The Humanist Dilemma: Who Needs a Wall When We Have Epistemic Closure?

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Realm of Rigid Bubbles: I happen to travel in various circles of people. Within each circle, most people seem to agree on many basic views, about which they seem absolutely confident. But from one circle to another, the views are dramatically different. It’s not just people’s views regarding President Trump, or free college tuition, single-payer healthcare, guaranteed income, or various religions versus none. It just seems that everywhere I go, there’s another self-contained parallel universe. And although I definitely don’t belong in some of them, I’m not sure I fully inhabit any of them.

I don’t remember reality feeling this way before. Is it me, or is something really weird going on?

— Victim of Fake News or Just Lacking Conviction?


Dear Lacking,

Whatever your malady is, I’ve got it too. I feel I need to have some idea of people’s positions before I venture into a conversation with them, for fear I’ll forever alienate acquaintances with whom I just want to get through a dinner’s worth of small talk or ongoing casual relationships. And yes, I do think something is going on.

There was an interesting discussion of this in a July 4 piece by Washington Post columnist Megan McArdle. Although her specific topic was the need for Democrats to nominate a presidential candidate who can actually win, she brought up the term “epistemic closure,” credited to libertarian writer Julian Sanchez and defined by McArdle as “the systemic banishment of any source of information outside your ideological bubble.” I’m not sure why or how the current administration seems to have divided the country, and perhaps the world, into camps that can’t find any common ground to share, but it has also managed to spawn factions within groups that ought to be uniting to achieve shared goals instead of dissing each other and refusing to cooperate. Maybe the current administration is not the cause but rather a manifestation of this dynamic infecting us, a dynamic turbo-charged by the internet.

I see intolerance all around, on all sides. There are Democrats who won’t brook any criticism of Barack Obama’s policies as president, and some people are so invested in their beliefs, they attribute mass shootings and natural disasters to divine retribution for lack of religion—or whatever else they consider sins.

But there’s hope. I was trying to enjoy a nice Fourth of July weekend at the beach when a boat pulled in bearing a “Trump 2020” flag. A woman on the boat docked next to it went berserk, screaming obscenities and making a disgusting remark about the teenage daughter on board. Happily, onlookers (who I knew represented both sides of the political divide) swiftly and soundly condemned the woman and supported the man’s right to fly his flag on his own boat. Until recently, it would have been astonishing if anyone even questioned that right. Isn’t freedom of expression one of our basic, cherished principles?

I encourage you to remain open-minded and to continue navigating all your various circles, even if it seems no one else is inclined to consider the possible wisdom of differing points of view. Hopefully, this cycle will eventually give way to the previously normal inclination to embrace differences and carry on thoughtful discussions in lieu of shouting matches and shut-downs. The world truly isn’t black and white, and it would be so much better if we could acknowledge and appreciate the shades of gray—as well as all the rich colors that comprise reality.