What Ails Our Discourse? Part Two
By David Ottlinger
In my last essay, I made use of Glenn Loury’s work in exploring possible explanations for our polarized and partisan discourse.  I suggested that his work might help explain how society divides into distinct communities of discourse, each exhibiting a natural tendency to suppress their moderates, such that only the most uncompromising tend to remain. I suggested that this picture of discourse and social censorship improves on the one proposed by Mill, which posited a monolithic culture that suppresses novelty. While the last piece was concerned primarily with the possible causes and logic of our current state of affairs, this one will focus on the potential effects. As promised, I will draw heavily from the work of philosopher Philip Kitcher,  who has been writing about our political state with an increasing sense of alarm, one that I will argue is quite legitimate.
Social censorship occurs when members of a polity suppress speech by imposing a social cost on those who engage in speech deemed impermissible. Such a cost may be imposed in the form of ostracism, loss of opportunity, verbal abuse and other such means. This is a purely social phenomenon, in the sense that it involves no state actors or any kind of legal mechanism. Nonetheless, it deserves to be called censorship, insofar as it has the effect of compelling silence.
Loury’s account of social censorship begins with the idea of communities and the shared values that give them cohesion. It is assumed that communities will have some incentive to exclude those who do not share their values. Accordingly, when a person speaks in ways that offend or do not clearly uphold community values, that person risks his or her standing in the community. Every hearer then has to judge why the “offensive” speaker would take such a risk and has reason to suspect that the speaker does not really share the values of the community. Otherwise why take the risk? Why defend a communist? What did this person really mean by “everyone is entitled to a fair trial”? How committed is this person to our capitalist democracy anyhow?
My small innovation was to suggest that within our polity are “communities of discourse,” which have no spatial location and whose members are dispersed through a larger population, but can nonetheless be thought of as coherent and distinct. People living right next to each other separate themselves into different “communities.” Liberal papers, magazines, and television programs, along with their readers, viewers and the intellectuals who publish in them, form one community of discourse. Conservative publications, intellectuals and readership form another community. Each group is joined by common moral and political values and attempts to support the discourse needed to put these values into action. Thus, those in the liberal community who offer qualified, moderate or compromised versions of liberal views may be shunned for not really sharing liberal values. The same goes for conservatives. And though I will be focusing mainly on liberals and conservatives, the same mechanism applies for many other groups, as well.  As each enforces on itself this kind of winnowing, what is left are extreme, uncompromising arguments and balefully little in between.
Philip Kitcher offers a similar diagnosis. A veteran of both the creationist and climate-denial fight and a philosopher of science, he is no stranger to polarized, dysfunctional discourse. Informed by such experience, he describes the landscape of our political discourse as “fragmented.”  Each “fragment,” Kitcher observes, seems to have its own tailor made media. Media “entrepreneurs,” as Kitcher calls them, set out to make a profit by presenting readers and viewers with a picture of the world as they would want to see it. The eventual result is that “the market can be fragmented according to groups with particular evidential conceptions, so that each is supplied with sources of information that resonate with prior beliefs and commitments.”  Each group has certain views. Each group naturally favors sources of opinion and information that reinforce these views. Accordingly, each group presents “entrepreneurs” with an opportunity to earn a profit, by creating a system of media that flatters and reinforces the beliefs of the given group. This is perhaps the genesis of what I called “communities of discourse.” Certain outlets become central to these communities. Intellectuals seek to publish in them. Rank and file community members read or view them, take their opinion from them, use them as sources of information. Eventually, like-minded readers, viewers and intellectuals are bound together.
Loury’s work suggests a different and, I think, more sympathetic origin story. Instead of shrewd, opportunistic media barons establishing what amounts to propaganda machines, Loury describes how a community acting in good faith and on genuine motives can come to suppress the truth. According to Loury’s central argument, communities form around shared values and then, reacting to certain incentives, become naturally distrustful of those within the community who hold more moderate views. Loury expounds how this can lead to the phenomenon of “forbidden facts.”  As re-capped above, on Loury’s account those who do not clearly affirm community values in their speech are judged by the hearer to be prima facie suspect. One way to unambiguously fail to affirm the values of a given community is to insist on facts that may complicate the values and commitments or jeopardize the political aims, constitutive of that community. Accordingly, the utterance of these complicating facts is often suppressed by a community, not because someone is dishonestly seeking to sell someone something, but because members of the community, who genuinely embrace certain values, find these facts too risky to disseminate. Of course, every social phenomenon has a multiplicity of causes, and it is likely that both stories have their element of truth. As Nietzsche said (somewhere), nothing with a history can ever be fully understood.
What would be the result of such social divisions (however they come about)? Kitcher argues that we are plunged into “irremediable ignorance.”  Of course, we are all necessarily ignorant of many things, but ordinarily, such ignorance can be remedied. Kitcher argues that we can go about remedying our ignorance “directly” or “indirectly.” Once we wish to seek out some piece of information, we can go about finding it in various ways. We remedy ignorance “directly,” when we do research and seek information ourselves. But any person can do this for only a very select range of topics. I would be helpless to establish any matter of fact in the domain of astrophysics by trying to research and read professional papers. On most subjects, consequently, we have to remedy our ignorance “indirectly,” by way of the testimony of experts.
This should be a simple matter. If we want to know something about astrophysics, we seek out an astrophysicist. If we want to understand the impact of a given policy, we seek out a political scientist. But what if we are unable to identify experts? We have to rely on credentials and the testimony of others. But when we are faced with different families of media that advance very different opinions on who counts as an expert, things can get murky. Clearly, many people are in this position with regard to climate change. A number of media outlets treat climate scientists as the relevant experts and the only relevant experts, while others treat climate scientists as frauds, insisting on their own theories to further their own ideological agenda and acquire funding. Still others present climate scientists and climate “skeptics” as having more or less equal standing. In such an environment, it is very challenging for ordinary people to decide to which purported expert, if any, they should give credence. A person lacking the relevant expertise thus has no way of finding the information they seek. Because they cannot seek the information themselves they have no “direct” route to it, and because they cannot identify an expert as trustworthy, they cannot find the desired information “indirectly,” by means of expert testimony.
Most people I know have convinced themselves — I think rightly — that climate change is a real phenomenon, attested to by a consensus of the relevant experts. But it would be unwise to think of irremediable ignorance as something that only impairs the thinking of others. I spent the better part of the first half of my undergraduate career establishing (and documenting) my incompetence in the field of economics. I have no reason to think I have improved since, but as a voting citizen, I feel obligated to try to understand some basic facts about the economy and how certain policies would affect it. Accordingly, I try to read the papers. Not infrequently, I’ll read in one paper that some policy would require massive government expansion and could be achieved only at great cost to the taxpayer and in another that the increase in spending required would be relatively modest and that, factoring in certain cuts elsewhere, it might even be a boon to the country. I know perfectly well that the first paper has a conservative bent and the latter a liberal one. I then have to weigh these two sources of information. There are always judgment calls when dealing with something as complicated as national domestic policy, but what I want to get clear on are the facts of the matter, as opposed to peoples’ moral or political convictions. For experts, determining the truth on this point of policy should be relatively unaffected by prior political and ideological holdings. And yet, I read two experts who arrive at completely opposed conclusions. I could consider that the matter is controversial and that experts may simply disagree. Why, then, did the expert in the liberal paper and the expert in the conservative paper both arrive at conclusions preferable to them, given their own prior ideological commitments? I am left with the strong suspicion that both experts are allowing their case to be colored but their own values and political aims. And this situation is further compounded when both sides, as often happens, claim to be speaking on behalf of the expert consensus.
What ignorance counts as “remediable” and “irremediable” is driven, in part (as I am sure Kitcher would agree), by pragmatic concerns. I have a hard enough time establishing what is the case and I am a relatively educated and attentive person with considerable time to devote to civic duties. I can’t imagine what I would do if I had a high school education and were working two jobs. As long as remedying one’s ignorance means having to go to multiple sources, compare them, weigh their potential biases and discern what information can be trusted in each source, it will be a remedy few will have the time and inclination to apply. Accordingly, ignorance will increase as the time and education of voters decrease.
The short and blunt way to put it is that in a balkanized discourse such as ours, it is hard to know anything. In order to acquire knowledge on most subjects and on subjects most salient to our democratic responsibilities, we must rely on experts. To rely on experts, we must be able to identify experts. But when our discourse is broken down into multiple communities, each with their own political agenda, it is remarkably hard to establish who the experts are and when they should be trusted. Knowledge is (usually) a social phenomenon and rests on our having certain social relationships of trust. When those relationships fail, we are unable rely on each other in the ways necessary to gain knowledge. This represents a massive failure of our political discourse.
There are, perhaps, some rays of hope. The problem of irremediable ignorance assumes that we look to our own communities of discourse for information. This need not be. Our ignorance remains irremediable only so long as the only sources of information are affiliated with one community of discourse or another. We may be able to achieve a state of affairs in which we retain separate communities of discourse for matters of opinion but look outside our communities of discourse for matters of fact. Thus, liberals and conservatives would read their own editorials and journals of opinion, but look to some source affiliated with neither community for the purpose of acquiring facts. Kitcher is downbeat about the possibility of establishing such independent institutions for the simple reason that both communities of discourse will have a vested interest in undermining the independent institution, when it produces facts that might jeopardize their political aims.  If the independent source reports that climate change is occurring and is man-made, conservative outlets will likely go about attempting to expose — or invent — the independent source’s hidden liberal agenda. If the same source finds that in certain cases, affirmative action may do more harm than good to a disadvantaged population, liberal outlets may go about exposing — or inventing — the implicit racist assumptions of the independent source’s research. Nonetheless, it may be possible to cut through such attacks and restore some trust with the public. As people grow weary of the political game of each side smearing the other (as I think there are some signs that they are), they might be less willing to go along with familiar ad hominem rhetoric. In such difficult times, such an endeavor seems worth trying.
At any rate, something must be tried. I believe Prof. Kitcher is absolutely correct in arguing that the state of our political discourse threatens the future of our democracy. Between the two of them, Prof. Loury and Prof. Kitcher paint a disturbing picture of a public unable to understand and confront, let alone deal with its problems. Prof. Kitcher responds to this picture by writing, “The best solution to the problems of democracy is, I believe, more democracy.”  I could not agree more. But the democracy we return to must be a very different kind of democracy than the one we have been practicing for the past several decades. Once again, I find that we must return to the values of individual autonomy and judgment, the values of Locke, Milton and Mill. We, many of us, have grown too complacent in uncritically accepting a view of the world fed to us by the organs of thought with which we already agree. What is need is a more suspicious, careful and independent citizenry. It cannot come soon enough.
Prof. Loury’s paper:
Loury, Glenn C. “Self-Censorship in Public Discourse: A Theory of ‘Political Correctness’ and Related Phenomena.” Rationality and Society 6 (October 1994): 428–61
References to Mill concern his On Liberty, available online:
 The relevant papers:
Kitcher, Philip (2006). Public knowledge and the difficulties of democracy. Social Research: An International Quarterly 73 (4):1205-1224.
Kitcher, Philip (2010). Varieties of freedom and their distribution. Social Research: An International Quarterly 77 (3):857-872.
Kitcher, Philip (2011). Public Knowledge and Its Discontents. Theory and Research in Education 9 (2): 103-124
 One small example might be the echo chamber that is the skeptic/atheist community and it’s rage against “accomodationists”, meaning essentially anyone who acknowledges anything positive in religion or any kind of détente between atheists and believers. Poor, intrepid, stoic Massimo Pigliucci has just been through another particularly ugly spat with the hardliners which exemplifies this dynamic.
 See especially Kitcher, 2006 1219-1220
 Loury, 26-29
 Kitcher, 2010 861
 Kitcher,, 2011 122
 Ibid. Cf. Kitcher, 2010 870