(About a 7 minute read)
A couple weeks ago, I looked out my door to see a doe trailed by two spotted fawns passing through my yard in broad daylight — quite an unusual time of day to spot deer moving about so near to the center of the city.
A day or so later, presumably the same doe and fawns — but I’m not sure about that, since I didn’t get their names the first time around.
Since then, just the usual three or four raccoons, and those at night — nearly every night.
The truth isn’t neutral, is it? I don’t mean “neutral” in the most important sense — in the sense of being objective. But rather how we so often feel emotionally about it as being either for or against what we believe or are willing to accept. As everyone from Plato to the present has known, emotional attachments or aversions can distort rational thinking.
On a perhaps more abstract level, we are subject to cognitive biases — Those are genetically inherited, systematic ways our brains function that cause us to deviate from rational thinking. The most famous of them seems to “confirmation bias” — a tendency to “search for, interpret, focus on, and remember information” in a way that confirms our existing notions and expectations.
So far as I can see, there are only two practical remedies. First, a good education in critical thinking skills, beginning early in life, and very much including the effects of cognitive biases on us, but also including logic and semantics. Still, I don’t think that would be enough.
To me, the key is to recognize how much easier it is for us to notice that someone else is gone off the rails in their reasoning, than it for us to notice we ourselves have.
And then build on that. Teach the kids to seek out and find people through-out their lives who they can reliably trust to give them honest and accurate feed-back or reality-checks on their reasoning.
I suspect a likely side-effect of that kind of an education would be a general awareness of the importance of intellectually honesty.
Yet, I have little hope any such education will become generally available — at least not anytime soon. We don’t have the best tradition in America of funding schools well, for one thing.
July Fourth. I do not know how far we have departed from the concept of “citizenship” that folks like Alexis deTocqueville noticed we embraced back in the early days of the Republic, but I suspect it’s a great deal further than most of us would be comfortable with — assuming we were to fully grasp what we have lost.
Volumes can and have been written about that, but I would like to focus on Edward Bernays and what he called, “The Engineering of Consent”.
As Bernays believed back in the 1920s, when he founded the public relations industry in America, that the social and psychological sciences had advanced to the point they could be used to engineer consent — or systematically get folks to “support ideas and programs”, as he sometimes put it.
Not just through normal, more or less amateurish, means of persuasion, but through greatly more effective and reliable “scientific” means.
Now, despite his goals, Bernays was not the evil villain of Hollywood melodramas. For one thing, he urged professionals in his newly created field to guard against any temptation that might involve them in such nefarious things as undermining the Constitution — especially, the “freedoms of press, speech, petition and assembly”. Moreover, his motives seem decent enough in some ways.
Bernays was Sigmund Freud’s nephew, a Jew, and quite aware of how mobs could quickly turn into pogroms against innocent people. Like many people, he thought democracies were especially susceptible to mob rule and violence. So, it seems that one of his goals was to find ways to defuse those mobs before they even happened.
Yet, regardless of his motives, Bernays made what I regard as more or less a pact with the devil, for his strategy to make democracy safe for everyone has now had a hundred years to bear fruit — and what fruit!
In a nutshell, this was his strategy: Persuade people to seek self-fulfillment through consumerism so that they would be so satisfied with the acquisition of ever more and more material goods and services, they would not feel any need or desire to “take on” or change the status quo. In short, they would be content with their lot.
Put differently, he sought to change the American culture and mindset from a people intimately concerned with politics as a means to at least create the best possible conditions under which people could seek self-fulfillment, to a people intimately concerned with consumption as the best possible means.
I think if deToqueville can be at all relied on for a glimpse of the political activism of the early Republic, then a comparison of that activism with today’s relatively insipid and dispirited activism is instructive. We have, to some large extent, realized Bernays’ dream of turning us from a nation of citizens into a nation of consumers.
Should you be interested to learn some of the details, I recommend the award winning documentary, The Century of the Self.
I read a startling statistic awhile back. About 40% of married, middle-age women in America report no longer being interested in their sex lives, and that their husbands no longer satisfy them.
Perhaps it’s selfish of me to have immediately thought of myself, but it’s just a fact that I do take pride in how satisfied my two ex-wives were during our marriages. A whole lot was wrong in both marriages, but not so much the sex.
I often heard them say the sex was “extraordinary”, “mind-blowing”, or even once or twice, “Had never been better”. At least, those are the sorts of things they would tell me on the nights they came home very late.
There are so many hard things in life, and I think most of us are all too aware of at least the big ones. Raising kids, saving up enough money for the rainy days that come too soon and too often, being laid off, looking for work, struggling for a promotion, and so forth. The list just goes on.
One of those things, though, is especially curious to me. As fully as possible appreciating people we are profoundly familiar with. Most of the time, I think I do.
But sometimes I meet a new person, and after I’ve gotten to know them a bit, I have the strangest moment of discovery when I realize that I quite likely appreciate them more than most anyone greatly familiar to me.
What to do about that?
New Years resolutions and other self-admonishments just don’t work for me here. They’re ok up to a point, maybe. So long as I keep reminding myself of them, I seem to make some progress, but then within a few short weeks, I fall off the bandwagon.
Trying to make a habit of appreciating someone also doesn’t work. When I get into a genuine habit of “appreciating” someone, it soon becomes artificial. “It’s Tuesday — time again to tell my brother how much he means to me.”
About the best thing I’ve found has been meditation. Meditation seems to sharpen my senses a bit, making me more aware for at least a little while of what’s going on inside (e.g. hunger) and outside of me (e.g. the raccoon crossing my yard, a shadow in the night). In an analogous manner it seems to sharpen my awareness or appreciation of people on the days I mediate.
Moreover, if I meditate frequently enough, then appreciation seems to become, if not permanent, at least somewhat more lasting than the other methods I’ve tried.
Last, it can have the peculiar effect of my seeing someone, not just in terms of what he or she means to me, but somewhat more objectively. Perhaps.
Colorado Springs is a conservative town. It also has quite a few “city deer”, and they are so numerous now that they are viewed by many of us as a problem.
A while back, there was a serious proposal put before the City Council to solve the deer problem by legalizing hunting the animals within city limits. With rifles and shotguns.
Not all my conservative friends are just as bonkers as I am, but it’s sometimes reassuring that at least some of them are. So long as they don’t make the rules.