It’s tempting to dismiss outright any piece of writing that begins with “So I took an online quiz…” However, I ask that you bear with me long enough to see the larger point.
So I took this online quiz (hosted by PBS), called “Do You Live In A Bubble?”, at the suggestion of my very intelligent wife. The idea is:
I assumed going in that I would score fairly high (thin bubble), due to my background of crossing culture and socioeconomic lines. I’ve been poor and am now upper middle class. I’ve worked in a factory and in landscaping, but also occupied a desk in a newspaper office. I’ve been both an evangelical Christian and an atheist. As it turned out, I was correct; my score was 68.
But very quickly, I learned the bias of this quiz. Not only the initial description, but the questions themselves, assume that “we” are the “elite” and “mainstream America” is someone else. The metaphorical bubble is ours, keeping us from understanding them.
Not once did any part of the quiz assume I might be one of them and therefore have a bubble preventing me from understanding us. Yet the bubble is very real from the other side too.
In one sense, everyone has a bubble of sorts (thus answering my rhetorical title question). You can only know what you’ve experienced. Sometimes the bubble is self-induced — “Let’s avoid that neighborhood” or “I would never apply for that job”, but very often the bubble, like so much else in life, is an accident of birth. Almost none of us chose to be U.S. citizens; we were born here. Often our socioeconomic status and religion is determined by birth as well, like our language, our general appearance, and so on.
But the point is that the bubble works both ways, or at least I think it does. Take two people: (1) an East Coast elite, born and raised in a wealthy family, educated at Ivy League schools, familiar with the high-brow arts, enjoys fine wines and/or craft beers, moves in circles dominated by others just like them; and (2) a rural blue collar worker, uneducated beyond secondary school, listens to country and western music, watches NASCAR and college football, enjoys fast food and/or domestic beer, moves in circles dominated by others just like them. Is Person 1 any more or less likely to be familiar with Person 2’s experience than Person 2 is to be familiar with Person 1’s?
I think Person 1 and Person 2 are just as likely to have heard of the other type of life, and just as likely to look down on it. I think both are under the same obligation to grow more familiar with the other, and to understand the accidents of birth that separate them.
When I retook the quiz pretending to be a different person, I got a score of 97 points — basically “no bubble”. All it took was changing my answer on a few questions — whether I’ve served in the military, which restaurants I’ve eaten at in the past few years, and my familiarity with NASCAR. This is too one-sided for me.
To be true to life, the quiz should have asked my familiarity with certain musicals or ballet productions, which high-end brands of clothing I’ve purchased in the past year, or prompted me to identify classical composers. I think that it would then show a bubble for almost everyone, but it could identify which bubble a person is in.