I live in a small German farming town in Middle America. At my job as a web developer, my closest coworkers are all just like me... All men, all heterosexual, all white. There are five places of worship in town, all of them Christian. The one that I attend features exactly four non-white people, all of whom are children adopted by white families. It’s not uncommon for me to go an entire week and never have a face-to-face conversation with anyone who isn’t very much like me.
This filter bubble, egregious as it may have been, had never bothered me before. I had never given it much thought, really. But in July of 2014, as I increased my consumption of Twitter to better keep up on tech topics, I began to feel uneasy. There were clearly lots of diverse voices in the industry, but they were all new to me, and their experiences were profoundly different from mine. Women in tech talked about the wage gap, about sexism in the workplace, about being harassed or assaulted by coworkers. Black developers posted highly upsetting accounts of facing discrimination and bias on a daily basis. People all over my industry were sharing stories of injustice and hatred, of unfair treatment and outright abuse.
The cognitive dissonance was wildly uncomfortable. I struggled to make sense of it all. I didn’t feel like I had experienced or seen any of these terrible things. Were these people lying? All of them? That didn’t seem likely. Were they just mistaken? Were they exaggerating? I had to decide what to do with this new information. Ignoring it didn’t work for me, and there was far too much of it for me to believe it was all bogus. More upsetting than the dissonance itself was the fact that I had no idea how to resolve it. I didn’t know how to determine what was accurate.
In a serendipitous moment, content strategy expert Karen McGrane posted a link to a series of 26 tweets by Marco Rogers. In a few hundred words, Rogers had outlined four steps that he recommends (and has used himself) to use Twitter as a way to understand viewpoints that diverge from your own. Suddenly it clicked, and it felt like it should have been obvious all along. In order to resolve the dissonance, I needed to be able to accurately evaluate this new information, and that meant really listening to these diverse voices with an open mind.
An experiment began to take shape. After reading over Marco Rogers’ tweets above (and I encourage you to do so), you’ll quickly notice that the parameters for this exercise ended up being nearly identical to the steps found in those 26 tweets:
- I will find highly active accounts run by people who are wildly dissimilar from me, or who have had wildly dissimilar life experiences. These people must be talking frequently about the issues I hope to understand.
- I will follow one of these people every day for thirty days, and I will keep following each of them for no less than thirty days, regardless of how much I dislike what they say.
- I will not engage with the owners of any of these accounts. I will not debate them, I will not argue, I will not interact in any way apart from just reading.
- I will engage in self-study when I encounter terms or concepts that are foreign to me.
With the rules in place, the experiment began. This was September of 2014, which meant that several divisive issues were playing out on social media. Michael Brown had been shot and killed in Ferguson just a few weeks prior. The GamerGate controversy had started to break out of the circles in which it had started. ISIS had recently replaced Al Qaeda as the most notorious terrorist group in the world.
I began by following a feminist activist, then a vocal member of the Black Lives Matter movement. They were followed by a lesbian Jewish Rabbi, a transgender indie game developer, a queer Muslim woman, and a Quaker woman who writes science fiction. I had hoped to find people that weren’t like me, and find them I did.
Within a few short days my Twitter timeline was, frankly, a mess. I had booked a front-row seat to a deluge of discussion about sexism, misogyny, harassment, racism, Islamophobia, transphobia, and homophobia. Quickly learning new terms (or new-to-me meanings of old terms) became necessary just to keep up. Intersectionality, cultural appropriation, gaslighting, dogpiling, privilege, doxxing, representation, rape culture, male gaze, othering. These terms and many more were part of the daily vocabulary of the people I followed, and until I understood the verbiage, I had no hope of understanding the discussion.
Keeping to my rules, I looked up the terms and phrases that were foreign to me. I stayed quiet when people said things that confused or angered me. I kept listening, kept reading, kept trying to understand. As I ravenously consumed these diverse viewpoints, a few trends began to emerge. First among them was the fact that these people were often spending a disproportionate amount of time and energy trying to convince others (usually people like me) that their experiences had actually happened. Stories of racism were met quickly with skepticism and doubt. Accounts of sexist treatment were shouted down as overreactions or exaggerations. Reports of transphobia and discrimination were minimized or rationalized. In response, I made a small but significant behavioral change in the form of an addendum to the experiment’s rules:
“I will believe victims.”
That statement likely seems either painfully obvious or hopelessly naive, depending on who you are. You see, the US criminal justice system necessarily puts the burden of proof on the accuser, and there is a cultural tendency to mimic this at the interpersonal level. Here’s the trick (and it was a revelation to me at the time): I am not the US criminal justice system. I have no obligation to demand proof in order to be sympathetic. My kindness doesn’t need to depend on the removal of all reasonable doubt. If someone says that they were hurt, discriminated against, harassed, assaulted, wronged in any way, I will simply believe them. The justice system demands irrefutable proof because it seeks to punish the guilty. I need not punish a victim by withholding basic human decency until that same mark is met.
As the exercise continued, another observation became unavoidable. There was a startling amount of disagreement within the groups I had previously assumed to be homogeneous. Feminists clashed with a fringe subset that pushed for the exclusion of transgender women. Black activists argued with each other about the usefulness of the protests in Ferguson. Muslims were sharply divided on how to deal with Islamophobia in the face of highly publicized terrorist attacks. It’s embarrassing to say this now, but at the time, these conflicting viewpoints surprised me. I had fallen into an extremely lazy mindset that tends to view the world as largely binary. In my mind, there was my opinion, and there was the singular, other, wrong opinion.
This type of “us versus them” thinking is ubiquitous. You can see it on display in your social network of choice any time the subjects of politics, morality, or religion are breached. There is a temptation to throw out everything a person says based on a single perceived infraction, because it’s far easier to paint every contrary viewpoint with a broad brush than it is to entertain them individually.
Terrifyingly, this mindset often leads us to sometimes behave as if a person’s value is itself binary. If a person meets enough of our own criteria, they have value. If they fall short, they have none. As the danger of this type of thinking began to set in, I made another addendum:
“I will recognize the value of people with whom I disagree.”
The wording here is quite intentional. I don’t get to assign value, because another person’s value isn’t mine to assign. All I can do is choose to recognize their value regardless of how divergent our views may be, and this recognition should inform the way that I treat them. This is admittedly a weak spot for me. It’s difficult to separate a person’s worth from their words, but I feel that it is important to do exactly that.
It became harder and harder to keep my mouth shut as the days went on. I wanted to chime in, to tell these diverse voices that I was listening, that I believed them, that I was one of the “good guys”. Then I watched an exchange where one aspiring ally was chastised for centering himself in a discussion about a particular marginalized group. This man had actually argued in support of the group in question, but had done so clumsily and with the clear expectation that he would be drowned in praise for doing so.
Similar examples popped up over the next few days, situations where someone (typically someone a lot like me) would crash into a conversation uninvited, proudly announce their status as an ally, and demand to be treated as a hero. Sometimes these same people would become indignant or angry when that recognition failed to materialize, even going as far as to threaten to revoke their support. The response from the various marginalized communities was firm and clear. They had no time for allies with strings attached. This informed my third rule amendment:
“I will not expect praise for being kind. Kindness is the bare minimum.”
As I watched the “follow for thirty days” requirement end for the last of the accounts, I paused to reflect. Every one of my opinions on the issues at hand had been challenged, and most had shifted or matured in some way. More importantly, however, was this: The exercise had taught me how to approach a contrary opinion with patience and respect, with curiosity and an intent to learn, with kindness and humanity.
Arrogantly, my mind quickly turned to the ways that I could socialize my experience. Already I was looking for ways to make it about me again. In spite of all of my purposeful listening, my immediate desire was to quickly go back to talking, back to making myself the center of the discussion. The members of these marginalized groups certainly didn’t need a straight white guy like me to storm in and try to make himself the banner carrier for a few behaviors that should rightfully fall under “basic human decency”. I was embarrassed by my hubris.
Additionally, I realized that I had actually been looking forward to the end of the experiment. Being exposed to these diverse voices had been uncomfortable, and I was eager to get back to that world where I didn’t have to hear from them quite so much. You see, I had been thinking about the whole exercise in the wrong way. I had framed it as just a thing I would try, maybe learn something useful, maybe write about it and get a pat on the back, then return to my filter bubble proudly wearing my “Ally” badge. Right from the beginning, I had treated the entire experiment as a temporary measure. It had become clear, however, that the notion of intentional listening needed to stay. I made a final resolution:
“I will make these behaviors permanent.”
The experiment ended, but I continue to apply the wisdom found in those 26 tweets. I will sometimes engage with others on the actual issues, but I still try to listen more than I speak. I’m torn on whether or not I should have even written this article, because it could easily be seen as just another example of a white man making it all about himself.
To the members of the amazingly diverse groups that I’m still learning to understand, you aren’t my audience today. You already knew all of this stuff. You’ve been shouting it for years, begging people like me to hear you. To you, I have only one thing to say: I’m sorry. I’m sorry that I didn’t listen earlier, sorry that I didn’t pay attention, and sorry for the many clumsy missteps I will certainly make in the future.
The people I hope to reach today are those that are still sitting comfortably in their filter bubbles. If the person described in the opening paragraph of this article seems oddly familiar to you, then I encourage you to break out of your echo chamber. Read over Marco Rogers’ tweets at the link above. Find your own ways to consume more diverse opinions and viewpoints. Listen to them, not me. I’m not the expert. I’m just learning to listen.