Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

The Epistemic Closure Fueling Culture War

Reader Bobby — who, by the way, is gay, and supports gay marriage — left the following comment about the social dynamics at play in the conflict over social issues. It is, he indicates, much more of a class thing than we know: A friend was recently conveying a story to me about a friend […]

Reader Bobby — who, by the way, is gay, and supports gay marriage — left the following comment about the social dynamics at play in the conflict over social issues. It is, he indicates, much more of a class thing than we know:

A friend was recently conveying a story to me about a friend who’d given up drinking. Several of her fiends reacted with visceral anger at her decision. They had all grown up in strict evangelical homes, but had managed to work their way into the lower levels of elite society. This woman’s friends saw her decision as a betrayal of who they had become. For them, enjoying alcohol was symbolic of the dark evangelical past that they had left behind.

She conveyed to them that she had made the decision following a year of volunteering at a homeless shelter. She explained how she had met countless alcoholics, and had come to see the devastating effects that alcohol had had on their lives. One of her friends responded, “Hmmm. I hadn’t given any thought to that. In fact, I don’t know that I’ve ever met an alcoholic.”

Whether elites admit it or not, they move in a fairly dense social network that does a reasonably good job of enforcing moral order. But this instruction is not explicit; it is largely implicit to the order itself, and so maintains its power by never calling attention to itself. They chafe at explicit boundaries because they live in a society where such boundaries are largely unnecessary. Everyone understands the rules. The same is not true for non-elites. The power of evangelical religion is that it provided boundaries and a social network in a working-class culture that contained nothing of the sort.

In past decades, elites rubbed shoulders a lot more with working-class types. Everyone likely knew an alcoholic or two. That’s not generally the case anymore. Elites rub shoulders only with elites, and simply presume that the values of Fishtown are the same as those in Belmont. So, explicit taboos regarding things like contraception and homosexuality simply seem tacky and pedantic.

There’s a lot of truth to that. I was thinking something similar reading Pascal-Emanuel Gobry’s latest column, about how the website Vox doesn’t realize how epistemically closed it is. PEG writes:

One of the most striking examples of this epistemic closure among liberal writers are their forays into “explanatory journalism.” The idea that many people might like clear, smart explanations of what’s going on in the news certainly has merit. But the tricky thing with “explaining” the news is that in order to do so fairly, you have to be able to do the mental exercise of detaching your ideological priors from just factually explaining what is going on. Of course, as nonliberal readers of the press have long been well aware, this has always been a problem for most journalists. And yet, the most prominent “explanatory journalism” venture has been strikingly bad at actually explaining things in a nonbiased way.

I am, of course, talking about Vox, the hot new venture of liberal wonkblogger extraordinaire Ezra Klein. It was already a bad sign that his starting lineup was mostly made up of ideological liberals. And a couple months in, it’s clear that much of what passes for “explanation” on Vox is really partisan commentary in question-and-answer disguise.

And the troubling thing is, I don’t think the people at Vox are even aware that that’s what they’re doing.

PEG gives examples, so you’ll want to read the whole thing. His broader point is that people on the left (it’s pretty clear he’s talking about media and academic elites) are so deep in their own bubble that they think their own way of seeing the world is obviously true, and they cannot imagine that there is another honest (if mistaken) way to interpret the world.

Are there conservatives who think this way too? Of course, and being someone who doesn’t enjoy tedium or ranting, I do my best to avoid getting into political or philosophical conversations with them, and I don’t read, watch or listen to their media. But with the exception of talk radio loudmouths, these conservatives have little or no voice, and therefore little influence over the broader culture. More particular to PEG’s point, the thing that we relative few number of mainstream media conservatives always notice (and talk about when we get together) is how uniform (and uniformly liberal) opinion is within our newsrooms, and how utterly unaware our liberal colleagues are of their own biases.

The classic illustration of this is the obsession in the media industry with diversity, defined solely by race, gender, and sexuality. National Public Radio — of which I am quite fond, and indeed a supporting member — recently hired a new president. One stated reason? He’s big on diversity:

When Jarl Mohn takes the helm as NPR’s chief executive on Tuesday, he will call on lessons learned from public radio in Los Angeles to address what he says is one of NPR’s most pressing priorities: increasing its reach into communities of color.

Mr. Mohn, who was named to the NPR post on May 9, was chosen in part because of the strong record of diversity at Southern California Public Radio, parent of the Los Angeles station KPCC, where until recently he was the board chairman.

At the time of his appointment, NPR’s board adopted a strategic plan intended to “increase the diversity of the audience by age, ethnicity and geography,” as well as the sources it quotes and the “diversity of NPR talent;” NPR’s newsroom staff is 77 percent white, and its audience even more so, according to a report from NPR’s ombudsman.

Recently, NPR got some flack from its own listeners for canceling “Tell Me More,” a daily talk hour focused on stories and interviews from a racial angle, but NPR ombudsman Edward Schumacher-Matos pointed out that the show was a money-loser, with poor ratings (it was the second-lowest rated show on NPR), and despite the race and ethnicity focus of the show, “its listenership is still overwhelmingly white.”

The ombusdman went on to say that NPR’s black and Hispanic audience is small — disproportionately so, relative to the overall population — and that the NPR newsroom’s staffing numbers correspond to the racial composition of its listeners (except for blacks, who have 12 percent of NPR’s jobs, though make up only five percent of its audience. But those numbers don’t tell the whole story. When you measure the audience by college graduates — and a staggering 87 percent of NPR’s audience are college graduates — the numbers line up nearly perfectly. That is, NPR has about the same percentage of black staffers and listeners as the nation has black college graduates. The same story holds for other ethnicities.

Judging by its listenership, NPR is doing fine on racial diversity and staffing. But NPR believes it has a diversity problem because its minority staffing percentages don’t correspond to the percentages of minorities in the overall US population. This is perceived by the people who run NPR as such a big problem that they made fixing it a key quality in their search for a new chief executive.

Funny thing, though: according to a 2011 story by media reporter Jeff Bercovici, NPR’s own research shows that 28 percent of its listeners describe themselves as “conservative” or “very conservative.” (I’m one of them.) How many conservatives does NPR have on staff? How many in positions related to newsgathering? I’d love to be wrong, but I’d be very surprised to find any at all.

Does this lack of ideological diversity bother NPR? Are they concerned to find ways to bring more people who describe themselves as conservative into the newsroom? Not that I can see. Diversity proponents in journalism constantly say that journalism needs the perspectives that minorities bring to the news business, and on that, they’re right. Black, Hispanic, and Asian reporters are likely to notice things that are opaque to me, because of my racial and cultural background. Why does that insight stop at race, gender, or sexuality, though? It shouldn’t, but it so often does among liberal journalists.

And then there’s the matter of class. Schumacher-Matos, the NPR ombudsman and a Columbia journalism professor, makes a good point here about minority hiring:

But, again, the record looks significantly different if you look at college graduates, though for other reasons. They are a rough measure of the available hiring pool. A college degree is virtually a standard requirement in newsrooms today. Indeed, many applicants have graduate degrees. As much as we in the news media argue that we have a special need for minority hires because we have a mission to inform all Americans, and not just college educated ones, almost every other profession—medicine, law, engineering, finance, education, government, etc.—has its own legitimate need for them. We in the news media are often the first to demand that those professions reflect America, too.

I see no way around the professional necessity of hiring college graduates for these journalism jobs. But I wish people in my profession would examine how their educational status blinds them to things outside their class bubble. You can look across most newsrooms and see a rainbow assortment of people by color — but everybody went to college, an experience that determines what they see and don’t see about the world they cover. This is how you end up with Vox reporter Sarah Kliff providing analysis of single-payer health coverage, and ending up writing a brief for liberal policy choices instead of what she was supposed to do, which is explain what’s at issue. PEG comments:

The point is not whether or not single payer is wrong, or that the cancer survival rate point is decisive. The point is that a prominent, talented liberal writer on health policy, asked to make an objective list of arguments against single payer, cannot do justice to the job.

Did she even notice what she was doing? Did anybody who employs or supervises her ask her to list objections to single player? Or did it simply never occur to them, because “everybody knows” that single-payer is the way to go.

Which brings us back to Reader Bobby’s comment about elites only rubbing shoulders with other elites, a social habit that misleads them into thinking that everybody sees the world as they do. We are all guilty of this, more or less. But we ought to work harder at trying to imagine the world as it might look to people very different from ourselves. That doesn’t mean that we are wrong in the conclusions we’ve arrived at, or in the convictions that we hold. It does mean, however, that we should be more humble about what we know, and more understanding of others when confronted by the true difficulties of knowing anything for certain.

Much has been made over the past few years about how folks getting to know gay people personally has converted them to the gay-rights cause. There’s a lot to that. It’s harder to hold stereotypical views of someone in a particular class if you know them personally. Yet I wonder: does it ever occur to liberals that they ought to try to get to know, say, a conservative Evangelical? If not, why not?




Want to join the conversation?

Subscribe for as little as $5/mo to start commenting on Rod’s blog.

Join Now