Commentary Magazine


Topic: epistemic closure

Should Politics Be a Proxy for Character?

In his column earlier this week, David Brooks, citing a variety of studies, wrote that “people’s essential worth is being measured by a political label: whether they should be hired, married, trusted or discriminated against.”

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In his column earlier this week, David Brooks, citing a variety of studies, wrote that “people’s essential worth is being measured by a political label: whether they should be hired, married, trusted or discriminated against.”

According to Brooks, as personal life is being de-moralized, political life is being “hyper-moralized” (meaning people are judgmental about policy labels); more people are building their communal and social identities around political labels; and politics is becoming a marker for basic decency. “Those who are not members of the right party are deemed to lack basic compassion, or basic loyalty to country,” he writes. Political issues have become symbols of worth and dignity.

There are of course cases when politics does reveal a corrupted character (e.g., a person who is a member of a neo-Nazi movement). But as a general matter, the points Brooks is making are quite right and, given the state of our politics, quite important. To state the obvious: We all know there are people who hold very different political views than we do who are admirable and honorable individuals, just as there are people who share our philosophy and are disreputable. In the vast majority of cases, one’s political affiliation says nothing about one’s personal character.

Beyond that, politics should have a rather limited role in our lives. To be sure, politics is important; it can create (or destroy) the conditions that allow for human flourishing. Yet for most people, most of life is–and the most important things in life are–lived outside of the arena of politics. And we shouldn’t overinflate its significance or exaggerate what it tells us about each other. Should I think less of the character of the coach of my son’s soccer team, or my daughter’s piano teacher, or the couple in my Bible Study, or the person who volunteers at a homeless shelter because of their views on climate change or the Affordable Care Act? On whether or not they want to raise or lower corporate tax rates? On whether they think illegal immigrants should be given a path to citizenship?

The answer for some people is yes. Jonathan Chait of New York magazine argues that those who hold political views contrary to his “live in a different moral universe” than he does and he therefore believes “their political views reflect something unflattering about their character.” This attitude shapes how he and others like him approach political debate. Why should we treat those on the wrong side of, say, the minimum wage with anything except disdain and contempt? People who hold this view of politics eventually feel justified in declaring their hatred for those with whom they disagree.

It’s important to acknowledge that many of us wrestle with a less acrimonious version of this. I’ve experienced situations over the years in which political differences have caused tensions even with friends that have required repair work and resetting things. The more deeply you feel about a subject the more inclined you are to view those disagreements as rooted in differing views of justice and morality. That’s understandable. If you have strong pro-life convictions and you encounter someone who celebrates abortion as a social and moral good, it’s likely that you’ll draw conclusions about that person that reflect, at least initially and at least in part, on their character. But in terms of what we should aspire to–between trying to check the (natural) impulse to view our political opponents as enemies v. encouraging it–it’s worth considering the example of Lincoln, who governed a nation far more divided than we are today.

“This most unrelenting enemy to the project of the Confederacy was the one man who had quite purged his heart and mind from hatred or even anger towards his fellow-countrymen of the South,” Lord Charnwood wrote in his marvelous biography of Lincoln. “It was not men but slavery he hated,” is how the essayist Joseph Epstein put it. “Malice wasn’t available to Lincoln; mercy came naturally to him. His magnanimity in forgiveness was another sign of his superiority.”

One final thought. Brooks writes, “Most of the time, politics is a battle between competing interests or an attempt to balance partial truths. But in this fervent state, it turns into a Manichaean struggle of light and darkness. To compromise is to betray your very identity.”

This is among the harder things for us to come to grips with, which is that at best we see partial truths; that while we believe truth exists, our ability to fully perceive truth is limited. People who accept this tend to be relatively less dogmatic and abrasive, relatively more empirical, the ones most open to other points of view and corrections. “We need to make room for other perspectives,” a wise friend recently told me. “We need to make room for others at the table.”

That doesn’t mean that the perspectives of others are always right or even valuable. Not everyone’s opinion is worth hearing. And some personalities fit better at the table than do others. The point from the conversation, at least as I took it, is that one way to avoid “epistemic closure” is by considering, at least now and then, different angles of vision, different ways of seeing things. It means from time to time assuming the person you’re politically at odds with is a decent person and then trying to understand why he holds the views he does, even if you reject them. It requires taking into account the strongest (not the weakest) arguments against our assumptions and the self-confidence to change if needed. The goal, after all, isn’t to win a debate; it’s to more closely align our views to the truth of things.

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BBC Journalists’ Reeducation

“The BBC issues a call to reason,” proclaims Politico’s Dylan Byers, referencing a Telegraph story published over the holiday weekend. The truth, however, is a bit more complicated. The story is about a new BBC policy of sending its journalists to reeducation seminars to learn how to cut balance out of the Beeb’s broadcasts. It’s notable that the trustees at the BBC found any balance to cut. But more important is how general the policy is.

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“The BBC issues a call to reason,” proclaims Politico’s Dylan Byers, referencing a Telegraph story published over the holiday weekend. The truth, however, is a bit more complicated. The story is about a new BBC policy of sending its journalists to reeducation seminars to learn how to cut balance out of the Beeb’s broadcasts. It’s notable that the trustees at the BBC found any balance to cut. But more important is how general the policy is.

Byers’s headline is “Ignore the climate change deniers,” which is how this story has generally been interpreted: as a call to stop featuring those who depart from the consensus on climate science. Byers isn’t wrong to pick up on that, as global warming does seem to be the driving force behind this new policy. But it isn’t limited to that, and whatever one thinks about that particular issue, are journalists really going to cheer a broad new policy to strike dissenting voices from news broadcasts? Here’s the Telegraph:

The BBC Trust on Thursday published a progress report into the corporation’s science coverage which was criticised in 2012 for giving too much air-time to critics who oppose non-contentious issues.

The report found that there was still an ‘over-rigid application of editorial guidelines on impartiality’ which sought to give the ‘other side’ of the argument, even if that viewpoint was widely dismissed.

Some 200 staff have already attended seminars and workshops and more will be invited on courses in the coming months to stop them giving ‘undue attention to marginal opinion.’

“The Trust wishes to emphasise the importance of attempting to establish where the weight of scientific agreement may be found and make that clear to audiences,” wrote the report authors.

The one fair point the BBC report makes is, as quoted by the Telegraph: “Science coverage does not simply lie in reflecting a wide range of views but depends on the varying degree of prominence such views should be given.” But the policy is obviously about more than whether the Earth is round. And it’s easy to see how this can go awry.

First of all, it’s important to embrace the principle that a scientific consensus should still be open to challenge because new information and discoveries are made constantly. As Michael Crichton–no stranger to the science or politics of the issue–said in his famous speech on global warming:

I want to pause here and talk about this notion of consensus, and the rise of what has been called consensus science. I regard consensus science as an extremely pernicious development that ought to be stopped cold in its tracks. Historically, the claim of consensus has been the first refuge of scoundrels; it is a way to avoid debate by claiming that the matter is already settled. Whenever you hear the consensus of scientists agrees on something or other, reach for your wallet, because you’re being had.

Let’s be clear: the work of science has nothing whatever to do with consensus. Consensus is the business of politics. Science, on the contrary, requires only one investigator who happens to be right, which means that he or she has results that are verifiable by reference to the real world. In science consensus is irrelevant. What is relevant is reproducible results. The greatest scientists in history are great precisely because they broke with the consensus.

There is no such thing as consensus science. If it’s consensus, it isn’t science. If it’s science, it isn’t consensus. Period.

Crichton was considered sufficiently threatening to the global warming consensus that he earned a denunciation in congressional testimony from climate fraud Al Gore, who, though a former vice president of the United States, was punching well above his weight on this topic. (I also remember being warned against Crichton’s anti-global warming novel State of Fear–by the bookstore employee ringing up my sale. “It’s right-wing propaganda,” said the cashier, whose opinion I didn’t ask and whose job was supposedly to sell the books in his store.)

But again, the point is not just about global warming. The BBC’s reeducation events are aimed at more than this subject, and it’s pretty easy to see where this general policy is going. The BBC report talks about issues that are supposedly, in the phrasing of the Telegraph story, “non-contentious” and views that are “widely dismissed.” The phrase the BBC report itself uses is “marginal opinion.”

The media personalities of the Western left are notoriously susceptible to epistemic closure. Telling reporters already loath to feature dissenting voices that they should ignore “marginal opinion” and that which is often dismissed by others is a recipe for disaster for news reporting. It’s not so much the directive to tone down opposition voices on one story such as global warming–though that in itself is troublesome–but the broader culture of ignorance that can so easily sprout from employees sent to conferences to learn how to dismiss those with whom they are inclined to disagree.

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