by Kevin Currie-Knight
I like to think that I’m a pretty distinct individual; that my thought is not easily swayed by the company I keep; and that I am relatively immune to thought bubbles. However, the year 2020 taught me not only that this is less true than I had thought, but also how hard [interesting and challenging, but hard] it is to resist being swayed by thought bubbles. Going it alone is hard, but 2020 has made me aspire to doing so.
I’ll frame this article as a story; part personal reflection and part analysis. I’ll be deliberately vague, because my intent is not to gossip but to describe what it was like for me to travel from the inside to the outside of a thought bubble, and what I learned from the journey. This story may seem trivial, and I suppose that part of my point in telling it is that what seems trivial can often have an outsized effect. Belonging to a group of like-minded people committed to a cause feels affirming and provides the kind of electricity that sparked by a strengthening conviction. Losing this proved harder – but more formative – than I originally thought.
During the first half of 2020, I was in my second year of participation in a 501c3 organization devoted to education and activism around a particular cause.  I contributed articles to this group’s online magazine and had recently attained a leadership position. As a relatively new member of the leadership team, I was invited into policy and strategy sessions. At one of them, I was asked for my opinion on a particular policy question: whether we should endorse and promote a particular film directly related to our cause. Two members of the group believed that certain aspects of the film could be interpreted in a racist way. My opinion was that while I could see how they got that interpretation, a non-racist interpretation of the film seemed much more likely and obvious. [I didn’t think of it at the time, but a discussion in which we participated after a screening of the film had three non-white panelists, and none of them seemed to find that this film was racist.]
The opinion I had offered regarding the film apparently was so wrong that it set off a strange chain of events. First, some long standing members of the leadership team resigned from the group and named me as a contributing factor in their resignation letter. As I gather, this led to internal discussions [to which I was not invited] devoted to determining what to do in order to get these members back. Apparently, however, all the discussion accomplished was more resignations.
It was made clear to me that my presence in the group would no longer be tolerated by its remaining members, so I went ahead and resigned myself. I tried to remain involved with other parts of the organization unrelated to leadership, but I was told that before I could be permitted to do that, I would need to prove that I understood why my opinion on the film was wrong and explain what I was doing to move in the right direction. Not having that, I left the group entirely. Not long after, every article I’d published for the group’s magazine was retroactively removed, with neither my knowledge nor my consent.
C. Thi. Nguyen makes a pertinent distinction between two types of insular groups: epistemic bubbles and echo-chambers. Both are types of homogenous groups where members reinforce the opinions held in common by group members in a way resembling a ratchet effect. The difference, Nguyen writes, is in how they deal with dissent. An epistemic bubble is more like a network of like-minded friends on social media. Here, homogeneity is achieved by selection [those who join the network are likely of similar mind to current members] and attrition [dissenting members are not likely to last long]. In echo-chambers, however, homogeneity is also attained by finding ways to actively discredit dissenting voices. “Don’t listen to liberal news media. It is a propaganda arm for the Democratic Party!” “Don’t listen to critics; they just hate that we have our finger on the truth!”
Was I part of an epistemic bubble or an echo-chamber?
I’m not quite sure, because the line between these categories is fuzzy. The group I’ve been talking about was devoted to a countercultural cause, which had the effect of making everyone in it feel like a tight-knit network of the people who “got it” in a world that didn’t see as clearly as we did. The group never explicitly forbade criticism, but given the kind of group it was, it was unlikely to hold much appeal for anyone who wasn’t a hundred percent on board, and there were any number of ways in which members could justify dismissing outside critics. “They’ve just bought into the bogus societal values that prevent them from really seeing what we know to be true!” “Of course, academics are critical. The entire incentive structure for researchers is designed to prop up the current system!”
This is how an epistemic bubble emerges, and in our case, it was one with an impressively strong filters. Groups like this provide many benefits for their members. First, people who often feel odd within larger society for having the beliefs they do now have a support network of others who feel similarly. Second, it is refreshing be in a space where one can be open about one’s beliefs and be affirmed. Finally, it feels good to believe a thing strongly, and what better way to do that than to be amongst others who reinforce your rectitude. I am an academic, so I have always endeavored to be a scholar first and activist second, but the allure of belief sometimes has a stronger pull than does the responsibility of doubt and detachment.
So, I was asked by the group’s leadership for my opinion and gave it. The ensuing weeks left me confused and embarrassed because I hadn’t seen what now seemed obvious. The group looks a lot different to an outsider than it does to an insider.
My experience was made all the more interesting [at least to my scholarly side] by the fact that it seemed to mirror what was happening in the society at large. Epistemic bubbles were forming, and battle lines being drawn around everything from Donald Trump and anti-racism initiatives to J.K. Rowling. It seemed like in each case, there were two and only two acceptable tribes and everyone’s goal – at least on social media – was to find the one you fit into, affirm your membership with every post and tweet, and demand that others conform. Either Donald Trump is the only hope America has to fight the rise of socialism, or everything he does proves his fascism. Either racism is omnipresent and evident in every system that shows racial disparities, or racism effectively died in the 1960’s and systemic racism is a smokescreen to obscure other problems that are not racism. I noticed that among very different groups of friends and family, espousing positions more nuanced than these would often be met with confusion or insinuations that since I don’t play for x team, I must play for y.
The one team I’d grown used to being part of was now one I was wary of. I was teamless.
The first thing I did was examine my existing views to figure out which of them I was still prepared to endorse and which I was not. I have never been religious, but this process seems similar to what happens when religious people leave a church. They know they still believe the core doctrine of the religion, but over their time in church, they acquired other beliefs that may have been more a function of belonging to the church than their own conscience. I came to this group believing in the cause the group represented, and I left believing in its cause. But I came to believe the cause for reasons x, y, and z, where many other members came to the cause for other reasons, b, c, and d. Over time, and embarrassingly enough without noticing, I came to accept reasons b, c, and d also. I didn’t accept them uncritically, but insofar as cognition is a social affair, I often heard people I respected talk about reasons b, c and d, until over time, I accepted them as well. Only when I was no longer part of the group could I go back and examine all of my reasons in a more methodical way and reevaluate my commitments.
I also began consuming media therapeutically. I found videos and written stories about others recalling their own experiences being a part of – and then leaving – thought bubbles. I read philosophers and cultural critics who espoused a certain sort of individualism and freethinking. I appreciated it when Vaclav Havel laid into “post-totalitarian societies” and their “demands [for] conformity, uniformity, and discipline,” and urged people to move “towards plurality, diversity, independent self-constitution.” I tried to make sense of my experience with the help of Doris Lessing’s reminder that “People like certainties. More, they crave certainty, they seek certainty, and great resounding truths. They like to be part of some movement equipped with these truths and certainties, and if there are rebels and heretics, that is even more satisfying, because this structure is so deep in all of us.” Or Ralph Ellison, whose invisible man learns suddenly to exist on his own. I watched and read as much individuality-affirming media that I could find until something struck me. In my quest to affirm my own individuality, was I simply trading one feeling of belonging for another? Should an individual need others’ permission to think individually? Intellectual Dark Web types have made a cottage industry out of stories of bravely being an individual in a sea of conformity, but one can only digest so much of this sort of thing before the conformity on display becomes [ironically] evident.
Since leaving this group, I have become a lot more skeptical of ideological groups in general, to the point that I become leery if I find myself agreeing too much with any specific group or recognized position. I experience a twinge of discomfort when asked to provide a label for my thinking and orientation. [“So, would you say you are libertarian?”] I suspect there may be something of a pendulum effect going on.
If there is one lesson I’ve learned from this experience, it is that as much as people try to be individual in their thinking, we are all to some degree or other susceptible to the pressures that groups and thought bubbles exert. As already mentioned, the cause this group represented was one I came to on my own, primarily through my own research. Connecting with a group of similarly oriented others, however, pushed me in directions I might not otherwise have gone. Once one builds or finds a network of likeminded people, changing one’s mind or permitting oneself to be persuaded by criticism not only comes at the cost of having to rethink things, but of potentially losing one’s network and the benefits of being in it.
So I find myself here, in 2021, doing my best to live fully outside of thought bubbles in a world that seems replete with them and increasingly less tolerant of those who refuse to join them.
 My apologies for being vague. This cause is still one I care about, and I do not want to gossip. My focus is less on the specifics of the group and my exodus from it, but about what such a process taught me about myself, how I think, and how I must think going forward.