyone who disagrees with them a misogynist/sexist and demand moderation
        Now if feminists want to form their own little club, so what? The problem is feminists, at least in the UK, have a lot of influence over government policy and public debate. Their arguments come straight out of the echo chamber, are accepted as fact and are never properly scrutinised.
        A classic example is the claim that the conviction rate for rape in England is 6%. Now this stat matters, it is being used as a tool to water down civil liberties in the criminal justice system, even attack the jury system itself. Now the least you could therefore expect is for it to be true. Alas it isn't, the conviction rate in England is around 60%, that comes from both the crown prosecution services, and the Stern report into the handling of rape and sexual offences in the English legal system (Scotland has a separate legal system)
        Surely as a sceptical blog you must see the problem with this, we have dogma influencing policy, not facts. It is no different to the MMR scare based on dodgy research, or the non-sense about healing magnets.
        Nobody likes having their views challenged, you will find that there are weaknesses in your argument, mine are full of holes. It isn't much fun to have people put them out. There are two responses to this, you can modify your argument to fix the hole, or get emotional and defensive. Head back to your echo chamber, and feel the friendly warmth of everyone agreeing with you, even if you are wrong.

        1. Well, every feminist I know is challenged every day of her life and spends a lot of time refining her views and learning as a result, so I humbly propose that your frustrations might be misdirected. I am not endorsing living in an echo chamber.

  14. Claiming that one is “open-minded” because they deliberately troll articles that champion views with which they don’t agree does not work. I don’t see any real problem with echo-chambers or with piping up that you agree with something someone has posted, or disagreeing with someone else, as long as it’s done respectfully. It’s nice to agree with people and it’s nice to have people agree with you.

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