Tuesday, January 13, 2009

The problem of belief, part 2

It's unfortunate that I didn't discover Radio West until after I moved away from Salt Lake. Fortunately for me, I can listen to Doug Fabrizio on teh interwebs.

Anyway, Doug Fabrizio recently had a couple of interviews that are germane to this discussion of belief. The first concerns the fairness doctrine, which was legislation enacted in an attempt to require radio and television stations to present balanced coverage of controversial issues. Apparently, right-wing talk shows are claiming Obama has designs to bring back the fairness doctrine, supposedly to "shut down conservative radio." Of course, Obama has no such plans, but that doesn't stop conservatives from claiming it's true, or conservative radio listeners from believing it.

The second is an interview with Bill Bishop about The Big Sort, a book he co-wrote about the consequences of the current trend where Americans congregate into like-minded communities. As he describes it,

...the country fractured in the 1960s — around 1965, to be precise. In that one year, trust in major institutions began to decline; membership in mainline churches started to drop; divorce and crime rates began to climb; allegiance to political party dissolved as people lost faith in traditional party labels; membership in long-standing civic organizations (the Elks, bowling leagues) started to drop, as did the percentage of daily newspaper readers. Society seemed to unravel all at once, and when it came back together, the broad-based institutions that had sustained this country were replaced by ones that were more politically homogenous.

For example, as mainline churches — Methodists, Episcopalians, Lutherans — lost members, independent and evangelical churches gained. Preachers coming through seminary in the 1970s and '80s, such as evangelist Rick Warren, were taught to build their congregations by catering to like-minded groups. This technique was literally called the "homogenous unit principle" of church growth and it was wildly successful in this new, post-'65 world. Similarly, just as the broad-based clubs like the Elks lost people, more targeted groups, like Common Cause, formed and found a following. This shift in association — from general to specific — happened across society. For companies, there weren't mass markets any longer, only individual consumers to be targeted and then supplied with just the product they wanted. The country sorted into separate groupings of lifestyle and belief. We left behind a country that was striving to be whole in 1965, with the passage of civil rights laws and universal health care coverage for the elderly, and we began to sequester ourselves into tribes of like beliefs, images, neighborhoods, and markets.

This homogenization of culture and of opinion discourages examination of beliefs. Admittedly, it's far more comfortable to be around people who share similar opinions, but the lack of opposition allows a sort of echo chamber to exist wherein opinions become more and more extreme. Debate, dissension, disagreement are discouraged by homogeneity--nobody wants to be different for fear of being ostracized, so we either modify our opinions to agree with the majority or find a new group with which we agree more. I don't think it's necessarily a good thing. While it's easy and comfortable to be around people with whom we agree, it allows individuals and groups to persist in unexamined, and potentially very wrong, beliefs.

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