Even without talking together, people can still access arguments on the opposing side if they listen to news and commentary from the same sources as their opponents. However, few people want to get their news from sources that abuse and distort their political views. They reject such sources as subjective or even “fake news.” Most people prefer to have their views supported, so they choose news sources that will back up their predilections.
This trend affects both sides of the political spectrum: In 2004, Republicans and Democrats watched MSNBC and Fox News at roughly equal rates. By 2008 20% more Democrats watched MSNBC than Republicans. On the other hand, Republicans watched Fox News 11% more than Democrats in 2004 but 30% more than Democrats in 2008. Both sides had turned to different news shows in only four short years!
Many today get their news from the Internet. The most common tools for choosing which parts of the Internet to access are search engines and social media. When someone Googles a topic, search engine lists sites about that topic in a certain order determined by an algorithm. The most common search engines give priority to sites that this user has visited often and is likely to rate highly. If users go more often to sites listed on top, as most people do, then they are bound to end up visiting more sites that support their political views. Many are not even aware that algorithms can manipulate them into echo chambers.
Another tool for selecting websites—word of mouth (so to speak) in social media—might be even more common.5 Many people use social media to recommend websites, and their friends then follow their recommendations. In this case, it is obvious why liberals with liberal friends end up visiting websites of liberal news sources whereas conservatives with conservative friends end up visiting websites of conservative news sources. Both sides end up in echo chambers, and they hear nothing that comes from outside their chambers. The edge of each person’s echo chamber is where silence begins.6
Some brave souls do seek conflicting news sources. However, their motive is often simply to find mistakes there in order to criticize those sources instead of learning from them. They are not really listening but only waiting to pounce. One master of this technique was Jon Stewart, the host of The Daily Show. He could always find short clips that made Fox News look silly. Of course, these clips were often unfair because they had been ripped out of context. Stewart’s excuse was that his show was comedy, not serious news, but he still set a tone for his viewers. When they did listen to opposing news sources, each side was trained to laugh at the bad parts instead of learning from the good parts of their political opponents.
If fellow citizens get their facts as well as analysis and commentary from conflicting sources, then it is no wonder that they end up consistently supporting opposite positions. It is also not surprising that they despise people who disagree with them, because then those people seem ignorant of the most basic and central facts that have been all over the news—at least the news that they watch.
If opponents are so ignorant, there is little to be gained by asking them why they believe what they do. That is one explanation for why many people today have stopped asking each other for reasons.
Another part of the explanation for the demise of questioning is cultural. In some circles, it is disdained as naïve or impolite to ask people why they think and act as they do. One example is religion. Religious beliefs affect people’s stands on many crucial and divisive issues. But what happens when a Muslim person walks into the room? Does anyone ask that Muslim why he or she believes that the Koran is a Holy Book or that Muhammad was a prophet? I have never heard anyone ask that question in such a situation, maybe because they do not expect any useful or reasoned answer. Instead, people either avoid the subject of religion and talk about something else or they avoid the Muslim and assume that he or she is sympathetic with terrorism. Neither approach accomplishes anything. Both sides remain completely ignorant of any reasons behind the other side’s position on the elephant in the room: religion. And the same goes for Christians, Jews, Hindus, and atheists.
Consider also gay marriage. Among my liberal friends in Europe and the United States, if anyone were to say that governments should not recognize gay marriages, then that person would immediately be labeled a bigot and ostracized. If anyone bothered to ask “Why shouldn’t gay marriages be recognized?” the questioner would be ready to jump all over any answer that a conservative gave. They would not listen sympathetically, interpret charitably, or look for any truth in that opponent’s reply.
In return, conservatives dismiss gay marriage as disgusting, immoral, or unnatural, and then they dismiss its advocates as dupes of gay advocacy groups. They assume that the United States Supreme Court opinions in support of a constitutional right to gay marriage are totally political, judicial over-reach, and not strict construction—even before they read the arguments in those opinions.7 Why bother reading the judicial opinions carefully when you are already confident that they are wrong? Attitudes like these keep people on either side from digging deeper into the reasons on both sides.
Moreover, even when people do ask questions, they are often ignored and not answered. Just watch any political debate. A moderator asks a serious question, then the candidate proceeds to talk about something entirely separate. Sometimes this non-response is portrayed as background information, but the speaker never gets back to answering the original question. Sometimes the speaker simply changes the subject with no excuse whatsoever. Either way, the tendency not to answer questions contributes to the tendency not to ask questions either. Why bother asking a question when it is unlikely to elicit any real response? The only kinds of questions that end up being asked are rhetorical questions whose answers are already obvious—or thought to be obvious—so nobody bothers to give or listen to any answer. “The rest is silence” (as Hamlet said when he died).