What if because of the way our brains work and the time pressure of everyday life we end up believing a distorted picture of reality? It would be something like a “matrix of lies” that forms among us, within our shared perception of the world, simply because assenting is the path of least resistance.

The idea came up while I was working on the next blog post, which addresses a case of untruthfulness by a local candidate for office, and while conversing recently with friends who seem under the influence of strong drugs. There has always been a conundrum for me when I encounter otherwise reasonable people who appear to believe demonstrably wrong things.

A World Of Lies That We Build For Ourselves

It is not breaking new ground to note the essential malleability and social genesis of social reality. Ideas constitute reality because they are shared; ideas are shaped by words; therefore, skillful manipulation with words can affect the reality we perceive. Because our brains function in part by categorizing information so we do not have to discover anew every iteration of a data point, we are predisposed to consign as much data as possible into “taken for granted” status. We want to take as much as possible at face value and move on to the next piece of information, and therefore we are susceptible to both ideology and gossip. (For a great, concise explanation of how ideology works, get Berger and Luckmann’s little book, The Social Construction of Reality).

So in addition to the top-down machinations of advertising, media propaganda, government misinformation, etc., there is the grassroots BS that seems to arise from among us and gains traction through our daily interaction with each other. Of course, from all sources it all blends together because reality is the sum total of billions of conversations and fragments of thought ongoing 24 hours a day, but since this is a short blog post rather than a large book we’ll skip the social-psychological breakdown. Let’s just posit being surrounded by lies, from the mayor who tells us the monorail will solve our problems to the neighbors who say Mr. Shipman in the corner house talks too much.

My focus today is not so much on the substance of lies – specific falsehoods or types of deception (two more excellent topics for the large book) – but the manner of lying. To understand why sane people talk crazy, we need to understand not just bad information but bad faith – wrong ways of thinking unacknowledged to ourselves; habits of thought that lead to an inaccurate view of the world around us, which we accept because it’s less work than to do otherwise.

A Learned Behavior

Just as through living in the same communities and watching the same TV shows we learned how to use “like” as a synonym for “said,” we also learn efficient rhetorical tactics for parrying inconvenient truths.

  • From the age of reason onward, we know that stating a basic falsehood can be a tactic worth trying; examples being “I am too sick to go to school” or “I did not have sex with that woman.”
  • We also learn early in life that if we don’t like what someone is telling us we can say “you’re an idiot” or “you’re a bigot” and be done with it (ad hominem fallacy).
  • To lend credence to a dubious proposition, it is often useful to attribute it to many other people and/or to people who are considered experts in such matters: “Everyone knows Mr. Shipman is a motormouth, including my brother the motivational speaker.” (appeal to the majority or appeal to authority).
  • A common tactic of deception among the sophisticated set is to deflect the argument by suggesting a widely-accepted societal or metaphysical value is under attack – a form of red herring fallacy that can be called the “sanctimony” argument: “I cannot believe you would impugn the Polish people by suggesting that I, Joseph Budzinski, ate all the pierogies!”
  • Another cutting edge tactic for the postmodern age is, appropriately, non-argument: Simply sidestep any opposing view by implying it has already been disproven and now requires only simple ridicule tactics such as derision or “scare quotes” to deflect. Riffing off C.S. Lewis, I call this the “flippancy” form of (non)argument: “This so-called ‘income tax’ you accuse me of owing frightens me even less than your gun and your badge, so I would appreciate you leaving my doorstep forthwith, sir.”

The Danger Of Uncritical Thinking

Because of the uncritical bias of the human mind, any of these types of arguments or non-arguments has the potential to become conventional wisdom if allowed to saturate a segment of popular culture. This is how we end up with wacky stuff like poisonous products from China, which have little “green” logos on the packaging and therefore are allowed to close down entire U.S. industries. It’s how monorails get built.

This is also how “narratives” form. A narrative is a lie, repeated consistently, intended to mask or deflect attention from an objective fact. Some bozo traverses the country showing Powerpoints with hurricane damage juxtaposed with factories and pretty soon we’re all forced to buy poisonous light bulbs. Refer to a public figure as an extremist or put their ideas in scare quotes often enough and you can affix a monkey to their back. When Mr. Shipman decides to run for mayor, his opponent’s campaign slogan is “I Listen To You.”

The primary downside to the narrative is that people might abandon their own better judgment to buy into a safe-yet-wrong position. Maybe the old light bulbs were superior. Perhaps Mr. Shipman would have been the best mayor.

But we live in a lazy culture where the affectation of argument can suffice, often to our own detriment. By taking the path of least resistance we help construct the matrix of lies around ourselves. Regarding my conundrum about smart people saying dumb things, the explanation isn’t that they are bad people but that their habitual way of thinking about certain topics renders them unable to tell the truth, even to themselves.

Case Study: A Blogger In The Matrix

In too much of what passes for public debate nowadays, sanctimony and flippancy are the first recourse of witless liars. An unintentionally hysterical example of this can be found in a recent post by a local blogger, who I happen to know is very intelligent yet like any of us is prone to uncritical thinking when it comes to the conventional wisdom.

At the end of the fourth paragraph in this post, about a protest outside the last LCRC meeting, the blogger insinuates that a protester’s use of the term “Islamic Supremacist” is evidence of religious bigotry.

Three paragraphs later, however, in referring to what the blogger apparently considers a superior approach taken by the Obama administration, he uses the term “radical Islamism” to describe the exact same phenomenon – without the slightest hint of irony nor any admission by the blogger that religious bigotry could also be a factor in his own case.

I suppose there could be some people who might try to make the case that using the description “Islamic Supremacist” is clearly bigoted, while the term “radical Islamism” is purely technical, but such an argument would not pass the laugh test for anyone with half a brain – including, I am certain, the blogger himself.

Now I don’t want to be overly critical of an unpaid blogger who ultimately is guilty of little worse than a) buying into a narrative and b) lacking a proofreader, but the example is instructive. The blogger was so blinded by the sanctimonious fallacy that “opposition to Islamic extremism equals religious bigotry” that he flippantly lobbed a public accusation of bigotry at a man he did not even know and who had stated his motivation had nothing to do with religion. The fact that the writer, in endeavoring to expand his discussion, found himself needing to refer to the exact same phenomenon as the protester and, well, had to use SOME kind of terminology to do so, was not so much a Freudian slip as an example of how mental laxity causes us to be unfair to others as well as to ourselves.

Conclusion: Piercing The Matrix

Many of us know that when you are debating an issue with someone who attempts to deflect the discussion with some sort of deceptive argument, you have to attack the deflection in order to address the original issue. If I come to your party bringing greetings from the Polish people, ask for my credentials while you hide the pierogies. If someone tries to silence a discussion about the difficult issue of “extremism” by forcing a detour into “freedom of worship,” it’s time to call BS on the hijacker.

Most importantly, we have to remember to question our own assumptions as well as those of the people around us, even when it takes time and effort to do so. Just because something is taken for granted does not mean it’s the truth.