New York Times columnist Frank Bruni spoke at Middlebury on January 9, delving into the relationships between identity politics and free speech.

MIDDLEBURY, Vt. – New York Times columnist Frank Bruni appeared before a full house in Wilson Hall on January 9 and decried how identity politics, fueled largely by social media, is polarizing America and pulling us further apart from each other.

“Identity politics too often separates us,” Bruni declared. “It sorts us. It tucks us into cliques and clusters without pathways and points of connection between them, so we regard each other from a distance that amplifies mistrust, nurtures misunderstanding, and feeds a sense of conflict and competition. It too often erodes common ground.”

The combined effect of digital technology, the Internet, and social media has been the opposite of what it should have been and what it was intended to be, he continued. “They were supposed to hasten our voyages to new viewpoints and revelatory information, but instead they have shrunk our fields of view and edited out everything beyond the frame.

“They herd us with ever-greater efficiency into like-minded cliques, into gated communities of political, intellectual, and cultural thought; they trap us into sameness, not giving us diverse experiences, but versions of the same experience over and over again.”

The connection between technology and identity politics was Bruni’s central thesis. He pointed out that online music services such as Pandora and Spotify “are designed to keep giving us versions of what we already experienced,” and the same thing applies when you buy books from Amazon or stream content from Netflix. “These dynamics are pushing you toward having the same experience over and over again.”

A Middlebury student asks Frank Bruni a question during his talk at Wilson Hall on January 9.

Facebook and Twitter are culpable too, he said, for echoing back at us “our pre-existing [political] views … reassuring us that we are right and letting us marinate in our own convictions.”

The curation of the news we see online “is geared for narrowness and sameness,” the columnist said. Whereas Americans used to be consumers of reality, now we are designers of our own reality—a reality that Jim Rutenberg of the Times has labeled “The Daily Me.”

Identity politics in the Internet Age has also reduced our capacity for empathy, and this concerns Bruni, especially on college campuses today.

Speaking to the students in the audience of nearly 400 people, he said, “I hope you will use these years to become a bigger person rather than a smaller one, to become a broader person rather than a narrower one, because we live in a world right now that’s constantly trying to narrow us. We have to push back against [that pressure], and college is a great, great time to begin doing that.”

Later he said, “The whole point of being here is to venture across that terrain”—i.e., the different ideas and perspectives available to college students—“and to explore it. You can decide to expand your parameters and to rattle your presumptions. That is the point of education, and I’d argue that it is its highest purpose.

“Education is about the cultivation of empathy, which in its true form isn’t warm feelings toward members of your tribe; it’s the ability to consider and understand the feelings of somebody else’s [tribe].”

Bruni continued: “The study of history, literature, languages, and science prepares you to live respectfully in a diverse society by constructing bridges, exhorting you to cross them, and illuminating not just where our experiences diverge but where they dovetail… . Emotional safety is an unreasonable expectation. Colleges can’t provide it because neither can life. And intellectual safety is the opposite of what colleges should create.”

Before taking questions from the audience, the 23-year veteran of the Times newsroom offered a final thought. “Identity politics should never become a cocoon. And it doesn’t have to be, not if it rightly insists that the world understand the hardships that a given group confronts, while also cultivating partnerships and stressing points of connection between groups.”

The talk, titled “Conversations with Frank Bruni,” was sponsored by the Vermont Humanities Council, the Mellon Foundation, and the Office of President Laurie L. Patton. It also was the second of five events in the College’s new series of programs, titled “Listening and Speaking in Public Spheres.” In addition to the students, faculty, staff, and community members gathered in Wilson Hall, an estimated 225 additional people watched a live stream of the talk in Dana Auditorium.

Reporting by Robert Keren; Photos by Todd Balfour