Negative Epistemology is Killing Conservatism

We don't know what we believe, we only know whom we dislike.

When somebody says something you disagree with, the normal, psychologically healthy response is, “Hey I don’t agree with that, here’s why.” So why is it that when David French says something that some conservatives disagree with, the response is not, “Hey I disagree,” but more like, “Beware the wolf in sheep’s clothing, David French!” I don’t agree with French about everything, and I especially think David tends to overstate the moral disqualification of Trump supporters and understate the moral imperatives of, say, outlawing abortion and protecting teens from gender ideology. But I don’t think David is a villain. And somehow, this opinion itself is considered a sign of a dangerous moral slip in many conservative circles.

Most of what I think about nowadays concerns the intersection of Christian virtue and public life, especially the Christian virtue of wisdom and thinking well. The longer I continue down this road, the more confronted I am with the way that popular conservatism, including and perhaps especially evangelical conservatism, is epistemologically diseased. I don’t always “punch right,” and I agree with those who point out that punching right can be a way of currying favor with certain bastions of elite cultural discourse. But evangelical conservatism has massive problems, and one of those problems is causing French Derangement Syndrome among otherwise very intelligent, articulate people.

The problem is negative epistemology.

“Negative epistemology” is a term I’ve begun using to describe what people’s habits of thinking and value-formation look like when they are informed primarily by cultural hatreds rather than positive convictions. I am convinced that this describes how a huge number of people on all sides of the aisle now operate. Negative epistemology is the phenomenon wherein you don’t know what you believe so much as you know whom you dislike. When something puzzles or challenges you, you don’t try to parse it out carefully, applying your beliefs and values to determine the best response. Instead, you click “See more comments,” looking for people you dislike and distrust to tell you what you shouldn’t believe.

Negative epistemology is not unique to the digital age, but the Internet cultivates and exacerbates it more than any other media tool thus far. Part of the reason for this is the complex way the Internet interacts with our collective sense of identity; in the absence of bodily presence—indeed, in the absence of even full mental and emotional presence—our opinions become a kind of avatar for our souls. But another part of this is simply the fact that negative epistemology generates excitement, web traffic, and subscriptions better than any other kind. Just as Yelp reviews of restaurants and hotels skew negative because people who eat or sleep fine don’t think they have anything to write about, online epistemology skews negative because otherwise it would not exist.

When it comes to David French, negative epistemology has conditioned some intelligent people to be hostile toward David because certain other people are not. David’s newsletter being retweeted by Jennifer Rubin becomes evidence that David cannot be speaking in good faith; he’s obviously got it out for Christians and conservatives, because that’s the only kind of stuff Jennifer Rubin likes. In the person of David French, the unstoppable force of obsessing over what prestige journalism is doing has armed itself with the immovable object of negative epistemology. Conservatives have allowed The Washington Post, New York Times, and MSNBC to colonize their time and imagination for literally decades, and a lot of evangelicals follow suit. There are entire conservative institutions that exist solely for the purpose of pointing out when someone in one of the major newspaper or magazines is insane, or hypocritical, or immoral. I have no idea why we’re supposed to care, but we are. And the fact that David French doesn’t care as much about that as he does other things is allegedly a sign of deep corruption in his soul.

Negative epistemology is crippling American conservatism, which currently finds itself bereft of leadership and ideas and saving a seat for the frat boy dropouts who make us feel less bad about being spiritually adrift. You don’t have to agree with David French, and you don’t even have to like him. But if your instincts are shaped more by distrust of who shares his pieces than in a vision for human flourishing in society, you’re never going to get off the media obsession train. You’ll be clicking “See more comments” as the world continues on apace, and as the church limps forward, waiting for a new generation of culture makers.