On Bubbles, Conservative Friends, and How Robert Reich is in a Bubble Of His Own


Marginalized people aren’t in a bubble. Conservatism is the polluted air we breathe every day. Why do we have to be friends with people who spew it at us?

We’re often chided for living in bubbles. We’re told that we only listen to people who already agree with us, and that this narrows our thinking. We’re told that a willingness to have friends with different political views means having an open mind and an open heart — and that there’s something wrong with us if we aren’t doing that. Recently, politician and commentator Robert Reich voiced this idea on Facebook:

I have a conservative friend with whom I make a point to have lunch at least once a month. Why? I like him but that’s not the main reason. He makes me think. In forcing me defend my assumptions and ideas, he gets me to examine them more deeply. I hope I do the same for him. One of the biggest problems in America today is most of us live in ideological cocoons surrounded by people who think like us. Yet there is no better way to learn than to talk to someone who disagrees with you.

I don’t just want to pick on Reich here, though. This notion gets spouted a lot. And just off the top of my head, I can think of three major things that are wrong with it.

Wrong Thing Number One: Do you seriously think marginalized people don’t know what people think of us?

Do you seriously think women haven’t heard from people who think we should be forced to donate our reproductive organs? Do you think African Americans are unfamiliar with the idea that brutally racist cops are just a few bad apples and that most black people who get killed by cops must have brought it on themselves? Do you think queers don’t know about people who think our love lives are unnatural, undeserving of equality and respect, and any of their damn business?

When political issues don’t affect you personally, it’s easy to have calm, abstract political debates with conservatives and still stay friends. The bubble you live in protects you. For many of us, these political issues are ingrained into our everyday lives. They affect how we’re treated at work, at home, at the store, at the bank, when we travel, when we drive, when we walk down the street, when we go to the bathroom, when we go to the gym, when we just stay home playing video games. For some of us, these issues are literally life or death. Conservative political ideas are the polluted air we breathe, the toxic water we drink. Do you seriously think that in order to think, learn, and examine our ideas, we need to be friends with people who spew them at us? If you think that’s a reasonable request, you are living in a bubble made of six-inch-thick bulletproof glass.

Which leads to Wrong Thing Number Two: I am not going to “examine my ideas more deeply” when I debate Remedial Social Justice for the 80,000th time.

I don’t feel a need to debate politics with conservatives for the same reason I don’t need to discuss biology with creationists. I’ve already considered these ideas, at length. In many cases, I have never been allowed to forget these ideas. I’m soaking in them. (See Wrong Thing Number One above). They’re shitty ideas. I’ve considered them, I’ve rejected them, and I don’t need to reconsider them for the 80,000th time in order to have an open mind. I am ready to move on.

I agree that it’s good not to live in a bubble. For me, that means not living most of my life surrounded by other white, middle-class, middle-aged, college-educated, nerdy San Franciscans. It means having friends and colleagues of different ages, races, incomes, health statuses (physical and mental), educations, jobs, sexual orientations, gender identities, cultural backgrounds, geographies — hell, different musical tastes. I’m deeply involved in social justice activism, and I get my ideas challenged and changed almost every day, by people whose life experiences are vastly different from mine. There’s nothing magical about having that moral and intellectual pressure come from the right. I am entirely capable of thinking, learning, and re-examining my ideas, without making myself intimately vulnerable to people whose political views do serious harm to me and the people I love.

And this leads to Wrong Thing Number Three: Politics are an expression of values. And I don’t want to be friends with people who don’t share my core values.

“Conservative,” in the United States, means holding ideas that are deeply damaging to women, LGBTQIA people, people of color, poor people, disabled people, immigrants, and other marginalized people. And don’t come at me with “fiscally conservative, socially liberal.” That’s bullshit. As I’ve written before: You can’t separate fiscal issues from social issues. They’re deeply intertwined. And conservative fiscal policies do enormous harm. Conservative thinking represents values that I find reprehensible.

If I want to hone my liberal ideas by being forced to defend them, there are lots of outlets to do that. Most of the Internet is one big outlet for all of us to do that. And yes, some of my ideas have been clarified and sharpened by those debates. But I’m not going to be friends with those people. My friends are people I invite into my home; who bring me food when I’ve had surgery; who tell me about their joys and sorrows; who help me think through hard choices; who I sit with when they’re grieving; who I call when my depression is at its bleakest. You’re asking me to do all that with people who believe that I, and people I love, are something less than human. No, not consciously, very few people think that consciously, and when they do they rarely admit it. But the dehumanization of large swaths of people, the treatment of some animals as more equal than others, is deeply ingrained in U.S. conservatism, and has been for decades. You’re asking me to be friends with people who believe that I, and people I love, are something less than human — and who act accordingly. You keep using this word “friend.” I do not think it means what you think it means.

Some progressives have conservative friends, even lovers or spouses. I often find it baffling, but I don’t think they’re wrong for doing it. I get that different people have different boundaries, different degrees of conflict they’re willing to have with people they’re close to, different things they’re willing to have conflict about. But I’m not going to have conservative friends. And if you think there’s something wrong with me for that, if you think I’m under a moral or intellectual obligation to do that, you need to get your head out of your own bubble, and start listening to the people your conservative friend is screwing over.

On Bubbles, Conservative Friends, and How Robert Reich is in a Bubble Of His Own
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20 thoughts on “On Bubbles, Conservative Friends, and How Robert Reich is in a Bubble Of His Own

  1. 1

    This is a really great analysis of this situation, one I’ve struggled with for years. I wonder if I’m not in a position to know exactly what you’re talking about; if I can’t compare my friendships with conservatives because they have only conflicted with a few parts of my daily life. I do however have one conservative friend who I have seen change over the years, and wonder where she would be without our friendship. She respects my position above her own beliefs, do you think that makes any difference? Is she not actually a conservative like she thinks she is? I agree there’s no reason to put effort in or to seek out these friendships for some weird goal of honing liberal beliefs. Every point you make makes absolute sense. But what if they just happen? Is there something else involved? Thanks again for sharing your thoughts.

  2. 3

    So, I *do* think that many liberal non-marginalized people (i.e. people like myself) kind of live in a bubble, where they don’t have a real grasp of what conservative America really thinks. We don’t have to breathe that polluted air, to extend your metaphor, so it’s all too easy to see all conservative thinking as satire, as clowns, as stuff that only exists on Duck Dynasty and in the newspapers. Reich may actually get some benefit from engaging with his conservative friend, and other not-so-marginalized liberals might too. We just *don’t* feel the bite of that toxic environment in the same way, or at least we don’t have to (that’s the definition of privilege, ain’t it?).

    Anyway, that might be the source of his confusion. He probably *would* be a little bubbled if he didn’t engage with his conservative friend to see what the other side really thinks. So he has a point, he’s just spewing it way too broadly.

  3. 4

    Wow, I agree with everything you’ve said. Well done. As a lifelong disabled woman with a teen-age trans son, I don’t need people in my life who spout off BS that dehumanizes either of us or others we know and love. I don’t need conservatives, especially the fundie religious types, to broaden my thinking. You know what HAS broadened my thinking? LISTENING to people of other marginalized groups and trying to understand their experiences. Trying to be a good ally. And the spaces where marginalized people feel free to discuss their lives are NOT conservative ones. Facing discrimination on a daily basis can be soul-crushing; sometimes, the best thing we can do to protect ourselves is to refuse to invite that negativity into our personal lives.

  4. 5

    Elly @ #1: I’m not saying it’s bad to be friends with conservatives. I’m asking Reich and others who say what he says, not to judge people who don’t.

    So, I *do* think that many liberal non-marginalized people (i.e. people like myself) kind of live in a bubble, where they don’t have a real grasp of what conservative America really thinks. We don’t have to breathe that polluted air, to extend your metaphor… He [Reich] probably *would* be a little bubbled if he didn’t engage with his conservative friend to see what the other side really thinks.

    JAMES M SWEET @ #3: I think when that’s the case, a better way to get out of the bubble is to engage, not with conservatives, but the people they’re hurting.

  5. 6

    I’m one of those people who have a small circle of friends so I can’t be too picky. Two of the people in my RPG group are conservatives and I just avoid talking politics with them. If it ever comes out they either latch onto something that’s technically true and ignore the larger context or they insist they’re right without justification and it’s not worth the hassle to correct them. If they left, it would probably cause the group to disband and I’d probably lose everyone and I don’t want that. So I hold my tongue and roll my eyes when they insist Fox News is accurate and how Allais left not because of the sexual harassment charges but because he wanted too much money for his “talents”.

    Plus, outside of politics, we get along pretty well in-game which makes up 95% of our interactions.

  6. 7

    Conservative pollution may be easier to acknowledge. It tends to lie down with entrenched power and abusive, unearned, authority.

    BUT. The general willingness to accept ideological blindfolds doesn’t seem limited to the Right. Nick Cohen recently was pointing out that Marine Le Pen and Donald Trump are just as much in love with Vladimir Putin (Le Pen accepts Russian funding) as Jeremy Corbyn and Julian Assange.

    Bubble formation seems like an intellectual default. Selective acceptance of paranoid conspiracy thinking seems as ‘American’ as cherry pie.

  7. 8

    The general willingness to accept ideological blindfolds doesn’t seem limited to the Right… Bubble formation seems like an intellectual default.

    John the Drunkard @ #7: There’s a difference between saying “Make sure you don’t live in an ideological bubble” and saying “You have an intellectual and moral obligation to be friends with people who hurt you.” We can be exposed to dissenting opinions without being friends with people who hold them.

    And as I said in the piece, marginalized people are exposed to conservatism, all the time, in intensely toxic ways. We’re soaking in it.

  8. 9

    When Robert Reich writes:

    One of the biggest problems in America today is most of us live in ideological cocoons surrounded by people who think like us.

    he tells you just about everything you need to know about his perspective. Seriously? That’s one of the biggest problems in America today? Does it rank above or below, say, environmental lead poisoning? It must be nice to have tenure.

    People like Reich want to imagine a world in which the principal political divisions are matters of honest, intellectual disagreement. I guess there’s nothing inherently wrong with that. If such a world were on TV, I would watch it. It would look a lot like reruns of The West Wing, and I miss that show.

    Greta does a great job of spelling out the sheer silliness of the notion that marginalized populations are somehow unaware of the opinions of conservatives. I’ll just chime in with the converse: conservatives know perfectly well that liberals regard their panic at the decline of their relative social dominance as, basically, a character defect. That’s why they’re so angry. (Well, that plus the panic itself. Panic doesn’t make anyone very nice.)

    Personally — I’m kind of a policy nerd — I’d love to live in a political climate in which technical questions (“How can we more efficiently implement the Clean Air Act?”) were somehow core political issues. In reality, when such things are discussed at all, it is simply as code for more visceral issues of race, gender, and nostalgia for a mis-remembered social past.

  9. 11

    My brother’s wife is a “fiscal conservative.” ;_;

    Yeah, I agree with you so much my cervical vertebra are wearing into a groove that facilitates dorsoventral motion and restricts lateral movement.

  10. 12

    I don’t think he’s advocating that “You have an intellectual and moral obligation to be friends with people who hurt you.”

    As I read his post, he’s just saying that if you aren’t talking and listening to people who don’t share your background and viewpoint, you are cocooning yourself ideologically and that’s not a good thing. Nowhere does he claim you have to be ‘friends’ in any way other than being able to hold a civil conversation with them on a regular basis. After all, it’s possible to hold a conversation about values and ideas with someone who disagrees with you without being hurt.

  11. 13

    I guess it bears repeating: Reich’s “cocoon hypothesis” is simply, flatly false.

    First, it is flatly untrue that most of us are unaware of the “ideas and values” of our ideological and political opponents. That’s why we’re opponents. (Kinda obvious once you think about it, isn’t it?)

    Second, it is flatly untrue that communities which share fundamental values are intellectually or ideologically homogenous. We liberal social justice types disagree amongst ourselves *all the time.* Want an example? How about that time that Greta Christina disagreed with Robert Reich about the value of engaging with those who don’t share our values? (Oh…right.)

    Third, it is flatly untrue that “conversations” between individuals with fundamentally different values and perspectives stimulate deeper reflection. When I bump into an Objectivist (“The Strong *should* dominate the Weak; take *that*, the Weak!”), our total lack of common ground means that no real engagement is possible. The objectivist will dismiss me as parasitic vermin determined to drag their superior selves down into the muck; and I will dismiss them as victims of juvenile delusions. So be it. I suppose I might be stimulated to make up some kind of meta-value narrative about why my egalitarian inclinations are “better,” but inventing justifications for what I already believe is not exactly “deeper reflection.” I’m much more likely to learn something from interacting with people with whom I share a great deal of common ground — “conversations” occur between individual who are different but mutually comprehensible.

    A friend once said something very wise to me: “I’m not going to participate in any conversation in which whether I should be allowed to exist is up for discussion.” That’s a pretty good way to define the boundary between acceptable and unacceptable conversations. Similarly, conversations in which the full humanity of myself, my friends, or the majority of humans (a.k.a. women and girls) are up for discussion are not conversations I plan to join.

    Finally, Reich’s hypothesis seems grounded in the assumption that people who disagree with us, more or less by definition, know something we don’t. That’s just false equivalence. While neither “side” in American politics has a monopoly on falsehood, one side does have a pretty solid corner on the market for truth. And it’s disingenuous to pretend that “we” have much to learn from a movement defined largely by a contempt for facts and an embrace of ignorance and delusion.

    I might be able to take Reich a little more seriously if he were to point to a concrete example of what he’s talking about. What, exactly, did his “conservative friend” get him to think about “more deeply?” Did this lunch even really happen? Or is Reich’s merely engaging in a bit of vacuous self-congratulation?

  12. 14

    I’m agreeing on both points. No obligation of respect for scoundrels. And the deeper stain of Right wing sewage in contemporary life.

    But in other times and places, bubble-formation has worked as much mischief from other directions too.

  13. 15

    I can think of a 4th one:

    Your ideas may not be completely dissimilar from their own, but the p0litics, long held ideals, and misunderstandings they hold to mean you will *never* be on the same page anyway. This is, in fact, the core principle, I think, of the poisoning that certain groups in the political process have been doing for years, even before some blowhard decided to declare, “The government is the problem!”, as though you can blame the sinking ship for the fact that its been intentionally infested with termites.

    A good example of this, and one I see way too often, is the guy I talked to a few days back who said, “I completely agree with everything you say is wrong, and why its wrong, and even that Trump is going to screw it up worse, but ‘I refuse to vote for a Democrat.'” Yeah.. not much you can do about someone whose stance is, “The side I plan to vote for is the cause of nearly every bloody problem we see right now, but I just don’t trust those damn liberals!” (ignoring for the moment the glaring flaw in calling the vast majority of Democratic politicians “liberals”, in any real sense).

    It is, sadly, possible to find yourself on opposite sides of the line, aiming a metaphorical (one hopes) gun at someone who, without the bloody political legerdemain getting in the way, would be side by side with you, fighting the real enemies instead. And, short of, maybe deprogamming?, its not clear how you get past that, when it happens.

  14. 16

    I wonder if Mr Reich also makes a point of having monthly lunches with a radical feminist friend, an Islamist friend, or a revolutionary Marxist friend? Does his circle of friends who make him think include black separatists, neo-Nazis, or members of Earth First!?

    Somehow, I suspect that he only open to having his ideas challenged from certain perspectives – ones which, in reality, aren’t all that different to his own.

  15. 17

    @Greta, +1 for the article.
    Wait, make that a +100. I’m going to copy and paste it every time the subject turns up.

    As Saad once said: “Anyone want to call me to have a private fight about whether women should have human rights or whether black people should be leads in movies? I promise I won’t call you names because that would be dehumanizing.”

  16. 18

    I really don’t like it when people brand a certain viewpoint or person as “conservative” or “right-wing,” as if to automatically discredit it. Conservatism means so many different things, even in American politics. Donald Trump is considered conservative. Ayaan Hirsi Ali also gets called conservative, by many “progressive” news outlets. She advocates for secularism and women’s rights, but apparently is also a war-mongerer. How much does that label really say about their respective beliefs, ideals, and philosophies? It’s not fair to equate conservatism with bigotry or toxicity.

  17. 19

    As a cis, straight, white, some-college educated, middle class, married atheist male, I fully agree with Greta.

    I’ll take it one step further.

    If you, like me, are kind of at the intersection where all the privileges are (except for being an atheist), then it is imperative that you DO have those friends on the other side.

    Me, for instance: I don’t have to deal with feelings generated by conservative narratives about me, personally, on the reg. So I listen to the stories of people who are not like me, and do my best to be an ally to them. And I try to understand their stories as best I can.

    I do this because I might be the only way that [random conservative friend] will ever get exposed to that story. I would spare anyone the pain of having to re-live this crap just to bend another ear. But I, being privilegedly impervious (and a contentious prick, to boot) can do so all damned day.

    My friend Callie once referred to this as “weaponizing my privilege.”

  18. 20

    The problem I have with conservatives as friends is that I tend to find them rather ignorant and condescending.

    At first they assume that the reason I don’t agree with them is that I just don’t understand what they are saying. Sorry, no, I do understand free market ideology, I just consider it facile.

    Having patronized me by assuming I am ignorant, their next move is to claim that I am ‘over educated’ and therefore ‘don’t understand how the real world works’. I have spent the past 25 years working on Internet security. I have written a book on Internet crime.

    Even the politicians aren’t much better. I knew quite a few folk in Cameron’s cabinet at Oxford. While their views are deeply held they are scarcely deeply thought out. When faced with a political question, the question they ask is ‘which policy is best for my career’ not ‘which policy is best for the country’.

    Right now these same people are telling me that I don’t understand what the Trump people are angry about. Oh no, I understand exactly what they are angry about. They believed Reagan when he told them that the wealth would trickle down, it never did. What I don’t understand is why they imagine that the reason it didn’t trickle down was that black people, gays, Latinos took it from them when all the evidence suggests that it was taken by the likes of Romney and Trump.

    Or rather I do understand why they trust such an obvious con-man as Trump. I wrote a book on Internet crime, I know con men. They are so wrapped up in a false self image where they tell themselves constantly that they are very very smart (with a good brain) they totally dismiss all evidence that challenges that view. So when they meet someone who disagrees with their opinion, it must be because he is stupid. Then when they discover I have a doctorate in Nuclear Physics they move on to their next strategy for shutting out unpleasant evidence.

    And its not just with me, they approach everything and everyone the same way. It doesn’t take them very long to convince themselves that they are experts on climate change and all the scientists are frauds.

    I just don’t find people like that interesting to talk to. I find them limited and predictable.

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