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Why Social Media Isn't

June 20, 2011 |
Even as the U.S. becomes more diverse from place to place, Americans are becoming less and less likely to communicate with people who have different perspectives and come from different walks of life.
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Mexican food and beer. That's what retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor suggests might pull this fractured nation back together again. Those were the tools she used to reach consensus in the 1970s when she was a leader in the Arizona Legislature.

"I'll tell you what I did," she said last week at a conference in Washington, D.C., sponsored by Arizona State University's Center for Social Cohesion. "It was pretty simple: I'd get everybody together and cook Mexican food, and we'd sit around outside and eat Mexican food, and drink beer, and make friends with each other. That worked."

Ever since O'Connor made those remarks, at a half-day gabfest I curated last week titled "Can the United States Remain United," I've been pondering how that old-fashioned advice about the value of breaking bread can have relevance today, in an era when a Facebook message posted in Downey, Calif., can be read instantly in Beirut.

The problem with that kind of hyper-connectivity, of course, is that despite all the newfangled ways we've developed to communicate across all sorts of boundaries, we're increasingly deciding to talk, tweet and Facebook with folks who are more or less like ourselves.

We live in an age in which overarching collective identities and institutions are collapsing in favor of narrower groupings by affinity. Think of the decline of network television, the rise of political independents, and the nichification of politics and the marketplace.

While social media enthusiasts love to crow about the flowering of a million voices, I worry about the erosion of the social contract and national consensus.

It's not that I'm nostalgic for the days of Walter Cronkite or Eric Sevareid. The sense of national unity the country projected during the postwar years tended to exclude minorities and suppress dissent.

But I do worry about our newfound fondness for burrowing into tiny social cubbyholes where it's all too easy to forget the very notion of the common good.

Paradoxically, it's the multiplicity of channels and social niches that have led many to seek refuge in narrow niches.

Journalist Bill Bishop, author of "The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America Is Tearing Us Apart," has noted that with the growing diversity of choices we have now, "more burden is put upon the person to create her or his own world." As the bigger institutions in the country dissolve, he said, "more people are having to create their own identities — they have to choose their own Gods. They have to choose their sex. They have to choose their own family style. It's easier to do that if you're in a community where your choices are being reinforced."

All that is a big part of why, even as the U.S. becomes more diverse from place to place, Americans are becoming less and less likely to communicate with people who have different perspectives and come from different walks of life.

Not surprisingly, this clustering by lifestyle is reflected in our politics. While political beliefs were once bound up with class and status, today they increasingly define our cultural identities and vice versa. Now, as University of Maryland political scientist James Gimpel has argued, you can easily guess a person's political persuasion if you know the music he listens to or the snacks he enjoys. In other words, partisanship has extended deeper into our lives.

The biggest threat to social cohesion, then, is not so much political, racial and ethnic tensions as it is social isolation and narrow-mindedness.

No, breaking bread isn't a panacea for the country's growing social divisions, particularly those created by inequality. But we can't even begin to find solutions if we don't acknowledge that the many new ways we have of connecting to one another have given us new and better ways to avoid dealing with people who are different.

"So how as a nation can we sit around and eat Mexican food, and drink beer and make friends?" Justice O'Connor asked. "That's the question. If we can do that on a broader scale, I think we'll come out of it all right."