On Reconciling Epistemic Enclosures

Epistemology Lecturing

Democracy depends on the negotiation of common ground

I’ve spent most of my life as a connector. I’ve always been something of a bridge-builder. Someone who can ‘see both sides’ (sometimes to a fault). I’m forgiving, even when I might vehemently disagree with someone, and am generally able to admit that my way of perceiving the world is no more than just that: my way. Anyone else’s is only an equal and complimentary contribution to the sum of views that accounts for our socialized reality.

In the opening lines of my Master‘s, I cite a few lines of Nabokov’s that I’ve carried with me through much of my adult life (a longer excerpt of this idea is included in the very first post on this blog, as well; certainly, it is a foundational idea in my thinking about life and learning):

“The only way back to objective reality is the following one: we can take these several individual worlds, mix them thoroughly together, scoop up a drop of that mixture, and call it objective reality.”

Of course there are limits to the idea that all perspectives are rendered equal, and I would admit the maxim that one is “entitled to their own opinion, but not their own facts.” There is a hierarchy of (variously informed) opinions, (variously true or provable) beliefs, and what we might consider to be truly known (though even this empirical knowledge often offers a less complete picture than many ideologies would readily accept).

In basing our social reality (democratic politics) on such a humble view of what is known, and basing our decision-making processes on the limitations of that knowledge, we can hope to create the most just world possible. But this potential will remain as mere hope if we do not resolve to wrestle with democracy’s limitations; and if we believe in the potential of democracy to create such a just representation of human views, we must fight to be inclusive of diverse views that may offend our existing paradigm(s), while at the same time be able to reject that which is based in dubious claims to knowledge or reality.

Galileo to Descartes to Canadian Multiculturalism

By one reading, it was the destruction of the epistemological paradigm of the Middle Ages that brought about the west’s democratic revolutions in the first place. It is the scientific revolution which enables the social, and precedes the political, as Galileo and Newton create the necessity of Descartes’ ultimate scepticism that leads him to outline his knowledge beginning from only true beliefs, and the notion that the sole certainty is that “I am a thing that thinks.”

From here the technological advancements in printing technology and the cultural revolutions of the Protestant Reformation bring about the realignment of the knowledge-creating bodies of the western world. Where before the one word of god and Pope and king defined the parameters of the social experience, as it became clear that a polyphony of voices was just as capable of advocating for a truly collective perspective, it similarly became apparent that the political structures governing that society would be in need of significant renovation.

The initial forces exerting this seminal democratic will are with us today, and we see in the evolution of the causes of civil rights and social justice in countries continuing to strive toward these Enlightenment ideals. In its Multiculturalism policy, the Government of Canada sets the lofty goal for itself to

“promote the full and equitable participation of individuals and communities of all origins in the continuing evolution and shaping of all aspects of Canadian society and assist them in the elimination of any barrier to that participation”.

So radical does the statement strike me every time I read it that I cannot help but emphasize the scope of what such a policy might genuinely aspire toward. To promote the “full and equitable participation of individuals and communities of all origins in the continuing evolution and shaping of all aspects of Canadian society.”

In a seeming nod to Nabokov, Canada holds as an official view that each of our responses to the question, What does it mean to be a Canadian? must be counted as equal. Not only that, however, but also that it is the role of government (and citizen alike, by extension), to “assist them in the elimination of any barrier to that participation.”

How we intend to arrive at the notion of what it means to be Canadian, and what this vision of nationhood implies of what it means to be human, then, exists on an epistemological foundation which values bridge-and-consensus-building, on creating spaces for dialogue and disagreement, and on reconciliation of the myriad different ways we each experience the world.

Engaging the deplorables

I’ve always had a lot more fun exploring my thinking on issues I’m passionate about with folks of differing opinions; even with my more liberal friends, the conversations I learn the most from are where we are able to highlight minute disagreements that help shed light on the contours of an issue or event. Fortunately in this regard I’ve been able to make social connections with a range of sharply opinionated conservative coworkers and teammates over the years: I spent five years living in Arkansas, two of which saw me working at a Boy Scouts of America summer camp in the Ozark Mountains; and I’ve shared a lunchroom back in suburban Vancouver with passionately libertarian male Baby Boomers (a relationship I’ve explored at some length here before).

In both of these cases, I’ve worked to represent the liberal values espoused earlier here, and attempted to represent and reconcile our differing views on a range of contemporary events and issues fairly and as dispassionately as possible (not that this has always been possible). I make a point of being overly cordial, friendly, and make explicit the idea that it is important for us to respect one another and our perspectives despite our divergent views about the state of the world. Reasonable people are free to disagree, after all, if we are each able to present our view of the facts as best as we are able and come to our own conclusions from there. It is through this process that respect and reconciliation of our differing views become possible.

But I wonder if we aren’t living through a time which makes this hope a fragile and idealistic possibility, as the advent of “alternative facts” and a pervasive distrust of there being any common reality for us to point to being dispelled through more and more normalized channels. How can we be expected to arrive at a collective interpretation of reality with such nihilistic views of facts or the truth circulating in such broad swaths of the population?

I’ve taken the opportunity of late to engage some of my southern friends and former neighbours in dialogue on social media over the last few weeks. I’ve attempted to dispel disproven facts, or to inquire as to the origins of what I perceive as xenophobic views.

“These refugees are getting ready for a war,” one of my Facebook friends writes, prompting me to offer an exceedingly polite summary of the process through which refugees must pass through before entering the United States or Canada. Over the course of a dialogue that lasts through the weekend, I am told that President Obama is a Muslim, and worked tirelessly throughout his presidency against American interests. I am told that his efforts as president were intended to weaken America such that the invading hoards of refugees could “make America Muslim.” This friend was proud to tell me that they knew of terrorist training camps throughout America, and that the fact that there was no evidence to support this claim was only more proof that vigilance is needed.

I’ve been down this road before: arguments about the “disastrous” Obama economy (despite 75 consecutive months of job creation; record high stock markets; auto-industry recovery; tens of millions insured); the validity of climate data (“scientists who study climate change’s funding depends on them making conclusions the politicians like”); and even the very existence of racism in America (what with the election of the nation’s first African American to its highest office).

“We can’t know any of the real story,” this friend informed me when I asked if there were any sources to their horrifying claims. It is a startling (and somewhat ironic) admission from someone positing their own reading of the available facts, but also a distressingly bleak prospect for deliberative democracy. It is little wonder that people with so little faith in the democratic system elected a man who campaigned on the rhetoric that he, “alone,” could fix what ailed America (even if by many demonstrable metrics the country had been progressing). There can be no truth under authoritarianism but what the authorities say it is; the consensus of the public ceases to matter, and like that we have undone the promise of the Enlightenment, the necessity of democracy, and the hope for justice that comes with it.

If nothing can be known – or if enough people in a democracy believe that nothing can be known – what is the point of discussing anything? Why ought there be a democratic process at all?

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