Honesty is the best policy, right? Tell it like it is. If only people were more honest, the world would be a much better place. How can anyone argue with that?
I won't. What I will do is examine the phenomenon of telling the truth with greater scrutiny than usual, to see if we can't gain some clarity on situations in which honesty crashes us into a wall unexpectedly.
To begin, let's consider the limits of language. Can you really say everything in your mind all at once? If I ask you how you feel about, say, apples, could you answer in exhaustive detail in 5 seconds? 10? 30? There are many layers to our perception, to our feelings, our history, our relationships. Consider the next time you are being candid and ask yourself, "Am I leaving something relevant out?" I would suggest you certainly are. For the sake of brevity and practicality, we only provide the needed details of our thoughts and feelings. The alternative is too exhausting, and unnecessary.
Does that mean we're lying? Of course not. But it does mean that we rarely share the entire truth. And now this leads us to the big question: Can you tell the truth too much?
We have all been in a situation where we've "said too much." We've provided too much detail of our mind's workings to be practically tolerable or useful to another person, or to honor reasonable social expectations. (It's worth noting that some social expectations are miserable tools of isolation and productivity and SHOULD be broken.)
A friend routinely uses the concept of "summary honesty" as a way of dealing with excessive truth-telling in relationships. In situations where processing is too sticky to be productive, providing a summary of one's truths instead of all the details is a better option. Or of course, sometimes it's no one's business what the details of one's truths are, and the summary is more appropriate as well! Summaries are not lies; they are simply truthful summaries. And recalling that we are hardly capable of telling the entire truth at once anyway, it is not such a bad option after all. We all have a right to cognitive privacy.
The timing of truth is also a variable to keep in mind. At times people express their feelings in terms that are eternal, or language that makes it sound like something is true longer than they could know. And sometimes we emphasize the importance of something by exaggerating the length for which it should be considered true. "I know we'll be friends forever!" We retort "it's how I felt at the time" when confronted about such statements when they turn false, when in fact the feelings are not what is being questioned -- it's the manner in which they were expressed. I advise being aware of the time element of your statements of truth, to avoid paying for it later.
And of course there's perspective. If you talk about your feelings and perspective, you can never be wrong, unless you're self-deluded. It's when you start telling others what they are or start claiming the situation is objectively a certain way when you open yourself to argument. Sticking to truths centered around your perspective keeps you on more stable ground.
All people need truth like they need food. Too little overlap between perception and reality causes us to shrivel like old balloons. We owe each other the truth. But the form we give it in should be chosen sensitively, to maximize progress and minimize suffering. This may sound odd, but I believe honesty and compassion are among the most popular excuses for abusive behavior there are. Let's be careful.
The orienting response is a known neurological autonomous response that's triggered by sudden movement or contrast. It evolved as part of our nervous systems in order to be responsive to novel movement in the trees, potential predatorial attacks. Our attention is riveted by sudden movement, our hearts pound, our bodies tense.
Television and movies are cut successfully to trigger the orienting response. This is one dimension of why some psychologists believe television can actually be physically addictive. "Television Addiction Is No Mere Metaphor," by Robert Kubey and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, published in Scientific American, details just how real such an addiction can become.
"24," the show featuring Kiefer Sutherland as a federal agent in the Counter Terrorism Unit, counts down its minutes in real time, with one hour in the show equaling one hour in the audience's life.
Reality TV. Surround sound. 5.1, 6.1, 7.1, THX, DTS. Hi-def. Blu-ray, HD DVD. Extended editions, director's cuts.
The increasing popularity of serial entertainment, where the show never ends.
IMAX. 3D. Interactive rides. Tactile transducers. Video on the go. Media PC. iPod.
Gaming. PS3, X-Box 360, Nintendo. Online games. Blogs. MySpace.
How much time do we spend looking at screens? Studies like this one are starting to show that online networking amounts to more shallow contacts, and fewer deep contacts in tangible relationships.
What would happen if we stopped using media for a week? TV, internet, radio, newspaper, magazines? What would be left?
What's happening behind our backs as we look at the screens?
When a person tries to connect the dots of how power is wielded, they are sometimes called a "conspiracy theorist." too often it's an accurate label. The person is paranoid and misattributing coordinated efforts unrealistically or, worst of all, overpersonalizing the world as if everything is centered around them:
Yes, you're right, there ARE voices coming from the television telling you what to do... But they're also trying to tell a couple hundred million other people what to do, too.
Yes, there are rooms with a group of white guys in suits deciding things that will affect the world deeply... But your name is probably not on their agenda.
There are some important considerations to keep in mind when evaluating the validity of labeling something a "conspiracy theory":
First, let's think about how people coordinate and how power is distributed. One of the biggest errors of conspiracy thinking is to assume that behind the scenes there's an efficient, coordinated effort to maintain power. This is true in some ways, and in some industries, but a vital fact to remember is this: if a hundred individuals, for example, have overlapping and similar interests, then -- even if they act independently -- it will often appear that they are working in concert.
Let's consider the entertainment industry for a moment.
If you want to make money in entertainment, there are a few strategies to consider, and most firms invest in all of them now, to different degrees:
1) Make entertainment that will offend almost no one, yet has enough dramatic appeal to be interesting. Emotionally potent, perhaps even produces an adrenaline rush, yet accessible to the widest audience. To say something unpopular is to reduce potential sales.
2) Create entertainment that will offend some people, but only in a manner which is cathartic and not destabilizing to stratification. This permits an emotional valve via entertainment that helps people blow off steam, but not question society's structure or priorities.
3) Produce entertainment that is radically disarming, commodifying rebellion and in turn profiting and controlling from the most visible messages of dissent in culture.
4) And no matter what, you also can't offend the sensibilities of your advertisers.
These policies are primarily in place to make profits, not first and foremost to control people's thinking. I would guess that most decision-makers don't consciously intend to control dissent. Of course, one would be unlikely to release a film, for example, that spelled out that very rich people don't deserve to have so much more than the rest of us, or that freedom of speech is deeply curtailed by the funding mechanisms of distribution -- that would be digging one's own grave. So aside from not releasing messages that might be detrimental to oneself, the primary motivation is to make more money.
If you have almost all media moguls being guided by the same principles, what is the result? A culture with empty, silly, dramatic, violent, cathartic, sexy, conformist entertainment that almost entirely avoids talking about the same things. You don't need a conspiracy to result in a predominantly unified, apparently coordinated message.
This puts freedom of speech in America on a respirator, since not only are we talking about entertainment here, we are talking about news. News programs have to remain profitable as well, and I would argue are guided by some of the same principles. We have to ask ourselves constantly, how is the need to sell this affecting its character?
So are we being mind-controlled by a vast conspiracy? Yes, in some important ways this is true. But it's often more the result of the common interests of privileged people being expressed than any carefully orchestrated effort... Well at least, much of the time.
It's our challenge not to fall for it, and to demand more truthful representations of what's happening in our lives and world. But let's face it, life is hard, and sometimes it's a relief to see a world where it always works out in the end. But if the real world is going to have a Hollywood ending, too, then we can't just pay for a ticket and hope that it will.
It takes a concerted effort to maintain a despotic regime. Not only do you have to surveil people constantly for rumblings of revolt; you must limit the freedom of expression to insure that no revolution is permitted momentum in the information sphere. You have to enable your security forces great latitude in enforcing your rules. You must constantly monitor your political rivals or sympathetic compatriots for signs of a coup. Internal police, military police -- the loops of security become a paranoid hall of mirrors. The amount of energy necessary to maintain such a state is incredible, a skyscraper at the foot of an active volcano.
Power evolves, its methods pruned through centuries. How to achieve the desired control and stability with the least cost? There is a balance to strike here, and it cannot be without cost altogether:
1) Those actually in power should not be visible and open to scrutiny or revolt; the use of figureheads is advised. Also decentralized power among an aristocracy or other kind of oligarchy is less prone to upheaval, as there is no "head" of the beast of power that could be decapitated and rendered helpless.
2) Permit as much freedom of expression and action among the populace that does not threaten the power structure as possible; this insures that people will be relatively content, productive, and not prone to rebel. Publicly emphasize such freedoms so that people are thankful you have provided them.
3) Provide emotionally cathartic entertainment with high impact and sensationalism as a salve against popular frustrations; however, they should contain virtually no signs of awareness of the power structure. Include access to legal substances that enhance productivity or numb awareness, and make illegal any substance that might enhance awareness.
4) The warrior spirit of security forces should be motivated by rationales that emphasize abstract notions of liberation and protection that supersede any specific information about the actual agenda of the current regime; this will minimize rebellious tendencies among the military and police. Be sure to put in place checks and balances among the security forces so that no one division is able to garner enough support for a coup.
5) Provide rudimentary comforts to the population as a means to quell unrest, such as basic health care, paved roads, police protection, emergency services.
Overall, this schema will provide rulers greater stability than any despotic system. It will insure the productivity and consent of the populace, providing enough freedom and participation in the system for them to feel empowered.
Is this American democracy?
And if so...
What is the next step in social evolution?
America is one of the freest societies in the world, but can't we do even better?
How long will we watch the extremes of capitalism ravage us? CEOs making $20,000 a day, while the majority of the world starves?
Are we a culture eating its own collective vomit in celebrity-based propaganda, reality TV, sports, video games, the distraction network keeping our eyes off the wizards pulling the levers behind the curtain?
The world is getting smaller. Our sense of space and time has changed, our expectations for response-time, the number of projection screens has increased, the number of possibly deepened friendships and divisions has proliferated. As the global information economy evolves, we see the human family drawn closer than ever before; awareness of our interdependence and interconnectedness is growing. Globalization in the marketplace is a predictable consequence of this evolution of technology (and a likely cause), but more pollinations are due and will be more positive.
There is one particular effect of these developments that is troubling to me right now. The conservative Christian right in America appear to be suffering from a set of rivulets of delusion joining into a river that may drown us.
In consideration of these, let me start with an analogy:
"You stay at home a lot. You have a daily routine that comforts you and gives your life firm-footing. You've achieved creature comfort, but it took some effort, some subtle craftiness. And you don't want to lose it. You love your family and your children and you do everything you can for them. You've lived in a small town all your life; houses had acres between them when you were growing up.
But now it's different. Development has escalated exponentially. Your small town has become a small city. And the community's become more diverse. You're seeing more people who don't look like you in some ways, maybe don't dress or have the same rules that govern your behavior. You're a little overwhelmed by the range of options you're seeing.
You're afraid of losing what you have. What little advantage you've enjoyed is slipping away. These new people are to blame. They're undercutting my wages. Then you hear of a murder downtown. A man with darker skin than you has viciously killed a lighter skinned person, and you're terrified you might be next.
Some people are saying we need more dialogue, we need to connect, find common ground and respect, work things out, but they seem like spineless children, leaving doors open for attack. Blind fools."
Is this America on the world stage? Are we the wounded stepchild of England who wants to return home and impress daddy with our new found manly independence? Was such a narrative re-enacted by Tony Blair and George W. Bush over the invasion of Iraq? And perhaps further mirrored in George H. W. Bush's relationship and his son?
Now consider the book of Revelations, by "John," in the Bible. An epic poem from what appears to be an unpleasant psychotic break by a devout Christian that should never have been included in the Bible.
It was included as an instrument of fear and control.
The end times. The "Left Behind" series. George W. Bush as President. Self-fulfilling prophecies. World war III.
The internet and global economy is forcing the world to be a smaller place. For some this is quite uncomfortable. For the dogmatic unaccustomed to questioning their belief-systems, it is a panic attack.
The radical right in America today is that man shocked as his neighborhood fills up. Internet porn. Violence. Sex for sale in public. Independent news. Jobs moving overseas. The bar of depravity rising, reality TV, Howard Stern, queers on cable.
A populace numbed by consumerism and a coordinated watering down of truth-saying.
Sublimated sexuality; managed sexuality; sensually disabled; anger is easier because you don't lose anyone's respect if you lose control while you're angry.
Are we headed for an historical orgasm? An endgame in the final chessmatch of Good vs. Evil? Is there any such thing, goddamnit? How many cultures have had very strong apocalypse myths? Why?
I'm not on the right or left or a member of any team. I want what's right based on how i feel, not how i am told to feel by a group. Liberals tend to blame and posture like permanent adolescents, while the right are positioned as stern fathers ready to discipline us all. Let's get past this model.
To hell with all this simple rhetoric: Good vs. Evil. Right vs. Left. U.S. Vs. Everyone who's not with us.
Let's not try to bring the end of history everybody, please. Remember, volcanic ash killed almost every living thing on the planet 251 millions years ago, and a meteor did it again 65 millions years ago. We can only kill ourselves and our relatives.
The rest will go on without even rubbernecking our accident.