Saturday Night Live, Donald Trump, & Breaking Out of the Echo Chamber
“Listen sweetheart, I’m about to be president. We’re all going to die.”
Alec Baldwin’s Saturday Night Live portrayal of then-candidate Donald Trump offered more political commentary than lighthearted roasting over the course of the 2016 presidential election. And Trump has consistently responded via the medium that has come to define him: a Twitter tirade. He’s called the NBC show “[A] complete hit job… Really bad television!,” “totally one-sided, biased… nothing funny,” and “unwatchable.”
Trump’s obsession with television ratings and celebrity status is well-documented, as is his near-constant need to berate his opponents. But his criticism of SNL reveals something more systemic about the 2016 election and our current political climate.
SNL‘s skewering of Trump — his appearance, his politics, even the medium he uses to criticize them — isn’t too different from their other political sketches. However, Trump’s responses highlights a common thread that ran through much political commentary (comedic or otherwise) in the months leading up to the election: SNL was preaching to the choir.
When Trump responded to SNL, no one was particularly shocked to discover that most of his supporters weren’t fans of the show. While Trump was clearly bothered, it didn’t sway the people that showed up to the polls from casting their ballots for him. Furthermore, a quick glance at the replies to his tweets made it clear that many of his supporters weren’t likely to be SNL fans before his skewering, either. It makes sense — a show that’s aired a sketch that depicts all Trump supporters as Klansmen or Neo-Nazis isn’t likely to have much sway with that audience.The Church will have the most robust and faithful engagement with our fallen world when we break out of the echo chamber.
Whether it was Stephen Colbert or Samantha Bee, Anderson Cooper or Bill O’Reilly, most of the near-deafening commentary during election season was primarily reaching an audience already inclined to agree with it. But just as the election exposed pervasive division in our country, it also exposed a likely contributor to this division: the “echo chamber.”
The reality is that most people get their news, commentary, and social interactions from a pretty narrow range of sources. This causes confirmation bias that leads us to underestimate the strengths of any opposing arguments and overestimate the strength of our own. We tend to assume the rest of the world thinks and acts like the small group of people and sources we learn from, even if we’d never admit to this underlying assumption.
Several months ago, I left one of my classes wondering if I should transfer to a different seminary. The class had centered around a particular theological issue that I had strong disagreements with the professor about. As I walked to my small group’s meeting room after class, I thought, “I should have just gone to a seminary that would already agree with me on this.” I was still fuming after my arrival when a friend offered up what she thought was a lighthearted and totally unrelated topic of conversation.
We both work in children’s ministry, and we started talking about how sometimes our curriculum, in an attempt to simplify a story, ends up misinterpreting it. She explained how a recent lesson on Abraham and Lot agreeing to part ways to avoid fighting about land use (Genesis 13) presented this application point: when we disagree, we often need to go to our own camps. We laughed, agreeing that while it was wise in that particular instance, moving away from someone rarely heals division or resolves conflict.
I realized then that my basic instinct after being taught something I disagreed with had been the same as the somewhat silly instructions our curriculum gave our first graders: I wanted to go to my own camp. I wanted to stay cocooned safely in an institution that already agreed with me, surrounded by people who would confirm my opinions and beliefs.
This tendency is alive and well in most of us. I’ll go to my camp and you’ll go to yours, and we won’t have to interact, talk to each other, or rub each other the wrong way. We then curate our Facebook and Twitter feeds to present the least objectionable views. We’re drawn to people and institutions that reflect our beliefs and biases. For many of us, approval starvation prompts us to isolate ourselves within communities that will consistently affirm our opinions and preferences.
It’s not wrong to build community with like-minded people, but limiting the sources we listen to and learn from isn’t just bad for democracy; it’s bad for our Christian witness, too.
Loving our neighbors requires knowing our neighbors and their pain, their joy, and the unique contours of living life in their shoes. When we live in an echo chamber, we can unintentionally ignore or diminish the unique struggles and difficulties of others.
Recent years have exposed the insidious ways such biases can affect the Church, as white Christians struggled to understand the depth of the concern that our black brothers and sisters have about issues of racial justice, mass incarceration, and police brutality. Furthermore, the 2016 election revealed that many Christians living in urban or suburban areas misunderstood or ignored the concerns of rural communities.
The echo chamber effect leads many of us to believe that our experiences in the United States are largely universal, instead of realizing that many of them are mediated by the specific cultural spheres we inhabit and the identities we hold. We can expect a broken and fallen world to naturally encourage division, whether it’s by race, class, gender, or nationality. Perhaps the strongest witness the Church can offer to our world today is to buck the divisions that characterize our political and social spheres and instead, model a kind of diversity that neither ignores difference nor allows it to divide us.
An incredible example of this is the biblical church in Antioch, a church birthed in a city that sounds very similar to our country today: incredibly diverse but segregated by race, ethnicity, and language in order to keep the peace. In Antioch, these different groups were separated by actual walls, a physical version of how we subconsciously operate today, believing that maintaining space between us and those who are different from us will prevent conflict.
However, the Antioch church challenged the city’s system. Acts 11:26 tells us that Antioch was where “the disciples were first called Christians.” In a city accustomed to separating people and referring to them by many different categories, the church needed a new category that could encompass its diverse congregation. That’s the power of the Gospel: not in erasing distinctions or flattening difference, but in tearing down walls. The Antioch church welcomed people from various religious and social backgrounds into a new identity, one defined by their mutual love of Christ.
We don’t have many actual walls to tear down but fighting the echo chamber effect requires some work. The first and easiest thing you can do is diversify the sources you gain news and commentary from, whether that’s in print or online. “Like” pages that represent different ideologies and follow people with different backgrounds and political or theological leanings.
Diversifying the media we consume is an important step, but it can’t stop there. Seek out relationships in your church and community with people from different racial and ideological backgrounds, not just to take information from them but to also seek understanding and to love them better.
Be willing to spend time in and among institutions that represent differing viewpoints, with the express purpose of learning about their positions’ merits rather than just rooting out more problems to attack them with. Avoid strawmen arguments by looking for the best, most thoughtful and fair defenses of other perspectives rather than settling for the first opposing viewpoint and basing your criticism off it alone.
Whether SNL‘s political commentary is any good is another question entirely, but anything of value from Alec Baldwin’s Trump sketches does little more than pump up Trump opponents with warm fuzzy reminders that they’re “right.” SNL‘s audience doesn’t need convincing that Trump is a bad president, just as Fox News’ audience didn’t need any convincing that Obama was one.
Any time we cater to an overly affirming audience, we risk lowering the quality of our engagement. There’s no need for our arguments to be persuasive or our presence to be faithful and good if we know our audience is already on our side. The Church will have the most robust and faithful engagement with our fallen world when we break out of the echo chamber — both to listen and learn, and to speak truth to those outside it.