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Touch Negative Epistemology and Negative Epistemology Will Touch You Back
Fox News, Evangelical Twitter, and the Reality Game.
The story that’s been developing over the last month about Fox News and the “stolen election” narrative confirms so many of my priors that I’ve been hesitant to talk about it. Thanks to Dominion Voting Systems’ lawsuit, we now can read emails and other exchanges that were happening internally at Fox. The upshot is clear: hosts like Tucker Carlson, Sean Hannity, and Laura Ingraham did not actually believe that the 2020 election had been fraudulently awarded to Biden, but they knew their audience did believe that, so they pretended on-air to believe it too.
Like I said, this story vindicates so many of my concerns about conservatism and its media ecosystem that I probably am missing something. Partly because of that, I don’t really want to talk about The State of Conservatism Today. I’m glad others will take that challenge up, because they need to. Instead staring deep into the abyss of Fox’s hypocrisy and irresponsibility, I’d rather zoom out and consider how this story continues what I think is one of the most important (and devastating) narrative arcs out there: the ascendance of enmity as an intellectual ethic. There are other dynamics at play with the Fox News/Dominion story, of course: the perils of populism, the conscience-deforming demands of audience capture, the decrepit state of most of American journalism, etc. But the thread I’ve been tracking especially for the last few years is what I’ve called negative epistemology: a way of forming one’s beliefs not from a set of convictions and judgments, but from doing the opposite of whatever a disliked out-group does.
We now know that Fox did not believe in the stolen election narrative. They acted like they did because many of their viewers genuinely believed in it. So why did the viewers genuinely believe in it? One answer is that the same media outlets which insisted there was no election fraud were also the same media outlets who insisted that trans women are women, that perpetual COVID lockdown was the only morally responsible choice, that praying outside an abortion clinic is a species of domestic terrorism. In other words, an ideologically jaundiced media economy has contributed to the proliferation of vast swaths of Americans who believe that the most influential and moneyed journalistic institutions in the country hate them and are incapable of telling the truth if it comforts/helps/vindicates those they hate.
And you know what? This isn’t wrong. If you want evidence of negative epistemology among the Left, look no further than COVID. I appreciate The Atlantic’s Derek Thompson for highlighting how the media and governing consensus around masks and the lab-leak origin have been completely up-ended, but the title of his article gives the game away: “Why Are We Still Arguing About Masks?” Well, we are still arguing because there are currently, right now school systems, hospitals, housing complexes, and government buildings that require masks. If there is even significant evidence that masking offers no real benefit, then those mandates are not just silly, they’re morally wrong. It is morally wrong to require people to do things on false premises. Asking “why are we arguing” about masks betrays too much of American journalism’s indifference about truth.
The reason this doesn’t get said, of course, is that it would immediately sort the person who said into a camp they may not want to be in. The same thing has happened, as Alan Jacobs has pointed out, regarding teens and technology. People who know how to read data are still denying that smartphones are contributing to adolescent despair. Why? Because this is an issue where cultural conservatives got there first and captured the flag. Now, the effects of social media and smartphones on kids is a “right-coded” issue, similar to how the idea that the 2020 election was legitimate is (somehow!) a “left-coded” issue. Thus, Fox News tells its viewers stuff they believe is false, and The Atlantic asks its readers “why even bother talking about” stuff they know is false. The singular goal is to avoid even giving the appearance of being like the Other Side.
In his masterful essay for The New Atlantis, Jon Askonas argues that the information economy has become so beholden to making its customers feel righteous (and feel the opposite toward their enemies) that the art of “truth-telling” is merely a game:
In a world in which we all play alternate reality games, we each pile up superabundant facts, theories, and interpretations that support the main narratives, and our allegiances gradually solidify as we consume and produce the game material. It’s not just interpretations of data that wildly diverge between different games, but also players’ sense of what is realistic or plausible — for example, their perceptions of the rates of homicides committed by police, or by illegal immigrants. This means that, in any crisis situation, the most narrative-enhancing reports will spread widest and fastest, regardless of whether they are overturned by later reporting…
As the media ecosystem produces alternate realities, it also undermines what remains of consensus reality by portraying it as just one problematic but boring option among many. The process of arriving at this contrary view of the consensus — a process sometimes called “redpilling,” after The Matrix — goes something like this: A real-world event occurs that seems important to you, so you pay attention. With primary sources at your fingertips, or reported by those you trust online, you develop a narrative about the facts and meaning of the event. But the consensus media narrative is directly opposed to the one you’ve developed. The more you investigate, the more cynical you become about the consensus narrative. Suddenly, the mendacity of the whole “mainstream” media enterprise is laid bare before your anger. You will never really trust consensus reality again.
If reality is a game, negative epistemology is a strong strategy for winning it.
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And we have to admit at this point that even theology has been “gamified.” The story of the month in online evangelicalism concerns The Gospel Coalition and its publication of a book excerpt by Joshua Ryan Butler. The article, which has now since been removed, offered a theological interpretation of sex. Well, strike that. It was really a theological interpretation of the sex act. Butler discussed coitus itself as a type of Christ’s love for the church, going to uncomfortable detail to map out how the one-flesh union fills out the symbolism. Like many readers, I was taken aback by how detailed the piece was and cringed at some of the expressions. It's not something I would have written, and were I an editor assigned to such a piece, I would have raised some major red flags.
But in the days after its publication, the public response to the article went from beyond cringe to something else entirely. There were sustained and passionate accusations that Butler was offering a theology of domestic abuse, that he was anointing the male orgasm while making women a mute accessory to the whole thing. These allegations coalesced into a wholesale denouncement of TGC, pointing to the article as evidence of their participation in “abuse theology,” even bizarrely suggesting that it had something to do with the abuse controversy several years ago in Sovereign Grace Ministries. People who had endorsed Butler’s book publicly recanted their endorsements. It has been a meltdown.
It should be noted that some have directed careful, substantive critiques of Butler’s post. But these have not featured the most prominently in the bruit against Butler or TGC. Far and away, most of the anger has been wildly disproportionate to what was in the piece, drawing completely unnecessary conclusions about Butler’s character, about the intents of TGC in running the article, and much else beside. Butler is no longer a fellow at TGC’s Keller Center, and his scheduled talk at the national conference has been canceled.
This is not good. Whether Butler’s excerpt should have been published is an open question. What’s not an open question is whether the response to it has sped right past intellectual honesty and into a mob mentality. And here’s the thing I can’t get past: Very few of the article’s most vocal critics will actually say what was wrong with it. Instead, the response by the majority has been to assume that it was deeply problematic and proceed as if every honest, decent person in the world will feel the same degree of offense and outrage. As Alastair Roberts and Kevin DeYoung have pointed out, the substance of what Butler was arguing is uncontroversial among many biblical theologians. Yes, the relationship between husband and wife is a profound mystery that refers to Christ and his church, and yes, in this analogy, it is the husband who represents Christ and the wife who represents the church.
But the perpetual animus in the debate over gender roles gamified the conversation about Butler’s essay from the start. The pool of people concerned about it grew and grew until it included not just people who could articulate why his language was wrong, but people who had written and taught and spoken in the past as if such language was right but did not want to be associated with the target of such a fierce shame storm. In the reality game within conservative evangelicalism, the question became not, “Why is this wrong,” but “Why is this unsafe?” Butler’s essay was bundled up and assigned a role as a symbol for particular people within conservative evangelicalism, depicted as predators who use theology as a shield.
Jon Askonas’s observation about the way “the most narrative-enhancing” news reports ascend to the top of the epistemological pecking order is instructive here. To win the reality game, you must outlive, outflank, and out-virtue your opponent. The straightest way to do that is to make the bad stuff your opponent says or believes an intrinsic expression of their nature, and the bad stuff you or your tribe say or believe to be an aberration (or perhaps even not that bad at all). If the people you count as an enemy link to something, denounce it; if the people you count as an enemy have something on somebody else, back away.
Survive and advance.
In his book In the Swarm, German philosopher Byung-Chul Han describes online outrage this way:
Waves of outrage mobilize and bundle attention very efficiently. However, their fluidity and volatility make them unsuited to shaping public discourse or public space. They are too uncontrollable, incalculable, inconstant, ephemeral, and amorphous for that. They well up abruptly—and they dissipate just as soon. They are like smart mobs; they lack the stability, constancy, and continuity that are indispensable for a civil exchange…Waves of outrage often occur in response to events of only meager social or political relevance.
[T]he world of Homo digitalis envinces an entirely different topology. Spaces such as sports arenas and amphitheaters—that is, sites where masses meet—are foreign to this world. The digital inhabitants of the Net do not assemble. They lack the interiority of assembly that would bring forth a we. They form a gathering without assembly-a crowd without interiority, without a soul or spirit…Occasionally, digital individuals come together in gatherings—in smart mobs, for instance. However, their collective patterns of movement are like the swarms that animals form—fleeting and unstable.
One of the things to note here about Byung-Chul Han’s description of online culture is how weak and inefficient it is. It is “fluid” and “volatile,” “ephemeral” and tend to “dissipate.” Online culture reacts downward; it amplifies things easily forgotten, exchanging hive-like intensity for prolonged significance.
Negative epistemology is not a creation of the Internet age, but the Web has provided it with its best known habitat for organic growth. Online, thinking outrage-first feels not only righteous but strategic, like a wise practice to ensure you keep “speaking truth to power.” And yet our digital marches are not like the ones we know from our history. They meander. They don’t look us in the eye. Our quest to take the opposite view of the people we dislike is an illusion of power. Looking out and seeing more and more enemies strengthens our sense of purpose. We tell ourselves we are genuinely holding powerful people accountable, when in fact we are immersed in a role-playing game.
But as Fox News has learned, sometimes you can’t just turn the game off. I don’t know what the result of Dominion’s lawsuit will be. Perhaps Fox will be liable for hundreds of millions of dollars. Perhaps they won’t. But the emails and texts that have been leaked out in the discovery phase prove to everyone that those pretenses of sticking up for the common man are thinly held. Fox held the stolen election theory in contempt. By making their viewers think they believed it, they were holding them in contempt as well. This is the final result of the reality game: we cultivate an intellectually and morally wrong attitude toward real people, including ourselves.
Theologically, the question I asked in last winter’s Mere Orthodoxy essay seems more relevant than ever. How do these online ecosystems shape our theology? How is the reality game calibrating our spiritual lives? If the latest dustup in evangelicalism is any indication, the answer is: More than we realize.