the echo chamber

part of Post-ISO Reflections: Essays and proposals on democracy and organization

Possibly short entry — there is a problem in virtually every organization I have witnessed.

People are too uncritical of the leadership.

This defines literally every aspect of American society, whether we’re talking about religion, unions, political parties, etc.  The only leadership people seem to be fortunately critical of is the “leaders” of companies, ie wealthy CEOs, but even those still have their fan cults.

Of course it extends into other problems.  Not only are people too uncritical of the leadership, but they also fail to lead themselves — they rely on the leadership to take any initiative, and initiating action on their own is something that either doesn’t occur to most people or they are just terrified of.

However even all of that doesn’t touch the worst part of most people’s behavior in regards to leaders.  The worst part is when people uncritically repeat what the leadership says.

The funny thing is that people who do this will insist that actually they do not; they will insist that they are thinking for themselves, and that the leadership just always seems to have good ideas.  The problem is that these people never really check to listen to anything else.  Perhaps people’s minds have been closed by the fact that truly there is shit everywhere; capitalist culture has a deficit of good ideas, and the Left often isn’t stellar either.  However you don’t need to become closed-minded to remain a dedicated radical leftist.  The more you explore, the more you will probably find out that overall orientation is correct.  But the more you explore, the more you might find something that contradicts the party line of a group’s leadership.

This echo chamber effect really destroys the democracy in an organization, and it’s not even necessarily the leadership’s fault.  Really it’s the fault of the people who do it.  The thing about cults is that they don’t need to be formed intentionally; really they are the result of an emerging set of behaviors within a group.

The problem is that every debate begins already stacked.  If you have a room of 100 people, and every time the leadership speaks without fail there will be 30 or 40 people who line up to make supportive statements of almost anything said, it’s impossible for democracy to function.  No honest conversation can be had.  The body is robbed of its content as a deliberative voting body and becomes instead a rubber-stamping chamber.  The sad truth is that typically it will be more like anywhere from 50-85%, not 40%.

Then there is the hideous inversion: it’s not just the leadership supported, but dissenters are also swarmed.  So with the same scenario above, with a room of 100 people, if anything critical is said of the current course of action, or of statements by the leadership, then you will automatically get 30-40% of a group immediately attacking that person’s statement, and probably insinuating things beyond any kind of real factual argument, such as suggestions that the disagreement is not even appropriate to raise, or implications that the person’s statement suggests a lack of dedication, etc.

Again the percentage may actually be far worse — dissenters may have practically everyone aligned against them — but it only takes 30-40% of people acting like parrots to ruin an organization.

Does disagreeing with some statement made by the leadership make you a “bad member?”  Well, it depends.  In top-down organizations based on a downward flow of control, yes it absolutely does.  Your job as a member is to do what you’re told, and to agree with everything.  In a bottom-up organization, or one without any clear leaders, it would make you simply a person with an opinion.

The sad thing is when you learn, through brutal practice, that organizations which are supposed to be bottom-up turn out to be top-down.  Or worse, they’re not even particularly top-down, but simply full of clones who instinctually attack anything not “aligned” with the group, or the leadership, and habitually repeat not even the leadership’s ideas, but what they assume the leadership’s ideas must be, often to humorous results of people suddenly changing their opinions when they find out what the leaders actually believe.

People should step back and think for themselves!  When a new issue emerges, over which no clear consensus or leadership direction has formed, don’t wonder what other people will think.  Figure out what you think!  And speak up about it!

People who disagree in echo chamber organizations face lots of negative consequences.

  • People who disagree lose the social support of the group — friendliness vanishes, which is actually just as critical as ideology to sustaining an organization made of humans
  • Not only do dissenters lose the social support of the group, but they lose it disproportionately — the group majority forgets that they still have so many commonalities, and just a few differences
  • Groups aren’t just characterized by their formal conversations, but actually moreso by their unstructured “chatter,” in which the worst hostility will emerge
  • People who disagree face personal attacks
  • People who disagree face a bias that they are probably incorrect, before their arguments are even heard
  • The leadership enjoys a bias of being deemed probably correct, without the content of their statements being critically examined

Is there a set of formal rules that can overcome the toxic group culture of the echo chamber?  Maybe.  But what we can do now is be conscious of the problem, change our own behaviors

  • Listen to strange ideas with a fresh mind
  • Listen to people who aren’t leaders
  • If you disagree with something, try to understand what they are saying before you jump down their throat and look for holes in it
  • When a new idea is attacked, ask yourself if there is good underlying content which the attack is distracting from
  • Sympathize with people who say seemingly odd things, because if you haven’t heard an idea before, that means it has not yet been internalized into the leadership’s homogeneous ideology, so they must be thinking for themselves, which is admirable
  • Recognize that alternate perspectives may be poorly-formed, not because they are wrong, but because the people stating them lack the resources to spend time on perfecting their articulation, unlike leaders who are sometimes paid to do this
  • Foster a culture in which all people are free and welcome formulate ideas about where the group is headed or what it is doing, instead of considering that activity the leaders’ job
  • Encourage a culture where people are encouraged to “talk their thoughts out” without them needing to be perfect; don’t immediately attack half-developed thoughts

One thing to keep in mind is that sometimes dissenters can end up imitating all the ugly habits listed above, meaning that the group hasn’t been fixed, but simply that the larger cult has developed an oppositional cult inside itself.

We can do better than that.  We have to.

We have to believe in deliberative democracy.  We have to go into conversations with a willingness to have our own opinions changed by the things we hear and learn.

We can build a movement where there is no fear of being wrong, no fear of saying the wrong thing, and no fear of crossing some invisible line, but where people fight for a better world, talk, disagree, and make decisions in the healthy open air of truly free conversation.

4 thoughts on “the echo chamber

  1. A could start, but probably insufficient – everyone following the leaders will justify their obedience by saying that they are thinking for themselves.

    an organizational rule that actually displays respect for open conversation: STOP THE GROUP VOTES ABIUT WHAT EVERYONE WILL DO. Instead, each person should decide what they will do, then a group poll should be taken. If re-self-voting and repolling is desirable (say, because everyone recognizes that both of two alternative strategies will fail if only half the people self-voting participate in either strategy), then people can decide how they want to resolve the impasse created by an evenly split room (by conceding their support to their second-choice strategy, or not)

    • I’m not for throwing democracy out entirely, but in practice I do often believe in “vote with your feet.”

      The practice I bring to things is to feel out whether people want a decision to be anarchic or majority rule. Some circumstances require centralism, and some do not.

      • Of course, it depends the circumstances, as no one way is intrinsically superior, and each is simply to be judged by its utility.

        However, as you note, “vote with your feet” seems appropriate for the majority of situations you actually encounter. Thus, it seems the assumption should be no democracy unless there is some specific need (and there never really will be because when will you actually need to prevent people from doing what they feel they should — how would this even be prevented? — and there’s hardly any reason to disassociate with people beyond what already occurs when two peoples’ feet lead them in different directions)

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