Thursday, April 22, 2010

Yet Another Post on Epistemic Closure

Conservatives are butting heads over at the Corner. Jim Manzi stirred the pot by accusing fellow Cornerite Mark Levin of “wingnuttery” in connection with the discussion of climate change in his best selling Liberty and Tyranny. That prompted Cornites Kathryn Jean Lopez and Andy McCarthy to rush to Levin’s defense. Their closing ranks around Levin may look like a straightforward confirmation of the thesis that the community of conservatives is suffering from “epistemic closure” (on which I’ve already commented here and here). But it’s more complicated than that.

McCarthy wasn’t addressing Manzi’s substantive criticisms of Levin—that’s a task he has expressly left for another occasion. He was taking Manzi to task for a breach of etiquette.

“I would just observe that Jim Manzi's post on Mark Levin's widely acclaimed book is beneath him. No one minds a good debate, but Jim's gratuitously nasty tone — ‘awful,’ ‘Trilateral Commission,’ ‘wingnuttery,’ etc. — is just breathtaking. I've read a number of Jim's articles and posts over the years, including more than a few involving exchanges with other writers. He has always struck me as a model of civility, especially in his disagreements with the Left. Why pick Mark for the Pearl Harbor treatment?”
Ideologues of all stripes routinely turn substantive political principles into rules of etiquette. We can’t begin to understand how deliberation by an ideological community works, and what counts as “epistemic closure” in that context, without getting a handle on this crucial dynamic. Please excuse the length of this post; ideological etiquette is a complicated phenomenon encompassing both an ideological community's mandatory beliefs (political correctness), and how it goes about forming new beliefs (civility).

Let me try to explain what I have in mind by means of an autobiographical reminiscence. Like a lot of middle-class mothers, mine made a determined, if unsuccessful, effort to make me into a gentleman. Teaching me some semblance of table manners was part of that enterprise. When it came to eating soup, for instance, she insisted that I fill my spoon by guiding it toward the far end of the bowl, before abruptly reversing course and bringing it deftly to my (always too audibly slurping) lips. In yet another gesture of childish rebellion, I pointed out that there were advantages to filling my spoon by moving it toward my body and then conveying it to my mouth in one economical motion. I proposed this technique as a generous compromise between my mother’s wishes about my soup-eating and my own preference for dispensing with the spoon entirely. Shrewdly, she told me to shut up.

She was right. She hadn’t been opining on the ergonomics of soup-eating, but raising a point of etiquette. My proposal showed that I didn’t, or wouldn’t, understand what etiquette was all about. The prescribed way to eat soup is the right way, not because it’s the uniquely rational way to do it, but because it’s the way the right people already do it. Conforming to established practice wasn’t a matter of getting the soup down one’s gullet with the least expenditure of energy but of showing solidarity with polite society. It’s entirely fitting, then, that proper soup-eating should be a little inefficient. People ought to be ready to endure a little inconvenience in the name of social propriety. Anyone for whom it’s too much trouble isn’t a conscientious objector with a better idea; he’s just a slob.

I’d made the mistake of thinking that the practices commended by the rules of etiquette needed to be defended on their merits. The point of etiquette, however, isn’t to persuade people to follow some independently justified set of best practices. It’s to draw distinctions among people according to the “correctness” of their conduct, that is, the extent to which it conforms to arbitrary, but generally recognized, conventions. Of course, political convictions aren’t arbitrary conventions inasmuch as they originate in deliberation and invite reasoned criticism. Political correctness consists in treating them as if they were so that they can play a role in an ideological community roughly analogous to that table manners play in polite society.

That makes it sound like every outbreak of political correctness on the other side marks a surrender of intellectual integrity. Yet even an ideological community firing on all cylinders as an engine of objectivity needs to turn core convictions into rules of etiquette. Objective political deliberation is crucially a matter of testing our political beliefs against our ethical and empirical common sense. But common to whom? We can’t start deliberating without identifying a circle of people whose political principles and moral reflexes carry weight in our eyes. Our core political values aren’t branded on our foreheads for all to see. Ideologues therefore need a protocol for spotting comrades in a crowd as a prelude to deliberating together. Ideological etiquette enables them to show each other that their hearts are in the right place by deriding incorrect opinions and belittling the people who voice them.

Seen in this light, political correctness isn’t an impediment to political objectivity, but one of its social preconditions. Granted, it preempts deliberation insofar as it rules questions that challenge certain prescribed beliefs out of bounds. But it makes objectivity-enhancing deliberation on other issues possible by enabling ideologues to identify the people entitled to a seat at the table at which their community’s deliberations occur. No ideological community can deliberate effectively about anything if it tries to deliberate about everything all at once. It needs to generate orthodoxies before it can deliberate at all.

That makes etiquette essential to sound deliberation by an ideological community in at least two respects:

First, it fixes a boundary at any given point in time between those issues that are, and are not, candidates for collective deliberation, by generating a body of political correct positions. Ideological communities need to observe that boundary because, like individual ideologues, they have finite attention spans. No politically engaged person can afford to stew about any political issue indefinitely. Life is too short to do anything but make up one’s mind as best one can and move on to other things. There comes a time in politics when deliberation must give way to conviction, and conviction to action.

The same goes for an ideological community; it needs eventually to make up its corporate mind about an issue under deliberation. When it does, an orthodox position had emerged in each camp that most of its members have, by their own lights, pretty good reasons for embracing. That doesn’t mean that scattered individuals wouldn’t change their minds and, if need be, adjust their ideological affiliations accordingly. Individuals are always repositioning themselves within, and migrating among, ideological communities without undermining the communities’ collective judgments. But there can’t be ideological communities for anyone to situate themself within, or defect from, without durable political orthodoxies.

Second, an ideological community’s etiquette prescribes the manner in which its members address unresolved issues. Political correctness only impairs an ideological community’s objectivity when it immunizes a political position from intra-community challenges prematurely, before the community has settled on good reasons for subscribing to it. The parallel with individual ideologues still holds. Habitual opportunism or dogmatism can turn an individual ideologue’s core convictions into hollow rationalizations. In the former case, he neglects to ask himself whether a politically expedient position he’s taken is consistent with his principles, in the latter, whether he can really stomach his principles’ application to a new situation.

Negligence of either kind can be explained by what psychologists call “the reduction of cognitive dissonance” and the rest of us call “wishful thinking.” People tend to repress inconvenient experiences that undermine beliefs in which they’re psychologically invested. Facts that don’t fit a preferred narrative can be summarily ignored. Ideologues have a lot riding on the success of their partisan projects and the unassailability of their core beliefs. That’s why they’re often the last to know that they’ve compromised their objectivity.

When it gets out of hand, political correctness functions as the interpersonal analogue of the psychological pressures clouding an individual’s political judgment. An ideologue loses his bearings by repressing inconvenient doubts about conventional ideological wisdom. Ideological communities lose theirs by banishing or silencing the troublesome members who voice inconvenient doubts. The intellectual costs of that process are often invisible to the people who set it in motion just because it operates through the medium of etiquette. Gentlemen shun a rube picking his teeth at the dinner table not because they’ve weighed the pro and cons of that practice, but because they’re bred to recoil from uncouth behavior. Ideologues shun politically incorrect people less out of conscious reflection than out of the reflexive sense of propriety that comes with playing on an ideological team. That’s why they can be so adept at spotting every intellectual corner cut by political opponents, but blithely unaware that they’re cutting corners themselves.

A thriving ideological community has the metabolism of a shark. It has to keep moving to sustain itself, digesting new ideas through genuine deliberation to reproduce the politically correct muscle mass that gives it definition and vigor. When political correctness impedes its movement by preempting deliberation about issues as they arise, the shark swims in aimless circles and withers. Sometimes you find one floating upside down in the water, like Marxist-Leninism, because it has reached something approaching total epistemic closure.

Most ideological communities, however, are animated by more adaptable ideals and a sense of how the social world works that is sufficiently sensitive to emerging facts to sustain them through their bad stretches. They sometimes paddle along with withered fins for a time until they regain their vigor by recovering their capacity to deliberate. The politically relevant measure of “epistemic closure,” I submit, is an ideological community's capacity to see its emaciating tendencies for what they are.  How things play out at the Corner will be an interesting test case for the conservative movement on this score.

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