I’m old school on reality. Well, technically, I’m kinda’ old period. And white. And male. You could say I am a remnant of a bygone era. I still believe that reality should be sought, and accepted, and that to do so is healthy and necessary.
We should defer to the greater argument.
There are a few obsolete ideas that I still cherish, and they could get me erased if I’m not careful about acting on them. One is that we should defer to the better argument and evidence. I might have picked that up from an Intro to Philosophy class in community college. [Not that I didn’t go on to get a Master’s in Art, but I think I learned the most in a couple years of free community college, back in the day, which is part of the reason I think we should bring it back.] This idea has vanished along with objective journalism.
Nowadays it seems as though people subscribe to what a person with unimpugnable status (such as a black civil rights activist, or Jesus], or a celebrity, or a group of people, or the majority maintains. There’s safety in numbers, and many just go along with the herd. They may know a few often repeated bits that substantiate the argument in question, but will be blissfully unaware of what the counterargument is. They haven’t evaluated the evidence themselves, but aligned themselves with a group, and usually a set of beliefs.
For example, on the more conservative side of the spectrum, someone who is pro-gun is also usually going to be anti-abortion, pro death penalty, a climate change “skeptic”, for smaller government, and an anti-masker. What is the connection between being anti-abortion and a climate change “skeptic”? None that I can see, but the conclusions come bundled together in a narrative. Some people surely come to all these conclusions on their own through rigorous investigation, but most people are just followers when it comes to what they believe, whichever narrative, and wherever it falls on the spectrum. Belief is based on group association and belonging, not argument and evidence, hence the common feeling that if you don’t agree you belong to a different group, an enemy camp, and you are a __________ [insert pejorative of choice]. I’m not trying to toot my own horn: I’m pointing out that the value of truth that I grew up with has dwindled, along with the objection to selling out, or the aforementioned standard of objective reporting.
Nothing is ever settled anymore. Debates which should have ended conclusively when overwhelming evidence and arguments were presented remain open. Patently ridiculous ideas are allowed to flourish, because there is never closure, as we refuse to, or are incapable of, recognizing or accepting the stronger argument. Thus the Earth is not a sphere, it could be a saucer, or perhaps an obelisk. There are people today who have a poorer understanding of astronomy than in Galileo’s time.
Truth is indifferent to the seeker of truth.
The second of my cherished obsolete ideas is that the truth is indifferent to the seeker of truth, as in, the truth doesn’t care what the seeker would prefer it to be. I don’t know where I picked this up. I didn’t make it up, but if you do a Google search for the phrase, you will only get links to my blog, and a digital painting which I gave that title. [Incidentally, the same goes for the unknown is always preferable to a known evil. Two of the core philosophical ideas I live by are now only attributable to ME!? It must just be my unintentional paraphrasing.]
The idea is that the truth is its own reward: an inherent virtue. If you go looking for the truth, you may not discover what you had hoped for, nor like what you find. But the broader notion is that such a truth is a treasure in that it gives you greater actual perspective. Consider — to continue with astronomy — that when Copernicus’s heliocentric theory placed the sun and not the earth at the center of our galaxy, it also displaced man from being the center and focal point of the universe and everything else. That was quite a blow to the arrogance of the collective ego, but exciting for the thought explorers because of the new vista of possibility it opened. The same could be said for Darwin’s theory of evolution.
In our postmodern world, we now consider reality relative, malleable, and that we can construct it to our liking, promote and reinforce the belief system we want to implement. You may have noticed some startling conundrums proposed as unquestionable truths. For example, we’ve learned that there’s no such thing as innate gender. Nevertheless, if someone declares that their gender is other than what their physical biology would suggest, we are to understand that it is innately so. Agree or disagree, it’s a self-contradiction, unless we accept that gender is inherent, but not biologically, in which case what is it inherent to? Note that someone’s gender identity does not need to be innate to be accepted or respected. Instead of molding ourselves to an inexorable reality, we seek to customize one to fit our likes, needs and ideals. In that case, it becomes a battle among interested parties of whose version of reality will be promulgated and enforced.
The call for equity is in some ways symptomatic of this. How is it possible that every individual, or group, should perform equally in all capacities, at all times, and in all places? That would be wonderful, but until we are farm-raised in test tubes, some of us are going to get the shorter end of the stick in some respects [I’ve worn glasses since kindergarten, which means I couldn’t be a pilot]. Part of the reason we want equity — as in equal results, not just equal opportunity — is that the cosmic injustice of our life being left so much to biological and circumstantial chance is highly unpleasant and objectionable. Of course we should remove artificial barriers that keep people down because of race, class, and gender, etc., and we should provide equal opportunities when we are able to, but enforcing equal performance for all is trying to force reality to obey our wishes: if all people are not created equal in all regards, we will compensate and make it so. Even equal-opportunity is impossible. How is everyone going to have the same opportunity as the children of billionaire 100 times over, Mark Zuckerberg? He went to Harvard. I didn’t have anything like his opportunities, despite the shade of my epidermis or configuration of my gonads. The most we can probably hope for is a fighting chance, and even then we aren’t taught how to fight.
Accepting reality is necessary and beneficial
My third cherished obsolete idea is that accepting reality is necessary and healthy. It is better to have a compass that points true North, than one that diverts in any other direction. We can’t make good decisions with bad information. We sometimes fantasize about what we would do with the information of today that everybody knows, and go back in time to take advantage of that. Just think of the investment we could have made in Microsoft.
Aside from the importance of having right information, there’s the idea of aligning oneself with reality. If I switch out the word reality, which is rather hard, for nature, this perspective is easier to digest. Yes, it would seem it is better to be in sync with nature than opposed to it.
I am reading Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations before bed. Just a little aside, but a couple days ago I thought how tragic it is that we are so exposed to the perhaps less than stellar minds of people because they are contemporary, fashionable, hold the megaphone, or are crammed down our throats. What if we could commune directly with the mind of a truly great historical figure, instead of listening to the lyrics of the song nominated by NPR as the best of 2020 [spoiler, it was Wet Ass Pussy.]? If you don’t know, Aurelius wrote the Meditations for himself, and they were never intended to be published. It’s his own private attempt to grapple with the universe and navigate how to be in the world. We have access to his internal reverie, which, among other things, aided him as the most powerful man on Earth to be humble and not abuse that power. Some would argue that Cardi B has much more relevant to say in 2020/21 than whatever the last of the five good Roman Emperors expounded prior to 200 AD. After all, he’s a dead white male! Nevertheless, here’s a paragraph I happened to read last night that addresses the value of coordinating oneself with reality.
Revere the ultimate power in the universe: this is what makes use of all things and directs all things. But similarly revere the ultimate power in yourself: this is akin to that other power. In you too this is what makes use of all else, and your life is governed by it.Marcus Aurelius, Meditations
Here, he’s arguing that by being in union with the universe, one shares in the power of its guiding force. Aurelius is a Stoic, so his arguments have really a lot to do with accepting circumstances without mental resistance, and making the most of that which is within our control. Rather than debilitating ourselves lamenting the hand we are dealt, we should play those cards as best we can. Our part in the grand scheme, however minute, is also essential and pivotal in that we are the same as the guiding principle. If we play the hand as a God would, then we have acted as a God, even if we lost the hand. If our actions, seemingly inconsequential, are in line with the movement of the whole, than we are an inseparable part of that entirety. Aurelius also, significantly, maintained that the universe necessarily operated by some grand, universal, form of reason. So, when he talks about the “ultimate power in yourself” he is referring to reason.
Aurelius takes it all a bit spiritual, but there are surely practical and plebeian applications of his philosophy. But how can we be in union with reality if we don’t know what it is? When we are spoon-fed a narrative, we are dragged by the leash away from reality.
Narrative has replaced reality, and it’s dangerous
OK, I’m using a bit of hyperbole here. My cherished ideas about truth are certainly not obsolete in the sciences, nor among a thriving multitude of thinkers who value reason. But they’ve lost ground socially and politically, and now are anathema to the master narrative that is being peddled and policed by big media, academia (surprisingly and sadly], and the internet. There are competing narratives, of course, each distorted and incomplete, but one has become dominant and seeks hegemony. One of the characteristics of a narrative out of control is that its believers proselytize, and feel it is necessary for others to get onboard. If there’s a “you are with us or you are against us” clause, or other prominent either/or imperatives, and especially if there is a villain group responsible for all wrong who must be sacrificed, it’s safe to say that the narrative, whatever its virtues, has metastasized into a cancer.
I think we could all agree that we know what the conclusions are that we are supposed to believe. If I were to give you a checklist with some ideas and a column for “yes” and “no”, you’d know which one you were supposed to check, whether you agreed with it literally and entirely or not. [I once took a personality test as part of a job interview and aced it simply because it was so glaringly obvious what I was supposed to say.] For example, would you know whether to check yes or no to the statement, “Americans are living on land stolen from indigenous peoples”?
We know all the conclusions we are supposed to believe because the narrative has been hammered home. And this applies to events even as they are unfurling in the news. The most outstanding example of this, right now, with which everyone is familiar, is the 2020 election.
It is astounding, whether one applauds the measure or not, that an American president has been censored by Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram in a simultaneous purge. [Note: I didn’t vote, and don’t support either democrats or republicans.] We only need to imagine the shoe being on the other foot, the tech giants being republicans, and Biden being expunged, to recognize the inherent threat of social media venues having the power to obliterate from their platforms anyone they choose. Surely, if they can cancel the president, they can cancel you. YouTube recently asserted that they would delete any video that maintained that the election was stolen due to fraud. What else might one say that runs afoul of what we are required to believe? Again, even if you want such videos to be taken down, and you are certain that there is no evidence of fraud in the most secure election in US history, we have entered a new era in which information or conclusions which are deemed incorrect will be summarily expunged from the public record using the iron fist of total censorship.
Do you think media companies in China can censor Xi Jinping? Absolutely not! If the justification for censoring the president is that he is a functioning tyrant, then you wouldn’t be able to get away with it. Similarly, I notice that he is the subject of the most savage caricatures in the history of political cartoons, which would also be considered extremely racist and body-shaming if they were of someone else, who also wasn’t white. But we know that we are free to publish such images, and we can tweet the most insulting things we can come up with and see them appear beneath his tweets. That’s a level of freedom very rare in the world. In the country I live in presently, any criticism of the royal family could land you in prison. For four years you were safe to post an image of trump with a micro-penis on social media, and you didn’t have to fear censorship. Keep that in mind.
I have the same underlying reservation against heavy-handed censorship as I do against capital punishment. I don’t like tech companies or the state having absolute power over the individual. The state can kill us, and tech companies can wipe us off the internet. The heads of either of these are just individuals themselves, and thus what we are granting is that one individual or group of individuals has the power to kill or silence others under the law. Interestingly, the president is abusing the power to execute prisoners at the same time social media giants are using their power to erase his presence. Both internet censorship and capital punishment, it is worth noting, are to be expected the more repressive and backwards the governing body in question. And the more backward the government, the more likely it uses its powers to crush not only that which is truly false and objectionable, but that which is true and merely challenges its claim to power. America appears to have its gears in reverse in this regard, and is flooring the pedal while smugly patting itself on the back for riding the crest of the wave of progress.
In a fit of amnesia — where the McCarthy era of rooting out suspected communist sympathizers and destroying their careers is no longer a stain on American culture, but an operation manual — Americans are now putting together lists of people whose lives they feel morally entitled to destroy. Politicians, with no self-awareness of hypocrisy, propose creating databases of people who supported the opposing candidate, and using it to notify their employers or customers in the hopes of crushing them financially. Ordinary citizens scour the internet looking for some tidbit to use to root out individuals who they perceive as the domestic enemy. Did someone say something bad in a tweet, or did someone’s father say something wrong decades ago? That is now grounds for public annihilation.
There is only one small thread that separates this sort of behavior from the acts of fanatics aiding repressive regimes: that such measures are taken morally and are on the right side of history. It’s presumed that it’s OK to smash people with the iron fist if they are the bad people! It’s OK to punch a Nazi! But this very easily and probably inevitably leads to “It’s OK to burn a witch”. When you give people that sort of power, they abuse it to torture the innocent.
When you know what you are supposed to believe about everything, and it is heresy punishable by your life being destroyed should you speak or do otherwise, or ever have, then we are back in the ages when Socrates was sentenced to drink the hemlock for the crime of “corrupting the minds of the youths of Athens”; or when Galileo was forced by the Inquisition to recant the theory of heliocentrism, and was confined to house arrest for the remainder of his days. One of Socrates’s crimes was rhetorically favoring Sparta over Athens in some critiques. That used to sound ridiculous. Now, favoring the wrong party could get you fired. Just flip that around if it doesn’t seem draconian. The Golden Rule wasn’t, “Do unto others as you would never have them do unto you”.
We are back in a time when narrative trumps reality. It’s not only frequently agonizingly stupid, it’s dangerous. Many people now genuinely believe that they can’t say something that is true, just, and beneficial, if it does not support the narrative. Part of this apprehension is absolutely connected to the punishment of those who dare challenge it. Agree with the narrative or not, what we can safely do is believe what we are supposed to, and regurgitate it verbatim.
That’s a bit of a downer, but let’s go back to Marcus Aurelius:
Judge yourself entitled to any word or action which is in accord with nature, and do not let any subsequent criticism or persuasion from anyone talk you out of it. No, if it was a good thing for you to say or do, do not revoke your entitlement. Those others are guided by their own minds and pursue their own impulses. Do not be distracted by any of this, but continue straight ahead, following your own nature, and universal nature: these two have one and the same path.Marcus Aurelius, the Meditations.
If you can’t publicly speak what you believe is true — what the best arguments and evidence you are aware of demonstrate to be true — well, you can abide by it in your private life. Hopefully, while Socrates died for telling the truth, and Galileo was forced to recant and spend the rest of his life indoors, you’ll merely need to keep your head down, and if called upon to give your opinion, gack up the pablum of the day. The scene in The Killing Fields comes to mind where the Cambodian reporter, Dith Pran, was asked by a leader of the Khmer Rouge what his profession was. Professionals and educated people were murdered, so he humbly pantomimed steering a car, and uttered, “Taxi”.
I too am now a taxi driver.
[Note: The graphic is “Big Brother” from George Orwell’s 1984, with a gender swap filter. OK, yeah, this time it’s the Trojan Horse of “Big Sister”. Quite obviously, it and the whole post is a caution against buying into narratives as opposed to seeking the truth; against punishing people who disagree; and hoping to incline some to reel in their extreme stances or become aware that they subscribe to a narrative at all.
Also, to keep this article short, I haven’t talked about the limitations of reason or the human intellect in grasping or conveying reality. There is the Buddhist practice of apprehending reality directly by sidelining the thinking mind and linguistics. People obtain knowledge through psychedelic forays, epiphanies, dreams — some scientists got their best ideas in dreams — and intuition. Reason is merely paramount in the areas where it strictly applies. I also don’t think Aurelius uses reason to mean just logic in linguistics, but I haven’t finished the book.
If you follow my blog, you may already be familiar with a codicil I often add to the bottom. It says that I recognize I see the world through my own, individual, limited porthole, and my understanding is necessarily partial, skewed, and subjective. Whatever I argue is my view now, and it could change tomorrow. I’ve been wrong before, and I will be wrong again. I also don’t have fixed conclusions, as even science uses “best working models”. So I am saying how the landscape looks to me, at this time, and from this vantage point.]