Epistemic Closure and Childhood

I’m not a trained philosopher; I didn’t even take a lot of philosophy courses in college. But I have been thinking a lot about the nexus between epistemology/psychology and political behavior. Not as in “people who believe this or that political proposition are delusional or mentally ill” (though of course that’s sometimes the case), but in the way that our sense of the world is formed partly from our own observations and partly from the value and belief systems that we internalize as we are learning language.

This is why I keep writing about cognitive dissonance. I think we need to understand it as something that doesn’t just happen to some people sometimes under a specific set of circumstances, but as a constant (albeit mostly unrecognized) background feature of consciousness–or at least of our consciousness of public events that we assign values to.

The point isn’t that we are highly emotional and judgmental. It’s that we hold so many of our ideas and values defensively: our core beliefs are inseparable from the anxieties that they call up in us. One of the worst of those anxieties is our suspicion that they’re not really true.

Kierkegaard wrote about Abraham’s leap of faith “by virtue of the absurd”–but how many of our most passionate certainties turn out to be hollow?

The right wing volte face on Bowe Bergdahl is a little shocking in its hypocrisy, but there’s nothing new or different about its passionate intensity. Yes, some of it is basic Swift Boating–but a lot of it has to do with the unraveling of the patriotic post-911 narrative. They are seizing on this story as a counter-narrative in which America didn’t lose the war but Bergdahl and Obama did.

Andrew Sullivan posted a bunch of reader comments on the topic of “deaf culture” today. This one, from a partially deaf person, stood out for me:

The biggest tragedy….was when a deaf couple would have a deaf baby because of a shared genetic defect, and then deliberately choose not to give the helpless baby a cochlear implant so that he or she could grow up deaf. I found it appalling. Language acquisition with a cochlear implant is like all language acquisition – easier for babies and small children than for adolescents or adults. So the parents who deny their babies this opportunity to live a hearing life are making an essentially irreversible decision. To deny that opportunity to one’s own child strikes me as the most foolish sort of pride, and perhaps even spite.

The analogy I’m about to make isn’t completely fair; I know that. Depriving a child of the opportunity to learn oral language instinctively, and thus to communicate in a comparatively unmediated way with the vast majority of the hearing people around them, is hardly the same thing as simply trying to inculcate your own values in your children (which is, after all, what parents are supposed to do)–but they are not completely unalike either. Epistemic closure is a feature of families and polities alike.

As children go out into the world, they begin to see things for themselves–and to develop their own moral frameworks. But as developmental psychologists know, the process of separation and individuation can be traumatic–and I suspect that that trauma reverberates throughout the rest of our adult lives.

A lot of our politics, I think, make more sense as psychological coping mechanisms than they do as politics.





One thought on “Epistemic Closure and Childhood

  1. They did it with the left and the Vietnam War -the pattern isn’t new. “Hanoi Jane” became the symbol to many on the right as to why the war in Vietnam was lost-it was all the pinko liberal appeasers. Obviously this is hardly accurate if anyone knows the history of the Vietnam War -it is nonsense- “Hanoi Jane” became conflated to preposterous levels that people didn’t even react to when it actually happened-kind of like the reinvention of Ronald Reagan. I am though getting really tired of this nonsensical drama the right is playing out now-there is some criticism of this whole scenario on the left but it is primarily right wing drama and out and out lying.

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