Sunday, February 3, 2013

The "you're one of them" argument

A couple of years ago Julian Sanchez set off a firestorm by talking about "epistemic closure" amongst conservatives. Here's how he defined it:
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...If disagreement is not in itself evidence of malign intent or moral degeneracy, people start feeling an obligation to engage it sincerely...And there is nothing more potentially fatal to the momentum of an insurgency fueled by anger than a conversation.
Its like shooting fish in a barrel to spend time pointing out how this kind of thing has infected the right wing these days. I'd rather do some self-examination to see if we run into the same kind of thing on the left.

With the explosion of the internet, we are all able to cordon ourselves off into reading and hanging out on sites that basically reinforce our views. But occasionally we're going to run into people with whom we disagree. Sanchez did a good job of describing how that is often handled. For conservatives, they simply write it off as coming from the "liberal media." But let me give you a couple of examples of how we on the left do the same thing.

Yesterday I wrote about a exchange I had at Daily Kos about Glenn Greenwald. Here's what one commenter had to say about those of us who were critiquing him.
Well this thread has done nothing but underscore the fact that Greenwald brings out the batshit in some liberals.

But why? That's the interesting question. Hard to escape the conclusion that his vigorous criticism of the man in the White House is mostly the reason.
Or how about this one?
so i now happen to think that your view is not entirely based upon GG's positions, but more on whose positions GG is critiquing.
You see what they did there? Anyone who has participated in the Obamarox/Obamasux battles at Daily Kos has heard this one. Rather than engage in a conversation about the issue at hand, you are written off as "one of them" and dismissed.

Now lets bring it a little closer to home. A few months ago Mayor Cory Booker said something monumentally stupid during an appearance on Meet the Press. It ticked off a lot of President Obama's supporters - rightly so. But instead of simply disagreeing with what Booker said, some folks needed to label him as "one of them." Steve Kornacki, for example, had a field day on that one. All of a sudden, Booker was a "Wall Street stooge."

The effects of the "you're one of them" argument is, as Sanchez pointed out, to end conversation.
If disagreement is not in itself evidence of malign intent or moral degeneracy, people start feeling an obligation to engage it sincerely...And there is nothing more potentially fatal to the momentum of an insurgency fueled by anger than a conversation.
So in other words, its not technically an "argument" as much as a dismissal.

I'd like to suggest that we pragmatic progressives are not "an insurgency fueled by anger" and that we want nothing more than to engage in conversation. In that, I am reminded of how James Kloppenberg described President Obama.
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...He knows that disagreement is a vital part of the American fabric, and that our differences are neither shallow nor trivial.

...“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.” 
And I'm also reminded of this gem from Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor.
If you want to change someone's mind, you must understand what need shapes his or her opinion. To prevail, you must first listen...
I need to add that I'm speaking to myself here as much as I am to anyone else. I suspect that we all grab the "you're one of them" argument from time to time. But I can also tell you that I spend a lot of time trying to be aware of my own tendency towards epistemic closure. I don't think any of us are immune. The only way to combat that kind of thing is to be aware of our own vulnerabilities.


  1. What you are talking about is important. Anyone who doubts this should read your post again, and try to put aside the cognitive dissonance that is occurring by virtue of being a member of one faction or another, and generally unwilling to really listen to or understand the point of view of those who hold different views.

    The cognitive dissonance I am talking about comes when someone reads a criticism, say of Glenn Greenwald, and responds negatively to that criticism because they usually agree with Glenn Greenwald. Therefore they are likely to write off the person criticizing Glenn Greenwald as an enemy, instead of coming to terms with their argument.

    Another kind of cognitive dissonance occurs when you equate Glenn Greenwald fans with fans of Fox News. The Glenn Greenwald fan is going to think, hey, I don't agree with Fox News at all. Therefore I can't possibly be anything like the people who watch Fox News. Oh, but you can.

    Are the people who watch Rachel Maddow more open-minded and tolerant than the people who watch Sean Hannity? Only if they stop calling the people who watch Sean Hannity names.

    1. Thanks Joe.

      This is one of those things that can be hard to see in yourself.

  2. I think one of the primary differences between the liberal mindset and the conservative is that we are far more aware of what the conservatives are saying and thinking. We're bombarded with it every day. The conservatives on the other hand only have the stereotypes and myths about what they think we believe. They don't listen at all.

    I guard against epistemic closure all the time. Yes, I'm particular about whose words I chose to digest because I prefer thoughtful and intelligent and informed. Even still I experience shifting beliefs on an almost daily basis. I'm perfectly happy to start out the day believing one thing about an event and ending the day believing something different. It's a challenge, but I'm okay with that. The people who are happier falling in line can't tolerate that challenge. They need things cut and dried and easy to repeat.

    One exercise that keeps me open to new information on a regular basis is genealogy. I'm constantly discovering new data that forces me to revise my opinion about family facts and data. The key to success in that hobby is the willingness to admit I got something wrong and be willing to correct it. People who thrive in epistemic closure cannot, by their very nature, admit they are ever wrong.

    A flexible mind and the ability to accept we are wrong are critical to avoiding the closure trap. I don't think you're in any danger of falling prey to that trap, Smartypants.

    1. One of the ways I deal with the closure trap is by assuming I do it. I'm actually a bit obsessive about examining how. I'm not bragging about that. Its a weight I think I carry due to the fact that I had to process my way out from under all that right wing christian fundamentalism. Questioning myself sort of became a habit.


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