Debating to Break the Echo Chamber

The Santa Monica Debate Team displays their various awards they have won this semester including team awards for third place at PSCFA Spring Championships and silver at Phi Rho Pi (National Champions) at the Letters and Science Building in the Santa Monica College campus in Santa Monica Calif. on May 11, 2017. (Marisa Vasquez)

My name is Matthew Linsky and I have something important to say: joining the Santa Monica College Speech and Debate Team has been the best academic decision I ever made. Without it, I sincerely doubt I would have been granted entry to Columbia University. Through practice and competition, I sharpened my critical thinking and oratory skills, made lifelong friends who span across the state and country and have expanded my ability to understand our differences, of which there are many.

Speaking of personal differences, there are plenty of them throughout the SMC debate team. At face value, many of these differences seem irreconcilable and conducive to con ict. Take, for example, Benjamin Kolodny. While I doubt that the typical SMC student knows him by name, I’m certain that most of us know who he is: he’s the bearded gentlemen who walks bandy throughout town wearing liberal-triggering apparel such as t-shirts that read “Socialism Sucks” and “Enjoy Capitalism.” He hasn’t yet worn his “Make America Great Again” hat on campus, and I hope he never will, not because of my disagreements with his personal politics but because I fear, for his sake, the backlash he’d receive from a collection of people who are far more willing to judge him for his apparel than they would be to listen to why he believes what he does.

I must admit, when I first met Benjamin, I was all too willing to judge. Had we not been paired up as debate partners, I wouldn’t have made my most startling discovery: that our seemingly irreconcilable political differences are rooted in extremely similar senses of morality.

This revelation manifested itself during the final round of the regional championships whereby Benjamin and myself were pitted against more seasoned competitors from UCLA and Point Loma. The resolution we were set to debate did not jibe with my own personal beliefs. The best available argument I could think of was rooted in modern libertarian philosophy, a mode of political thought which I tended to reject with expedience and force. But, however great my distaste for libertarianism may have been, my desire to win superseded, not just for myself, but for my school, my teammates, and for Benjamin, my debate partner. These desires not only gave way to victory, but to a further understanding of a legitimate worldview which I previously rejected out of spite. But for this, I sincerely doubt that I would have had the opportunity to achieve the level of personal growth, which I did.

All of this begs the question: why does Benjamin Kolodny, the vice president of the conservative club, Turning Point, and staunch Libertarian activist believe in what he does? Benjamin said, ”My philosophy boils down to this: don't hit people and don't take their stuff. If it's wrong for me to take other people’s money or stop them from making life choices that don't violate other people’s rights, then it's wrong for the government to do so as well.”

Though I disagree with Benjamin’s overall political philosophy, I do agree with its core components. Hitting people is bad, corruption is bad, and stealing is bad. On these core principles, we can agree wholeheartedly, which allows us to turn our conversations to more pressing matters, such as how our different political philosophies can be integrated with each other towards bettering society as a whole.

Now, I don’t think I’m speaking out of turn when I say that we are in the midst of a growing political chasm, not only in this country but on our campus as well. And as the divide spreads, the likelihood of each of us falling into the bottomless cavern of bipartisan conflict grows with each fissure. And the quakes are compounding.

But in the face of these ground-shaking disturbances, I must appeal to you all: in a world where alternative fact propagates as if it were pollen in the spring, the ability to decipher truth is paramount -- equally so is the proclivity for applying such truths with responsibility and care. The aptitudes for both truth and reason are not exclusive to race, gender, ethnicity, age, sex, or even political affiliation. In this regard, we are all equal. However, the same can be said about our attitudes for both falsehood and blinded passion.

These phenomena manifested in modernity in a variety of ways, and with the level of communicative options being what they are, by and large, we are all able to seek out those opinions which are most similar to our own. This brand of confirmation bias, dubbed “the echo chamber effect” by psychology professor Nicholas DiFonzo in 2011, perpetuates and undergirds successful actions of those on the far right, such as wackadoo-conspiracy-theorist-disguised-as-legitimate-pundit Alex Jones, and also the far left, whereby a movement taking root in Berkeley, CA has so willingly integrated fascist political philosophy in their attempts to become the Word Police.

For those of us in the middle, the presentation of such diametrically opposing options seems like a forced choice: either you’re with them or against them. But this is a dangerous oversimplification which ignores the most human opportunity before our eyes: the chance to empathize and understand. Regardless of whether you ultimately agree with a person with whom you initially approach with profound philosophical pugilism, by attempting to uncover the truths upon which they base their beliefs, you will broaden your own.

But, should you refuse to attempt to understand, if you are pulled into the current of the echo chamber, you become just another voice bouncing off the walls with reckless abandon. Through accepting your place within the echo chamber, you perpetuate its cycle. By becoming one with the echo chamber, you validate its existence as legitimate, not just for your side, but for the other as well. What a shame it will be that you’ll never know the difference.

However, if you choose to seek the middle path – if you wish to understand the truths of others, however different they may be, I sincerely urge that you consider joining the SMC debate team, for not only will it serve to enhance your mind, but your heart as well.