What Is Epistemic Humility, & Why Is It Important to Civil Society?

“A point of view can be a dangerous luxury when substituted for insight and understanding.”  —Marshall McLuhan

“If we are to live together in peace, we must come to know each other better.”  —Lyndon Johnson

The Principle of Epistemic Humility

The word episteme means “intellectually certain knowledge.”  To be Americans, we must be willing to bestow freedom on others by allowing their ideas to be heard, admitting that we do not know everything and can always benefit from a different point of view.  This is called “epistemic humility.”

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What America is losing is its tradition of prizing the tolerance of differences.  Students must learn to endure, and even appreciate, viewpoints which may create cognitive dissonance in their minds.  Without the valuing of differences, there can be little creativity of thought that will be of benefit to society.

The Big Chill

Academia today has become an over-credentialed engine of indoctrination.  If left unchallenged, freedom of expression in America is in danger.

Ray Bradbury, the author of Fahrenheit 451,once asserted that his job as a writer was not to create the future, but to prevent it.  I once asked Mr. Bradbury if he thought there could ever be book-burning in America.  He responded by saying, “There is no need to burn any books.  If you want to prevent people from learning what’s in the books, you just have to get people to stop reading them.” I then commented that I have, on numerous occasions, asked progressive teachers if they had seen a particular report on Fox News, only to hear the reply that they would never watch Fox News! “Well, there you have it, then,” remarked Mr. Bradbury, “That’s what I’m talking about.  Self-censorship.”

This disheartening willingness of progressives towards self-censorship puts a chilling effect into play.  Entire areas of discussion are rendered off-limits.

“My Mind’s Made Up, Don’t Confuse Me with the Facts!”

bertrand russellConservatives tend to watch progressive media, although the ideas touted are generally abhorrent in their tendencies towards statist control.  But freedom-minded conservatives still want to know what progressives are saying.  Progressives, however, too often seem closed to the ideas of others.  They seem startled by the audacity of libertarian-minded conservatives who do not so readily accept progressive dogma.  Equally surprising to progressives is the belief that problems should be solved with the most freedom possible; that people should try to solve issues among themselves first, before bringing others into the mix; and that government intervention should be way down the list of strategies to help facilitate matters.  This unwillingness to participate in a civil society, that puts people first and government last, exacerbates matters.  To conservatives, progressives appear too eager to have a parental government step in to solve problems, rather than work things out among people.  Progressives trust government, whereas conservatives trust people.

The Desire Never to Be Offended & How It Endangers Freedom

A world of increasing physical and emotional comfort—where medications have revolutionized treatment of physical and emotional trauma—is taking a toll on the American tradition of free speech.  The desire for comfort has led many to demand guarantees to their enjoyment of emotional comfort.  These people insist that there be maintained an atmosphere where nobody shall be offended.

But a desire not to be offended is leading to an expectation that each person’s own belief system not only be held free from offense, but also that everyone’s beliefs be validated and confirmed.  This imagined right of belief-confirmation is untenable in a pluralistic society.

The only way to rid civil society of its tradition of pluralism would be by government dictatorship.  But everyone’s holding the same shade of opinion is far from desirable, since this would leave our civil society open to being blindsided in the future by happenings that could not have been imagined or foreseen outside the narrow confines of a state-approved ideology.  To be sure, the Internet-based New Press, that has risen in prominence in recent years, is bucking any trend to political correctness that exists in other American media.

The Online Bubble World & the Problem of Confirmation Bias

confirmation biasIn the world of social media, it is all-too-easy to establish a social network with others of similar views that provides a bubble of like-minded people.  Our existing opinions too often can become reinforced and hardened, with very few challenges to our existing notions.

We must seek out the opinions of others.  In a world devoid of pluralistic intellectual interaction, the instances of perceived offenses can only increase, for there is less understanding of divergent views and the common humanity that drives them.  If people would stop vilifying others, based on their views, then those others could be seen as people in the eyes of those who are too-easily dissuaded from listening to people branded as villains.  Then all people could be empathized with.

Disinvitation of Mind-Expanding Speakers

The disinviting of controversial speakers, that take students outside their comfort zones, must be halted.  Ayaan Hirsi Ali was disinvited from speaking at Brandeis University, because the facts of her life might be discomforting to some (for she was subjected to the Muslim practice of female genital mutilation).  Rather than risk having their worldviews influenced, university-trained students chose to maintain their prejudices and preconceived notions.

If there is disagreement with a speaker, the solution is more speech, not less speech.  Freedom of speech is what libertarian-minded conservatives believe in; freedom from speech is what progressive-run universities are promoting.

The dilemma is this: the world cannot improve if student audiences refuse to hear the experiences of others.  People must hear new information to reach a consensus with their peers.  Unity can only be achieved if people are willing to open themselves up to those who are different.

The Threat to Freedom Posed by Trigger-Warnings

As a result of this desire for emotional and intellectual comfort, there have been calls for “trigger warnings” throughout academia—warnings that universities are asking professors to issue, in order to “protect” students from exposure to uncomfortable ideas.  This has had a chilling effect on professors, who—afraid of running afoul of school policy—have dumbed down their lessons.  Instead of students learning about real-world, discomforting notions that are necessary to grow a full understanding of the human condition, many students now graduate with stunted intellectual growth.

Too often, only “comfortable” subjects are taught.  There is little debate among students with widely divergent views.  And this weakens our country, depriving Americans of the diverse insights needed for tolerance.  The absence of real education breeds intolerance and insensitivity.  The educated populace necessary for a democracy to flourish is becoming ill-trained to think and act freely, for they see only the limited menu of choices they have been trained to see by an all-too-often one-sided educational establishment.

The Thought Police Are on the Job

An Orwellian world, ruled by politically-correct thought police, is taking hold of our culture.  Intellectually limited, low-information thinkers are being misguided by a big government that dominates many by making them dependent on government-provided creature comforts and propaganda slogans, for their living and thinking needs.  Governance has become one long political campaign, aimed at getting government propaganda repeated.  People become uncomfortable with the debate that is needed to boil issues down to their essence, so agreements can be hammered out that are acceptable to all.

Progressivism wants just such a world, where results are forced on everyone by one party, and where political dissidents are targeted by government—just as tea partiers have been (and still are being) targeted by the IRS and other big-government entities.

A New Hope

The good news is that, with Obama’s Internet-giveaway plan having been thwarted by Congress, the continuance of New-Press freedom of expression, sans political correctness, appears likely.  This is a significant step towards widening the discussion among Americans once again.  It is an important moment in the rebuilding of the free and pluralistic civil society that has allowed America to flourish in the past and, hopefully, will allow it to persist for many generations yet to come.


To learn more about the free speech problem on college campuses, the writings of Greg Lukianoff are highly recommended: http://www.thefire.org/author/greglukianoff/.

The views expressed in this opinion article are solely those of their author and are not necessarily either shared or endorsed by EagleRising.com

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