A week or so ago, I read with distinct amusement the commentary of two Twitter friends who were attending the Malcolm Gladwell lecture at Book Expo America. Each was live tweeting the event, and in verbose, manic style, their tweets filling my feed to the exclusion of pretty much everything else. But what made things so fascinating was that their tweets were fundamentally, diametrically opposed–one gladly worshipped at the altar of all things Gladwell; the other decried him as a charlatan Pied Pipering his unquestioning listeners down a rabbit hole of rubbish–and yet, though they were in the same space, and even reporting using the same hashtag, they weren’t engaging with each other in the least.
I mentioned this to my husband, who suggested that the two had probably blocked each other. That though they might well be sitting side by side in the auditorium, they were so ensconced in their personal ideological silos that they had no intention of letting someone else breach those walls. But it seemed so strange, I responded, pointing out that each was a highly articulate, thoughtful individual who had something to bring to the debate, and that the very fact that they were attending the same event, regardless of their personal perspectives about what was being said, showed that they clearly had some aligned interests and concerns. If only Twitter could prepare a graph or a diagram showing who had blocked each other, said my husband. Doing so would be an excellent way of identifying both communication and information breakdowns: an ideological schism over which information, ideas and debate had no means of passing.
These sorts of divisions are nothing new, and are one of the key themes of Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South, which looks at both the physical and social divide between those of the landowning, educated classes and those of a working-class background. The novel traces the journey of Margaret Hale as she moves from the well-to-do, buffered south to the industrial town of Milton in the north, a place currently unsettled by conflict over workers’ rights and the relatively new development of the entrepreneurial middle class. Margaret’s initial ignorance regarding the Milton context is such that she is thrown into circumstances that are utterly alien to her. (Upon arriving, she despairs for her situation: “If she had known how long it would be before the brightness [either internal or external] came, her heart would have sunk low down…”) Her slow ingratiation into Milton society comes in a gradual, iterative manner, with Margaret first needing to acknowledge the existence of the place and its people, and then begin to humanise and empathise with her new peers.
“Your lives and your welfare are so constantly and intimately interwoven,” she argues at one point, highlighting the connectedness of both worker and employer, “God has made us so that we must be mutually dependent. We may ignore our own dependence, or refuse to acknowledge that others depend upon us in more respects than the payment of weekly wages; but the thing must be, nevertheless. Neither you nor any other master can help yourselves. The most proudly independent man depends on those around him for their insensible influence on his character–his life.”
And the same is true of ideas: aligning oneself only with those whose beliefs are our own is deeply problematic and can only represent an ideological narrowing.
As the book progresses, Margaret becomes quite demonstrative in her proclamations of equality and empathy, and we see her striving to play the role of cultural anthropologist, seeking to understand her new circumstances. But the inciting event behind her engagement is obvious: her coming into contact with this place, these people, these ideas in the first place. Had she and her family remained in their isolated social and ideological silo in the south, Margaret would have remained entirely ignorant of life in Milton, and would have found herself surrounded only by those whose ideas, goals, and outlooks she shared–the possible exception being her father, whose defection from the church signifies a potential opportunity for an ideological clash and therefore a resultant, accompanying growth.
“There might be toilers and moilers there in London” (where Margaret lived at one point) “but she never saw them; the very servants lived in an underground world of their own, of which she knew neither the hopes nor the fears; they only seemed to start into existence when some want or whim of their master or mistress needed them.”
And yet, while Margaret slowly begins to make her way across a variety of social, class, and linguistic borders, others around her refuse to do so. (“And if I must live in a factory town, I must speak factory language when I want it. Why, mamma, I could astonish you with a great many words you’ve never heard in your life.”) Her mother, for example, is intent upon maintaining the wall between her erstwhile life and her new one, and upon arriving in Milton immediately falls ill, becoming housebound and isolated. Her determined disconnection from all that Milton represents could be argued to be a contributing factor to her eventual demise, and one that I’d argue is as much an ideological or existential death as a physical one. Ideas are what make us human, after all, and by refusing to engage with a differing point of view or way of living, Margaret’s mother is slowly asphyxiating her intellectual self. It’s hard not to see this as Gaskell’s warning about the dangers of close-mindedness and deliberate ignorance. Without sustained intellectual debate, without being subjected to ideas and situations that frustrate us, that are abhorrent to us, that make us uncomfortable, or that make us feel anything other than warm and fuzzy, we risk severing ourselves from the wider context of reality.
“Mr Thornton is coming to drink tea with us tonight,” said Mr Hale, “and he is as proud of Milton as you of Oxford. You two must try and make each other a little more liberal-minded.”
“I don’t want to be more liberal-minded, thank you,” said Mr Bell.
Perhaps what bothers me most about the ideological schisms we see today, the conversational black-outs that occur thanks to blocking and other siloed forms of information access/restriction, is that they are far more deliberate than in the time when Gaskell was writing. Where Gaskell’s characters could be forgiven their ignorance in many instances due to their physical isolation and their relative inability to obtain information, today we’re far more deliberately choosing to ignore people whose mindsets or beliefs clash with ours. Even worse is the idea of blocking someone: if you ignore someone you are at least aware of their behaviour or their presence; by blocking that individual, you preclude that entirely. Yes, the sheer degree of connectedness of our world means that it can be immensely tiring to constantly engage with differing ideologies or beliefs, but we owe it to ourselves and to our intellectual richness not to cut ourselves off from these viewpoints, to at least try to consider the perspectives of others–and the people who hold those perspectives.
“Margaret the Churchwoman, her father the Dissenter, Higgins the Infidel, knelt down together. It did them no harm.”
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