The Perils of Epistemic Closure

Both the Sherrod matter and the Journolist revelations have one thing in common that the ideologues from both sides remain blissfully and determinedly unaware; the controversies are excellent examples of epistemic closure on both sides.

To jog your memory, Julian Sanchez defined epistemic closure thusly:

One of the more striking features of the contemporary conservative movement is the extent to which it has been moving toward epistemic closure. Reality is defined by a multimedia array of interconnected and cross promoting conservative blogs, radio programs, magazines, and of course, Fox News. Whatever conflicts with that reality can be dismissed out of hand because it comes from the liberal media, and is therefore ipso facto not to be trusted. (How do you know they’re liberal? Well, they disagree with the conservative media!) This epistemic closure can be a source of solidarity and energy, but it also renders the conservative media ecosystem fragile.

While Sanchez formulated his definition in order to apply the term to conservatives, does any of that sound familiar with regards to the Journolist?

Jonathan Chait defines the liberal reality during the 2008 campaign when the Democratic primary debate on ABC became the only major media event where Barack Obama was confronted with even mildly tough questions about Rev. Wright and Bill Ayers:

The first thread came on the heels of a Democratic primary debate in Pennsylvania, in which the moderators almost completely ignored public policy and asked both candidates a series of questions revolving around Barack Obama’s alleged lack of patriotism or American-ness. Some members of the list, put off by the ABC News team’s questions, decided to write a letter expressing their umbrage.

A couple points pertain. First, the Daily Caller notes, “Journolist members signed the statement and released it April 18.” This is literally true but probably gives readers the impression that all of Journolist signed the letter. In fact, 41 people signed the letter, out of 400 people on Journolist. In other words, Journolist was a vehicle for them to network with each other. This was not an effort “by Journolist.” Most people on Jounolist had nothing to do with it.

Chait has created a reality – or, more accurately, reflects a reality created by Journolist – where questions about Obama’s radical associations, especially with regards to Wright who the candidate identified as a “spiritual advisor” and a major force in his life, are actually questions about “lack of patriotism or American-ness.” The idea that the liberals who belonged to the list (even if they didn’t respond to that specific thread) parroted this talking point far and wide is significant because it reveals why even if list members remained silent, they had absorbed the thinking of the group and rejected any notion that the questions about Obama’s association were legitimate.

Michael Tomasky, a writer for the Guardian, also tried to rally his fellow members of Journolist: “Listen folks-in my opinion, we all have to do what we can to kill ABC and this idiocy in whatever venues we have. This isn’t about defending Obama. This is about how the [mainstream media] kills any chance of discourse that actually serves the people.”

“Discourse that serves the people?” Or serves the cause of electing Obama? It’s easy to confuse the two when your version of reality is heavily influenced by those who share the common goal of electing a particular candidate to office.

Isn’t this a rejection of “objective” reality? Isn’t this a question of dismissing criticism of Obama just because it comes from outside the myopic reality generated by the list and not based on anything save a closed ideological loop that the Journolist represents?

Further:

The members began collaborating on their open letter. Jonathan Stein of Mother Jones rejected an early draft, saying, “I’d say too short. In my opinion, it doesn’t go far enough in highlighting the inanity of some of [Gibson's] and [Stephanopoulos's] questions. And it doesn’t point out their factual inaccuracies …Our friends at Media Matters probably have tons of experience with this sort of thing, if we want their input.”

Note again that legitimate questions about the radical associates of the potential next president of the United States are defined as “inanities.” (I wonder if Obama had hung around with known mafia figures and was asked about it if that would have been more “inanities?”) There was not one quote from a Journolist member in the Daily Caller story who ventured outside the tightly controlled reality created by the group who rejected the inauthentic premise that the questions asked of Obama about the numerous radicals in his past and present were legitimate.

The Journolist was a self-reinforcing feeback loop of consensus driven opinions, totally rejecting any criticism coming from conservatives (and most of the contrary liberals in the group), while creating a reality based not on objectivity but on a constantly evolving notion of what could be realized for political gain. Hence, the eagerness to pick a conservative name out of a hat and toss the “racism” charge, or the open coordination of a media strategy to manipulate or kill the Reverend Wright controversy.

Chait and other Journolist defenders can talk until they are blue in the face about the innocence of the group regarding their intentions, but the objective facts speak for themselves. It doesn’t matter how many list members participated in a discussion. The talking points were disseminated to all. And while Chait has a point that we should not assume that everyone read every email, or that everyone adopted the consensus strategy and opinions that emerged from these discussions, we can safely assume that every one of them wanted Barack Obama to win and were not bashful about using the list to promote that end.

As an example of epistemic closure, the Journolist is right up there with what the right did with the Shirley Sherrod story.

The first 12 hours after Andrew Breitbart released his heavily edited video of Sherrod’s speech before the NAACP recounting a 24-year old incident, there was the usual feeding frenzy on conservative blogs and websites. No one in the conservative camp needed to be instructed on how to handle the story. No coordination was necessary. The issue was starkly laid out and the reaction was instantaneous and predictable; a real “gotchya” moment by Breitbart that would bring down the NAACP (and their allies in the Democratic party) a peg or two on the credibility scale.

But trouble was brewing about the story. Andrew Sullivan linked to an Atlanta Journal-Constitution story where Sherrod tried to explain herself. It was here that the part of the video left on the cutting room floor suddenly became very significant and important to understanding the context of Sherrod’s bigoted words. Then, as the day went on, the drip, drip, drip of revelations about the actions of the White House, the Agriculture Department, the NAACP, and Breitbart himself turned the story 180 degrees in the opposite direction. A full, 43 minute video was found of Sherrod’s remarks and despite the curious exoneration of the USDA employee by the left (Sherrod admitted her bigotry but then proceeded to turn a racial incident into a quaisi-Marxist class warfare parable), the right continued to defend Breitbart and refused to ask questions of him; questions that someone not caught in the epistemic closure so prevalent on the right would have asked within 5 minutes of seeing the video in the first place.

Where did the video come from? Does the unedited version of the video give context that would be important to the story? Why should we care about an incident that occurred a quarter of a century ago — especially since there are more contemporary examples of blatant racism of the so-called civil rights group?

The lock-step response on the right to the Sherrod video blew up in its face when the left was successful in turning the story from a question of racism at the NAACP (the reaction of the audience to Sherrod’s remarks about discriminating against a white man seems to have been lost in the shuffle) to how Breitbart tried to smear the NAACP. In this case, objective reality reveals a story turned on its head by an effusion of facts that, in some ways, contradict Breitbart’s narrative and in other ways, makes many of his points moot.

But as a case study of epistemic closure, the Sherrod story typifies conservative internet media. The additional evidence that would appear to exonerate Sherrod of racism charges (not for spouting Marxist idiocies) has been ignored by many on the right. In a piece for today’s Human Events, Dan Riehl attempts to defend the indefensible:

Atty. Gen. Eric Holder said America is a nation of cowards on matters of race. He was correct, but in a manner he likely didn’t predict. The racism Breitbart revealed is the racism of the Shirley Sherrods of the progressive-leftist Democratic Party and the NAACP. Afraid to honestly look at and address that, the usual leftist suspects are simply turning the tables as a distraction in a weak effort to instead attack Breitbart.

Breitbart did exactly what he set out and claimed to do, put the inherent racism of the NAACP and the American left on full display.

Perhaps it’s not so much what Breitbart did but what he failed to do; explain the context of the video and give a reason why this edited snippet of tape about an incident that occurred 24 years ago is relevant to making his case. A more vigorous, less closed conservative media might have pushed those questions to the forefront, challenging their colleagues on the basis of fairness and transparency. Instead, no one dared challenge the narrative lest they be accused of being “liberal” or simply wanting to please the liberal media so they would be invited to the best cocktail parties. Since any such challenge would be rejected out of hand, none was made by those who fear to be ostracized by the group for their apostasy.

These two examples of epistemic closure, one from each side of the ideological divide, point up the perils of a closed information loop. Creating realities based on false authenticity; possessing a worldview that squeezes facts through an ideological or hyper-partisan prism, generates an inability to objectively perceive events in a rational and logical manner. Perhaps more importantly, it prevents both sides from talking to each other as each is in possession of a separate reality that neither recognizes as the truth.

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