By William Saletan
Two days ago at the University of Michigan, President Obama criticized the “echo chamber” of today’s electronic media. “We now have the option to get our information from any number of blogs or websites or cable news shows,” he observed. “If we choose only to expose ourselves to opinions and viewpoints that are in line with our own, studies suggest that we become more polarized, more set in our ways.” This trend doesn’t just fracture society, he argued. It also “prevents learning.”
Obama’s speech was itself an echo. For the past month, the blogosphere has been buzzing about this phenomenon. Libertarian blogger Julian Sanchez, who kicked off the conversation on March 26, called the impaired-learning problem “epistemic closure.” He defined it as confining oneself to a mutually reinforcing network of partisan commentators and news sources. If you watch only Fox News or read only angry left-wing blogs, you become closed to contrary information. You lose touch with reality.
The online discussion started with the ouster of David Frum from the American Enterprise Institute after Frum criticized fellow conservatives for their partisanship in the health care debate. Then MSNBC booted guest host Donny Deutsch off the air after he used two MSNBC anchors to illustrate left-wing rage. Several writers have contributed thoughtful essays to the conversation, most notably Sanchez, Ross Douthat, Jim Manzi, and Noah Millman. We’re all learning as we go, but a few lessons seem clear. If you don’t want to end up in a groupthink ghetto, here are 10 ways to keep your mind free.
1. Treat insularity as a weakness. If you don’t seriously consider your opponents’ best arguments, you’ll be unprepared to answer them. If you don’t engage people whose premises differ from yours, you’ll never learn to persuade them and broaden your movement. If you don’t heed changes in the country’s needs and political climate, you’ll fail to adapt and survive. A conservative who matches wits with the New York Times every day is stronger than one who mainlines Fox.
2. Don’t be a sucker for conspiracy theories. Sanchez goes through a list of bogus or overhyped stories that have consumed Fox and the right-wing blogosphere: ACORN, Climategate, Obama’s supposed Muslim allegiance, and whether Bill Ayers wrote Obama’s memoir. Conservatives trapped in this feedback loop, he notes, become “far too willing to entertain all sorts of outlandish new ideas—provided they come from the universe of trusted sources.” When you think you’re being suspicious, you’re at your most gullible.
3. Never define yourself by an enemy. Conservatives duck internal disputes because their coalition is “a motley assortment of political tendencies united primarily by their opposition to liberalism,” writes Douthat. The only thing they agree on is “trashing Obama.” Megan McArdle makes a similar point: “The Republican Party is not putting forward bold new ideas; its energy lies in thwarting the Democrats’ policy plans.” Accordingly, conservatives reinforce their identity by denouncing dissenters as closet liberals. Bruce Bartlett, who was kicked out of a conservative think tank after criticizing George W. Bush, calls this “a closed loop in which any opinions or facts that conflict with the conservative worldview are either avoided, ignored or automatically dismissed on the grounds that they must be liberal or come from liberals.” The net result of this reflexive antipathy is that conservatives don’t define what they stand for. Liberals do. Whatever you’re for, we’re against.
4. Don’t outsource your beliefs to your allies. Douthat explains how Republican factions defer to one another: “Pro-lifers handle abortion, Grover Norquist handles taxes, the neoconservatives handle foreign policy and the Competitive Enterprise Institute handles environmental regulations.” The problem is that “nobody stops to consider if the whole constellation of policy ideas still makes sense, or matches up the electorate’s concerns, or suits the challenges of the moment.” Maybe it’s time to ask those questions.
5. Seek wisdom, not just victory. Some conservative bloggers, responding to Sanchez and his sympathizers on the right, dismiss conversation with the liberal enemy as a political trap. Creative policy ideas won’t bring Republicans to power, argues Jonah Goldberg, and “political reality” dictates that “when liberals control all of the policy-making apparatus, being the party of no is a perfectly rational stance.” Hogan, a blogger at Redstate, takes this argument further, reasoning that it’s OK to “distill” complex facts to propaganda “when you are at war” with the left. Such ruthlessness might be the surest path to power. But what’s the point of power if you haven’t learned how to govern? “An open mind seeks wisdom, first and last,” writes Millman. I can’t put it better than that.
6. Distrust polarization. Conservatives who see the epistemic-closure conversation as a political threat describe politics as a “team” contest. They call environmentalism a “Trojan Horse for socialism,” assert that Democrats are “for ever higher taxes,” and depict a choice between “saying no” to Obama and saying “as you wish” to whatever he asks. “It is once again a time for choosing, and I choose to fight the statists,” declares Hogan. On this view, everything is binary: Either you’re with us or you’re a tax-loving socialist. I’ve seen the same dynamic on the left, where internal critics are dismissed as “concern trolls.” That’s too bad. If you’re seeing the world in black and white, you’re missing all the color.
7. Look in the mirror. Some writers have turned the epistemic-closure conversation into a debate over which party is more smug. Conor Friedersdorf, a blogger at the American Scene, aptly mocks their hypocrisy: “There may be a problem in our thinking, but the important thing to focus on is that the other guys are worse.” Goldberg, a perpetrator of this blame-deflecting tactic, is right about one thing: Epistemic closure isn’t unique to any era or faction. It’s a problem “for all human associations and movements.” Challenging your community’s delusions is your responsibility, whether that community is CPAC or Jeremiah Wright’s church.
8. Beware abstraction. This was Bush’s fatal flaw, and it persists in bloggers who boil down all disputes to “statists,” “socialism,” and who’s “consistently conservative.” Hogan’s brush-off is classic: “Nor do I know if every statistic or number in Reagan’s A Time For Choosing speech in 1964 was correct. I DON’T CARE. I know the facts were in the ballpark, and more importantly, the principles were timeless and correct.” Really? “A Time for Choosing” was about the Soviet Union and the Department of Agriculture’s takeover of the U.S. economy. Times and facts have changed. If you want to apply Reagan’s principles today, you’d better adapt them.
9. Test your theories. One sign of a closed worldview is its refusal to risk falsification.
No fossil can debunk creationism; no atrocity can discredit the party; whatever happens is God’s will or history’s mandate. The surest way to puncture this stupor is to make your theories testable. Ezra Klein and David Brooks have brought this spirit to the epistemic closure debate, seeking data that turn out to complicate the picture of who’s closed and why. Douthat, too, has challenged the original theory by showing how politicians, thinkers, and interest groups behave differently. In the face of evidence, theories must evolve.
10. Overcome your urges. Hogan refuses to analyze opposing arguments in detail, arguing that he lacks “the desire” to do so. Perhaps he should brush up on the tradition he purports to represent. Real conservatives understand that desire is a lousy way to run a society. You don’t feel like working? Work. You don’t feel like supporting the kids you fathered? Support them. You don’t feel like challenging your biases? Challenge them. We’re all vain and lazy. In the electronic echo chamber, it’s easier than ever to shut out what you don’t want to hear. Nobody will make you open the door and venture out. You’ll have to do that yourself.
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