An "echo chamber" is an "enclosed space for producing reverberation of sound."
In the social media age, the term "echo chamber" now means enclosed groups of people who hold to the same opinion. When people in the group speak, what they share is merely an "echo" of the group's common opinion.
Echo chambers feel good when you're in one. People in the group applaud and pat you on the back. They tell you how you are right and righteous. Being in a group that is strong around a strong opinion makes you feel strong.
Yet recent studies show that echo chambers hurt:
Let's look at each of these.
Society is all of us living together in some order. We often have different opinions about how society should work or for what it should be working. Society works well when people with different opinions learn to give and take with each other. They understand that progress depends on society working well, so they are willing to give up some of what they want now to keep society moving toward what they hope it will become later. When we work together, we all move forward slowly. When we don't work together, we all fall behind very quickly.
Echo chambers break down society. First, they break down the relationships we need with people who are different from ourselves. Since we spend all of our time with people who agree with us, we no longer have friendships, rapport, or trust with people who disagree. This makes it much harder to negotiate progress.
We also lose the ability to empathize and see things from other points of view. We lose our natural curiosity and wonder. This not only affects our relationships with people who are different from ourselves, it ultimately affects relationships with people who are like us. As persons, we get better and better at being alone. We grow smaller and weaker rather than larger and stronger.
Echo chambers hurt society and they hurt ourselves. They also end up hurting the causes we support. Let's say we're passionate about the environment and we spend more and more of our time with other people who are passionate about the environment. But then we are spending less and less time with people who don't share our passion. Some of those people may be passionate about something else. They may be too busy with life to invest much energy and time in the cause. Other people may feel that passion for the environment is misplaced.
The truth is, people who are passionate enough about the environment to make it a full-time job or hobby are likely in a very slim minority. The majority of people probably care about the environment, but it is farther down their list. Another slim minority may be passionate about opposing those who make the environment their priority.
How will those of us who are passionate about the environment move society in our direction if we're only engaging other people who are passionate about the environment? If we're in an echo chamber with a few other environmentalists, what affect or influence are we having on the majority of people in society who aren't as passionate about our cause? What relationships are we forming and growing beyond ourselves to move society forward as a whole rather than just a small part?
For many years when I was either against or indifferent toward environmental causes, it was never about a deep conviction that I held on the matter. Rather, it was a reaction to the people I saw involved in environmental causes. Two really bad things happened: One, I saw those people in their echo chambers--banding together with other environmentalists to gang up on the rest of us. Meanwhile, I was in my own echo chamber with people who were closed-minded and stubborn.
In that kind of situation, no good was going to happen. Both environmentalists and people like myself were in their own echo chambers. We didn't actually know each other. We had no experience with the other. We never left our groups to get to know someone who was different from ourselves.
What progress could we hope to achieve in a situation like that?
If we really care about Earth justice, we owe it to our cause to stay out of echo chambers and do our work in and with society. That means we need to become friends with people who either don't share our same level of passion or who may actually feel like they need to oppose us.
It does no good for Earth and its inhabitants for us to merely feel good about ourselves; we need to give as many people as possible the chance to feel good about what they can do for Earth and each other. We need to be intentional about going out and spending time with people who are not part of our group. We need to be intentional about inviting and welcoming people who don't normally hang out with "environmentalists like us." We need to practice curiosity, empathy, and understanding. We need to be patient. We need to be practical. We need to look for ways to do a little for, and with, broader society rather than a lot for ourselves (to no good end).
Because true Earth justice is not an echo chamber; it's all of us.
Grace and peace,
BT Irwin, executive director
Voices for Earth Justice