Once a country is habituated to liars, it takes generations to bring the truth back.
What are we trying to do when we say something is “true”? On what basis do we make such statements (with a straight face, believing these notions to be justified)?
Tain’t Necessarily So
Our belief is our only proof of truth.
All other proposals are deception—mostly of and by ourselves.
How many times have you personally witnessed something you were sure actually happened only to find out later that nothing of the sort occurred? While we tend to believe our own eyes, our own senses, a myriad of both public and private instances have proven that we can be intentionally deceived, mislead, mistaken, or all the above. As often as not this occurs as a result of our own actions and our own presumptions. Sense perception represents our only means of tapping into clues as to what is going on around us. This apparently quasi-reliable apparatus, while certainly useful, has time and time again failed to present adequate proof of “reality” in both personal and collective encounters. Admitting this obvious truth, what can we do about it?
Prior posts on this site (sG: Perspective I, Self-Recognition and Meaning is a Verb) have stressed the importance of understanding perspective as a vital ingredient in our understanding anything we encounter and anything anyone proposes, including ourselves. Sense perception tends to be bound by perspective, constricted by our points of view. When such perspectives change, when the fulcrum of the lever we call knowledge shifts, the resulting conclusions necessarily reflect the frame with which we have established that truth. Where we stand determines what we see. When we proceed from any specific perspective, the so-called objectivity of sense perception does not become compromised. Sense acquisition of knowledge of reality—this means of obtaining information about the world—is always compromised. As mentioned above, all notions to the contrary are misguided or intentionally ingenuous.
The fact that our perspectives habitually compromise our objectivity dies not imply that our senses do not provide consistently useful information and relatively trustworthy representations of what we think of as “reality”. Such information is usually “true”—usually but not always. Truth based on these perceptions then is not absolute but bound to probability. Daily, we gamble on life events, presuming that the small possibility of aberration will not occur. Through our propensity to forget, we convince ourselves that the low percentage anomaly—even if we have encountered it—does not exist. And yet if truth is to provide the stability we hope for, why should it be so dependent on a roll of the dice?
In the Pudding
“God does not play dice.”
Each of us is fully, sometimes maddeningly aware of this gnawing sense of uncertainty. Our dual tricks of the trade so to speak have become militant averaging and forgetfulness. When something out of the ordinary, particularly something which flies in the face of expectation or what we might consider “normal” occurs, we write it off to “just one of those things” (averaging—rounding up). We then follow-up by waving the magic wand of forgetfulness over it to protect ourselves from the overwhelm of facing how little we actually understand about “reality”. Such is the nature of the stories of EveryDayLife.
We could courageously stand face to face with the ever-present uncertainty of day to day experience. Instead we tell ourselves stories about what we call “real”—narratives not of “truth” but mere surrogates for proof of what we believe to be true. Our averaging and forgetful acquiescence play major roles in our successful entry into the commonplace delusions of EveryDayLife. Authors like Kurt Andersen (author of Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire ) have devoted a great deal of time (and words) to debunking the “fantasies” to which many Americans (and others) have attached their hopes and fears. Interestingly, a curious cultural twist has occurred in the last few decades. As an expression of this change, many stories portrayed in movies, television and books—media which both reflect and reinforce how we see reality—often present narratives which deny us the “satisfactory” resolutions we have come to expect. This phenomenon, in part, seems to reflect a deep seated belief that those too often Pollyanna-like recollections (that is, “re-collections”) of so-called truth have failed us. In defiance of a hero’s journey trope that does not follow a clean tension bell curve, more recent narratives leave us with Cormac McCarthyesque tales that end abruptly, without fanfare, sans a tidy Hollywood ending and satisfactory resolve.
These days, we have begun to feel the day to day angst of the dissolution of our previous illusions of “king and country” (supremacy of patriarch and comfort of the fatherland). For example, such shifts have befallen certain facets of the United States populace as depicted in the backlash leveled at the most recent Star Wars movies (too many women in positions of power ordering men around, a black stormtrooper, a female in the key Jedi-in-training role and other “shocking” novelties). And remember, all this appeared in the beloved sci-fi franchise against the backdrop of two-term an African-American president. Markers of white male dominance in particular have begun to fall away, requiring all of us to adjust our understanding of the world. Some of us choose not to adjust. Some of us choose a different “truth”.
While a general sense of alienation might have existed in previous decades, current events seem to have thrust what in previous eras should have been a glaring dissonance about these societal illusions into the forefront of the consciousness of the common person (e.g., folks are beginning to wake up to just how messed up is the world in general and the United States in particular). Even the most unthinking among us has begun to lose the ability to ignore the anomie that has simmered within the culture for decades. Most of us have become desperate for relief from the incessant tension of our lives, seeking truth wherever we can find it. Sadly, too many of us have begun to seek piecemeal, mostly tribal, narrowly focused ideological anchors instead of genuine truth. But why do we struggle so to establish truth at all? Why have more recent social, economic, political and cultural developments apparently dissuaded us from continuing to pursue broadly applicable truth with which most of us can live and thrive? As mentioned in a previous post while describing the Michiko Kakutani book The Death of Truth, the very ground of truth has begun to dissolve. But such a shift is not really so recent.
Throughout the world, thought in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s reeled at Friedrich Nietzsche’s proposal that “God is dead”. Even now, many herald it as brilliantly insightful or perceptive; others condemn it as some form of modern heresy. Perhaps we miss the point in such knee jerk reactions to this phrase. While the simple three word phrase appears in different works by Nietzsche, consider, the follow-up statements which appeared in The Parable of the Madman. “God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him.” We have relinquished hold of the transcendent, both in the world and in ourselves. And how do we know? All we have to do is pay attention to the individual and collective choices we have made—to look carefully and honestly to the beliefs we espouse, beliefs that drive our behaviors, choices, attitudes and especially our emotions. Our belief is proof of truth. All other proposals are deception–mostly of and by ourselves. We have killed the transcendent as evidenced by our habitual attitudes and behaviors. We are the proof of our condition, our experiences. We can blame no one else. Furthermore, all we need do is observe the broken systems in which we live—systems which have failed and continue to fail. We fear, in fact anticipate being sucked down with them.
At this point, we need to return to the original question: What are we trying to do when we say something is “true”? If such and such is true, then what? What is the intent of this feverish activity to “set the record straight”?
Will to Power
We instinctively understand that somehow we—individually and collectively—must ameliorate the stress and uncertainty we feel day to day. Consciously or unconsciously, each of us arranges our daily routine around attempts to control the uncertainty of EveryDayLife. One of the ways we attempt to accomplish this is by creating a story that, for whatever reason, rings “true”. Turning truth into an owed commodity, we can more convincingly tell ourselves that everything will be alright (even when we know the story has been fabricated). Such is the way we attempt to control, to power over our fear.
To forge such a daily narrative, most of us routinely attempt to build truth from probabilities. Many of us attempt to distinguish beliefs embedded in formal religions as compared to those ad hoc religions to which we devoutly adhere each day—beliefs in the government, in taxes, in the judiciary, in a political party, in media. However, both formal and informal behavior patterns represent belief paradigms. Both require leaps of faith. The former—what we usually think of as “religion”—requests belief in dogma; the latter demands faith in probability. The potential speciousness of such a distinction or even if a reliance on probability becomes dogma are topics for another time. The fact remains that choosing to believe in the reliability of daily life (rather than or in addition to so-called “religious” doctrine) results in the need to load the dice, to skew the probability of certain occurrences and situations within daily life experience.
We all realize that for most of us, discovering this elusive “truth” is too often less important than latching onto some quasi-legitimate notion of what is real so that we can use it to bludgeon someone else into submitting to our cherished beliefs. Unfortunately, whenever we attempt to construct truth out of probability, we can seldom resist the temptation to place a thumb on the scale, just in case. Believing in luck, hoping that fortune will smile on us, we also tend to believe in the scarcity of luck, good fortune, or the good life. We staunchly adhere to notions of hierarchy, of the inherent value of some people over others (particularly ourselves over others). To serve such assumptions of unevenness, that thumb with which we cheat luck will generally serve to benefit a chosen few—our chosen few. The Chosen—our tribe, our ideological peers and ad hoc compatriots—become the Golden Calf to whom we pray to save us—in whom we place our hope and faith. If nothing else, fear drives us to attempt to force others into sharing our point of view. Unfortunately, the most tragic victim of such an approach is mostly ourselves. We habit ourselves into a narrow point of view, swaddled within the confines of some too often repeated delusion.
Let’s Do It Again
As previously stated, faced with constant uncertainty, we seek assurance—about the world and about ourselves. A March 3, 2018 post on this site (sG: Inside-Outside II ) delineated three basic life motivators which also tend to serve as ways we generally attempt to “make sense” of our life experiences. We choose for our lives that which allows us to feel—if only momentarily—as if we know what is going on around and within us. We might seek pleasure (usually as an escape) through a soothing of the senses. We sometimes seek meaning (through religious, political, racial or tribal affiliation). Most often, through both micro and macro-level means, we seek control—we attempt to force certainty into our experience.
One of the ways we thrust a sense of certainty into daily life is through repetition. Interestingly, habit and scientific method bear a striking resemblance to one another. We too often believe that because we have done something before and because we can do it again (i.e., because we can reproduce the same or similar results from a specific set of actions), the outcome must be “true”. Each day we play out this myth of repeatability. This approach, particularly in common usage, begins to take on the characteristics of what has come to be called firehose propaganda: if you present a message or idea enough times, in enough ways, you will saturate awareness to the point that the ideas presented become accepted as truth. As noted in the linked PDF, this approach (which in the context of the PDF presents a description of a Russian propaganda model) suggests that such messages are characterized by:
- high-volume, multi-channel
- rapid, continuous, repetitive
- lack commitment to objective reality
- lack commitment to consistency
For example, in September 2016 within many social circles, the general political sentiment espoused the notion that the Republican candidate could not possibly win the presidential election. Many people said it. News sources reiterated it. While anger and resentment bubbled in the “heartland” of the U.S. and other corridors ringing with disgust about the U.S. government, poll after poll favored the Democratic candidate. Most political pundits were sure of a Democratic Party victory. The Republican won. Conversely, once the Republican candidate was handed the election by the Electoral College, supporters of this candidate insisted that “things will be fine” and America will be “great again”. Subsequently, many people—not the supporting Pollyanna choir, of course—did indeed suffer and continue to do so. Furthermore, “America” (the United States that is) is viewed by much of the world as lost, or worse, headed in a dangerous and unhelpful direction—anything but “great”. Does it appear that the initial “truths” in either of these situations were any more than reiterations of ideas?
Is it possible to repeat a lie, a mistake, or an error? In our continued belief in truth as a product of repeatability, is it possible that the only thing we have “proven” is that we possess the ability to repeatedly achieve a specific outcome? If the frame of the activity that is repeated is, in some sense “wrong”, then the result, in some measure, must also carry a certain degree of error. Perhaps the only truth of repeatability is repeatability itself. In this most recent age of uncertainty, our fear seems to have driven us into a repetitive loop in which we find ourselves lost amid the blurred boundaries of truth and self-delusion. Wishful thinking becomes buried under habit.
Sometimes to jolt ourselves out of a behavioral, cognitive or attitudinal rut, we need a paradigm shift not unlike that described by Thomas Kuhn in his classic book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. When a commonly held set of standards exhibits inconsistency with more global perceptions, new answers are required. The old story no longer satisfies the situation. As many have stated in various ways, perhaps we have arrived at a time when the old stories no longer apply—when the old “wine skins” inevitably taint any new proposal that seeks to use former narratives as vehicles for change.
There is something feeble and a little contemptible about a man who cannot face the perils of life without the help of comfortable myths. Almost inevitably some part of him is aware that they are myths and that he believes them only because they are comforting. But he dare not face this thought! Moreover, since he is aware, however dimly, that his opinions are not rational he becomes furious when they are disputed. ~Bertrand Russell
Most of our truths are constructed—literal “re-collections” of what we have believed in the past. We construct stories about ourselves which cast us in a favorable light, then proceed to retell the same stories over and over until we believe them even (perhaps especially) if they are false. The manner in which we reconstruct truth, our habitual paradigm of creative self-knowledge, makes all the difference. How can we change this paradigm? What should it look like? We do not need yet another story. We need a different manner of approaching the question (or the need) and our relation to it.
“We, the People” is an idea we use to think better of ourselves. We could use it to behave and therein, be better than our habitual, sibling murdering habits. We could, but we usually do not. The idealistic notion “We” represents an illusion that does not exist—until it does, until we make it so. We become the “proof of concept”, the proof of the truth of that so-called illusion. Such notions only fail when we fail to become them.
Most often, our lives are driven by f-words. “Fear” and “faith” both play vital roles in our sense of and intentions toward EveryDayLife. We like to think of these words as completely different. Indeed, they can be considered in diametric opposition when we allow them to be so. We all express faith constantly, moment to moment. For instance, we belief in the existence of buses. We usually believe the bus will arrive and that the same bus will successfully chauffeur us to our intended destination. (Faith in the timeliness of the arrival of such buses is usually not so liberally offered). Those of us who relegate faith only to formal religion clearly have little understanding of the manner in which we actually conduct EveryDayLife. We express our beliefs in the political, socioeconomic, cultural as well as personal trapping of reassurance (so-called “truth”) with which we fend off our uncertainty—fear—about practically everything.
This suggestion in no way advocates espousing a formal “religion” except that of heroic living (personal heroism). We could stand strong, the red “S” of Sisyphus emblazoned on our chests, defiant in the face of fear. We could; most often, we do not. Instead, we cower behind labels like “liberal”, “Evangelical”, the title of a chosen profession, “patriot” or even “blue collar”. Armed with labels of this type, we can rest in the comfort of the artificial moniker, satisfied that swaddled so in these tidy labels, we can effectively pretend to know ourselves, the world and our place in it. In so doing, we embrace our chosen roles as true believers.
Red and Blue Pills
A label sometimes serves a purpose. The presence of a label does not, in itself, mean it is “wrong”. But in what ways does any given label matter? Why do we insist on making them matter? Because we believe in them and how they help us to feel a part of them. Furthermore, we believe in their efficacy for separating ourselves from “those others”. Which “others”? Without such labels, how are these others defined?
Rather than continue to perpetuate the sham that we are not true believers, why not instead wholeheartedly embrace our nature as inveterate disciples of one thing or another. In the same manner that some are willing to loudly proclaim their status as Yankee, Patriot, Packer or Islander fans, as proud members of the “white race” or die-hard advocates of prudent planet (climate) management, we could just as loudly advocate for moment to moment, honest choice as the standard by which we determine the nature of reality and our daily experience. Which label do we choose for self-recognition? Do we choose the red or the blue pill? In fact, as Neo, the main character in the movie The Matrix eventually discovers, neither pill is the “correct” choice. Neither choice leads to truth. Just as he learned that the trick to bending a spoon is to realize there is no spoon, in like manner, to choose our life “pill” is not about the nature of the choice but the act of choosing. The color of the choice merely represents the serendipity of circumstance.
The “god” that has died and continues to die in us is the lofty notion that We are who we are because of one another, not in spite of each other. The choice of this or that label as a personal and/or collective identifier is also a choice that we are NOT those others. Our tribal adherence to cultural and political circumstance is stripping us of the ability to hold to transcendent ideas like We, the People. We are that idea. We are the ideal when we choose to be so. When we fail to be the transcendent in which we say we believe, when we fail to rise above our most base instincts, have we not truly killed the “gods” of all faiths, all religions along with all human possibility to create a just and humane society? When we fail in faith, We fail. We fail ourselves. In so doing we wall off a faith that can express fearlessness that defies a need for boundaries, locks and exclusion.
We do not know “the truth”. Perhaps we can never truly possess it. Perhaps this is because truth cannot be “possessed”; such cannot be owned. Truth must be lived. Some believe—probably correctly—that we will never find a perfect expression of truth, not as individuals and certainly not as a collective. Yet such is the mercurial and ultimately ephemeral nature of who we are. Finding truth we can carry around in a box only gives us the coffin for a rotting corpse with which we can infect others. A box full of “this” truth or “that” particular belief eventually serves “this” group or “that” one. That which does not, in some manner, apply to everyone will never apply to any of us as we seek it.
So what is this truth we seek? When we think we have found and utter words to express it, we are attempting to do something, but what? What are we trying to accomplish? If the “truth” is an end point, a state, a structure, we have diminished the possibility of ourselves. When truth becomes an orientation and a continual process of seeking Good—a “good” defined by our own needs which must, if it is “true”, extend to all others—we open ourselves to a full range of possibilities. When we approach the reality we share while, at the same time, we embrace faith in ourselves and each other to accomplish such mutuality, we must do so with a tentative humility and mutual acceptance that establishes grace toward others rather than staunch conviction of “rightness” as a guide to what is and is not truly “good”.
We are the only proof of truth we are going to encounter. What complicates the matter, of course, is that if we actually represent the truth we seek, we also shoulder the responsibility to manifest it. Standing as truth, we cannot treat it like a commodity which we can possess and consume. Rather, we must heroically stand as that truth. In so doing, the real We becomes the real of the world We share. Rather than using the so-called truth we say we believe as a bludgeon to coerce others into validating our notions about EveryDayLife, we could, instead stand as that truth, representing it fully, vulnerably. When we stand as our truth, we put our own lives on the line to stand or fall, live or die as the representative of that chosen reality. When truth ceases to represent what we believe and, instead, becomes who we are, we can no longer lob a packet of presumed verity over the wall in the hopes of striking down an infidel. When truth ceases to represent a commodity we manipulate and instead expresses, through our day to day actions, who we are, we bear the responsibility to stand face to face with the so-called infidel and offer our presumed truth—not through mere words but through the affirmation of ourselves and the person or persons with whom we wish to share ourselves. Any negation, any undoing, any rejection destroys the natural, inevitable bond we share with the Other—our eternal sibling. We cannot escape the “keeper” status of this relationship. To break it is to undo ourselves. Needing to maintain a mutual connection, we bear the mutual responsibility to creatively discover ways to accommodate all of us.
What are we trying to do when we affirm a so-called truth? Perhaps we are merely attempting to validate our own existence, to prove to ourselves that we are not only alive but are worthy of that life. When we begin to doubt this—and a multitude of current events threaten such certainty, particularly regarding worth or value—we begin to scurry about, looking for clues to prove our worth, our innate value. We desperately grasp for clues that prove we are worthy of the gift life bestows on us. Conversely, possibility defies the convenient brevity of small words like “lies” or “right”, rendering a construction of the semblance of truth more laborious. Truth is never absolute. Truth is as relative or absolute as our willingness to express love toward one another moment to moment. We have to work at it and keep working at it, perhaps arriving at differing and probably surprising results—arriving, together as differing and surprising people.
When we can look beyond thrones, perhaps we just might notice one another.
Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori (?)
The paradigm shift suggested above represents a subtle distinction between an orientation to a materialistic end product as compared to a more revelatory observation of personal and collective process. In general, the Western mind appears ill equipped to fully fathom a process orientation to the world—that the mere fact of our ability to act might be more significant than the outcome of those actions. Still, we can at least attend to the general tenor our current sociopolitical paradigm. As a perfect example of a traditional “good” as defined in the United States, consider the word “patriotic”.
Many in this country consider patriotism a must, a veritable shibboleth—a code of passage into the “goodness” that is “America”. But consider the word itself, which is derived from the Latin “patrios”, meaning “of one’s fathers”. Even without a conscious understanding of the etymological roots of the word, the English language is such that the root word “patrio” at least subliminally connotes maleness. More specifically, not unlike the parental paradigm described by George Lakoff the word points to male dominance, a paradigm of hierarchy with males at the top. What happens when the hierarchy is flattened, when the place at the top becomes understood as parallel, even and equal with all other categories? Usually, when that happens, certain people in the culture get rather upset (can someone say “Star Wars backlash?).
Is it “sweet and desirable” (dulce et decorum) to “die for our country (our patria—“fatherland”)? With the most reverent honor to those who have fallen in defense of their country, is it possible that something within the structure of this notion of “patriotism” is amiss? Perhaps this very paradigm is the problem. Perhaps this hierarchical, male oriented manner of thinking about the country, ourselves and reality itself is the problem. As hierarchies present better and worse, higher and lower, they also frame us in the same way. Why does the U.S. seem to be caught in a downward spiral? What is the truth within this situation?
Further Reading: We Need a New Paradigm
- Are We Witnessing the Fall of the American Empire?
- What Caused the United States’ Decline?
- Why Do Democracies Fail?
- The Decline and Fall of the American Empire
- Donald Trump and the Coming Fall of the American Empire
- Fall of American Empire
- The Time When America Stopped Being Great
- The United States of America is Decadent and Depraved