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In Defense of the Echo Chamber

(n) ech·o cham·ber — an enclosed space in which directed sound is reflected back to the original source.

Echo chambers exist in abundance within the natural world (e.g., caves), and within our constructed world (e.g., stairwells). They make music sound better, producing acoustic reverberations sensationally described as ‘ear candy.’ Take a listen to Hannah Trigwell sing Hallelujah in one of our earliest constructed echo chambers- the Romanesque style church. Pretty nice, huh? If we think about it, who among us doesn’t sound like Céline Dion or The Four Tenors in the hydrotherapy room (i.e., bathroom)?

Turns out, echo chambers not only make reverberations sound good to us, they also facilitate reverberations’ ability to be good to us. Forty-five minutes inside an anechoic chamber reveals exactly how good echo chambers can be. Devoid of reverberation, we lose our sense of positioning in space, have trouble walking and standing, and become anxious. In short, echo chambers help us to maintain a sense of well-being. Reading up on the subject helped me better understand my discomfort in response to talk of ‘echo chambers’ as a pejorative.

Folks have taken what I see as natural and necessary ‘within group sanctuary’ and turned it into a psycho-political assault weapon. I’ve written elsewhere about these tools of psycho-political war. Applying that taxonomy, public accusations (and the assertions always carry an accusatory tone) that certain individuals and/or groups of individuals exist within ‘echo chambers,’ fit within the category of “manipulation through humiliation.”

You’ve experienced it in your social media exchanges. You have seen the article headlines. You know what I’m talking about. Apparently, we social media users are nothing more than a bunch of clanging cymbals performing in various echo chambers. Unlike the sound produced by Hannah Trigwell’s cover of Hallelujah, ours is not received as ear candy, but a perceptually distorted mess. More than simple annoyances, we have become quite problematic. Harvard law professor Cass R. Sunstein floats the idea that our echo chambers are incompatible with democracy in the book, Republic.com 2.0, while Independent culture editor Christopher Hooton blames echo chambers for the election of Donald Trump to the office of President Of The United States.

Given the projected image of ‘echo chambers’ as spaces full of fringe go-nowhere, do-nothing noisemakers, I find the criticism curiously nonsensical. How can it be that echo chambers are at the same time so ineffectual and so powerful? And, who stands to benefit most from their permanent silencing? Question everything.

Listen. I am Black. I am Woman. I am Progressive. Whether considered as mutually exclusive dimensions of the self or through the lens of dynamic intersections, these social-political-cultural identities place me at hostile borderlands of the world in which I exist. My transnational counter dominant cultural narrative echo chambers provide the reinforcement, balance, and defensive rhetorical tools I need to effectively resist ideological hegemony. Contrary to Sunstein’s speculation, I see echo chambers as perfectly compatible with democracy. No way I’m giving them up. In fact, holler back if you hear me.

 

This is an edited version of the author’s Medium post.

Nyasha Grayman-Simpson is a counseling psychologist and Associate Professor of Psychology at Baltimore’ Goucher College. She teaches courses under the broad umbrella of critical psychology including Black Psychology, Psychology of White Racism, Feminist Psychology, and Qualitative Psychology.

Nyasha is a Guest Contributor to Progressive Army.

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