The Watcher Cat

The Watcher Cat

Sunday, December 31, 2017

The Neon Gods We Made

Instead of the annual New Year's Eve wrap-up post, I think it's worth taking a little time to reflect on our era through a jaundiced eye (Yes, I'm deliberately hat-tipping Florence King).

Back when I was actively focusing my scholarship on the First Amendment's free speech clause, Collins's and Skover's The Death of Discourse expressed a deep concern that our culture was drowning in the trivial, the toxic, and the transactional. As I wrote at the time, their solution, that Government play the role of referee, downplaying some voices in order to heighten others, was simply incompatible with any recognizable notion of free speech, but the fundamental question they posed was one that has returned to haunt us.

The line "You’re entitled to your own opinions. You’re not entitled to your own facts" has been attributed to James Schlesinger or to Daniel Patrick Moynihan. But the empirical research of, among others, Matthew A. Baum suggests that:
[E]ven seemingly non-partisan political issues like public health are increasingly characterized by partisan polarization in public attitudes, and that such polarization is in part attributable, at least in part, to the breakdown of the information commons that characterized the American mass media from roughly the 1950s until the early 1990s. In its place has arisen an increasingly fragmented and niche-oriented media marketplace in which individuals are better able to limit their information exposure to attitudes and opinions that reinforce, rather than challenge, their preexisting beliefs.
And herein lies the rub. When we cannot even hold facts in common, whether related to swine flu and vaccination, as studied by Baum, or climate change, how is deliberative democracy to work?

In an era where we stop striving for objective truth--and, yes, we'll never fully get there--but the striving gets us closer to reality than just living in an echo chamber that tells us what we want to hear. That way leads only to epistemic closure, a willed inability to perceive the flaws in one's own belief system.

Then we'll truly be "People talking without speaking/People hearing without listening." And we will remake reality in our own self-image.

The problem of listening to only what we want to hear is a grave one. It is easy to find confirmation of what we already believe, and to reject those who differ from us with contempt, as either the enemy, or, if they have been on "our side" previously, as traitors. Just ask Alan Dershowitz, the staunch defender of the First Amendment who finds himself shunned by friends and even family. Now, I strongly disagree with Professor Dershowitz on the question of whether the President can commit obstruction of justice by abusing his presidential authority, but there's no reason to believe that Dershowitz, a lifelong champion of cvil liberties, holds the opinion in anything other than good faith.

Liberals. We believe in the right to be wrong, remember?

On the Right, Jennifer Rubin has been pilloried for deviations from a newly minted conservative orthodoxy. (This has been going on for a while for Rubin, notably.)

When we are not open to our allies when they disagree with us, how will we treat those who disagree with us more generally?

We have long been ideologically divided, but those divisions are both widening and intensifying.

Abraham Lincoln, running against Stephen Douglas, quoted Jesus in all three synoptic Gospels, in declaring that "A house divided against itself cannot stand."

So how do we keep our house standing?

As a liberal, it is very rare that I hear a conservative explain what liberals believe in a manner that recognize as accurately representing my views. This fails the test I have previously quoted from C.P. Snow's famous essay, "The Case of Leaves and the Serious Case":
If I enter into discussion on any topic, intellectual, moral, practical, or whatever combination you like, it matters very little what I feel for my opponent, or what he feels for me. But I am entitled to require--or if I am not so entitled then I have to beg to be excused--that he and I will observe some basic and simple rules. If he refers to words that I have said or written, he will quote them accurately. He will not attribute to me attitudes and opinions which I do not hold, and if he makes any such attributions, he will check them against the documentary evidence. He will be careful when referring to incidents in my biography, and he will be scrupulous about getting his facts right. Naturally, I have a duty to obey the same rules in return. Nothing could be much more prosaic or straightforward; but without these ground-rules, any kind of serious human exchange becomes impossible.
No doubt many conservatives would return the compliment, and demand that we too pass the Snow test.

And they would be right to do so, as we are if we require it of them.

Because the practice of "strawmanning," or recasting the opponent's argument in a form more easily rebuttable than the actual position held may be endemic, but along with the easy dismissal of inconvenient facts, it enables us to continue on in our own bubbles where all reason is with us--however you care to define us--and all folly is with them.

And that just isn't so.

So read the thinkers who disagree with you; Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote that "To have doubted one's own first principles is the mark of a civilized" person. Question your verities, your certitudes.

Remember the sage advice of Susan Howatch in Mystical Paths, when she asks "When was the last time you looked in the mirror and said 'I can be wrong'"?

Listen, don't just wait for a chance to rebut. Life isn't high school parliamentary debate.

And meet people who may disagree with you in areas where you have something in common. Anthony Powell was a high and dry Tory, yet people across the political spectrum gather each December in New York City to celebrate his birthday, enact scenes from his novels (I was generously reviewedas "Playing Bob Duport, manoeuvring petulantly in a wheelchair, . . . clench[ing] audience attention with a nastiness that entirely concealed his native good nature"). Go and find your fun with people who may not agree with you.

Make neighbors.

And may 2018 be a blessed one for you.

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