One useful description of today’s cultural fragmentation is the term epistemic crisis, which numerous observers have invoked to sum up the distrust and disbelief millions of people harbor towards each other’s truths. When no authority – no public official, no media outlet, no system of knowledge – is universally accepted as neutral or objective, we are surely experiencing a breakdown equivalent to an environmental disaster, an economic meltdown, or a civil war. The epistemic crisis has been addressed in books like Andrew Marantz’s Anti-Social: Online Extremists, Techno-Utopians, and the Hijacking of the American Conversation (2019), and in Russell Murihead and Nancy Rosenblum’s A Lot of People Are Saying: The New Conspiracism and the Assault on Democracy (2019), which noted the “delegitimization” of once-trusted institutions like courts and legislatures, undermined by what the authors called “conspiracy without the theory.” And American journalist George Packer has quoted a small-town editor who, as far back as 2008, noted that “In the old days, there were Republican or Democratic newspapers, but there was more of a level playing field and both sides had to argue from the same set of facts. Now we’re in an age where you can simply reinforce your own viewpoints.”
In contrast to social collapses of the past, the epistemic crisis is not marked by a dearth of free information but from a surfeit of it. When every statement can be not just disputed but discredited by another, equally persusasive one; when every organization can be not just resisted but rejected for another, equally commanding one; when every idea can be not just contested but cancelled by another, equally assured one – then the problem is not restriction but chaos. The epistemic crisis is different from just a noisy, pluralistic democracy, where many claims and outlooks compete for popular endorsement but coexist more or less peaceably under a single umbrella of learning and recognized expertise. Instead the crisis sees democracy devolved into warring tribes of faithful, each loyal not to rival gods but rival understandings of the world. It’s a secular conflict driven by religious-level convictions.
The bloodiest battleground of this war – excepting physical riots and events like the storming of the US Capitol on January 6 2021, where real blood has spilled – is in our media. Nearly every contemporary printed or electronic communication can be categorized as either Ours or Theirs, according to the author and the content. Whether through a traditional paper or TV network, or a Facebook group or a Twitter feed, producers and audiences want affirmation over engagement. Though there are still Comments fields and other mechanisms for critiquing or responding to individual expressions, the flattening of access to any and all media makes it as easy to put up a new platform as to take issue with an existing one. A foreseeable blowback from decades of charging “media bias” and “manufacturing consent” from multiple quarters, the epistemic crisis has divided everyone into either liars and dupes or red-pilled and woke.
What deepens the crisis is the sense that particular philosophies are being strictly enforced – more than merely promoted – through their respective channels. Magazines and scholarly journals have long adhered to in-house style guides to ensure consistent protocols of spelling, capitalization, and other grammatical details in their pages. Now those protocols seem to encompass politics as well as language: at the New York Times, for example, you will find no deviation from standards which maintain that climate change is unfolding as a present-day catastrophe, that systemic racism is real, or that trans women are women; go to an alt-right website and editors likewise make certain that no story about Jeffrey Epstein’s murder, Justin Trudeau’s ties to the Chinese government, or Donald Trump’s stolen victory in 2020 is ever contradicted. Just as a quoted misspelling must have a “sic” attached, quoted arguments from the Other Side must be bracketed as “misinformation,” whether they are deliberate falsehoods or sincere skepticism. This stern distinction of infallible fact from contemptible propaganda feels especially arbitrary during a global pandemic, when even qualified scientists offer disparate opinions and health policies vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. Readers of either the New York Times or Breitbart.com are not subscribing to different partisan perspectives. They are living in separate realities.
It’s true that a crumbling consensus has been detected by social commentators for decades – any time large movements become vocal enough to disrupt a hitherto orderly public exchange, someone has complained about “interest groups” and creeping disunity. Much of what nearly everyone takes for granted in 2021 – legalized cannabis, say, or interracial dating or LGBTQ rights – might have been considered divisive fringe causes in 1971. Yet the epistemic crisis is more than a rancorous debate that will eventually settle down in a generation or two. When so much of our discourse is written off as misinformation, disinformation, denial, fake news, alternative facts, or lies, there really isn’t a debate to settle. As long as we can’t agree on fundamental questions of real and unreal, we will continue to disagree on everything else.