Facebook won’t change your mind, but books might

It can be hard to listen to someone whose opinion you don’t agree with. Infuriating, even.

Imagine listening to that opinion daily for up to two months, without having the opportunity to respond.

This is essentially what happens when you read a book espousing a viewpoint which conflicts with your own. And it is exactly what I am struggling with as I read Atlas Shrugged. I am only a third of the way through this huge tome, but considering giving up, as I find the premise of the book and the main character’s outlook to conflict so strongly with my own views. The book’s heroine, Dagny Taggart, is a railway executive who believes that profit and productivity make the world go around; she scorns the weak, loathes the down-at-luck and has no patience for her socially-minded, but less driven, brother.  The book glorifies corporate CEOs while demonising government, journalists, employees and the poor.

It is a world view that is hard to be exposed to each time I pick up the book. Yet, as much I want to put it aside and pick up one better aligned with my ideology, I wonder whether doing this would be a sign of my own closed-mindedness and inability to listen to those whose views differ from my own.

The tendency to ignore contrary opinions, whether in fiction, politics or the media, is a dangerous one. But while it can be frustrating to read books or listen to politicians or commentators with ideologies that diverge from our own, by surrounding ourselves with those who share our views, are we reinforcing our own prejudices and biases, making us ignorant of the bigger picture?

This question is more pertinent now than ever, as social media drives users to gather with like-minded consorts, sharing their own narrow viewpoints, whether politically right or left-leaning. Commentators have referred to ideological silos or digital echo chambers, in which those with similar beliefs gather and share information, solidifying their own views and limiting exposure to contrary opinions.

A study by researchers from Boston University and various Italian institutions found that Facebook users “tend to aggregate in communities of interest, which causes reinforcement and fosters confirmation bias, segregation, and polarisation.” This polarisation of political views was noted in research by the Pew Research Center in the US, which found about 63% of consistent conservatives and 49% of consistent liberals reported most of their close friends shared their political views, compared with just 35% among the public as a whole.

Writer and entrepreneur Tom Steinberg provided an example of this effect when he posted on Facebook post following the UK Brexit vote: “I am actively searching through Facebook for people celebrating the Brexit leave victory, but the filter bubble is SO strong, and extends SO far into things like Facebook’s custom search that I can’t find anyone who is happy despite the fact that over half the country is clearly jubilant today and despite the fact that I’m actively looking to hear what they are saying.”

I know that my own Facebook feed is replete with those who share my views, and I am rarely exposed to a counter argument on issues of political interest. This segregation makes it hard to hear, let alone, understand, contrary viewpoints. My ideas and thoughts are increasingly left unchallenged, as like many others, I also read the newspapers that align with my ideology.

I am reminded of George Eliot’s quote in Middlemarch, “It is a narrow mind which cannot look at a subject from various points of view.”

And so, in some small way, since starting Atlas Shrugged I have found myself better understanding alternative perspectives. For the first time, I feel I have an understanding of the frustration of those who build, create and strive, only to see others do very little, and expect some of the same rewards. While I still might not agree with Ayn Rand’s outlook, I can understand a little better the sense of purpose of those who value work and productivity so highly and at the expense of other pursuits.

While books that align with my ideology are enjoyable, and have helped me cement my views and outlook, Atlas Shrugged has gone much further in achieving one of literature’s purposes, as experimental psychologist and author Steven Pinker articulated,

“Reading is a technology for perspective-taking. When someone else’s thoughts are in your head, you are observing the world from that person’s vantage point.”

It might not be as enjoyable and validating as having our own views confirmed in fiction, in the newspaper or on television, but it can be far more valuable to immerse ourselves in an alternative way of thinking. So, pepper your Waleed Aly with Andrew Bolt. Listen to both Malcolm and Bill, Hillary and your Dona … no, that’s going too far.

For, as philosopher Bertrand Russell said, “In all affairs it’s a healthy thing now and then to hang a question mark on the things you have long taken for granted.”

And even if it doesn’t make you change your mind, it will help you defend your own viewpoint when you properly understand the opposing one.

Books to confirm or test your idealogy:

  • Animal Farm or 1984, George Orwell
  • Fountainhead or Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand
  • The Bonfire of the Vanities, Tom Wolfe
  • Crime and Punishment, Fyodor Dostoyevsky
  • Oliver Twist, Charles Dickens
  • To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee
  • Cat’s Cradle, Kurt VonnegutNote:
  • Atlas Shrugged, written in 1957, is renowned for its pro-capitalism views, containing Ayn Rand’s most extensive statement of Objectivism. Rand coined the term Objectivism, embodied in her depiction in Atlas Shrugged of the ideal man, the producer who lives by his own effort and does not give or receive the undeserved, who honours achievement and rejects envy.

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