Tags: Reinventing | Reality

Reinventing Reality

Thursday, 30 November 2000 12:00 AM

The underlying problem is not merely a dispute about what the reality of the situation is, but a dispute about the nature of reality itself.

I am old enough that I was brought up on books, radio and films. When my mother read me a story, I waited to see how it came out. We may have discussed the outcome, but we did not alter it. When I learned to read, I also unconsciously learned to accept the story as written. The same was true when I listened to radio programs or watched movies.

Then came TV, but in the early days there were few stations, and changing channels required getting up and going to the set, so I usually watched whatever it was to conclusion.

Things have changed. Remote controls make changing channels easy, and there are many channels, so I "channel surf" whenever the program is the least bit tedious. The current generation grew up in this environment, so their attention span is even shorter. Now there are interactive video games galore in which one alters the outcome. And if the game gets boring, or if the player is losing, it’s easy to switch to a new game.

But there are deeper changes. Most of my generation grew up in religious homes. We might have fallen away from the practices and beliefs of our parents, but we remember the truths they tried to impart. Religion often plays a smaller or nonexistent part in modern child rearing. Perhaps, not having been taught that there are great truths, this generation also grew up without appreciating that there are lesser truths. With no authority higher than ourselves, facts as well as conduct become subjective choices.

Consider: Various minorities were underrepresented among college entrants. Did we expend money and effort to ensure that they were prepared for college by improving their primary and secondary schools? No, we "adjusted” their SAT scores and other criteria, admitting them whether or not they were prepared for college. And when SAT scores declined for a generation, did we improve the schools? No, we "renormed” the SAT to conceal the decline and transform it into an upturn.

Environmentalists won out over safety advocates, so smaller cars were recommended despite their higher fatality rate. But the truth was obscured by renaming large cars "very large,” medium-sized cars "large,” compact cars "family size,” and subcompacts "compact.”

This process cannot get far in the physical sciences, but in the social sciences it does wonders. Whole-word methods do less well than phonics in teaching reading, but they persist because of theoretical advantages.

Statistics show that kids raised by a mother and father are less likely to become criminals, but "experts” publish a "study” claiming that fathers are unnecessary.

The harmful effects of sexual child abuse have been documented repeatedly, but "experts” publish a "study” claiming that it is often harmless.

Suicides for ages 15-24 are more common in Seattle than Vancouver; "experts” blame lax gun laws in Seattle. But overall suicide rates are identical for both cities, because suicides for ages 35-44 are more common in Vancouver. A leading scientific journal publishes the "study” nonetheless. If you torture the numbers long enough, they will tell you anything you want to hear.

There are many examples, but the process is similar: Alter our perceptions until we forget what is actually happening and accept the alteration as reality. This works some of the time on me, and I grew up rooted in reality.

It should work even better on younger people, who were raised on fleeting electronic images. They watched judges interpret laws to mean the opposite of what the text plainly stated. They watched famous lawyers win televised trials with distortions and conjectures.

They watched a 6-year-old seized at gunpoint and returned to a dictator, which the administration justified by "law” that didn’t exist. No wonder they see nothing wrong with changing the rules after the election results are known, or with "correcting” the results to yield the "right” answer. No wonder they assume that truth can be altered as desired.

First we deconstructed law by disguising capricious decisions as "law.” Then we deconstructed language by disputing the meaning of "is.” Now we are deconstructing reality itself by counting "dimpled chads” and pretending to sense the intent of voters, while repeatedly changing the rules to obtain the desired result.

In psychology, those who fabricate their own reality are called psychotic. In politics or law, they are called shrewd, but they may be even more dangerous. Recall that famous fabricators of reality include Hitler, Stalin and Capt. Smith of the Titanic.

Bill Clinton lied under oath, and Al Gore fabricates achievements, but they are merely symptoms. I believe many of us do not merely disagree on what the truth is, but (consciously or not) doubt that truth itself exists.

In this context, it is futile to argue about whether something is a fact or even to call someone a liar. The truth is whatever I, or whoever is in power, say it is today. Elections are becoming like video games — if you’re losing, just start over and keep at it till you "win.” If reality isn’t to your liking, reinvent it.

Of course, eventually the outside world pushes aside our illusions and forces us to confront reality, but by then it may be too late. A long time ago, someone asked, "What is truth?” We had better consider our answer carefully.

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The underlying problem is not merely a dispute about what the reality of the situation is, but a dispute about the nature of reality itself. I am old enough that I was brought up on books, radio and films.When my mother read me a story, I waited to see how it came...
Thursday, 30 November 2000 12:00 AM
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