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September 19, 2010

Epistemic Openness for Passion Fish
Posted by Abi Sutherland at 11:54 AM *

I was chatting to PNH yesterday, and the topic of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ excellent article on compassion came up. Patrick pointed me to the comment thread, wherein Hilzoy, whom I know of as the much-missed Obsidian Wings front-pager, gets into an interesting discussion with Josh Jasper, whose name I’ve heard in so many contexts I can’t recall which one was first. (This was before Elizabeth Bear also made an appearance.)

That reminded me of how much, over the last wee while, I’ve noticed the same people turning up on pretty much all the blogs I currently follow. I recognized one person from Obsidian Wings in a thread here on Making Light; I’ve been watching several local regulars (plus one friend-of-friend from LiveJournal) say wise and good things in the Slacktivist comments; and a couple of names from Crooked Timber have made themselves welcome in our conversations here.

Hm, I thought later, everywhere I go, I see the same people, chewing over the same issues in subtly varying but essentially congruent fora. You know, this is probably what epistemic closure feels like.

But is it? Or is it just a survival tactic in the face of too many people wrong on the internet at once? And more importantly, what should I do about it?

These last weeks, as the Park 51 project has loosened a lot of tongues and the anniversary of 9/11 has unleashed a good deal of anger, the internet has been full of places that hurt me to read. It’s been all too easy to stay in my safe zone, in the blogs where the local views and priorities are close to mine—basically, where the stupid doesn’t burn or splash all over me.

Even so, there’s been an average one regular* per site who has come out with views that aren’t just wrong, but fractally wrong: wrong on every level from the “facts” cited to the conclusions drawn. Formerly reasonable people talk about “a proportion of Muslims” who are terrorists, and thence conclude that “Islam is a religion of violence.” The “moderate Muslims should condemn terrorism” thing comes up repeatedly (nicely skewered here today, by the way).

In some cases these views have been unassailable by factual argument, which makes me think they’re more symbolic beliefs than actual assertions of perceived truth. But even in the situation where a commenter was persuaded to reconsider (and had the grace and character to publicly apologize), the relief and pleasure of the community was as telling as failures elsewhere. They did not expect it.

Now, disagreement is the food of politics and the internet alike, but these extended and oft-fruitless wranglings, particularly in a context where beliefs are cultural markers, do not encourage me to venture past my safe circle. Even where confrontations may be successful, they are often unpleasant, and it’s all too easy to find people digging in their heels until one has to choose between correctness and community.

Me, I tend strongly toward community, which is one reason I don’t thrive on argument. I don’t enjoy participating in the cut-and-thrust of intellectual combat§. But even if I’m not trying persuade them, it’s of value to me to understand the people I disagree with. So how can someone like me† find a way to engage with painfully different perspectives?

I think we’re back to Coates again, this time to the post itself. For other reasons, the question above is exactly what he’s wrestling with in his study of the Civil War. He can’t argue with the people he disagrees with, not because he’s not prone to argument, but because they’re dead. His recommendation:

You have to remove the cloak of the partisan, and assume the garb of the thespian. Instead of prosecuting the Confederate perspective, you have to interrogate it, and ultimately assume it. In no small measure, to understand them, you must become them. For me to seriously consider the words of the slave-holder, which is to say the mind of the slave-holder, for me to see them as human beings, as full and as complicated as anyone else I know, a strange transcendence is requested. I am losing my earned, righteous skin. I know that beef is our birthright, that all our grievance is just. But for want of seeing more, I am compelled to let it go.

What he doesn’t get into is how much that hurts, the way it hurt Eustace to lose his dragon skin in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader:

The very first tear he made was so deep that I thought it had gone right into my heart. And when he began pulling the skin off, it hurt worse than anything I’ve ever felt. The only thing that made me able to bear it as just the pleasure of feeling the stuff peel off.

Peeling off all of our carefully created coping mechanisms, leaving the community where our views and priorities don’t even need to be discussed because they’re obviously true, is like that. And that excruciating shedding-of-self is as important in its own way as the subsequent attempt to assume someone else’s worldview. Because it’s through our own pain and vulnerability that we come to understand the roots of each other’s wrongnesses.

I have come to see that our tormentors had tormentors, that the slave-holding woman was trapped by hoop-skirts and convention, that the man was trapped by lineage and human folly.

The result is what Coates calls compassion. I have another word for it, from another tradition. I call it love. But in either case, for me, it’s the way out of my own safe world.

* None here, thankfully, but enough elsewhere to keep the average up
§ however much I value the clarity it creates when others do it
† I tend to describe myself as a passion fish, which is an eggcorn I got from a children’s TV show.

Comments on Epistemic Openness for Passion Fish:
#1 ::: Josh Jasper ::: (view all by) ::: September 19, 2010, 02:02 PM:

The nice thing about TNC's blog is that, while there are conservatives and dissidents, he's also not afraid to use the ban-hammer when it comes to people who're serious bigots. Sure, he wants to understand, but not at the expense of making his blog an unsafe space.

As for my comment, I said something mostly flip and intended to be humorous about the last paragraph in the original post almost resembling Objectivism, in it's valuing of selfishness. I knew that wasn't what Coates meant, but I was just joking around. It's a nice place for light hearted banter some times. There are some good in jokes, and all that.

And anyway, you hear my name in many contexts? Eeek!

#2 ::: Terry Karney ::: (view all by) ::: September 19, 2010, 02:37 PM:

Regarding other contexts. I had someone in Slacktivist squee that I commented. The mind reels.

As to the meat of this post, I need to digest it some more. There is a lot gong on in the web right now, and there is a strong convergence of things in my head. I think I need to write somethihng, for me, so I can write something for others.

#3 ::: Terry Karney ::: (view all by) ::: September 19, 2010, 02:54 PM:

Even for those of us who like debate, it can be hard to stand up in public.

Sometimes, line lancing a boil, it has to be done. I recall, before the 2008 elections, being at Peet's and hearing a pair engaging in the sort of conversation I've heard lots of my friends having, only with the roles reversed. They were wondering why liberals were supportive of Obama over Palin; on the issue of experience.

I managed to steel myself to go over and tell them why I thought the one more qualified than the other. I was glad I did it, and a little proud of how I managed to do it.

It was, in it's way, tawdry. I had heard them talking, I knew what they, in general, thought of the candidates, so I posed it as a straight-up comparison. Got them supporting the things Obama had done. I did it because I knew they were, though I didn't have the term at the time, fractally wrong. So I let them think Obama's* achievements were Palin's. Then I said, "when you compare that with..." and listed the things Palin had done.

They looked at me for a moment, as it soaked in that the second list was far less than the first, and that it was their candidates who was coming up short, they got uncomfortable, and left.

But they were being loud enough to be heard at least as far as I was, and I couldn't really leave it lie. I don't think I had any hope of changing their mind, but at least they couldn't, honestly, say they didn't know why people thought Palin didn't measure up to Obama.

*why is is Firefox, still flagging Obama as an incorrect word?

#4 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: September 19, 2010, 03:03 PM:

I have spent several years inside the heads of people I hated. Not simply disliked. Not merely felt distaste for. Actively hated. To do that, and do it properly, you have to develop not love (the thought that I could love Thomas Carlyle or James Anthony Froude is making me have difficulty typing) but understanding.

Understanding involves what Coates is calling compassion in its deepest sense of feeling with, of getting into their heads, as I say above, and unravelling their motivations, the pressures they felt, and the vision they had. I don't like them any better, but I can see why they wrote just what they wrote.

#5 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: September 19, 2010, 03:17 PM:

Fragano 4: Profilers have to get inside the heads of serial killers. They don't have to love them, but they do have to have empathy for them. That's part of why they have a high burnout rate.

#6 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: September 19, 2010, 03:21 PM:

To be fair, Xopher, Fragano was reacting to my use of the word "love".

Different folks work differently. That, too, is part of why I wrote this post.

#7 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: September 19, 2010, 03:37 PM:

Hmm, I wasn't intending to disagree with Fragano there. Guess it sounded like I was though. Sorry.

#8 ::: Jules ::: (view all by) ::: September 19, 2010, 03:49 PM:

Is it only me who's struggling to work out what "passion fish" might be an eggcorn for?

#9 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: September 19, 2010, 03:52 PM:

Jules: if you're enjoying the struggle, don't ROT13: cnpvsvfg.

#10 ::: Erik Nelson ::: (view all by) ::: September 19, 2010, 04:20 PM:

Seeing things from others' points of view involves a little weirdout sometimes in all cases. Even people I meet in ordinary circumstances where the divide is less extreme than the one here.

#11 ::: Erik Nelson ::: (view all by) ::: September 19, 2010, 04:27 PM:

I weep for you, the walrus said. I deeply sympathize.
With sobs and tears he sorted out those of the largest size,
Holding his pocket handkerchief before his streaming eyes.

#12 ::: Bruce Cohen (Speaker to Managers) ::: (view all by) ::: September 19, 2010, 06:16 PM:

I've found this dialog between Will Shetterly and Elizabeth Moon about the Park51 controversy, as recorded on Will's Racefail blog, very interesting. It revolves around the issue of whether there are reasons why Muslims in the US should, as a matter of practical politics, "keep a low profile". This issue has divided people who agree that Muslims have the right to the same freedom of speech as anyone else in the US. I have seen this division result in some very bitter invective; although it was vehement, this dialog remained mostly civil.

In the "Bending the Arc" thread I addressed this issue briefly thus:

One subtle and vicious motivation for playing the offense card is to marginalize groups to whom the player doesn't want to accord full citizenship. If {blacks, queers, Muslims, Jews, women, autistics, paraplegics, obese people...} are prevented from publicly deploring the discriminations imposed on them by the privileged, then the privileged can claim not to know about the discrimination, or not believe that it is real.

#13 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: September 19, 2010, 07:38 PM:

Teresa: But is it [epistemic closure]? Or is it just a survival tactic in the face of too many people wrong on the internet at once?

Yes, and yes. Gathering into groups of your "own kind" is an ancient and time-honored strategy for defending yourself against other, hostile, groups. And a big drawback of that strategy is the breakdown of communication, information exchange, and yes, understanding, between the opposed groups. It also makes it much easier to demonize the opposition, and for minor disagreements to flare into open battle.

In the Internet, this is all being played out on a "psychic" or communications level, down to the level of "injuries" such as you describe. But it's also being played out in the real world, as Muslims get attacked for showing themselves in "our" (the majority group's) territory.

Bridging the two is the effect of the mass media, including the jingoistic propaganda campaigns spearheaded by "Faux News". But the thing is, by approaching the fights properly on the Internet, we can sway neutrals and even convert a few partisans, and these too are people in both worlds. While we don't have the bully pulpits of the mass media, the Internet offers its own "force multipliers".

#14 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: September 19, 2010, 08:00 PM:

David, the OP is by Abi, not Teresa.

#15 ::: Constance ::: (view all by) ::: September 19, 2010, 08:02 PM:

That many victimized and oppressed people(s) have learned the power of love to overcome the suffering and oppression I will never deny, particularly among the many African American groups among whom I live -- particularly with the support of their Christian faith.

However, I do have a lot of trouble with Coates's choice of the word love in that piece for what he was trying to express.

The trouble comes from more than one direction too.

People who read this, hear this, who perhaps are not going to or want to play as fairly as he is (not that he isn't perfectly competent to take care of himself in this context) can and will demand their victims, then, love and forgive them. Quite like abusive spouses do, with their abused and victimized children and spouses.

Further, as to how this connects to the em brouhaha early last week, is that this like boot camp: you earn your assimilation, your right to join the family of citizenship and nationhood by the very fact that you are abused, hazed, bullied, etc. But don't worry; when you pass this course, move to the next class, when a new group arrives, you have also earned the right to do to them what has been done to you.

I honestly do not believe that people need to 'earn' their citizenship by acquiescing, nay, even participating in the bullying of themselves. I honestly believe that such an idea is exactly the opposite of what citizenship in this nation is supposed to be about.

Not that long after 9/11, but long enough that our neighborhood was 'open' again -- you didn't have to prove you lived there to be allowed in -- one of our convenience stores re-opened. It was run by a man from Uttar Pradesh; he is a Hindu. After a few years his family sent him his wife, who he had met only when they married. He was so excited about her coming, and so happy when she arrived. She frequently would come to the store with him, so they could be together. He worked in that store from 7 AM until 10 PM, 7 days a week -- commuting in from New Jersey and the Indian community of his clans there.

He took so much abuse in those days from -- always men / males -- who around here I suppose would be called rednecks -- for being a Muslim. Which, of course, he wasn't. One time I lost my own temper with those assholes, which wasn't necessrily the best thing to do, as his masculinity was being tried from so many directiosn as it was.

Those guys, when confronted, insisted they were "just teasing," they said, "it doesn't mean anything" -- like the males who demand women smile when they bid you, to lighten up, take a joke. Yeah. It was clear somebody was having fun here, but it wasn't the fellow behind the counter.

It was as if 9/11 gave dorks like these guys -- all over the country -- the right to behave like asshats, and they loved it. They love bullying. It makes them feel superior and alive. They hate that 'pc' forbids them that outlet.

I dunno. I've been pretty upset by this ever-growing Islamophobia which for so many is barely concealed racisim for African Americans as well. I'm very worried about the direction all this tends, because it is growing in size and in loudness, dominating so much of the discourse in public places.

Love, c.

#16 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: September 19, 2010, 08:12 PM:

Xopher #14: Whoops, you're right.

Sorry Abi!

#17 ::: John A Arkansawyer ::: (view all by) ::: September 19, 2010, 10:27 PM:

I don't think it's epistemic closure. I think it's closing ranks in the face of violent crazy. There is a time for all things, and the time for reason has, I think, passed. We've tried for several years, and it isn't working. It isn't even slowing them down.

(Please note, despite the unspecific wording, this isn't an "apply to both sides equally" argument like Jon Stewart is, sadly, making. The violent crazy has not, to the best of my knowledge, been trying to reason with those they perceive as enemies.)

I'm not sure just how bad, but I'm pretty sure bad times are coming. I'm trying to be grateful they took this long to come.

#18 ::: hilzoy ::: (view all by) ::: September 19, 2010, 10:35 PM:

Hmm. I got into this whole blogging business in part to talk to Republicans. But I think it's different now. For a few years, the blogosphere has seemed less open to me, especially on the conservative side. Some people (John Cole) stopped being conservatives, others went pro, and one way or another, by the time I quit, genuine dialogue with conservatives seemed much, much rarer.

My views are challenged a lot more on Ta-Nehisi's blog than they ever would be on, say, RedState. RedState would have more propositions I believe to be false, but many fewer occasions when I'd say: wait, I've been wrong. I'm no more challenged by most of what appears there than I would be by someone who insisted that the moon was made of Camembert.

At the moment, the overwhelming majority of blogs written by people who are interested in having genuine discussions are written by liberals. I wish this weren't true, but it is. I don't think hanging out on those blogs is a sign of epistemic closure at all. (And I write as someone who really did try to hang out on conservative blogs, to recruit conservatives for ObWi, etc. It was hard.)

#19 ::: rm ::: (view all by) ::: September 19, 2010, 10:36 PM:

Yeah, I see the same pseudonyms all the same places. Why do I stick to reading people I mostly agree with? Well . . .

It's a refuge. It worries me to think that the political ideal I subscribe to, of a classically-liberal multicultural country with separation of churches and state, might not only be losing, but that it will, in retrospect, be only the narrative an unjust nation used for a while to soothe its conscience, the way the British Empire told itself it was honorable, civilized, and restrained while it started the Opium War and exacerbated Indian famines. So reading some sane discussion is a bit reassuring that this is not so.

It's a refuge from real life. I don't have a choice not to have compassion for ignorant right-wingers, since they are most people I know. I go about my life all day among people whose political views, if we were impolite enough to discuss them, would tempt me to see them as monstrous bigots and I'd say things that would mark me as a pure crank; I would not convince them but I would damage relationships and I would, honestly, be guilty of demonizing them.

These horrid views aren't really views in the sense of being propositions that are held to be true about the world. As Abi's link to "symbolic beliefs" indicates, these are markers for an attitude. And more than that, they are tribal identifiers.

And more than that. Most people don't really have opinions about facts, they have narratives in their heads. Dehumanizing people and calling them bigots reifies these narratives; people give voice to the narrative of their conservative tribe, and I want to say that hateful thing is their nature, deep down. But I see them in other contexts living good lives, and they aren't making a connection between the good values they live in their daily work and the narrative of politics -- if they did they'd be liberals.

Of course, some people choose to be evil, and if you act like a bigot enough, you are a bigot.

But still. Anyway, it's nice to have a refuge from that.

#20 ::: rm ::: (view all by) ::: September 19, 2010, 10:50 PM:

And there's this other thing. I'm supposed to teach college freshmen the basics of valid argumentation. Most of them voice reflexive opinions about things that are "fractally wrong." And I can work on making them support their argumentative claims with evidence that is true in the sense of being a verifiable statement about what exists in the world, rather than true in the sense they are familiar with and instinctively (write it) cling to, which is evidence drawn from tribe-approved cultural narratives.

What I can't do is push my opinions on them by assertion, not only because it would be an abuse of power and boring and bad teaching, but because I would immediately (if I haven't already) fit a role in one of their favorite tribe-approved cultural narratives, the role of liberal professor trying to corrupt your values. It wouldn't matter what I said, I would be a stock character saying things they could dismiss without a second thought. Instead, I try to make them use facts to back up claims, and trust that facts have a liberal bias.

But, anyway, you see, I can't teach them argumentation without compassion for the crazy place they are coming from.

#21 ::: Lila ::: (view all by) ::: September 19, 2010, 10:51 PM:

I think anyone who thinks either Making Light or Slacktivist is monolithic isn't paying attention. Regulars on both sites have broad areas of agreement, but there is a huge spectrum of religious beliefs, personal histories, ethnicities, fields of interest, etc. etc. Indeed, the main thing we seem to have in common is a commitment to disagree (when we disagree) without throwing feces all over the room. Rare, I admit, but it doesn't make either site an echo chamber. I have learned, and grown, and changed as a result of participating in both ML and Slacktivist. I don't think that would be happening in a state of epistemic closure.

#22 ::: rm ::: (view all by) ::: September 19, 2010, 10:54 PM:

And, you know, the adults in my first comment are the college kids in my second after growing up, and it's not encouraging to think that education doesn't change a lot of people's habits of thought. They let it wash over them, and still think the same ways.

#23 ::: KayTei ::: (view all by) ::: September 19, 2010, 11:08 PM:

I don't know. At one point, I was pretty good at framing things in traditionally conservative ways, so that folks could see the common argument even though we were coming from very different standpoints. But I begin to think that until Conservatives are willing to self-examine and self-criticize, they won't be willing to accept criticism from without; and a little bit, I wonder if external criticisms don't cause those beleaguered moderates to retrench themselves. I see a lot fewer discussions that can go straight into a high-spirited hashing out of differences, and a lot more that devolve quickly into liberal-bashing or juvenile "nuh-uh" denials that... how do you argue with someone who thinks it's credible that Obama is a secret muslim and who will not accept otherwise?

But then, I remember liking hack and slash politics a lot more when I was in high school and college than I do now; I think to some extent I've lost the knack of it, but to some extent, it's just not who I am right now. I keep trying to decide if it's worth it to me to refresh those skills, but it would mean deliberately engaging in a lot of high-investment conflict, and my life is stressful enough right now... Also, I get discouraged, because that kind of intensive one-on-one only reaches so many people, and most of them won't be convinced anyway.

You wanna talk about silencing the opposition, it's something the conservatives are really good at. And they're proud of it. I don't know a way to counter that, except by consistently defeating it at the polls, until they have to start paying attention.

#24 ::: Nancy Lebovitz ::: (view all by) ::: September 19, 2010, 11:37 PM:

There's another angle on what Ta-Nehisi Coates is doing besides love and compassion-- respect for truth. It is simply the case that people are doing what makes sense to them, no matter how angry you are at them, and even if you're right to be angry.

Resenting that you can't just dump anger on people and make them do what you want is like resenting china for being fragile and steel for being heavy.

And speaking as someone who still has some fondness for Ayn Rand, I say Coates was right to say that he isn't being altruistic. Wanting to have an accurate understanding of the world isn't just a favor you do people, even when it's very hard.

#25 ::: DanR ::: (view all by) ::: September 20, 2010, 01:13 AM:

My interpretation of Coates' piece is somewhere between Abi's and Nancy's (#24). I wouldn't go so far as to describe his shedding of the snakeskin as an act of "love" (though I would probably have to concede "agape"), yet I think what he's aiming for is something more than just a "respect for truth."

To me, what is most brilliant about the piece comes through here:

"For an African-American like me, the upshot of all this gorgeous writing is bracing--one is forced to behold beauty in those who saw no such beauty in us."

Essentially, he is granting himself permission to enjoy what is good and true and beautiful in the writings of a slave owner, while putting the rest of his emotions in their proper compartment. As the grandson of a holocaust survivor, this sentiment hits close to home... it is analogous to the ability to appreciate a Leni Riefenstahl film for its masterful use of light and shadow.

#26 ::: Bruce Cohen (Speaker to Managers) ::: (view all by) ::: September 20, 2010, 01:28 AM:

I've been expanding my view of the blogosphere in the last few weeks, after deciding that I was spending too much time reading the same things. Some of what I've looked into is monoculture, but much of it is open to very different opinions. In particular, the first sustained thread I followed on slacktivist (first time I've read it in a couple of years) was a thread on the morality of the nuclear bombing of HIroshima and Nagasaki; it was completely polarized, and yet managed to remain civil for several days of intense discussion.

I've seen similar threads here at Making Light. There was a thread titled "The sky isn't evil. Try looking up." back in 2007 that felt like rolling in coarse grit sandpaper to participate in, but however often it started to veer into flamage, people who felt the need to understand what we all were saying would pull it back.

#27 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: September 20, 2010, 01:34 AM:

Guys, for clarity: Coates doesn't use the word love. He uses compassion. Love is my term, because I do these things a little differently than he does.

This is probably partly the result of my privilege; I have more spoons for engaging with people who merely think I'm a traitor than he would have for dealing with ones who would have seen him as property.

But it's also just a difference in character, I suspect. Different people have different approaches to conflict and disagreement, because they bring different tools to the job.

(Still mulling over the responses to the thread, but I wanted to make that particular point clear before people think Coates said something he didn't.)

#28 ::: j h woodyatt ::: (view all by) ::: September 20, 2010, 03:32 AM:

Richard Rorty used the word solidarity for the concept under discussion here. It was his life's work to promote more solidarity. He had a few things to say about epistemology that might be relevant to the discussion too...

#29 ::: OtterB ::: (view all by) ::: September 20, 2010, 07:13 AM:

rm @20 evidence that is true in the sense of being a verifiable statement about what exists in the world, rather than true in the sense they are familiar with and instinctively (write it) cling to, which is evidence drawn from tribe-approved cultural narratives.

I think this is important because it gives us an idea of the form the counterarguments ought to take. Not that logical arguments based on verifiable facts aren't important. They are necessary but not sufficient. The counterargument needs to be a counternarrative.

Has anybody else read Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard by Chip and Dan Heath? I've been reading it with an eye toward creating some personal change, but it's intended to be useful for people trying to create organizational and societal change as well.

Their primary metaphor for a person is a rider on an elephant. The rider is the logical, rational part of us. The elephant is the emotional, passionate part. You need both; the rider to direct and the elephant to supply the energy (since the rider, alone, is prone to endless paralysis of analysis). In their view, you create change by some combination of directing the rider, motivating the elephant, and shaping the path, depending on the problem.

I keep thinking that we're fighting with Rider arguments when it's an Elephant problem. (putting aside the obvious political joke)

The right approach to dealing with someone who has strong feelings that you believe are misguided is not to say, "You have stupid feelings. Have different ones."

#30 ::: Raphael ::: (view all by) ::: September 20, 2010, 08:28 AM:

Re: the whole epistemic closure thing (I don't like that term, since it makes the whole thing sound more difficult to understand than it is, but that's what it's apparently called now):

hilzoy @18 "For a few years, the blogosphere has seemed less open to me, especially on the conservative side. Some people (John Cole) stopped being conservatives, others went pro, and one way or another, by the time I quit, genuine dialogue with conservatives seemed much, much rarer.

My views are challenged a lot more on Ta-Nehisi's blog than they ever would be on, say, RedState. RedState would have more propositions I believe to be false, but many fewer occasions when I'd say: wait, I've been wrong. I'm no more challenged by most of what appears there than I would be by someone who insisted that the moon was made of Camembert.

At the moment, the overwhelming majority of blogs written by people who are interested in having genuine discussions are written by liberals. I wish this weren't true, but it is. I don't think hanging out on those blogs is a sign of epistemic closure at all."

Exactly. It's well possible that I would like reading some smart, well-informed, challenging and thought-provoking wingnut blogs, but there just aren't any. There are some (IMO) smart, well-informed, and sometimes challenging and thought-provoking commenters among those more or less right leaning folks who often deviate from the party line, like Steve Dutch (not a blogger, but a guy with a late-1990s-style personal homepage to which he usually adds some new stuff a couple of times a year) or Orac back when he was more openly center-right, but by the standards of ordinary wingnuts, they're pretty much communists anyway. Among the party-line following wingnuts, there's simply almost nothing, and when I try to visit their places, I usually just can't take the stupid for long.

And I say that as someone who's a good deal to the right of most of the regulars here on some individual issues.

(That doesn't mean that all wingnuts are stupid- many work in jobs that require certain amounts of knowledge, understanding, and intelligence- it's more that when it comes to politics, the smarter ones usually use their intelligence for deluding themselves or mastering the advanced levels of the fine art of spin. The brightest wingnuts are often great at using their mental abilities to come up with more and more innovative ways of taking many small tidbits that are, on their own, either true or only false by accident, and combining them into completely misleading greater pictures- what one might call "lying without lying". I'd say it can sometimes be morbidly fascinating to watch them doing that, but it's not really challenging or thought-provoking.)

#31 ::: Nancy Lebovitz ::: (view all by) ::: September 20, 2010, 09:03 AM:

#27 ::: abi:

I've been working on adjusting my reactions to allow for actual threat level. The Nazis are defeated and dead. The Mongolian neo-Nazis are on the other side of the world.

I'm not saying that the initial "it would have been me" reaction is necessarily a mistake or even changeable, but I think my life is better to the extent that I don't repeat and amplify it.

This doesn't mean everyone else is should adjust their sense of the past being present (and I'm not talking about getting echoes of one's own experiences), but I'm seeing some problems with it in my own life, and I think it's at least worth considering as something which has some choice involved with it.

#32 ::: Cynic ::: (view all by) ::: September 20, 2010, 10:23 AM:

Epistemic closure? In Julian's original indictment, he did finger an "interconnected and cross promoting" array of media outlets and sources. But his real complaint wasn't that these voices were too close, but rather, that they were too closed.

We all of us live in our own (decidedly finite) networks. And that's not only inevitable, it's largely beneficial. It allows us to dispense with the various caveats and explanations that would otherwise be necessary before we delve in to emotionally charged issues, or even technical ones. It creates a space for honest engagement and discussion. And it polices behavior, because sustaining these relationships becomes important, and falling out with one member of the community may have broader ramifications. This is, on balance, good. That is, so long as we remain open to the possibility of new friendships, new ideas, and new perspectives, emanating from outside the boundaries of our pre-existing networks. Our communities are inevitably bounded and discrete. What matters is that we also keep them somewhat diverse in their membership, and even more crucially, that their boundaries remain permeable.

As for Hilzoy's observation that left-leaning blogs come closer to this ideal at present, I think she's right. Or, to put it slightly differently, I think she's right about blogs that stand at the intersection of politics and policy. But that shouldn't be shocking. There's a great deal of self-selection at work in this regard. Politics and policy blogging is the academia of the internet; the same distinction can be drawn between largely left-leaning universities and right-wing think tanks. The latter are, like right-leaning political blogs, extremely results-oriented and less interested in open inquiry or discussion.

The exception in the bricks-and-mortar world can be found in professional schools. And I think that holds true online, as well. I read blogs on defense, on law, on economics, and on business that tend to focus not on political debates, but on technical issues mostly of interest to practitioners. They're brilliant, they're engaging, and the debates they host are lively and offer multiple perspectives. Their animating assumptions, and much of their audience, is distinctly right-leaning, and this occasionally becomes clear when they venture closer to politics. But because their authors tend not to have a great deal of faith in the power of government to be a positive force in the world, they don't spend a whole lot of time writing or thinking about it. (And yes, I'm aware of the particular irony in the case of the MilBlogs, but there you have it.)

So if you're really worried that you've fallen into something of a rut, and don't gain enough exposure to variant perspectives, I'd suggest delving more deeply into blogs on a particular subject that's of personal interest.

#33 ::: B. Durbin ::: (view all by) ::: September 20, 2010, 01:35 PM:

Slightly related note: I'm going to have to stop reading a lot of the internet soon because of the upcoming election. The reason why is that a lot of people veer into the use of opprobrious epithets— yes, I've seen that here too*— and every time somebody does, I lose respect for them.

In part it's because I have a large range of friends with a large range of views. In my family, for example, I have small-government libertarian types and a cousin who grew up on a genuine commune, so anyone who uses degrading terms for any part of the political spectrum is going to be insulting some member of my family.

I've called a few people on it, and the response in inevitably "But..." No. No buts. Debate the issues on their merits and if you** can't do that without using emotionally loaded terms you need to re-examine your arguments.

*I really don't want to get into it.
**generic "you" of course.

#34 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: September 20, 2010, 01:37 PM:

B Durbin @33:

I'll be running non-political relief threads again for this election cycle. Promise.

#35 ::: OtterB ::: (view all by) ::: September 20, 2010, 04:45 PM:

abi @34 I'll be running non-political relief threads again for this election cycle. Promise.

Oh good. I was wishing for one just looking at the comment volume on the Political Moderation thread, without even looking at the content, and was thinking of putting in a request.

#36 ::: TrishB ::: (view all by) ::: September 20, 2010, 05:23 PM:

I've made this recommendation elsewhere, but for anyone who would like to read a good conservative blog, seek out Daniel Larison. He blogs at the American Conservative. I'm not always in agreement with him, but his posts are always thoughtful and informed, and far from wingnutty.

#37 ::: Will Shetterly ::: (view all by) ::: September 20, 2010, 07:08 PM:

Abi, I think it's just part of the human desire to be comforted. Bosses like like yes-men and researchers like experts who tell them what they already believe. We like a community that's like us, and we become more like the community as a consequence.

Bruce @12, thanks. If I'd read Coates' piece before, I would've tried harder to be very respectful. I think Ms. Moon's capable of understanding her sin (word chosen deliberately 'cause she identifies as Christian), but people calling her a racist may prevent that.

Constance @15, "men / males -- who around here I suppose would be called rednecks". If you wanted to be classist, yes.

DanR @25, "he is granting himself permission to enjoy what is good and true and beautiful in the writings of a slave owner" That's what I do when I read Thomas Jefferson.

OtterB, mentally bookmarking Switch now.

#38 ::: Kevin Marks ::: (view all by) ::: September 20, 2010, 09:00 PM:

Strikingly, I just read Alan Jacobs on the online state of nature (via AL Daily which is a good source of good essays from a variety of viewpoints).
Like Abi, he calls for us to focus on charity (caritas, another word for love?) rater than justice in our online discussions.

#39 ::: OtterB ::: (view all by) ::: September 20, 2010, 09:35 PM:

Kevin Marks @38, thanks for that link.

Cynic @32, that's an interesting suggestion, that the focus of the more practical right-leaning folks is in the debates and discussions of their fields rather than in politics. I can see a similar trajectory in my own thought over the years; when I was more conservative, I avoided and disliked politics, and I have become more interested in it at the same time I have become more liberal. (Also, are you new here? I found the point sufficiently interesting to look back at your comment history and there was none.)

#40 ::: John A Arkansawyer ::: (view all by) ::: September 20, 2010, 10:46 PM:

OtterB @ 39: I'm going to guess Cynic is visiting us from Ta-Nahesi Coates' blog.

#41 ::: B. Durbin ::: (view all by) ::: September 21, 2010, 12:56 AM:

abi: Thank you. Though luckily, I'm going to be largely away from the internet over the next few weeks in travel and preparation for two weddings (not to mention the toddler and infant... my blog-reading has shrunk to mostly Facebook. Which is unfortunately where a lot of the snark comes from.)

#42 ::: Elliott Mason ::: (view all by) ::: September 21, 2010, 03:25 AM:

rm @19 said : It worries me to think that the political ideal I subscribe to, of a classically-liberal multicultural country with separation of churches and state, might not only be losing, but that it will, in retrospect, be only the narrative an unjust nation used for a while to soothe its conscience, the way the British Empire told itself it was honorable, civilized, and restrained while it started the Opium War and exacerbated Indian famines. So reading some sane discussion is a bit reassuring that this is not so.

For a year☂, I had a subscription to Utne Reader.

It will surprise no one here familiar with my mother that I was raised in a subculture of great diversity and leftwingery, full of artists, queers, eccentrics, and stranger things. That being the case, I was a little disturbed to realize (while reading the Utne Reader) that, in an alternate universe down another trouser-leg of time -- where my mom's "crazy" friends are the mainstream, establishment, privileged class in power -- our Utne Reader is what their Newsweek or Time looks like.

It's really brainbreaking to read it, now that the idea has occurred ... and I keep attempting to mentally cast other fringe pubs as "their" Atlantic Monthly, New York Review, USA Today, etc.

I'm pretty sure Dennis Kucinich is president there, if not someone further left. It's like the Star Trek Mirror Universe, only instead of Goatees Of Eeeeevilness, everyone's got long fluffy hair, earthsaving vegan sandals (with handknit, handspun socks!), and two bikes and a Prius in the driveway, or something.

☂ Thanks, NPR!

#43 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: September 21, 2010, 09:47 AM:

Raphael #30:

Is this just no-true-Scottsman stuff? Do you define as right wing only those people who are unwilling to ever break from the party or movement?

Off the top of my head: Tyler Cowan, Megan McArdle, Andrew Sullivan, Radley Balko, Steve Sailer, Jerry Pournelle, David Friedman, Connor Friesdorf, and Razib Khan are all people who at least sometimes have something interesting or insightful to say, and whose comment threads at least sometimes have real and interesting discussions, yet they're all broadly "right wing." (It should be obvious that I don't agree with all or necessarily even much of what any of these folks say; I read *very* widely.) The critical defining feature of all of these people is that they're discussing what they know or believe or observe, *not* parroting back the current GOP talking points. If you want to talk about the world as you understand it, I can learn from you even when we disagree deeply. But if you are simply defending a position you've been given to defend, I'm unlikely to learn much of value from you.

And this is repeated on the left, as far as I'm concerned. Ta-Nehisi Coates, Glenn Greenwald, and Juan Cole are all examples of people who are independent thinkers from a broadly leftist perspective. They're not shilling for a party or movement, they're telling you how they see the world and why.

Similarly, there are commenters that don't fit all that cleanly into the left/right world, but that expand the range of discussion enormously. Yves at Naked Capitalism and the guys at Baseline Scenario and Felix Salmon can be pitched as left-wingers when compared to financial industry shills, yet they're all up to their eyebrows in finance and business, in ways that don't look remotely left-wing to me. (See the scary far-left extremists, whose Marxist ideology leads them to propose that insolvent banks be forced to recognize their losses and shut down.) I'm not even sure where you'd put someone like John Robb on the spectrum, or Steve Barnes.

My sense is that a lot of the newspaper-commentator game has been taken over by think-tank employees, whose jobs are usually to defend whatever political compromises have been hammered out by the political party/movement that supports them. This is a really bad thing, because it means that most of our dialog is driven, not by people thinking independently about things, but by people rigidly defending some party line they've been given. That seems very pronounced on the right, and that's been a disaster for the country.

#44 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: September 21, 2010, 10:13 AM:

Will #37:

Yeah, it's disturbing to realize how buggy the software and hardware is that our consciousness runs on.

What ideas people profess ends up being used in at least four ways:

a. Claims about reality or morality.

b. Identification of group membership.

c. Signaling of personal virtures by expressed views.

d. Supporting other positions or ideas by our expressed beliefs.

To my mind, (a) is valuable, and the rest is not, in terms of listening to people. Someone who tells me they're a pacifist because of long careful thought is in a different category, in terms of interestingness, than someone who tells me they're a pacifist because all their friends call themselves pacifists, or because they want to show off what enlightened people they are, or because they really, really oppose this stupid war we're about to get into.

Now, in reality, we all do some of all of these. But I try very hard to make sure I focus on (a). Most peoples' expressed opinions about most technical issues seem to me to be all about (b-d). How many people have spent any significant time and mental energy forming an informed opinion on evolution, vaccine safety, global warming, etc.? Most people expressing opinions on those things seem to me to be expressing group-membership opinions.

One way to see this is to see whether their beliefs ever cause them trouble with their other policy preferences or ideas. To use a common current example in politics: people who really believe a large deficit is disastrous don't refuse any discussion of raising taxes or making unpopular spending cuts. People who are simply mouthing slogans about deficits being evil have no such constraints.

#45 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: September 21, 2010, 10:28 AM:

Elliott #42:

Yeah, this.

It's striking to realize how incredibly narrow and constrained US mainstream media sources are, in terms of what opinions are expressed, what stories are reported, how things are presented, etc. Adding in Democracy Now means getting a completely different take on what stories are important and what views may be expressed and who is worthy of an interview. Overseas media add still more to the equation, and in my experience, foreign language (Spanish for me--I don't speak or read any other languages) media add still more. The coverage of all sorts of issues in El Pais or BBC Mundo has a radically different feel than what appears in the NYT or on NPR. (And those are the high end of the US media market, as far as I can see.)

A side benefit is that media tailored to your worldview find it relatively easy to spin/propagandize you, because they know what your starting beliefs are. Oh, look, this audience hates and distrusts big unions and government bureaucracies--let's tell this story in such a way that the doubts about the stuff we want to convey are raised only by those distrusted and disliked organizations. Reading even one or two media sources from a different perspective makes that a lot harder--they're trying to spin you by playing on your assumed distrust of all religious people or Ivy League academics or whatever, but because you don't distrust those groups reflexively, you see right through it. And sometimes you can see the same attempted spin from several different angles--here in the Wall Street Journal, problem X is blamed on overzealous regulators; over there on NPR, the same problem is blamed on greedy investors.

#46 ::: Bruce Cohen (Speaker to Managers) ::: (view all by) ::: September 22, 2010, 12:54 AM:

albatross @ 45:
NYT or on NPR. (And those are the high end of the US media market, as far as I can see.)

I fear that you're right about that, and if you are, the outlets that aren't at the high end are deeply compromised. I've been watching the Times and NPR closely in the last few weeks, and I've caught them both palming cards rather clumsily both in deliberate spinning of headlines and in slanting of copy. The times in particular bothers me; it used to be an ideologically liberal publication; now it's right-center. NPR I would expect to be tied to its sources of funding, but the Times used to be somewhat independent. It's clearly no longer independent at all, but it's not willing to cop to that.

#47 ::: Raphael ::: (view all by) ::: September 22, 2010, 01:19 PM:

albatross @43,

"Is this just no-true-Scottsman stuff? Do you define as right wing only those people who are unwilling to ever break from the party or movement?"

That's not how I define "right wing", but it is apparently how many people on the right define right wing.

#48 ::: Constance ::: (view all by) ::: September 22, 2010, 01:56 PM:

NPR has been seriously compromised from the moment Ronald Reagan was elected, at the very least. It has been sliding down further and further ever since, every year in every way.

What NPR is about now, first and foremost, is the survival of all those cushy, well-paid positions held by so many neocons within itself. It's received so many benefices in wills by now, as well as other portfolio boosters, there's a more than tidy fortune tied up in it to be administered by its Board, who are made up of -- well, you know who.

While they continue to pretend there are no adverts, no commercials, and that their stations belong to us the people.

How they writhe about in these fund-raising periods to insist they get no gummit monies, while insisting they are not commercial and that they NEED our funding.

Love, c.

#49 ::: Will Shetterly ::: (view all by) ::: September 22, 2010, 07:24 PM:

Constance, we're in complete agreement about NPR.

I've become increasingly fond of sites that don't pretend to be objective: Huffington Post, Counterpunch,, etc. Objectivity isn't being neutral. Objectivity is being honest about your biases. If Fox News changed their motto to "We're rightwing as fuck," I'd respect 'em.

#50 ::: Will Shetterly ::: (view all by) ::: September 23, 2010, 12:46 PM:

Or "Guess why we're named for a famously deceptive critter."

Or "Running the philosophical gamut from Hayek to Rand."

#51 ::: Will Shetterly ::: (view all by) ::: September 23, 2010, 02:10 PM:

Or "The world is our henhouse."

#52 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: September 23, 2010, 03:24 PM:

Will #49:

Yeah, me too. Since any intelligent, informed person is going to have a take on the world that colors his understanding and interests, I'd like to know something about that.

But the really critical requirements, for me, are honesty and willingness to think. I mean, a source of news, analysis, information, etc., who knowingly hides information, doesn't report relevant things he knows, spins his story to benefit his political side or policy preference, engages in "responsible" journalism that amounts to realizing that there are some things I don't really need to know or see, etc.

And way too many news sources seem utterly unwilling to think independently--even to the point of calling the water torture of the Spanish Inquisition and the Khmer Rouge "torture," let alone spending a minimal bit of time running any plausibility numbers or looking for contradictory data to whatever they're being fed by somebody's flack or shill.

Brad DeLong had a nice description about the role of political reporting, a long time ago. The image was something like: Your far-flung family members have a trustee managing your aged grandmother's estate and health, and the journalist's role is to report to you on exactly what that trustee is doing with your family's money and your grandmother's health. The media we get seems concerned only casually with informing me about what the trustee is doing with the family money; mainly it's focused on keeping in good with the trustee, or making me feel good about my side of the family relative to other parts of the family, or scaring me with imaginary threats so I'll spend more time listening to them, or....

#53 ::: ddb ::: (view all by) ::: September 24, 2010, 11:39 AM:

The current news media situation comes from people deciding that, since humans can't actually be "objective" (in an extreme, "perfect", sense), we might as well stop pretending, and stop trying.

Bad mistake (obvious to most of us at the time, I imagine).

Not the only cause; corporate concentration, the fact that news is reported by for-profit corporations, and many other things are part of it.

#54 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: September 24, 2010, 11:59 AM:

ddb #53:

I think it has to do with what the customers of the media mostly want. Most political coverage on TV and radio seems closer to entertainment than to information. Part of the entertainment is finding someone worthy of a two-minutes'-hate. Another is making the listener/watcher feel good about himself.

In places where the customers want correct, factual information, it seems possible to get it. TV stations that can't be troubled to do five minutes of plausibility checking with Google and Excel on a reported statistic run weather reports that involve serious computer models interpreted by experts, drawing on satellite and radar data, remote-reporting stations, etc.

My guess is, the TV station that constantly gets the weather wrong loses viewers, while the TV station that constantly reports goofy, implausible statistics in political reporting doesn't lose viewers. When it matters for keeping viewers, getting the facts straight is worth some trouble.

#55 ::: ddb ::: (view all by) ::: September 24, 2010, 01:52 PM:

albatross@54: Yes, that's the "for-profit corporations" bit; they exist to make money, and the news they do has to contribute to that goal.

Yes, the viewers putting up with horrid reporting (in fact, rewarding it) is a very basic part of the problem. Those are the people who're supposed to be informed voters, dammit!

#56 ::: will shetterly ::: (view all by) ::: September 24, 2010, 02:51 PM:

Albatross, I agree with you in principle regarding news organizations, but:

1. Sometimes what we see as a refusal to think is simply their thinking based on different assumptions.

2. Their purpose may have nothing to do with thinking, and only indirectly with entertainment. Another motto for Fox News: "We won the right to lie."

#57 ::: Bruce Cohen (Speaker to Managers) ::: (view all by) ::: September 24, 2010, 07:22 PM:

albatross @ 54:
My guess is, the TV station that constantly gets the weather wrong loses viewers

I don't think it works that way. Look at the perennial "Psychics Predict For This Year." articles in supermarket tabloids. Those predictions probably predict less well than random chance (I don't recall ever seeing a correct one, probably because sensationalism is so much more important to them than accuracy). And yet there's never any fallout from the bad predictions, and the same "psychics" cheerfully predict yet more nonsense the next year, with out any loss in tabloid sales. Most people I've talked to about TV weather forecasts just complain about them, but they seem to choose the TV news they watch based on other factors entirely.

Incidentally, I've stopped watching TV news completely in the last three or four years. The national news is completely bogus as far as I can tell, and the local news is one long attempt to convince me that everyone in the Portland Metro area is either a bona fide hero or a pedophile.

#58 ::: Paul A. ::: (view all by) ::: September 25, 2010, 06:37 AM:

TV weather forecasts have a tighter feedback cycle, though: if the TV tells you that it will rain tomorrow, and then it doesn't, you remember the prediction as if it were yesterday.

Whereas with "Psychics Predict For This Year", it takes a whole 12 months to find out the prediction was wrong, and by then everybody's forgotten what the prediction was, anyway.

#59 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: September 26, 2010, 12:31 PM:

Paul A:

Yeah, the classic version of this is that, to a first approximation, in order to now be considered a "serious" voice on foreign policy, you must have been 100% wrong on Iraq from the beginning.

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