There are unwritten norms that in the past have governed and united us as Americans. But, these have proven too weak for the job in the face of modern stresses, and given the existence of weapons of mass misinformation (WMM’s). Especially since it is so easy to present alternate ”facts” using these channels, and do so with impunity. Sadly, the most basic assumptions we once shared about reality itself, and our agreed upon notions of it, are no longer a “given”. Even empirical, mathematical facts are not able to withstand politicized assaults in highly-charged racially or socially coded language, specifically intended to divide us into alternate worlds, with alternate facts, and alternate versions of ”reality”.
Destroy Consensus and Kill Consensus Reality
Consensus reality is that which is generally agreed to be reality, based on a consensus view. If so, is there a doctor in the house? This piece from Post Carbon Institute claims 2020 is the year that our shared reality finally cracked. We don’t seem to have any shared objective reality anymore. Nor, it seems, do we any longer enjoy a shared cultural reality. Seth Godin’s treatment of this concept is brilliant.
The consensus reality defining America and what it means to be an American may already be dead. Ironically, a reality-TV con man killed it. While ironic, I guess it is fitting. Give the devil his due. Modern American politics in the age of Twitter and Facebook is more like fake tv than we knew. Reality television, even though it is not real, doesn’t work, generate enough profit to stay on the air, and provide entertainment value unless enough people believe it’s real. Consensus reality doesn’t work without a consensus. It evaporates when enough people believe a different narrative. Destroy consensus with incendiary and divisive language, and kill the shared reality that was the by-product of that consensus. Done and done. Facts be damned.
Social Contract Theory
In some respects, it is miraculous that it has taken this long for the fabric of the country to fray and tear. Social Contract Theory has been around a long, long time. It arose in a time before printing presses and certainly before the internet or social media platforms. This entry at the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy suggests the idea has been around as long as philosophy itself. Check it out if you’re not familiar with the idea.
This is a short article on social contract theory from the University of Texas school of business. Members of society live together under certain pre-arranged and agreed upon rules of engagement. These ideas are deeply interwoven into social, economic, and political life. So much so that we have been able to assume their strength and take them for granted. Democratic, Representative governments, exist both as the result of, and for the protection of, this bedrock social contract. As such, they operate best behind the scenes of everyday, normal civic life.
I wrote this essay back in January in remembrance of the days when our government was virtually invisible except for rare, highly unusual, high visibility occurrences. Reliable assumptions about the underlying, invisible social contract are the foundation of a national reality. In combination with shared language and art, the result is stable, flourishing culture and civilization.
Who Wields Weaponized Misinformation?
To destabilize a society, attack the shared ideas that bond the members together in a mutually beneficial reality. Nothing does this more effectively than weaponized misinformation. Historically, only totalitarian, dictatorial governments (whether right-wing fascists, or left-wing communists), have turned their citizens against one another by means of misinformation and propaganda. Russia, or China, or fill-in-the-blank state actors have wanted to undermine the US with these tactics for half a century, having used them with success against their own citizens.
Now an ex-President and the political party he controls do the job for them. Only an autocrat wishing to use you for his own power willfully, repeatedly misinforms you to think of your neighbor and fellow citizen as an enemy. And to base that belief on some factor like race, or religion, or sexual orientation, or in the past year, misinformation about mask wearing, or getting a vaccine.
Obviously, the fissures in American society didn’t start overnight. They didn’t start with a dangerous, deranged, anti-democratic demagogue. In some ways, there have been two or three different Americas from the nation’s inception. Your version of America depended upon which race and economic class you were born into. But a large portion of the country has been unwilling or unable to see a clownish buffoon for what he was and is. Failing this, they have joined him and his puppets in the effort to turn us against one another, denying even basic human decency, medical science, the rule of law, and the democratic process. These are enough combined straws to break the back of the national consensus reality camel.
Misinformation Has Created A Separate World With Its Own Reality
Didn’t we used to be better than this? We used to have cherished words, national words, that we treasured for their inspiration. They urged us towards a common, shared vision of a more perfect union and a general welfare. But words are not reality. They are mere approximations of reality. And the same language that had the power to unite us in agreement and solidarity, has been used to foment hate, mistrust, and derision. Powerful, pervasive platforms of language dissemination have been used to craft alternate, disparate, separate versions of reality. Versions of reality believed in regardless of the presence of objective facts.
So, there are people in this country, and maybe you are one reading this, who believe things they’ve been told, or they saw on unsocial-media like Facebook, or Twitter, or maybe on FOX, or OANN such as: the election was stolen, and Joe Biden is not the legitimate President, the vaccines will make you sterile, the vaccines will alter your DNA, covid isn’t dangerous, masks are an infringement of liberty and unconstitutional, there is a deep-state cabal of satanic, cannibalistic pedophiles, and sex-traffickers running the country, January 6th was not an insurrection, but was just normal tourists visiting the capitol, etc.
The Only World That Exists Is The One In Your Mind
In short, purveyors of malignant, malicious fiction have broadcast descriptions of an alternate reality in which many believe. I cannot argue against the truth that the only world that exists is the one that is in your mind as far as you are concerned. But, unless there is some return to consensus reality, based on verifiable, objective facts, and unless we hold those who traffic in lies and disinformation as culpable, dangerous criminals, this American experiment will soon be over.
I appreciate fiction as much as the next person. I love that Stephen King, or Ernest Hemingway, or Daniel Silva can create world’s from words. To your mind, these elaborate worlds that are real and engaging.
In like manner, the world you woke up in today, and interact with from the driver’s seat of your own perspective, while not quite as fictitious as the one’s constructed so skillfully by a great author, is still fundamentally a fiction. It is also created with words. Yours. The ones you tell yourself, and the ones you listen to. It is fiction because it is limited and relative to your experience of life alone. It is however, very real to you. You don’t live in my head, nor I in yours, so our realities are unique to us. But if you’re reading this, you’ve given me, sitting here, at a particular juncture in space and time, access to your mind. And my words are shaping it.
Never in American history, have the unscrupulous, power-hungry, selfishly motivated, or willfully and negligently ignorant had so much access to such powerful tools to shape our minds with the fiction of misinformation. They do so via social and mainstream media platforms, wielding them as weapons of mass misinformation. The fact that they have gained such an allegiance among the non-discriminating is astonishing. And, that they have successfully created a completely different world with its own ”reality” is equally shocking. Perhaps, in the final analysis, we only have ourselves to blame.
Obviously, things like microscopic airborne viruses don’t give a damn what kind of lies you believe in. The truth will always prevail in the end. But for some, it will be too late. It may be too late already for the country. The disparate, divided realities may never reach consensus again.