Empathy and epistemic closure

Empathy and epistemic closure April 30, 2010

The wonkier blogs of the left and right have been discussing what they're calling "epistemic closure" among American conservatives.

It's a criticism of the way the activist, indignant right has begun to cut off and cauterize whole realms of thought and inquiry — purging dissent, punishing questioners, banishing internal critics.

The recent conservative opposition to empathy might seem like a symptom of this epistemic closure, but I think it's more than that. I think it's a cause — maybe even the root cause.

Empathy, at its most basic level, is epistemic. It is sometimes discussed as though it is identical to love, respect or regard for others, but really it precedes that. It is what makes such love, respect or regard for others possible — what informs it. Empathy is a way of seeing, and therefore a way of knowing. To avoid empathy is to limit one's own perspective to only one's own perspective — to choose not to see and therefore to choose not to know. Worse than that — it is to choose not to be able to know.

Empathy, in other words, makes you smarter and wiser. Rejecting empathy makes you dumber and more foolish. To choose not to see what empathy shows us is to choose stupidity.

Stupidity has become a major, if not wholly acknowledged, theme in recent American politics. From Arizona to Massachusetts, it is a glaringly obvious fact of our political discourse, but one that is rarely spoken of directly.

Let's set such timid delicacy aside and state the obvious: The tea partiers are stupid. Look at them, listen to them — these are stupid people behaving stupidly. They are hideously ill-informed and monstrously unconcerned with the fact of their being so ill-informed. Their stupidity fuels their anger and their anger fuels their stupidity. Spend five minutes listening to them and the overwhelming impression of resentful stupidity will only be reinforced. Spend hours listening to the speakers receiving the cheers at their rallies and hours more listening to Glenn Beck or Sarah Palin or Rush Limbaugh or any of the other demagogic leaders of this mob of a movement and the conclusion becomes undeniably confirmed: Stupid, stupid, stupid.

It is widely regarded as impolite, or uncharitable, or counterproductive to speak of this egregious stupidity. To call it what it clearly is is considered "condescending."

But to view this as condescending is to misunderstand and misrepresent the stupidity of the tea partiers as something both innate and intractable. It is neither.

These stupid people do not have to be stupid. Their stupidity is a choice, an act of will. Or, rather, an ongoing series of acts of will. And their only hope for liberation is for them to make better choices — to choose to see what can be seen if only they would stop actively choosing not to see it. To choose, among other things, to be receptive to empathy.

The stupidity of the tea partiers has nothing to do with innate intelligence or with acquired intelligence. It has nothing to do with smartness or brainpower or where anyone falls on the bell curve of Stanford-Binet test scores. It is, rather, a moral stupidity, a moral imbecilism that produces simple imbecilism — the inevitable intellectual consequence of a selfish refusal to listen to what empathy is shouting from all sides.

The correlation between bigotry and stupidity has been widely observed, leading to much speculation that there is likely also a causal relationship there. I believe there is, but I think many observers get that causal relationship backwards. Stupidity does not lead to bigotry. Bigotry leads to stupidity. Bigotry causes stupidity. Bigotry is a choice — a series of choices. And each of those choices makes the chooser a little bit more stupid. Cumulatively, they make the chooser a lot more stupid.

One might argue that I have here merely replaced intellectual condescension with moral condescension — replaced "I'm more intelligent than you" with "I'm more virtuous than you." But the message here for the tea partiers is not "I'm smarter than you" or "I'm better than you." The message, rather, is this: You're smarter than you and you're better than you. Right now, you may be selfish, angry, unhappy and really, really stupid. But you don't have to be like that. You can be better and smarter. You ought to be better and smarter. And you can become so without any help from me, just by choosing to be so.

That message is radically egalitarian — the opposite of condescending. It is a call to repentance, and an invitation to reality. In reality, it says, the tea partiers could be smart, decent people. But in the unreality in which they are continuously choosing to dwell they cannot be.

In the terms of the discussion I referred to at the beginning here, "epistemic closure" makes you more ignorant and less wise. It makes you, in a word, stupid. Selfishness and chauvinism require massive, ongoing epistemic closure. Selfishness and chauvinism make you stupid. Really, really stupid. Tea-party stupid.

But such stupidity is a choice that can, at any time, be unchosen.

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