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Echo chambers

Last year in May, I returned to my hometown of Mechanicsville, Virginia, for the first extended amount of time since I had left for college.  Mechanicsville is a small town only about 30 minutes outside of Richmond, but is far from “urban.”  The Mechanicsville Tea Party is the most prominent political group, as anyone passing through could probably guess based on the large, bright yellow signs placed along the roads that feature phrases like “Socialism: an equal share of less; Capitalism: prosperity for those who WORK.”  My town’s biggest event each year was the Hanover Tomato Festival. The last time I attended, I counted 12 confederate flags.  

I’d been the token liberal of my high school—always getting into Twitter fights (yes, we used Twitter at my high school) during presidential debates, always interviewed as the “different perspective” in the school newspaper.  Duke, as you can imagine, was a bit of a culture shock for me. Never before had I been surrounded by so many people who agreed so wholeheartedly with my political beliefs.  I became very comfortable in the little liberal bubble that Duke’s campus creates. I openly cried when Trump was elected, and was surrounded by peers and other members of the Duke community who felt similarly. I had the “How did this happen?” post-election conversation in my classes, with my friends, with everyone around me, because so many of us felt the same way. And I genuinely was confused. How could Trump have been elected president of the U.S.?

Only when I returned home last May was I reminded that I’d known the answer all along. After being back in Mechanicsville after almost a year immersed in the Duke bubble, aspects of my hometown culture struck me in a way that they hadn’t in high school. Many of my friends and their families had southern accents. Those Mechanicsville Tea Party signs, those confederate flags and what they stood for, outraged me much more than they had before. Probably about half of my high school graduating class hadn’t gone to a four-year university, but had stayed in Mechanicsville, working or attending community college. The reason these things suddenly stuck out so much more to me was because these aspects, while prominent in my hometown, were not at all reflected at Duke. I hadn’t heard a southern accent, seen a confederate flag or interacted with anyone not attending a four-year university during the entirety of my freshman year of college.

As you can probably guess, Mechanicsville voted in vast majority for Trump. So why, even after growing up in a place like Mechanicsville, was I so blindsided and confused when Trump was elected?

Being at Duke during the buildup and aftermath of the presidential election had allowed me to become blind to a large population with which I had been intimately familiar my whole life.  Some of you may be thinking, so what? There were confederate flags in your town—isn’t that sometime you want to forget?  

In short, no, it is not.

I’m extremely grateful for having grown up in Mechanicsville, as it’s provided me with an experience I’m not sure many Duke students have encountered. As outraged and frustrated as I became in high school for the offensive comments people in my community sometimes made, I appreciated the controversy and the ways it pushed me to define my convictions. By the time I had graduated high school, I felt secure in my beliefs and values simply because I had to defend them on a regular basis during my high school years.  

Many of my conservative classmates were extremely intelligent and educated individuals who absolutely could hold their own during a debate. I still consider some of the discussions I had with my high school classmates to be some of the most thorough and important political conversations of my education. They challenged my beliefs, and I hope I challenged theirs. But most importantly, we gave each other insight into why the other believed the things they did. Since we all went our different ways post-graduation, I have had multiple high school friends contact me to tell me that they are so appreciative for those conversations we’d had because going to college had illustrated just how limited the Mechanicsville community is in its opinions and beliefs.  Many of them mentioned how those debates we’d had were the first time they’d ever been exposed to a different political opinion or perspective, which allowed them to better participate when those topics were brought up in their college classes and social circles.

This past summer, while working in San Francisco, I experienced the same deprivation of political diversity—but at the other end of the spectrum. Talking about my high school experience and Mechanicsville’s political makeup was a popular party conversation for me. The people I met simply couldn’t believe the stories I told about confederate flags, the Tea Party, banned books and so on. I often found myself playing devil’s advocate in political conversations, just because there was no one else in the room to provide a more conservative perspective. Conservatism was as foreign a concept in San Francisco as progressivism was in Mechanicsville.  

While Duke is probably a little less homogenous in political thought than Mechanicsville or San Francisco, we still live in a bubble here. And that’s dangerous. Because at the end of the day, one of my former classmates has the same right to vote as one of my fellow Duke students. Yet it’s rare that those two individuals would ever interact, because each resides in his or her own echo chamber.

When we live in an echo chamber, we never get the opportunity to understand the other side or to defend our own. We’re never pushed to substantiate not just what we believe, but also why we believe it. We’re never forced to test how our theories hold in challenging real-life scenarios. Physical conversations that would benefit all participants just don’t take place. In the best case scenario, we’re ignorant; in the worst, we’re completely blindsided by the outcome of the presidential election. In both scenarios, we’re failing to make progress in a country where one of the main pillars of our democracy is that we make decisions through the expression of a majority.  

I am not advocating for a multitude of Trump supporters to enter Duke’s campus simply for the sake of conversation, but I do sometimes wonder what my high school education—regardless of its flaws—provided me with that my Duke education simply does not. Are we cheating ourselves by self-segregating into these echo chambers? What perspectives are we ignoring? What conversations are we hindering? Dialogue requires two sides; echo chambers, by nature, have only one.

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