(This column is posted at www.StevenSavage.com and Steve’s Tumblr)
In an age of propaganda and post-truth politics, we face people believing outlandish falsehoods and obvious propaganda and acting upon it. How do people become so disconnected from reality? Disconnection is the appropriate term, because some people seek to cut the strands of knowledge that helps us find truths – and some cut their own strands deliberately.
I’ve heard it said that we’re in a post-truth era in 2016, where the idea of truth is irrelevant to many. It’s clear that enough people believe falsehoods, and many are happy to believe blatant lies and fantasies if it fits their agendas. Many propagandists and opportunists are glad to provide these lies to their audience. This is feared rightly by sane and rational people because this disconnection is enough to get people killed – and in modern times, technology allows that to be a great number of people.
We wish to oppose this “celebration of falsehood” for the as we’d rather not die or have other people die because of other someone’s chosen foolishness and those providing that foolishness. To deal with this we need to deal with the nature of Truth.
The best way I have found to define Truth – which will always have a subjective component – is connection. Something is True (or at least “truer” than other things) because it can be explained in multiple ways, because its validity is confirmed multiple ways, and the “true thing” relates to other data, concepts, and experiences. One may look at the effect of a drug, find studies done by reliable researchers who in turn base their work on other validated research, talk to their doctor, evaluate their own experiences and have a decent idea of the truth of that drugs effectiveness.
Truth is a web of connections. Truth does not exist outside of context.
In understanding the Truth of something, there will be flaws in data, mistakes, errors, even outright falsehoods. The whole of the Truth stands together despite flaws in parts of it. It is at worst, “true enough” to work with – connected enough to sources of information and validity that it’ll do the job. At best, the Truth even incorporates its own flaws, with margins of error, exceptions, or contingencies.
In a connected age, which we live in at least at the time of this writing, one would think we would have more truth, and not be battling falsehoods. I’d say we actually have both more truth and more falsehood – more useful and valid knowledge, but also more post-truth lies and propaganda. Why is this?
This is because there are people who profit from untruth, motivated by everything from money to self-esteem. These people can use our modern media and technology for their own gain with relative ease. With this technology they do what dictators and liars always do – they attack the connections that form the truth. They attack the knowledgeable, the advocates, the educators, and the informed – breaking the social and cultural connections needed for some kind of truth and common ground.
The attacks made by the propagandists break both social and personal connections, sowing mistrust and disregard not to increase truth by questioning, but to decrease it destroying credibility of ideas, institutions, and people. These attacks don’t always offer a replacement truth outright. Instead these attacks are passive-aggressive ways to say “believe me” by focusing on saying others are not trustworthy. When someone believes the attacks on people, they will more easily believe the attacker.
No this is not sane, not rational, and is very dangerous.
Our modern times gives us people gladly following and sharing falsehoods and placing themselves in narrow social bubbles with modern technology. These two experiences, of falsehoods and of echo chambers, are really two sides of the same phenomena. Media companies cut the ties of truth with their lies, and out of them form echo chambers. Others obsessed with believing untruths make online communities build echo chambers and then cut ties to a larger shared Truth. The results are the same – and overlapping.
People are cut off from the “larger picture” of what is true, believe only certain things, and then reinforce these beliefs with each other. They may feel connected but ultimately are not, their only connections are to someone feeding them lies, to a closed community, or both.
This is cult like behavior; separating people from community, convention, and connection. We have people acting as cult leaders who are news figures and media figures, severing the ties that maintain our truth with lies. We have people willing to act as their own cult leaders, isolating themselves deliberately among specific communities that share their views and untruths. Either way we end up with people separated from the rest of the world – yet trying to influence it because of the falsehoods they believe.
It’s disturbing to think in this modern world there are people so disconnected from reality that they deny large parts of how the world runs and works. These people cannot keep a functioning society running at best; at worst they part of dysfunctions in society.
It is the duty of any citizen to maintain and increase the connections that we rely on for Truth. We should actively introduce people to knowledge. We should support and expand knowledge systems such as schools, publishers, and magazines. Perhaps maintaining these truths was once unconscious or assumed; today it must be a conscious and committed effort.
The more we maintain and improve the social and informational connections that give us some Truth, the less we have to deal with the pathologies. We must create and maintain a healthy social and cultural system that can resist propaganda, lies, and delusion. Our survival depends on it.