Thursday, April 26, 2012

Can we talk?

Julian Sanchez calls it epistemic closure.
One of the more striking features of the contemporary conservative movement is the extent to which it has been moving toward epistemic closure. Reality is defined by a multimedia array of interconnected and cross promoting conservative blogs, radio programs, magazines, and of course, Fox News. Whatever conflicts with that reality can be dismissed out of hand because it comes from the liberal media, and is therefore ipso facto not to be trusted. (How do you know they’re liberal? Well, they disagree with the conservative media!) 
Unfortunately he only focused on this phenomenon as it affected contemporary conservatives. But I'm here to tell you that it is also affecting liberals. Perhaps not to the same extent, but its definitely an issue.

Sometimes its a function of geography. If you live in a liberal urban area like I do, you experience politics very differently than someone living in suburban Dallas (those are simply two places I'm familiar with). But then there's also the challenge of what information we let it. In other words - who do we listen to/read and who do we shut out?

When is the last time you actually had a conversation - in real life or online - with a tea partier? Or a blue dog for that matter? For those of us in the pragmatic progressive arena, when is the last time we had something other than a shouting match with the poutragers? And when did they ever take the time to do anything other than call us a "bot" and do their best to shut us down?

We tend to find those conversations pointless - and rightly so. But what does that mean for democracy? Are we destined to assume that anyone who doesn't agree with us is "the enemy?" And if so, can we ever let down our guard and admit that sometimes we have questions or simply don't know the answers? If not, that's a sure recipe for stagnation.

I was reminded of all this when Sunita Sohoni over at The Maddow Blog posted a link and an image to a physics paper on the subject.

Red and green nodes represent people with different political persuasions, like Democrats and Republicans, and the gray lines between them represent communication, dialogue. A healthy society would look something like the image on the far left, where people have different ideas, and there's a lot of debate and discussion between them. An unhealthy society would look like the example on the far right, where there are two distinct ideologies and little-to-no communication between them. 
One of the co-authors of the paper, Cristian Huepe, says "unfortunately, the fragmented state is a much more common final state" in today's world, due in part to the niche media and something the physicist refers to as "circular referencing".

The truth is that those who disagree with us are not always wrong. And we're not always right. But there's no place for that kind of thinking in our politics today.

Its also very bad for liberals - especially white male heterosexuals ones.

In the broad sense, it leads to sound bites, cynicism and polarization. Those are all things that turn people off to politics and shrink the electorate...feeding right into the Republican agenda.

President Obama put it very well years ago.
I firmly believe that whenever we exaggerate or demonize, or oversimplify or overstate our case, we lose.  Whenever we dumb down the political debate, we lose. A polarized electorate that is turned off of politics, and easily dismisses both parties because of the nasty, dishonest tone of the debate, works perfectly well for those who seek to chip away at the very idea of government because, in the end, a cynical electorate is a selfish electorate... 
Our goal should be to stick to our guns on those core values that make this country great, show a spirit of flexibility and sustained attention that can achieve those goals, and try to create the sort of serious, adult, consensus around our problems that can admit Democrats, Republicans and Independents of good will.
The reason its especially bad for white male heterosexual liberals is that disabusing oneself of privilege means recognizing that part of what the privilege has done is that it has made you unaware of its existence. The only way to deal with that is to get out of our bubble of "sameness" and listen to what those who have different experiences have to tell us.

Ending this isolation in our conversations will inevitably lead to the discomfort of disagreement. But unless we go there - we never grow.

And so I have to wonder...can we talk?


  1. Smartypants, So well said!! I have been posting straight facts on blogs and facebook. This has allowed me to talk calmly with those who would put a spin on said facts, and dismiss my point, until i corroborate my statements. When done so, they admit I have made good points and have a modicum of respect. It feels good on both our parts.

  2. A countervailing factor, though, is that most people don't fall entirely into one "camp" or the other. When you poll people on their positions issue-by-issue instead of just asking whether they label themselves "liberal" or "conservative", it turns out that only about 12% favor the designated "liberal" position on every major issue, and only 8% are similarly across-the-board conservative. The other 80% have some views that are traditionally put in one slot and some that are put in the other (for example, I'm strongly pro-choice on both abortion and gun-ownership rights, even though one of those stands is usually called "liberal" and the other "conservative"), even if they mostly fall in one clump or the other.

    This is what one would expect given that the liberal-vs-conservative allocation of positions is to some extent arbitrary (who the hell decided that favoring worker and union interests should go on the same side as favoring amnesty for illegal aliens?), not philosophically coherent.

    The teabaggers and Christian Right may well represent encapsulated bubbles of fake reality, and there may even be equivalents on the left, though I think the greater respect for objective knowledge discourages it (the extreme reality-denial on the far right nowadays is unusual). But I don't think most Americans live in such bubbles.