Thursday, October 10, 2013

The Disparate Worlds of Warring Minds: The Epistemology of a Government Shutdown

by Ben Howard

My first thoughts last Monday, the first day of our government shutdown, were about the show The Newsroom. Mainly, I was wondering how many people were looking up the scene on YouTube, in which Will McAvoy calls the Tea Party the “American Taliban.” It felt incredibly apt for a day that seemed, from my perspective, like a small guerrilla group storming the Capital building and taking the entire US government hostage. Scenes and rhetoric which I had once believed only to exist in the purview of one-dimensional Sorkin villains were now being uttered by actual, live human beings. My twitter feed exploded… mainly with tweets from me.

As is my typical response to governmental ineptitude, I attempted to channel my own inner-Colbert. What’s the good of a manufactured crisis if you can’t get your internet friends to laugh? None, I tell you. None at all.

As the avalanche of mockery poured forth from my keystrokes, I began to wonder at the ease with which I was able to treat the Tea Party, and those associated with it, as an abstraction. As a construct, rather than actual people. And I’ll be damned if humanizing your villains doesn’t always make for too much introspection.

So I made an attempt to try to understand the rhetorical gymnastics that could cause this particular maneuver to seem like a good idea. However, as I reflected on the political beliefs that had led to this point, beliefs shared by acquaintances and some in my own family, I began to wonder if the divide was something deeper than mere ideology. In fact, I’m now convinced that our current political crisis is not born of ideological differences, but epistemological ones. It’s not a difference in the “what” of belief as much as it is a difference in the “why” and the “how.”

Of course, this is not to say that ideological differences do not exist. It is all too easy to point to a plethora of ready examples, from policy regarding deficit spending to gun control to the role of government in healthcare. But the disconnect is deeper. These aren’t simple disagreements by warring factions who share the same underlying assumptions; they are disagreements over the assumptions themselves; they are disagreements about the nature of belief.

The beliefs of Republicans, or at the very least the Tea Partiers who currently hold the reins of the Republicans in the House, are largely based on the fear of unmanageable cultural shifts and a resulting mistrust of those they see as representatives of this shift, those not part of their tribe. This fear leads them to cling to the social mores of a so-called golden age, willful naiveté in the face of complexity, and to look to the recent past for a template of stability. All of which are formed in a crucible of fear.

This can be seen most obviously in the debates over the Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare) and over gun control legislation. The anger and vitriol which the Right exhibits in these disputes is not about preserving freedom (despite their language); it is about the fear that their way of life is under attack. Even when proposed legislation may have little practical effect, or even bring about changes ostensibly in line with their beliefs, they are afraid that “the country they know is slipping away.” This leads to the indignation we see in these numerous debates. What happens when you’re afraid and no one seems to be paying attention? You start yelling and waving your arms.

Additionally, this fear gives rise to an insular epistemology which serves as a rallying cry in a battle between the “righteous us” and the “despotic them.” And in such a posture, outside authorities cannot be trusted, for they are the “THEY” which is so feared. This distrust of outside authorities who represent the cultural shifts at work in our society is responsible for the persecution complex, the continued paranoia, and the conspiracy theories which run rampant in the Tea Party’s ideology.

A recurring theme in recent years has been the inability of Republicans to accept as fact, information which clashes with their fixed preconceptions. Multiple reports have surfaced that, in the face of dour poll results before the 2012 election, Mitt Romney, his campaign staff, and many of his supporters flatly refused to acknowledge the legitimacy of the numbers, insisting that they were the product of the liberal media. Similarly, there are those who continue to hold to the “Birther” narrative, long after Barack Obama released his birth certificate for scrutiny, or those who argue that the ACA is destroying the country, even when the evidence runs contrary to such claims. When fear and mistrust run rampant, even facts must bend to the underlying convictions.

The epistemological gulf that stands between the parties in Washington is one that has been opening for years now in the Christian theological landscape. The Tea Party’s fundamental way of viewing the world and posture of fear is predated (and arguably, grows out of) Evangelical Christianity’s response to the shift of cultural fault-lines. Its literal apocalyptic interpretations, strict fundamentalism, and a similar mistrust of centralized authority (i.e. a strain of anti-intellectualism that rejects Biblical criticism), prefigure the Tea Party’s strands of visceral reaction against science and post-modernity. This goes a long way in explaining why the Tea Party movement resonates so strongly within Evangelical spheres.

While it is clear from the rhetoric involved that I (and probably most of you) do not share the ideology or the epistemology of either Tea Party Republicans or the Evangelical Christians who helped give rise to them, it must also be said that our own progressive epistemology holds no intrinsic claim to absolute truth either. It may very well be wrong. In the same way that I believe the Tea Partiers’ epistemology to be wrong, they believe mine to be equally fallacious, and the truth is, we may very well both be correct.

If the Right Wing Conservative epistemology is built on fear, the Left Wing Liberal’s (mine) is based on a mythos of progress. While certainly a sunnier disposition, it’s not necessarily a correct one.

The intellectual framework on which our belief in progress is founded establishes an unwavering trust that truth is something quantifiable and firmly established by facts, a fetishization of education to the degree that arguments garbed in highly intellectual jargon seem intuitively true, and the certainty of a brighter future as cultural shifts continue to move in what we consider a positive direction. These all flow out of the unrelenting belief in the mythos of inexorable progress.

The reason it’s so easy to believe that “our side” is objectively right stems from our participation in a country that has, by and large, already adopted this standard of measure, and where such presuppositions are accepted as a societal and cultural norm. While the statistical majority of the population may not believe this to be true, the “majority of ideas” has won the day on this front. Whether it be media, science, or our present-day renderings of our historical perspective, all had their tutelage in the halls of academia where knowledge for knowledge’s sake holds absolute sway.

All of this has worked in concert to foster an intellectual hubris on the part of liberal thinkers (i.e. me) that has crystallized an accepted ideology as objectively true. All the proof one needs for this is simply to read my twitter feed, or that of any other self-proclaimed progressive, and consider their constant belittling and self-aggrandized mockery of those they believe to be less intelligent, and less worthy of a hearing.

This belief in progress and the intellectual hubris that it engenders work to exacerbate the fear and mistrust prevalent among Evangelicals and Conservatives. It serves as little more than a confirmation that their darkest fears are being realized, and that they were right to distrust in the first place. Because they look to the memorable past, any movement away from that is suspect, indeed frightening. Because we look to the certain future, and are pushing to bend the arc of history toward it, we are confirming their worst fears that culture is changing, in flux around them.  Meanwhile, we ridicule their words and dismiss their beliefs. How chilling must it be to express your fears (whether legitimate or not), and be met with mockery and derision?

If this were only a division of ideology, reconciliation would be found through the means of debate, through facts and theories. We would win one another to our cause. But this isn’t a schism of ideology; its roots lie deeper – they are more entrenched, and less examined. In an epistemological divide, reconciliation can never have winning as its goal. The gap between the disparate worlds of warring minds can only be bridged through the authenticity and vulnerability of legitimate relationship. We must encounter the other, and though we find she is not the same as us, we must deign to see her as similar. We must humanize those we so often demonize.

This means that we must come into conversation sans agenda, sans ideology, and with the humility that the deepest assumptions underlying our own beliefs may ultimately be wrong. This is not a call to relinquish the most formative tenets of our faith (whether that faith be political or religious), but it does require us to come, unarmed, to the table of truce. And while a truce is no end-game, it is at the very least, a step forward (oops, that’s the language of progress), a step back from the brink, to use a more Republican friendly metaphor. And it is this, the ability to be able to speak the language of the other, not just to have dialogue, but to have dialogue and be understood, that is the mark of maturity, and honestly, the only path to reconciliation.

But like I said, it’s entirely possible that I’m wrong about everything. Maybe the way of reconciliation is to hold the government hostage, to argue about whose fault it is, to call Republicans names, and to play to our basest instincts. Cause you know, anything’s possible. 

Ben Howard is an accidental iconoclast and generally curious individual living in Nashville, Tennessee. He is also the editor-in-chief of On Pop Theology and an avid fan of waving at strangers for no reason. You can follow him on Twitter @BenHoward87.

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