On Truth, Connection, and Disconnection

(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.

– Steve

Elliot Rodgers: A Disease Model And Responsibility

I’ve been following reactions to the Elliot Rodgers shooting, and the #YesAllWomen hashtag it inspired.

As women share their experiences with harassment, misogyny violence, and cultural biases towards women, I’ve also seem many questions come up.  Was Rodgers mentally ill, what other things influenced him, can we blame misogyny if he was mentally ill, and of course who is responsible, etc.  As you can guess I’ve been following this in case you hadn’t noticed from my posts on the subject (one of which made it to Comics Bulletin).

From what I can tell (and this may update) he was troubled, he did get some therapy, he seemed aware of what he was doing, he may have been on the spectrum, and I’m frankly not sure what was up with his family.  However nothing happens in a vacuum.

Now let me state that I consider Rodgers responsible for his actions as he seemed clearly aware of them.  But his horrible crime is calling attention to the world he inhabited, from our culture at large to the MRA/PUA forums that are so often documented at We Hunted the Mammoth.  That bears discussion, because as horrible as he seemed, his crime spotlights problems in cultural enclaves as well as our culture at large – as the #YesAllWomen hashtag notes, for many women, Elliot Rodgers was an extreme of something they’re used to.

So in discussing Elliot Rodgers, his crime, and the role of culture, I’d like to use a metaphor to clear up my take on it – and how we can help.

Let’s talk disease.

——-

Imagine a society where a disease is extremely common.  People are used to it, and in many cases for a long time didn’t even realize it existed.  The disease had terrible effects, but people kept living and going on with their lives, they were born and died, and in general society went on.  It’s presence was really normalized and not even questioned.

Some were terrible infected, some lightly infected, but it was there and it was passed on.

Over time, people began realizing there was a sickness.  They sought cures or cured themselves, and over time people began realizing that something was wrong.  Folks began speaking up about the effects of this all-too-common illness.

In time it was treated, if in a terribly erratic fashion.  More and more people woke up to the fact something was wrong.  Parents made efforts not to infect their children (or make sure they weren’t as badly infected).  Some people managed complete cures, others managed to put the disease into remission with temporary flare-ups.  In times many people began realizing there was a sickness, though there were arguments over how bad it was, how infected someone was, and so on.

But there were those who didn’t want to be cured.  They thought the disease was normal, or they benefitted from it, or they didn’t know better, or they celebrated it out of a weird contrarianism, or they feared change.  Some of them were so extreme they mostly interacted with other infected people, and their diseases got worse and worse, and some who found them became easily infected.

However, by now people knew enough about the diseases that those who regarded it as normal or even something to celebrate were usually doing so as a choice.  They were presented a healthier world and option, and choose otherwise – some even recruited into their odd worship of the illness.

——-

Misogyny is a cultural disease.  It turns people against each other, limits members of society, produces violence, restrains growth, dehumanizes us, and holds down the members of a society.  It’s out there, it’s out there in force, but people have been fighting it in whole or half-heartedly, and I think we’ve certainly reduced the infections, had remissions, and even had people get cured.  We’re more and more aware of it.

Elliot Rodgers was at least a troubled person if not someone who needed a lot more therapy.  At best he was a person who wasn’t able to cope and chose a dark path, at worst he had the mental equivalent of a compromised immune system.  Either way, the world of misogyny he waded into was a place where the disease was worshipped, and he got infected bad.

Wether he sought infection or was vulnerable, a cultural pathology was a gateway to him becoming a murderer.  It ended up in his bizarre manifesto which seems to be every misogynistic trope and fantasy I’ve seen on the internet, clearly pointing to how he was “infected” by the various anti-women groups.

Elliot Rodgers was infected with a problem of our culture.  Any debate really is about the method and how it could have been prevented, not if it existed.  He became the embodiment of a larger problem, an extreme case of an already extreme world.

So that’s how I view it.  Our culture has a disease that harms us, and we need to address it – and to do that we need to be aware and admit it. #YesAllWomen is a way to say “here are the symptoms, there is a problem, it is real, and it is true.”

In the end, Elliot Rodgers didn’t take responsibility, blamed a bunch of other people, and killed folks.

We can be responsible, fight the disease in others and ourselves.  But we have to listen.

As for taking action? Beyond some of the resources I posted:

  • If you’re male, honestly review your behavior and ask female friends/relatives if you’ve shown any misogyny.  Be open to criticism.
  • Call out misogyny when you see it.
  • Join an organization, donate to one, or otherwise get involved in something that assists fighting misogyny.
  • Support the #YesAllWomen hashtag.  I’m an admitted skeptic of hastags, but this one is getting attention, showing camaraderie, and also giving useful ideas and information.
  • Pay attention to gender politics when you vote, and look for people that support human rights versus those biased against genders.
  • Come up with your OWN advice and post it to get people to take action.  Let me know.

 

– Steven Savage

 

You’re Already Dead Which Is Why You’re Alive

My friend Serdar chews over the issue of coping with death and that some people discuss death as a “change of form” for the sake of comfort.  That’s something I’ve considered, much as he does, from the various Buddhist points of view.

As Pynchon notes, we’re made to be immortal and we die, it’s really kind of strange to us.  We can vaguely conceive of a forever we don’t get, and face the inevitables on the road of life: old age, sickness, and death.  It’s in our media, from Walter White discovering nothing is permanent to a young Bruce Wayne facing the brutality of death.  I think we’re weirdly fascinated by death because of the icky, sticky, inevitable quality.

In many Buddhist teachings, from which I’ve learned much, one may be further stymied by both talk of reincarnation and of the fact there is no permanent self, of the importance of morality in an ever changing world.  What seems to be paradox in one way, I think, is a a sign that we’re happy by reconciling things – the Middle Path, as it were.

We’re going to die.  It’s inevitable.  We know it early on and we fight it until our dying day.  Everything dies – and we know this.

At the same time, we change.  We’re always dying.  The child you were twenty years ago is as gone as you will be when you’re put in the grave.  Death is just The Big Change on top of a life of change.

When we look at that change that’s always happening, we find we’re really fuzzy around the edges.  Where “I” begin and end, who “I” am isn’t that well defined.  Defined enough to discuss and to be, but still a bit fuzzy.

We’re aware of how we became the way we are, and vaguely aware of how our actions have repercussions – in short, how they live on after us. We’re not some little man holed up in a castle in our heads – everything, everything we do has an effect.  The term “Projected Karma” – that which forms – seems quite an apt term for it.

We’re always changing and always making changes yet have this sense of “I”.  We’re incredible fragile and yet we can have huge repercussions with a single action.

I find that the more we look into the fact we are impermanent creatures who are always leaving their mark on the world, one can find a peaceful reconciliation in our own humanity.  We don’t have to take ourselves so seriously, and in turn we can live our lives because what we have now is valuable; with our barriers down we can also find our social instincts to be more satisfying and find some sanity among people.  We also can take responsibility for our actions, live consciously, knowing that we’re choosing the results to come from what we do.  We can really live, even if we don’t like all of what’s going on and how it’s going to end.

Contemplating our own, inevitable death is troublesome and raises many paradoxes – but exploring paradoxes helps us resolve them.

– Steven Savage

Steven Savage is a Geek 2.0 writer, speaker, blogger, and job coach.  He blogs on careers at http://www.musehack.com/, publishes books on career and culture at http://www.informotron.com/, and does a site of creative tools at http://www.seventhsanctum.com/. He can be reached at https://www.stevensavage.com/.