Saturday, September 29, 2012

When conversation becomes a threat

We are witnessing a fascinating psychological phenomenon these days from those on the right of the political spectrum. As polling suggests that Mitt Romney is going to loose the election (perhaps badly), conservatives are experiencing the cognitive dissonance of the world not behaving as they've come to believe it would/should.

What it comes down to is that their anger/fear of President Obama is so extreme that they couldn't countenance that the rest of the country might not feel the same way. The reality of the polls is challenging their assumptions. And so what do they do? Dismiss the polls. Contrary to what we might think, that behavior is not all that uncommon amongst human beings...we tend to dismiss information that conflicts with how we've come to see the world. Its just that conservatives (and a few liberals I might add) have been able to take this kind of thing to a whole new level.

No one described this phenomenon better than Julian Sanchez a couple of years ago. He even gave it a name - epistemic closure. The definition of epistemic is: "of or relating to knowledge or to the degree of its validation." And so here's how Sanchez talks about the right's tendency these days to close themselves off from knowledge:
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!) This epistemic closure can be a source of solidarity and energy, but it also renders the conservative media ecosystem fragile... Internal criticism is then especially problematic, because it threatens the hermetic seal. It’s not just that any particular criticism might have to be taken seriously coming from a fellow conservative. Rather, it’s that anything that breaks down the tacit equivalence between “critic of conservatives and “wicked liberal smear artist” undermines the effectiveness of the entire information filter. If disagreement is not in itself evidence of malign intent or moral degeneracy, people start feeling an obligation to engage it sincerely—maybe even when it comes from the New York Times. And there is nothing more potentially fatal to the momentum of an insurgency fueled by anger than a conversation. A more intellectually secure conservatism would welcome this, because it wouldn’t need to define itself primarily in terms of its rejection of an alien enemy.
(Emphasis mine)

Note that he refers to the conservative media ecosystem as fragile. This is inherently true of any set of ideas that has to wall itself off from criticism.  If your ideas cannot tolerate engagement, they are inherently fragile. And that is precisely why conversation becomes a threat.

I don't for one minute think that when Sanchez is referring to conversation, he means the kind of ideological battle we often see in the comment threads of blogs. Very often that is an attempt to dismiss conversation rather than engage in it.

Thinking about that takes me back to something Michael Lewis said about how President Obama constructs meetings when he has to make the tough calls.
He likes to make decisions by having his mind occupying the various positions. He likes to imagine holding the view.
That's what someone does when they want to enter a real conversation not beholden to ideology or dogmatism - but to decide on the very best course of action (pragmatic problem-solving at its best).

It also reminds me of an article I wrote about two years ago by James Kloppenberg.
Throughout his career, Obama has refused to demonize his opponents. Instead, he has sought them out and listened to them. He has tried to understand how they think and why they see the world as they do. His mother encouraged this sense of empathy, and it’s a lesson Obama learned well. Since January 2009, Obama has watched his efforts at reconciliation, experimentation, and -consensus--building bounce off the hard surfaces of political self-interest and entrenched partisanship, but there is no reason to think he will abandon that strategy now. He knows that disagreement is a vital part of the American fabric, and that our differences are neither shallow nor trivial.

Although Obama’s reform agenda echoes aspects of those advanced by many Democrats over the last century, he has admitted—and this is the decisive point in understanding his outlook—that his opponents hold principles rooted as deeply in American history as his own. “I am obligated to try to see the world through George Bush’s eyes, no matter how much I may disagree with him,” he wrote in Audacity. “That’s what empathy does—it calls us all to task, the conservative and the liberal … We are all shaken out of our complacency.” Obama rejects dogma, embraces uncertainty, and dismisses the fables that often pass for history among partisans on both sides who need heroes and villains, and who resist more-nuanced understandings of the past and the present...

After almost two years as president, Obama has failed to satisfy the left for the same reason that he has antagonized the right. He does not share their self-righteous certainty.
That's what it means to have an actual conversation.

From all this we can see why that kind of engagement is something Republicans fear the most and President Obama thinks is our greatest tool. He has confidence in our ability to sort things out, whereas all they have is fear and fragility. He is inviting us to share that confidence and engage the conversation.
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. This is more than just a matter of "framing," although clarity of language, thought, and heart are required. It's a matter of actually having faith in the American people's ability to hear a real and authentic debate about the issues that matter.


  1. The Sanchez piece to which you link is very important. One of the things that's problematic in our political discourse is that it includes things that it should not, because they are not political in nature. The President's refusal, for example, to accept even his own ideology without checking it against facts. This isn't a shift on his part to the political right. It's technical question. If you want to get things done, you always need to check your ideas against reality. This is not something the right is doing much these days.

    "Family values," too, for example, or "faith." Those are not political issues but have become part of the political discourse. Those two are whole other discussions, though.

  2. I'm listening to the audiobook of "Renegade" right now, and that last quote is in there. The book is giving me so much appreciation for how truly extraordinary Obama is as a politician, and how much his time as a community organizer helped to shape those extraordinary qualities.