ATTENDING TO LIES – THE ORIGINAL DARK WEB

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I confess there’s been a gap in my postings as an attending metaphysician, because one of my dearest friends took issue with my previous post, stating that she voted for Trump and did not wish to discuss politics with me in any way, ever. She did not explain why she voted for him, because that would have meant breaking her newly made rule not to discuss politics. All I could do was wonder why she, a deeply religious person and close reader of Scripture, could have made such a decision. Out of respect for her new prohibition, I did not ask. But I gave it much thought.

That said, I believe this admirable friend put aside some of the essential values of her faith to vote for Trump. The following thoughts are not meant to debate her decision, rather to identify some aspects of what might lead to her regret it. Then I will offer a personal experience of a pathological lier less charismatic than Trump but still charming .

The Book of Wisdom, strangely, remarks that wisdom never makes its way into a crafty soul (Wis.1:14). Why would being crafty, which requires intelligence, prevent anyone from becoming wise? This attending metaphysician guesses it has to do with deceiving or obstructing those who pay sincere attention to what others says or do, and other matters of importance.

Why do we pay close attention to anything? It is said that curiosity may be our strongest human impulse, more powerful than hunger or sex. That may be a survival mechanism given to us by evolution. One thing seems clear: paying close attention may be the only way we acquire wisdom. For sure it’s how we learn anything that sticks. Close attention includes studying a subject, practicing a skill, observing others who’ve mastered skills or know more about things we want to know. And always, like the proverbial devil in the details, any process of close attention is obstructed or made futile by the insertion of false or unverified information.

In the world of education it is a grave offense to provide unverified or unattributed  information, misleading others in their quest for knowledge. This applies, without being formally stated, to any field taken seriously—be it farming, sewing, nuclear physics, plumbing, medicine, local or national government, beekeeping, whatever. In Scripture there is a commandment against bearing false witness—an ancient rule initially applied to legal testimony—whose implications remain strong for practically all aspects of human interaction.

After the 2016 Presidential election much of our country, and the world at large, got a taste of what can go wrong when distorted attention–by false information, anger, fear, and a sense felt by segments of the population of their innate superiority to others–can lead to dangerous choices in a country’s leadership. Fear, in response to genuine threats, is essential to human survival, as is righteous anger at clear moral wrongs. But negative byproducts such as hatred and intolerance—enemies of clear, focused attention—are factors that can derail whatever is civilized and life-affirming in our shared culture and democracy.

At time people have to lie to survive, to avoid being captured or killed. In personal relationships we sometimes lie to spare others the pain of unpleasant truths. We also lie to be well liked by others, the so-called white lies—compliments on hairdos, clothing, people looking younger than ever when they’ve clearly aged, and the like. Too often we lie (exaggerate, stretch the truth, make unproven claims) to succeed: to make a sale, close a deal, get a job, impress someone we’re attracted to. And nowadays it’s becoming disturbingly obvious that people who crave attention enjoy inventing lies that insult, mock and demean those they dislike.  They intentionally break the bounds of civil discourse to establish their presence as powerful outliers, determined to undermine social norms—a.k.a. political correctness and general civility. Such practices have moved in from the fringes to become dire threats to our system of laws and democratic government.

The power of attention has enabled our species to develop a formidable capacity for wiliness and deception.  It creates a dark web that rivals our use of focused attention to seek truth and wisdom. Now the world must contend with the growing use of artificial intelligence, not only to scan scientific journals for ways to combat disease, but also to create “bots” that pretend to be human, acting as social media trolls and manufacturers of fake news, and the algorithms by which hackers steal our most private and valuable information. All aspects of the play of attention, and what we choose to do with it.

Our sitting President tells falsehoods, according to recent tallies, in 70 to 95 percent of his public statements. Because of this trait, plus his lack of interest in the process of government and his apparent willingness to take this nation into war, many Americans and people in other countries sense impending doom unless he is removed from office. Many feel unspeakable horror when others defend him right or wrong, brush aside his lies, and continue to believe he will make our country somehow “great again”–that ill-defined and ominous goal–when we and most of the world find him untrustworthy, an affront to our national integrity, and a live danger to world peace.

I don’t have a recipe for dealing with President Trump. But I offer this firsthand account of someone like him on a much smaller scale:

When I was in my twenties I was showing my mother around the city when a well dressed, well mannered young man offered to help her up a long flight of stairs and mentioned that he was a doctor trained in Brazil. My mother, a retired nurse, was instantly charmed. After he’d chatted with us further, she smiled approvingly when he asked if he could have my number. After she returned home I began dating him, eventually trusting him with personal information such as where I kept a $20 bill for emergencies. There were no ATMs in those days, and $20 could get you through the weekend when all the banks were closed. One Friday I came home from work having forgotten to get cash, and discovered my spare $20 missing. Only one person knew where I’d kept it, so I called him. No one answered at his home so I tried the work number he’d told me not to call, claiming he’d be too busy to speak to me there. I explained to the person who answered that I was trying to reach Dr. so-and-so, politely using my boyfriend’s last name. After a strange pause, the voice replied that a man with that name worked there but was not a doctor and could not come to the phone. I was stunned, enraged, and felt played for a fool. When we finally spoke he said he’d planned to return the money he’d “borrowed” before I would find it gone. Sensing there was no way I would ever trust him again, he confessed that he’d always found it terribly easy, like a sickness, to make up stories about himself. He’d told me he was a doctor when actually he’d been expelled from medical school in his final year (not saying where that was, but probably not Brazil, given his accent), due to a problem (my guess: pregnancy) with a woman on the staff. He did not say what his real job was, where he’d grown up, or how he’d ended up in the States. But he did have feelings for me, he said, enough to warn me not to be so trusting in the future.

The most memorable part of this breakup was the genuine distress I saw on his face when he described how terribly easy it was for him to lie to people. Like a sickness.

There was real pain behind his confession, because he knew it was the end of our relationship, during which we’d shared some happy times and enjoyed each other’s company. He was losing the trust and friendship he’d had from me, and on some level he knew that if he hadn’t tried to deceive me he wouldn’t be going through that pain. On the other hand, if he hadn’t lied about being a doctor, would he have charmed my mother and convinced me he was respectable enough to have my telephone number after so brief an acquaintance?

After an experience like that, can you blame me for hoping our President—before he does greater harm to this country—will find himself in a personally painful situation where he admits to the truth about himself—that he has lied about his motives and many other things, falsely maligning his opponent in the election, promising jobs and health benefits he could not deliver—and is unfit to carry out the responsibilities of our nation’s highest office? Or is that too much to hope for in a crafty soul?

 

 

 

 

 

 

WHEN ATTENTION GOES DARK

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So far, this attending metaphysician has focused on positive, life-enhancing aspects of attention. But after the 2016 election, much of our country, and the world at large, has had a bitter taste of what could go wrong when attention, facilitated by false information, anger and fear, can lead to dangerous choices. In itself, fear is essential to human survival, as is righteous anger. But negative byproducts such as hatred and intolerance are forces that can derail whatever is civilized in human civilization.

To estimate the vast range of the power of attention we have to look at its dark side. As this election has demonstrated, when people let their thoughts and feelings be manipulated by others, or base their decisions on appearances without backup information, or trust a charismatic personality without taking into account his previous life history, or allow any other factor to prevent them from making informed decisions, then their choices can endanger our entire culture.

Normally we do not look for the dark side of attention, but we do feel its effects. Especially in the past year or so, we sense it in our deeply polarized political climate, when people who voted differently became enemies or former friends.

There’s reason for recent talk of tribes, information silos, fake news, and the growing distrust of facts even when presented by traditional sources of expertise such as responsible journalists and scientists. If not a sickening awareness, there is at least a justified fear that we live in a post-truth era. In order to discredit the most pressing issue of our time, the reality of human-caused global warning, a handful of ultra-rich, conservative industrialists and politicians—represented most recently by Donald Trump—have called global warming a hoax. Doing so requires ignoring enormous factual evidence. Mr. Trump’s campaign speeches have been so rife with falsehoods, and so many fact-checkers have called him out on them, that he and his allies have retaliated by denouncing facts and truth in general.

A telling detail emerged soon after Mr. Trump was assured of winning the election—despite losing the popular vote. He no longer insisted on some of the key premises that brought him victory. The most obvious was calling his opponent crooked, corrupt to the core, probably a murderer, and if elected he would put Hillary Clinton behind bars. Instead, in his victory speech, he insisted (rightly) that the nation owed her a “major debt of gratitude” for her many years of public service.

That statement alone revealed how cynical were the false accusations Trump and associates had hurled against Mrs. Clinton, stirring up hatred to the point where many of his supporters were dismayed to hear that their hero was not going to “lock her up.” In a thank-you speech to his supporters, bewilderment showed on their faces when he brushed aside their chants as having “played well” during the campaign, but were of no further use to him. Were they not, sadly, the ones who’d been played?

This revelation also exposed how easily Donald Trump had built his campaign upon decades of hate-filled smears against Hillary Clinton by far-right talk radio and Fox TV News commentators. Joseph Goebbels said, “If you repeat a lie often enough, people will believe it.” After years of angry, fear-mongering diatribes against Mrs. Clinton in right-wing media silos, many people were ready to believe that she actually was a criminal. They primed to accept fake news that the Pope had endorsed Trump for President, and that the Clintons were operating a child molestation ring in the basement of a Washington, D.C. pizza parlor–inspiring a father of four to drive 20 hours on a weekend and fire his assault rifle in deluded defense of those imaginary children.

I am reminded here of a long neglected warning from a great but little read philosopher, Bernard J.F. Lonergan. In his classic work, Insight: A Study of Human Understanding (1978 [1957]), Lonergan dared to claim that what people accepted as “common sense” was often the result of mental laziness, received ideas unredeemed by individual reflection and intelligence. If he were alive today, Lonergan might well identify the widely accepted but unfounded assumptions and suspicions about Mrs. Clinton as examples of what he called the “social surd.”

Lonergan borrowed the term surd from mathematics—surds being numbers such as the square or cube root of 2, that cannot be reduced to a fraction of two integers, and are called irrational numbers. Both surd and its better known cousin, absurd, come from surdus, Latin for deaf, dumb or stupid. The force behind Lonergan’s idea of an irrational social surd lurking within “common sense” was his identification of the accumulation of unexamined assumptions and emotional bias as components of cultural evil.

Why evil? Because received ideas—such as someone’s being “crooked” or a murderer without evidential proof—distance people from their personal responsibility to consider someone’s character in light of verifiable facts. Innocent until proven guilty remains, despite too frequent compromises, the basis of our justice system. As in a court of law, if jurors/citizens accept the opinions of others without looking into them, or assume that news items on social media or the opinions of “talking heads” are true when they are not supported by credible evidence, we leave ourselves open to mental and emotional manipulation. And small manipulations increase injustice in a society, distort “common sense,” and can end in tyranny.

How tyranny? Think of the rise of Goebbels’ boss, Hitler. As a society accumulates unfounded judgments—racism, sexism, xenophobia, religious bias, etc.—it can fall under the sway of charismatic leaders who are amoral sociopaths. But even without a demagogue setting the tone, biased reasoning can rip up the social fabric and undermine democracy, which stands or falls on the basis of citizens’ commitment to vote thoughtfully and fairly.

This gives new meaning to the old adage, Constant vigilance is the price of virtue. Today we must be more vigilant, to protect ourselves and others from the dark side of attention. More on that later.