Tribe Dismantling: Confusion vs. Closure

I’m writing this sentence as I started outlining the notes that will become this post, on the 9th of October. I expect that when it automatically publishes, at noon of the 15th of October, the government is still shut down.

Unrelated, I swear: Soon I’m switching focus to Oswald Spengler’s Decline of the West for several posts. I’ve read enough ammunition to put some notes down on a few ideas of his that I found interesting.


Epistemic Confusion (Dissolution)

The Champion archetype I proposed has one broad goal: To build a coherent, communicable creed that the tribe can rally around. He has to shout down other would-be authorities who might misdirect the flock, and he also has to solidify at least some of the creed into something very concrete and well-defined to avoid this:

When I feel overwhelmed by the world, I take comfort in the knowledge that, for just about any controversial topic, there is a fact of the matter. As I’m buffeted by opposing op-eds, rival theories, and barroom debates, the fact of the matter waits patiently, biding its time beneath tectonic layers of invective and argument and confusion. Unfortunately, discovering the fact of the matter can drive one to the limits of sanity, as I learned when I tried to glean some vital information about the actor Jake Gyllenhaal.


As soon as I got home, I typed “How tall is Jake Gyllenhaal” into my web browser’s search box. The internet deposited me at, “an Entertainment site estimating the heights of famous people, including fan photos and celebrity quotations about their own height.” Bingo. Surely CelebHeights would provide the concise, definitive answer to my question!

Friends, the CelebHeights entry on Jake Gyllenhaal runs to 11 printed pages. It spans 21 months. It is the Infinite Jest of Jake Gyllenhaal–height-related discourse: a maelstrom of heated debate, contested recollections, and esoteric theories of mind-numbing potency.

Epistemic Confusion is the result of too many voices. There is no authority on any matter and no guiding principle, no way for the tribe to easily regain its bearings. An ideology that suffers from it becomes too far open and too split apart. Natural social forces cannot cohere the tribe back together again, and since the subject matter is ideological (and cannot easily be molded by collision with reality), there is a threshold past which re-coalescence into a familiar form is not feasible. The community that had once organized around some similarity has no future. This is arguably the fate of classical Pragmatism as a singular philosophical body. By “succeeding” in transmitting its successful aspects, the community began to lack clear delineating lines- there must be an “outside” of the tribe in order for there to be an “inside”. “Atheism” as a named concept only really makes sense in the shadow of “theism”- if everyone were one thing there’d be no impetus for that category. Still, perhaps the artifacts the community left behind can be reconfigured into a new community, or appropriated by future communities.


Epistemic Closure (Implosion)

The classical idea of epistemic closure was simply this: You know [thing p]. You know that [thing p -> thing q] and that therefore you know [thing q].

The concept of Epistemic Closure I’m referring to, though, is from Andrew Sullivan (and before him, it was apparently coined by Julian Sanchez at the Cato Institute). It’s the result of extreme solidarity and closure, the result of what happens when polemic is too effective.

One of the more striking features of the contemporary conservative movement is the extent to which it has been moving toward epistemic closure. Reality is defined by a multimedia array of interconnected and cross promoting conservative blogs, radio programs, magazines, and of course, Fox News. Whatever conflicts with that reality can be dismissed out of hand because it comes from the liberal media, and is therefore ipso facto not to be trusted. (How do you know they’re liberal? Well, they disagree with the conservative media!)  This epistemic closure can be a source of solidarity and energy, but it also renders the conservative media ecosystem fragile. Think of the complete panic China’s rulers feel about any breaks in their Internet firewall: The more successfully external sources of information have been excluded to date, the more unpredictable the effects of a breach become. Internal criticism is then especially problematic, because it threatens the hermetic seal. It’s not just that any particular criticism might have to be taken seriously coming from a fellow conservative. Rather, it’s that anything that breaks down the tacit equivalence between “critic of conservatives and “wicked liberal smear artist” undermines the effectiveness of the entire information filter.  If disagreement is not in itself evidence of malign intent or moral degeneracy, people start feeling an obligation to engage it sincerely—maybe even when it comes from the New York Times. And there is nothing more potentially fatal to the momentum of an insurgency fueled by anger than a conversation.

A strong narrative, one voice, no dissent- confirmation bias and an extreme echo chamber can result when a tribe can only hear itself, louder and louder. Sometimes this is the effect a polemicist wants. But this is also potentially dangerous to the community, and is not a sustainable direction. If heterodox Historians are purged, a sort of social evaporative cooling effect can occur: moderates are purged or leave the movement, causing the atmosphere in the movement to become more and more orthodox/extreme, pushing past the threshold to initiate new exits from the next-moderates, etcetera. In the absence of heterodox Historians flexing and broadening the circle of a tribe’s inclusion/empathy, the group can collapse in on itself or collide painfully with the physical world that doesn’t fit the hardened shape of the ideology- in the instance of one ideology, a world where Romney did not win the Presidency in a landslide, and where evolution is evident.