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Speeches & Media

Challenging the Ideological Echo Chamber

Smith must recommit to the “fearless encounter with provocative ideas”

Kathleen McCartney, Smith Alumnae Quarterly, Fall 2014

Encountering difference can be uncomfortable, especially in an era when we are increasingly sheltered from it. The proliferation of targeted cable channels and the capacity to customize media creates a world in which our views are constantly codified and reaffirmed, rarely challenged. New York Times media critic David Carr puts it this way: “Unless you make a conscious effort to diversify your feeds, what you see in your social media stream is often a reflection, even amplification, of what you already believe. It’s a choir that preaches to itself.”

Not surprisingly, this enclosed system extends to our politics. A recent study by the Pew Research Center shows increasing political polarization in America. Republicans and Democrats, the study found, are more deeply divided than ever. Moreover, those on the ideological right and left think it is increasingly important to live around those who share their views. Among politically engaged Americans, antipathy to difference extends even to family choices. Per Pew: “Three-out-of-ten (30%) consistent conservatives say they would be unhappy if an immediate family member married a Democrat and about a quarter (23%) of across-the-board liberals say the same about the prospect of a Republican in-law.”

As a developmental psychologist, I am well aware that each of us assumes our reality is the true one; we view those with divergent views as self-interested or biased. My former colleague Hunter Gelbach refers to this phenomenon as “naïve realism.” College is a coming-of-age experience, where typically aged students form identities of all kinds—political, professional, intellectual, ethical and more. Therefore, it is critical for students to be exposed to diverse perspectives and thoughts. As developing members of society, how can students change if they only gaze in the mirror? The same is true for adults at any age.

Smith College is well positioned to challenge the ideological echo chamber, where we hear only what we want to hear. By design, Smith cultivates the development of traits we value—love of learning, social engagement and confidence—so that our students learn how to forge their identities. The house system, in which students from every class and every cultural background live and learn together, is a powerful crucible. In community, we learn about difference. At our best, we learn to disagree without demonizing, to argue without accusing.

Sometimes, we fail as a community. In recent months, I have heard from a number of alumnae who felt silenced as students on campus because they held unpopular views. One alumna from the ’60s wrote to me about a fellow student who was shunned by her housemates because she supported the Vietnam War. This student ate alone most evenings because her housemates could not accept her political views.

I take seriously the fact that I am the president of all members of the Smith community, not only those with whom I agree. Last December, I issued a statement against an academic boycott of Israeli universities. Some faculty members disagreed with my right to speak on behalf of Smith; in contrast, I believe it is imperative for college presidents to affirm an institution’s core values, like free speech, which is necessarily threatened by any boycott. I decided to invite those faculty members whose views differed from mine to dinner at the President’s House, so that we could have an open discussion; we left with a better understanding of one another’s opinions. I plan to model the importance of healthy dialectic among members of our community by hosting events like this one.

To live up to our charge as a leading liberal arts college, we have an obligation to foster rigorous, bold civil discourse. Our students need to witness and develop the ability to counter, refute and protest with respect. I would argue that this is a particular obligation of a college founded to expand the rights and opportunities of women. Suppression of discourse is dangerous to those groups whom society would seek to silence. As one alumna wrote to me, “There is nothing more liberating for women as a whole than open societies.”

As we educate women for the world, we need to recommit to the fearless encounter with provocative ideas—even offensive ideas—that has been the foundation of a Smith education. We may reject, protest or reshape some ideas, and we may sometimes feel uncomfortable in difficult conversations. Through these encounters, we fulfill a fundamental, developmental objective: to know ourselves by looking beyond the mirror.