How to move outside your social bubble

When I teach creative writing classes at the Prague Municipal Library, I often encourage students to create a literary character that has a different worldview from their own. We discuss the way that every person has specific worldviews, whether they are political, economical, social or religious. The key of the exercise is to make students think outside their own social bubble, to work with other beliefs and ideas and to construct a believable character based on them. The character also has to be neither “evil” nor “stupid”, nor “naïve and waiting for someone to show them the right path”. We learn that in order to write believable characters, they need to be able to understand that someone with a different background, a different “social bubble” and a different life experience can have a worldview that is different from theirs, and that person is not “evil” or “stupid” just because of it.

It started out as a mere exercise in a creative writing class to make characters that would be more enjoyable for the reader. However, the problem of people seldom going outside of their proverbial social bubble or “echo chamber” is something that is very much present in contemporary society. Social bubbles have always existed; human beings prefer to spend time with people who think alike. However, social media has made it much easier for social bubbles to form, and easier to control and shun dissenting views. The often talked about anonymity of the Internet makes it easier to attack people for their opinions.

The issue isn’t new but the many divisive events of 2016 have probably made it more visible, the US presidential election being a prime example. The political discourse has become “us” against “them”. Very rarely do we see people actually seeking discussion with their opponents. And it’s not just random people on social media or independent bloggers; we start to see this trend among the columnists of various mainstream news websites. We see opinion articles about how “they” don’t understand that “we” are right and the article often continues to explain that it is because “they” aren’t educated enough or responsible enough, etc. The American author David Weber described it thus: we as Western society are losing the ability to be simply “wrong”.

Maybe all of us, not just aspiring authors, should try the exercise of character development in real life. Our opponents, people we disagree with, have come from a life experience and background that set them on the path to where they are now. Let’s imagine what they’ve been through and what they are like. They can be wrong without being actively malevolent. Given everything that is happening in the world, more than ever, it is important to talk to each other, to discuss, to engage, and also to be ready to challenge our own assumptions and beliefs, not just force others to challenge theirs.

In times like these, it is often up to the universities to help encourage dialogue, discussion and an exchange of ideas. And that is something that every one of us, teacher or student, can do. Seek out dissenting views, talk with each other, and keep an open mind. Maybe together we can make a difference in the upcoming years.

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