Escape Your Echo Chamber (Or, Let’s Agree to Disagree, Part 2)

Note to the reader: This piece is the second of a two-part series originally written for my subscribers. To get more stories, essays, notes from my travels and more, sign up for my no-junk, all-love, fortnightly newsletter.

In 1969, Christmas in Cuba was canceled.

Universities were empty. Factory lines were dormant. Baseball fields were hollow of players and fans. Even government offices were vacant. Grainy black and white footage from the time shows messages on classroom chalkboards and signs hung in office windows:

“Everyone to the sugar plantations!” 
“Down in one fell swoop!”

Almost the entire working population of Cuba was called upon for an ambitious state-mandated goal to produce the most sugar that the island nation ever had.

Booming with national pride and the hope to signal socialism’s economic might, The Ten Million Ton Sugar Harvest (La Zafra de los Diez Milloneswas a socialist policy orchestrated by Fidel Castro and the Communist regime.

The program was years in the making: by unifying collective willpower and treating the harvest like a military operation, the government hoped to drum up patriotic pride to produce a huge amount of sugar, all to bolster the national economy.

The people responded. They were excited. It was a cause to be enamored by. Everyone was on board.

But the Zafra failed.

Worse than not harvesting its target goal of sugarcane, the unified, collective effort actually had an unforeseen consequence:

It brought the entire Cuban economy to a halt.

The function of government had all but stopped. Thousands of students were delayed in finishing their degrees. Even sugar fields themselves were damaged for years to come since most volunteers didn’t know how to properly harvest the crop.

Some say Cuba has never recovered from the blunder.

Let’s Agree to Disagree, Part Two

If you didn’t know the outcome of the Zafra, you’d think it was brilliant plan with an inspired approach:

“Here’s a problem, so how do we get everyone on board to help solve it?”

Something similar actually sounds somewhat appealing in the modern United States. Just imagine. A collective course of action toward a single, agreed upon, patriotic goal? In an age of rabid division and political gridlock, it sounds like a pipe-dream. It sounds like something to really believe in.

The Zafra failed, but it was not a “good idea” gone wrong.

It was a bad idea that too many people agreed to. 

(Of course, in Cuba, citizens didn’t have a say in the matter. Even peers to Fidel had good reason to fear for their lives if they disagreed with him.)

Disagreement of any sort could have saved Cuba from its economic implosion. At the very least, if Cuba hadn’t made such a risky gamble, the failure of the sugar harvest could have been much less dramatic. It would have been like diversifying your investments portfolio: even a big knock doesn’t become a fatal financial blow.

In the realm of politics (and in your personal life), disagreement has a function: it inspires “diversity” in the portfolio of your opinions and ideas.

When disagreement is welcomed as a form of diversifying what’s known, what’s believed, and what’s chosen, it can create beautiful new realities:

  • The only way to do something that’s “never been done before” is to disagree with how it’s always been done. Innovations and advancements are born.
  • Disagreement with the status quo, with power holders, with presumptions and with prejudice is what breeds social and emotional progress.
  • Even in personal relationships, disagreements “done right” can encourage healthy communication, build rapport, and create deepening levels of trust.

But in a time of rabid political disagreements – where social media can feel assaulting, and discussions with friends and family feel like crossing a field of landmines – how do we disagree productively?

Is it even really possible?

The answer is yes. It begins by allowing your own opinions and ideas to be disagreed with…

…and not turning into Fidel Castro in response.

Escape Your Echo Chamber

A few weeks ago, I told you the story of my friend Alex and his counterpart who, since December, have been locked into an epic, sprawling email-debate on politics, religion and morality. It all started with a single message. Neither guy can persuade the other, and it’s as if they’ve given up trying.

So why are they still doing it?

I can only speculate, but it seems as though each guy is finding value in allowing disagreement into their portfolio of ideas and opinions.

This is a lot easier said than done nowadays. In a divided time, it’s rare to have political debates governed in civil ways. Places like Facebook have become more like divisive battlegrounds. Expressing an opinion, especially of a political kind, opens the door to bombarding disagreements, misunderstandings, or outright trolling.

What do most of us tend to do?

We block disagreements. We shun opinions we don’t believe in. We un-friend people who can’t seem to stop plastering their opinions on social media, unsubscribe from newsletters, turn off podcasts and effectively silo ourselves into convenient little echo chambers that reinforce our beliefs, opinions and ideas.

Who, really, can be blamed for that kind of reaction? 

And what is wrong with it? 

The problematic risk, the unforeseen consequence, is this:

The diversity in our “portfolio of ideas and opinions” becomes more like the Zafra — a singular point of view, an all-in bet on what we already believe “works” and “is right.”

Living in an echo chamber of one’s own beliefs and ideas falsely reinforces a notion that everyone everywhere already agrees with us. If we’re never exposed to opposing points of view, we’re never challenged to defend what we believe.

And if we’re never challenged to question our own beliefs, are they really “ours,” at all?

Do we own them if we have not chosen them – if we have not doubted them?

Or do those beliefs actually own us?

Why do you believe what you believe?

Is the best defense to be mustered, “Well, because!”?

As a former politically-rabid dude in my younger years, you don’t need to tell me: when disagreements seem so angry all the time, it’s almost impossible for disagreement to feel anything but personal. It feels totally assaulting.

And I’m not suggesting you join your local debate club, or take your mother-in-law to task on her voting record, or start to verbally battle folks in Facebook debates.

I want to gently challenge you (as I try to challenge myself) to let some outside opinions into your world — particularly when you feel the space, comfort, and inner strength to entertain them, consider them, ponder them, and sit with them.

Here are three simple ways you might allow some disagreement into your own world.

And, in totally non-confrontational ways:

If disagreement breeds empathy or compassion or understanding – however small an amount– then disagreement is no longer the stuff that sets us apart. If we can understand the other’s point of view, somehow, then disagreements of opinion can genuinely be what keep us together.

Even if disagreement is the outcome, we ought to at least be able to come to some form of understanding for the other’s point of view – and empathize with their human need, their human desire.

In certain fields, disagreements breed evolution, innovation, and creative solutions.

In our everyday lives, disagreements are opportunities to cultivate empathy, compassion and understanding.

If the outcome means we’re less siloed off from one another, we all win.

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