Echo chambers are considered by many to be the bane of intellectual thought. They dominated the news cycle after the 2016 United States presidential elections, with headline after headline blaring that echo chambers (along with fake news and Russian intervention) were partly responsible for costing Democrats the vote. Leftists, liberals, and millennials alike were blamed for the creation of “safe spaces” in polls, magazines and Internet comment sections, blinding themselves to the popularity of Donald Trump against opponent Hilary Clinton. They were blindsided because they’d secluded themselves away in worlds of their own making, left bewildered to the idea of huge swaths of the population identifying with, and voting for, a racist, sexist demagogue like Donald Trump.
And in a way, the Deplorables were right when they sneered gleefully that the Democratic Party had shot itself in the foot by locking themselves away in ivory towers – or swamps, as it may be. Because the only way to have been completely shocked by the election results, and later on, by the waves of chaos and discontent sweeping across the nation, is to have been asleep for the past two years, at least. Black Lives Matter began in 2014, after the shooting death of Ferguson, Missouri teenager Michael Brown; the murder of Trayvon Martin occurred two years before that, in 2012.
Black Americans that had been protesting for years saw the very real threat of Trump, and turned out to vote for Hillary Clinton: 88% overall versus 8% for Trump. Latinx groups aghast at his claims that all Mexicans were rapists and his insistence on building a wall did essentially the same: 65% overall versus 29% for Trump. Millions of the marginalized took his threats seriously. Yet there was never a blind support of Clinton either, as huge swaths of the “liberal millennial” population (Black women activists especially) openly questioned her role in mass incarceration on the campaign trail. Black male Democrat Keith Ellison also spoke out on panel after panel about the large possibility of Trump winning the election off of the strength of the Rust Belt vote; his fellow panelists, white Democrats, openly laughed at him.
So who, exactly, was able to view him as a joke? Who were the ones so wholly sequestered that they didn’t see what was coming, until it smacked them in the face and then moved into the Oval Office?
Echo chambers are, in fact, indicators of privilege. For marginalized groups, those seen as “lesser” for race, gender, sexual orientation, et al., there is no hiding from the opinions and beliefs of others. As a racial minority, for example, it is practically impossible for me to escape the overwhelming majority of whiteness, even in self-created “safe spaces.” The wary, often suspect gaze of the majority is ongoing and invasive, and for many of us is an overwhelming, all-encompassing presence. We often discuss echo chambers as something to be avoided because they blind us from reality, but for certain disadvantaged subsets of the population they actually don’t exist at all.
The very concept of an echo chamber revolves around the idea of being able to completely shut out that which you do not want to hear. However, can a marginalized group truly completely shut out the opinion of the majority? Even the most enterprising of algorithms can’t block out a Confederate flag in a store or a statue of a general; they can’t mask a sniggering insult tossed out from under the breath of a salesclerk or a racial and gendered slur out of a car window. So if you are so able to completely block out opinions differ from yours, to the point where those countering opinions no longer exist — and to the point where you are completely shocked by those differing opinions — does that not imply privilege?
If you are only faced with differing belief systems in platforms that you can control — settings that can be switched on or off, in places where you can log off, turn off, or delete in order to create a vacuum-tight echo chamber of your own — then you are privileged. If opinions are relegated to just that, mere opinions, and you have no worry about them impacting your daily life (i.e. wondering if you were passed over for that job because you’re a woman, or questioning if you lost that apartment because you’re Black), then you are privileged. When we say that echo chambers blinded people to the truth, we are talking about the privileged. Safe spaces for marginalized groups do not exist. And the very argument that echo chambers somehow coddle minorities and the marginalized is a smokescreen of obfuscation.
Feature Image illustration by Christophe Vorlet
Seren Sensei (@seren_sensei) is an activist, writer, cultural critic and new media maker. Focusing on finding the bonds between race, politics, and pop culture, she creates race-based video content and also released her first book, entitled So, About That… A Year of Contemporary Essays on Race and Pop Culture, in 2015. She was a 2016-2017 fellow for at land’s edge, an art and activism fellowship program in Los Angeles, and her work has been exhibited in the art space human resources la as well as the Vincent Price Art Museum.