The shrinking world and the closing of the conservative mind
Julian Sanchez dissects the modern conservative mind in light of the Fulton, Mississippi prom scandal. He describes how Constance McMillen was essentially tricked out of prom because she was a lesbian and wanted to bring a girl as her date and wear a tuxedo. In any case, after this happened her classmates started a Facebook group called Constance quit yer cryin in order to further ridicule and humiliate her – which was then flooded by outsiders condemning the citizens of Fulton and their views. These numbered in the thousands, far outnumbering the students involved. Julian writes:
Contemplate how vertigo-inducing this must be. You’ve got a local community where a certain set of cultural norms is so dominant that it’s just seen as obvious and natural that a lesbian wouldn’t have an equal right to participate in prom—to the point where the overt hostility isn’t really directed at Constance’s sexuality so much as her bewildering insistence on messing with the way everyone knows things are supposed to be. They’re not attuned to the injustice because it seems like almost a fact of nature. Except they’re now flooded with undeniable evidence that a hell of a lot of people don’t see things that way, and even hold their community in contempt for seeing things that way. There have been thousands of “outside” posts in a handful of days, with more every minute. (Think of the small-town high school quarterback getting to college and realizing, to his astonishment, that everyone thinks the “art fags” he used to slag on are the cool ones. Except without even leaving the small town.)
Fulton is an extreme case, but I think there are probably a lot of conservative communities that feel a lower-grade version of this all the time. So here’s a hypothesis: Epistemic closure is (in part) an attempt to compensate for the collapse of geographic closure. A function no longer effectively served by geographic segregation—because the digital equivalents of your local hangout are open to invasion by the hordes from New York and London—is being passed to media segregation, bolstered by the sudden demand that what was once tacit and given be explicitly defended.
There’s a great deal more to Julian’s piece so you should go read the whole thing to get a full grasp of exactly what he’s arguing. It basically boils down to this sense that the world is shrinking, that time and distance are collapsing inward and that many communities are incapable of culturally weathering the blow and so they turn to what Julian terms ‘epistemic closure’ or, really, toward a worldview which previously was simply taken for granted and which is now becoming far less vague and far more certain and reactionary. Suddenly what was once simply the way things are becomes a movement, a cause, and its advocates begin speaking the language of the oppressed and the put-upon.
Noah Millman thinks that Julian’s hypothesis “doesn’t really explain anything about the state of conservative leadership.” I disagree.
Politicians manipulate cultural differences – capitalize on them – to gain political footholds. So this reactionary cultural backlash is simply fueled on by the political elites (of both parties, really) who use the culture wars – and even these new technologically inspired manifestations of the culture wars – to further cement whatever preconceived notions people may have about one another. Thus it is in the political leadership’s best interest to maintain as divisive a stance as possible – to widen the cultural divide as far as it can be widened.
Much of Noah’s analysis is spot on, to be fair (and you should read it as well!) but I think he misses this simple explanation of the conservative leadership’s involvement in the cultural fight Julian is describing.
This is the point of the culture wars. They may be caused by legitimate or at least understandable grievances. They may continue in spite of anything politicians do. But politicians and the pundit-class both capitalize on the culture wars because let’s face it – the culture war sells tickets. This is the bread and butter of the Glenn Beck’s of the world just as actual war is the bread and butter of the Liz Cheney’s of the world.