In 1966, Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann wrote a groundbreaking book on the sociology of knowledge called “The Social Construction of Reality.” The idea behind the book was that our worldview is largely determined by our social milieu, our social context. People who are raised in Islamic cultures turn out to have a Muslim worldview, people who are raised as Catholics largely have a Catholic worldview, etc. I have found this to be true in my own life.
I was raised in a working class, union household and my father’s worldview was both Christian and conservative Democrat. I remember that I was the only kid in High School who supported Lyndon Johnson for President over Barry Goldwater in 1964 (my High School was solidly conservative Republicans, but I didn’t have many friends, so my family commitments trumped my friendship commitments).
In the ensuing years of the 1960s, my friends were largely counter-cultural hippie types, and by 1968-69, I broke with my family values and moved further to the left, protesting the Vietnam War and eventually joining the Trotskyite Socialist Worker’s Party in Providence, Rhode Island. Che Guevara was my hero (hey, Churchill said that if a young man was never a socialist, he has no heart!).
After I returned to the university to earn a master’s in Latin American studies, I began to be exposed to more liberal thinking again. I tried to think critically, and keep myself as unbiased as possible. By the time I earned a PhD in Latin American history (and had gone through the death of my wife and seven years of struggle with cancer), I distanced myself from the reflexive and uncritical conservatism of my life-long Christian friends, and had developed a large network of liberal friends, both GenXer’s and Millennials as well as Baby Boomer professors. My new friends influenced my thinking profoundly, but instead of swinging radically again to the left, I tried to balance my views by maintaining the conversation with many of my conservative friends, especially those who are thoughtful, reasonable and open to considering new ideas.
I confess I am an avid networker; I am constantly making new friends and I love a good conversation! But at the same time, I am very loyal to long lasting friendships. So it was that I found myself in the last few years with a unique opportunity to maintain dialogue on national and world issues with both conservative and liberal friends. A few years ago, I went through my 1200 “friends” list on Facebook and counted how many liberal and conservative friends I have as FB "friends" (I also confess, I do not view Facebook as a medium for “friendship”; I see it as more of a contact database).
It turns out that my Facebook friends list broke down to about a 55/45 split between liberals and conservatives, although enough conservatives have “unfriended” me (or I, them) that it is now closer to 60/40. This has given me a unique opportunity to engage both sides of the severely polarized ideological divide in civil (for the most part) discourse. I think this is strength and a blessing for me that helps me avoid partisan thinking and helps me maintain a relatively unbiased critical thinking. In other words, I can see both sides of most issues with help from my conservative and liberal friends. On some issues (especially social issues) I find myself thoughtfully coming down on the more liberal side. On others (especially fiscal issues) I lean toward a conservative or libertarian view. On military issues, I have returned to my non-militaristic, peacemaking Quaker roots.
If you have hung in there with me this far dear reader, please bear with me two more paragraphs--here comes the punchline!
What concerns me the most is that the majority of my liberal friends do not have any conservative friends at all. The same is true for my conservative friends. They have isolated themselves into a conservative Christian ideological ghetto. Conservatives listen to Rush Limbaugh, Scott Hannity and watch Fox News and Bill O’Reilly. Liberals watch MSNBC News and enjoy the biting social commentary of Jon Stewart and social satire of Steven Colbert, and Bill Maher. In other words, Conservative and Liberals have locked themselves into self-reinforcing information feedback loops and get no external input that seriously challenges their worldviews. There are two totally opposing perceptions of reality that have been constructed and never the twain shall meet.
This is not good for our democracy or for the future of our civil discourse. I would like to suggest a thought experiment. If you are a Liberal, go through your Facebook friends list and count how many conservatives are reading your posts (if any). Do the same if you are a Conservative. If you are opposed to gay marriage, do you have any gay friends? If you are in favor of higher taxes for social spending, do you have any friends who are small business owners and entrepreneurs? I would suggest that you need both conservative and liberal voices in your life to keep you relatively unbiased (absolute freedom from bias is probably not possible) and allow you to find and plant yourself the reasonable middle ("Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall have their eyes clawed out" ~ Bible teacher Bob Mumford). Moderation has become an extreme point of view in our current discourse and moderates are excoriated by both sides of the ideological spectrum in current policy debates. In other words, if you value yourself as an “unbiased critical thinker,” then get some new friends (and by all means, keep the old friends!) The future of our Republic may depend upon it!
Heed the ancient wisdom which says: "love bears all things."