Would You Dye a Lake Blue? Part II (or, We Are All Pretending and We Know It)

In “Would You Dye a Lake Blue?” I explored the strange case of people trying to achieve aquatic landscape perfection by dumping gallons of blue ink into their ponds. Was this absurd fakery just a problem for angst ridden landscape owners? I don’t think so.

Fake is a central fact of our social existence.

Fake is everywhere. You are fake. I am fake. We live in a fake world.

It’s easy to understand why one person fakes, and keeps their fakery hidden. People lie. We know why.

Far stranger is when two people lie to each other, and they both know they are lying, and they both know that they know that the other is lying. Yet they do it anyway. They consciously choose to create a fantasy world.

Strange?

You’ve probably already done it today.

“Hey, how you doing?”

“Good. Yourself?”

“Never better!”

One, two, three, done. You could’ve been anywhere from manic to suicidal and you still would  have said the same thing. I’m fine. You’re fine. Everything in the universe is just fine. Except that it isn’t, and you both knew that.

It’s not just greetings.

Laze a while on the manicured lawns of your best friend’s Facebook profile. Is that really them? Or is it no more real than a lake full of blue dye? Take the phenomena of “Finstagrams” – fake Instagram accounts were people go to escape the fakeness of real Instagram accounts. Yet even they struggle with the omnipresent demand to be fake.

How about your boss? The chummy one. That matey, handshakey, pat-on-the-back, let’s-get-a-drink boss. The boss that hates you because you don’t do things the way he would. The boss that you hate because he is underpaying you. The boss with whom you act out a charade of friendship.

Our fakeness has even earned itself a title: the Social Fake. The art of the white lie. The secret to keeping everyone happy by pretending you give a shit. Which you don’t. But you don’t need to tell them that. They already know.

I could go on, but you get the idea.

So why are we living all living in a self-inflicted fantasy?

I suspect the fake is camouflage.

First, like the white lie, it covers the ugly truth. Fake is the product of an arms-race of lying. A war of social conformity. Each step up in illusion creates ever greater demands to conform to an impossible standard. The only way to keep up is to invest in thermonuclear levels of fakery.

Yet the fake hides another even more brutal truth – everything we do is fake. We are all actors. All the time. We are permanent fantasists.

The truth is: the social world is a constructed world.

No law of nature demands that you listen to police officers. Physics did not decide that the tastes of the rich are more desirable than those of the poor. God did not decree that the money you strive for has any true value. We made it all up. It only exists because we say it does. And because we made it all up, a lot of our social world is soul-achingly absurd.

The illusions are the bed-sheets that cover the naked truths of our relations. Imagine what would happen if we tore the sheets away…

The greetings…

“Hey, how are you doing?”

“I’m going to kill myself.”

“Good. Saves me a job.”

The Facebook…

“Oh look, there’s a photo of Sally getting fired. Sad face! That’s her at rehab. I remember those needles – like! And that’s both of us getting arrested for public urination. Ah,  good times!”

That boss…

“Hey Phil, when I was last stealing office supplies, it occurred to me that no one here’s had a pay rise in ten years….”

“Yeah, I know. I’m doing it on purpose. You see, I really want to get promoted out of this shit-hole, which means I have to keep costs super-duper low so that the Fat Cats can pay themselves ginormous bonuses. Oh… and that cheap printer ink I made you all switch to – it causes cancer.”

“Oh, gee Phil, I guess I’m going to go start a riot now. Mind if I fire bomb your car?”

While I’m no fan of the noble lie – the idea that we need to be deluded – if we stripped away the fake then a lot in this world would be forced to change. A revolution or two at least. Maybe society would collapse into anarchy? Maybe Facebook would implode in a frenzy of unfriending? Maybe you would get divorced and move to Tibet? Or, maybe we’d learn to build a world that’s more true, more authentic, and doesn’t screw you over while asking you to smile.

~

Deeper Down the Rabbit-hole:

Learn more about Finstagrams in “On Fake Instagram, a Chance to Be Real” in the New York Times. Here.

It get’s weirder still. People fake looking authentic. “People Fake to Look Real on Social Media” on ScienceDaily. Here.

Got kids with special needs? Try “Phoney Baloney” the game that teaches them how to do the Social Fake, or more bluntly, how to manipulate people’s emotions by lying to them. Here.

© Under Obvious, 2017.

Is Post-truth True?

Whenever you say, “I live in a post-truth world.” you prove yourself wrong. You can say “we”, you can say “they”, but you can’t say “I”.

Why?

“Post-truth” is used to describe a world in which facts don’t matter. Emotion trumps truth. Yet, to say “post-truth” means that you care enough about the truth to point out the truth of post-truth, and that you have enough truth to decide that post-truth is true, all of which is very un-post-truth of you. Therefore, every time you describe our age as post-truth, you in some small way disprove yourself. Unless of course you are only using the word “post-truth” as an emotional wrecking ball, in which case you just proved post-truth is true.

It gets worse.

The sudden popularity of the word “post-truth” may simultaneously create and destroy the world it describes. Let’s start with the creation – “post-truth” leading to less truth.

1) Dividing the world into two eras, a “post-truth” and a pre-Trump “truth”, obscures the truth. Politics has been theatre for some time. Remember the Iraq war? Society and the media drifted off into a fantasy land of WMD and Al-Qaeda connections. In 2005 Stephen Colbert coined “Truthiness” to point out the same thing. The word “post-truth” was coined in 1992 by a writer describing what he called “Watergate Syndrome”: a preference for wilful ignorance.

Trump’s so-wrong-it’s-not-lying style is also not new. It’s called bullshit. That’s “bullshit” in the technical sense of the term. In 1986, Harry Frankfurt wrote “On Bullshit” pointing out the kind of talk where the concern is not with truth or untruth, but with impact. Trump is a bullshitter par excellence. And Bullshit is an art form as old as humanity.

2) If you believe the other side cares about truth, then you will try engage with them. But if you think the other side has gone “post-truth”? The solutions become rather different.

Drugs?

Hugs?

Bullets?

Yet both sides seem to believe in truth. We have at least two big problems that will get worse if “post-truth” becomes a conversation stopping label:

  • Historically, social networks have underpinned all manner of bizarre rumors. What’s new is that we are in a world of global hyper-rumors, spreading through splintered networks which never listen to each other.
  • On the right are many people who can be described as having a “Right-wing Authoritarian” personality which is defined by hostility, conformity, and over-submission to authority. Finding the truth consists of listening to the leader, copying your neighbor, and kicking the crap out of the enemy. The rise of post-truth represents not the decline of a concern about truth, but the mobilization of a block of people who are very easily misled. And when they’re led by a bullshit artist…. Some one has to keep them in touch with reality.

3) Point out all the bullshit and people will see bullshit everywhere. Trust in all sources of media will fall. Where will these people go? Some will retreat to the people they trust: their social circle, the world of hyper-rumor.

Now for the destruction. “Post-truth” reveals an extraordinary concern with truth. Fact checkers are popular. The big online players may start putting “truth” into the algorithms. The need for critical thinking skills, real journalism, and verified facts is being spotlighted like never before.  A fish doesn’t care about water until it’s on land. We didn’t care about truth until Trump.

In summary “post-truth” reveals the power of language. Naming is an act of creation. Not only of a word, but of a reality. What world the word “post-truth” will help create remains to be seen. If we are lucky, “post-truth” will destroy post-truth.

 

Deeper Down the Rabbit hole:

Watch Colbert on Post-truth vs Truthiness, plus some examples of a post-truth world in action. Here.

The Nation revisits 1992’s lesson on post-truth. Here.

Watch Harry Frankfurt discussing bullshit. Here.

Bob Altemeyer’s book on authoritarian personalities. Available for free here.

 

© Under Obvious, 2016.