Hypothica: Where Echo Chambers are Outlawed

(This is built on the ideas and questions Drowlord101 raised in his post about echo chambers.)

On the island of Hypothica, the Hypothican government has issued a decree stating that every club, party, or organization that discusses serious or important ideas must hire a “court jester”. A jester is someone whose JOB is to question and disagree with the group’s consensus opinion. For example, the NRA’s court jester is someone who vocally opposes private gun ownership. The law is intended to ensure that “echo chambers” do not arise, and that organizations and political parties do not become removed from consensus reality. It is also intended to improve their society’s discourse, so that people don’t just shout party-approved slogans at each other all the time.

Obviously, there are moral problems with this scenario, which completely ignores freedom of speech and association. The Hypothican government doesn’t care about that, and neither do we. What I wonder is, would this have the intended effect on society as a whole? We had something similar to this with the “fairness doctrine”. As a libertarian, I am opposed to fairness doctrines, but I have to admit that political discussions seem to have become much more polarized as technology has allowed us to build our own echo chambers and remove ourselves from people we disagree with.

So, setting all concerns about freedom of speech and government overreach aside, do a thought experiment and imagine Hypothica 5 years after the law is passed. What does society look like? Was the intended effect achieved? Why or why not?

  • Just last night, a friend mentioned this to me (I have no idea how true it is):

    In the past, before a debater made his point, he first had to state his opponent’s position to the opponent’s satisfaction.

    While this isn’t *exactly* what you’re saying, it is a convention that helps preempt strawmanning the opponent’s position, which I think is one of the biggest problems with echo chambers.

    I like this idea a lot. Rather than being simply a resident contrarian, the Jester is responsible for keeping the discussion’s perspective honest in regard to the opposition.

  • Kingfisher12

    There is something to be said about a “Devil’s Advocate” who takes on a role for the sake of meaningful debate. I don’t think you need a law to make them more common.

    When I was in junior-high, I won the annual debate competition. In the competition, the teachers picked topics that were ethically significant, but morally neutral (I think mine was on irrigation expansion), and teams were assigned to prepare arguments for both sides.

    We won by arguing coherently and forcefully against 4 different teams, twice on each side of the issue. We were the only team that won all 4 bouts.

    What I remember is that many of the teams fell into the trap of taking a side. Once they took a side, they had a difficult time making robust arguments for the side they did believe in, and coherent arguments for the side they didn’t believe in. I was personally convinced of one side over the other (I don’t remember which), but I knew that fully understanding the other side of the argument was the key to establishing stronger arguments for my case.

    The way to limit the spread of echo chambers is to encourage positive debate in young minds. Then you will have more people relishing the opportunity to play the devil’s advocate, and celebrating fellows who do it well, because they understand that the role of the devil’s advocate is to temper the arguments of the like-minded group, not weaken them.

    • [The way to limit the spread of echo chambers is to encourage positive debate in young minds.]

      Many argue that the internet and social media are responsible for creating echo-chambers, and, while there’s likely some truth, I think the segmented internet may be more of the final product than the initial cause.

      I think it begins with the partisan, agenda-driven education in schools.* Among the biggest problems is that philosophy, logic, and rhetoric are simply not taught to young students. A child goes through grade school quite likely never having encountered the concept of a “fallacy”.

      There is also a strong pressure not to openly dissent from the “orthodoxy”. So many students end up building these inarticulable dissent. Perhaps because they hear their parents disagreeing, or perhaps because they work certain things out on their own. Meanwhile the students who swallow everything uncritically have the same problem, they’ve never had to engage thoughtful dissent.

      So they all end up finding the internet where they can self select people who only agree with them for the first time in their life and voila. It makes them feel safe and comfortable.

      *Im speaking on both sides. Not just “liberal agendas”. I went to a Catholic elementary school, and while I learned a great deal about theology and morality, I was not introduced to debate, rhetoric, logic, or philosophy either.

      • Kingfisher12

        There may be something to that, I’m not sure education today puts enough emphasis on elocution and critical thought. Too much math and science. (This coming from an engineer).

        When I first discovered the internet (somewhere around high-school), the thing that fascinated me was the great diversity of people that didn’t think like me. I came from a small town and a big family, so most of my conversations were with people who had similar experiences as myself. We had our individual differences, but nothing like what I could find online.

        I found that having my beliefs challenged, rather than being upsetting, was exciting. I learned about fallacies and logic, learned about finding common suppositions, and learned about where viewpoints diverged.

        Most of all, I learned about the difference between discourse, contention, and lecture. Discourse is a kind of friendship where interlocutors challenge each other to make the best possible case, and let reason and time be the judge. Contention, on the other hand, is a kind of abuse where the interlocutors attempt to tear away at each other. Lecture educates, but it doesn’t convince.

        Discourse is educational to both, but only if both are diligent in their arguments. Contention is only destructive, and even if one side is right, both lose. Lecture assumes the lecturer is right, so it doesn’t examine the arguments.

        In school we teach lecture. On mass media we teach contention. I learned discourse mostly from my friends, and from the fledgling internet.

  • AndrĂ© Leclerc

    Hey, hypothica has still has a pulse!

    Out of curiosity I gave a quick glance to Scott’s blog to see how he coped with his guy tanking (unfortunately taking the immigration issue with him). I laughed off when the first thing I noticed was that he had closed off all comments. Anybody knows since when he pulled the plug on that? I’m curious!

    • 404_Username_Not_Found

      He was getting a lot of spam that the filters and mods couldn’t keep up with (he claims). And he encouraged people to comment on twitter. I think he did that to try and use the blog traffic to bolster his twitter profile

    • JGStorms

      The spam was unreal, like trudging through a trending political YouTube video. He’s doing periscopes now, fast paced variation on the old comments system. Worthy of checking out..

    • CWalois

      I think everyone knows this by now, but most of the commenters moved over to the Master Persuader and President Trump Disqus channels.

  • 404_Username_Not_Found

    Not the intended effect no. The jester would just be a check in the block. “Hey did we give John his obligitory 5 minutes to tell us why guns are bad? Great now we can get this NRA meeting going”.

  • 404_Username_Not_Found


  • Just noticed this discussion, belatedly. I like the idea of a court jester/devil’s advocate, and I’d like to thing that it would make a big difference – but I’m sceptical about how much difference it would actually make. BTW, I don’t see why this idea is **that** immoral, it doesn’t ignore freedom of speech – in fact it slightly encourages freedom of speech, on the grounds that anyone can point to the jester as an example of how free the community’s speech is.

    But the real question is whether the presence of the jester would have a significant impact of the behaviour of the community in which the jester sits. After all, he’d just be one voice among many. He could end up ostracized (“sent to Coventry” in British terms) by the majority, or less formally, simply be a lone voice in the wilderness. Why do we assume that the presence of the jester would necessarily make a difference?

    BTW, on “fairness doctrines”, I’ve not heard the term before, I googled for it, a very similar concept is still current policy within the BBC (the state owned broadcaster here in Britain). Although politicians of all sides regularly allege bias in the Beeb, and this is especially important as periodically the Government of the day review the Beeb’s funding arrangements (the archaic “BBC license fee” that still survives as the main source of the Beeb’s money – so far). However, as roughly equal numbers allege bias on each side, I’d argue that’s the very definition of being unbiassed – over time you anger all sides equally:-)

  • Mouth

    SlateStarCodex.com is what I think Hypothica aspired to be. Check it out.