Written Apr 23, 2021
“Fake news” is a term popularized by Donald Trump. It suggests people are programmed daily by lies and propaganda. This immediately brings to mind the movie The Matrix and specifically, this scene.
The vast majority of people opt the blue pill of (wilful) ignorance. I suspect that has a lot to do with “normalcy bias”, — the tendency to disbelieve or deny persistent abnormality. People can handle temporary abnormality, as long things return to normal. Permanent abnormality, or transition from familiar normality to a “new normal”, is change. People resist change. Mild change is unsettling. Severe change is disturbing. Earthshaking change is downright traumatizing, thus to be denied.
Another reluctance to let go of the blue pill stems from obsession with fact-checking anything that deviates from familiar memes. To this I say “There is a difference between searching for truth and challenging asserted fact.” Propaganda is in the business of manipulating fact. So it is perfectly reasonable to check an asserted fact before believing. Propaganda can never manipulate truth itself; it can only distort or obfuscate it (by manipulating facts). Truth is intuitive, but often not factual. To people obsessed with fact-checking who also happen to be of faith, I ask “How come you accept your God so readily, when His existence is not factually proven?”
Then there is the other extreme: People who defer to “authorities” for truth and decisions. They lack what Bertrand Russell called “the will to doubt” and thus are defenseless against propaganda from “authorities”. This is a case of misplaced trust which stems from, — let’s face it, — laziness to think.
Finally, there is the “You Can’t Handle the Truth!” syndrome: The inability to handle the slightest challenge to one’s preexisting beliefs because one is so cemented in one’s comfort zone. In that case, one chooses wilful ignorance and opt the Sargent Schultz approach to life. The reward for that is (temporary) bliss.
On the flip side, the red pill is about “Truth will set you free”. Interestingly, this saying came from the Bible, and the context was that the Jews of that time forgot their long history of bondage. Only in realizing the truth could they honestly deal with that bondage and be spiritually free from it. The same applies today. Only in realizing we are enslaved by daily lies and propaganda can we honestly deal with that slavery and be spiritually free from it.
But seeking truth is a scary trip down the rabbit hole. The increasingly bizarre and shocking discoveries can threaten one’s mental health. It is important to control how far down the rabbit hole to go everyday. In other words, measured truth seeking is key to sanity and happiness. This measurement starts with having clarity of purpose.
Every organism in a living being is constantly assessing its condition and environment. To the extent the assessment starts with fact-finding or “truth seeking”, it is for the purpose of improving the well being of the living being to which it belongs. The organism is not seeking truth for the purpose of certitude.
Therefore, keeping a very clearly defined purpose in mind is key to deciding how far down the rabbit hole to go. Burrowing further than necessary is not only time-wasting but detracts from solving the immediate problem(s) at hand. Put another way, curiosity should at all times be purposeful and not “idle”.
How does one define the purpose of each truth seeking quest? By crystallizing the meaning of the truth one is going after. Not all truth has meaning. Critical reasoning applies intuition to already acquired knowledge. It is through this exercise, — more often confusing than not, — that we find meaning.
An over-simplified illustration: A wife willfully ignores the suspicion of her husband’s one-time affair because she reasons no good will come to her otherwise happy marriage from finding out the truth. She deems that truth not meaningful. On the other hand, she purposefully pursues truth in her husband’s squandering of the family wealth in gambling because it affects the well being of all members of the family. She deems that truth meaningful.
Most people fallaciously regard only actionable knowledge as meaningful knowledge. The argument is: If there is nothing you can do about something, what good is knowing about it? The counter argument is: You want to know about it because you want to know the truth, not because you are sure you can do something about it. When the entire puzzle of truth is complete, then you can decide how much is actionable, and how much you decide to act upon.
Wisdom doesn’t come from knowledge, it comes from the conscious pursuit of, or retreat from, truth. In turn, wisdom is the gateway to meaning. So in the simple illustration of the woman, she retreated from pursuing the truth of her husband’s infidelity because she wisely decided the meaning of life is to maintain an otherwise happy marriage, irrespective of his transgression.
The world is whole lot more complex than 50 years ago, we need a whole more wisdom than 50 years ago to figure out who and what pull the strings to make the world go around. Our lives and the world’s future depend on it. 50 years ago, there was still independent investigative journalism, to inform us with morsels or at least semblance of truth, and to keep the power players (aka The Elite) honest. Today, mainstream media is just obscenely overpaid pretty-faces owned by the power players, reading off propaganda scripts. The astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson lamented: “I dream of a world where the truth is what shapes people’s politics, rather than politics shaping what people think is true”. The man is a scientist so there can be no doubt that he meant absolute truth in the literal sense. His lament can be translated as: “Power players are not driven by absolute truth, but are purveyors of propaganda packaged as truth”.
So we have to dig at truth ourselves. Why? Because if you even remotely suspect you are being fed lies and propaganda, you can bet your bottom dollar it is not done to keep you dumb and happy for life. Ignorance may buy short-lived bliss, but will bite you in the behind down the road. History has demonstrated this, time and again.
But burrowing in the rabbit hole is exhausting, scary, and worst of all — depressing. It is important to be discriminant on what truth is meaningful to pursue, and what not. Too Much Information (TMI) can be overwhelming and detrimental to one’s mental health. Too, respites and diversions are necessary. Humans need idealized images and ideas that capture the imagination and keep the human spirit alive. Total destruction of these ideals is demoralizing and depressing. R&R, — periodical escape from depressing truth and disgusting lies, — is necessary. This is why during the Korean and Vietnam Wars, soldiers went on periodic R&R leave to nice places outside of the war zone (like Hong Kong and Singapore). Families go to Disneyland and Las Vegas for that purpose. Single Gen-Xers and Millennials immerse in video games instead, for the same purpose. It’s all good, — as long as you don’t wind up living in “Make Believe Land” forever.
The “art” is to seek truth in measured doses, with clear purpose, while maintaining sanity and mental health. We all need to master that art to prevent a fate like Friedrich Nietzsche’s.