The Insanity of Gaslighting Ourselves

“Two plus two will never make five. That’s not the problem. And George Orwell at the end, Winston’s being tortured, and he’s made to say two plus two equals five, and this totalitarianism makes us all lie. [Hannah Arendt] said that’s not the power. It’s the fact that in a world where people are going to say it is even when they know it isn’t. That is deeply estranging. That’s what creates those conditions of loneliness and despair. That, for her, is the wickedness of the political lie. People don’t believe that two plus two makes five. They don’t believe half of what’s said.”
~Lyndsey Stonebridge, The Moral World in Dark Times: Hannah Arendt for Now

All the time, people say what they don’t mean. Or else it’s not clear what they mean, the actual significance behind their words, what is most fundamentally motivating them. This duplicity has become the normal way of relating. And this is the basis of the identities that possess us. A simple example of this is the often heard statement that American voters get what they want. That is like saying enslaved Africans were happy with their violent oppression. There are endless other examples, and the most powerful are those we don’t notice in ourselves.

Such statements are patently absurd when taken at face value. And one suspects that, at some level, most people know that they are not true, even as they say them. It’s not what they really believe, but it obviously satisfies some need or purpose. Our modern society is filled with such bald-faced contradictions to what we know and feel. This is part of social control. It’s one thing to gaslight others but it’s even more powerful to get them to gaslight themselves. It’s the ultimate betrayal.

Once someone is psychotically disconnected from a direct and personal sense of reality, they become schizoid and compliant. Without grounding in the world beyond rhetoric, people become vulnerable to those who control and manage public perception. Backfire effect plays its role in ideological defense, but that isn’t the underlying force at play. Once identity is solidified, people will defend it on their own by various means. That leaves the issue of how did that ideological identity take shape in the first place.

This is true of all of us. There is something profoundly disorienting and alienating about modern society. We lose the ability to discern what is of genuine value. So, we turn to narratives to offer us an illusion of certainty. Then the reality in front of us is no longer compelling. We believe what we are told. Then we repeat it so often that we forgot it was told to us. Because it confirms and is confirmed by ‘mainstream’ mediated reality, we sound perfectly reasonable and are taken seriously by others.

This isn’t a mere individual condition. It’s collective insanity. Yet the spell it has over us dissipates with awareness. But few will accept this awareness, quickly retreating to the safety of the group mind, of ideological realism. People briefly awaken all the time, only to fall back to sleep, drawing the covers back over their head. Being reoriented to a deeper truth can feel disorienting, in awakening from a deep slumber. It’s hard to grapple with what to do with this knowing. Yet it’s near impossible to unsee after being jolted fully awake. It’s not a state one would choose, to be on the outside of the social world into which one was born.

It forces one to relearn what it means to be human. Rather than being enlightnened with clarity, it’s to become aware that one is in a state of epistemological infancy. Everything one thought one knew is now under question and doubt. A different way of listening is required, to sense what is real and true, what is valid and meaningful. Relating well to others becomes even more challenging. Just because one has glimpsed some flickering light through the rhetoric doesn’t instantly dispel the shadows. The tape loops go on playing in one’s mind, in response to the tape loops in the minds of others. In not knowing how to respond, one increasingly finds oneself falling into silence.

Sometimes a non-response is the only response that remains. In a world full of words, one ever more notices the silence in between, what is not said. All that can be done is to witness it, to hear what others have refused to hear, particulary what they have denied in themselves. One holds a space open. One waits. One listens. In doing so, another voice is heard, only a whisper at first. It’s a different kind of voice, a different kind of self. There is an intimacy in how it speaks. We are not alone and isolated. We are not alienated.  The truth was never destroyed. Reality remains.

21 thoughts on “The Insanity of Gaslighting Ourselves

    • Once one has to relearn being human, they should see the natural world with its cycles and irregularities, and not concrete buildings with perfectly manicured lawn and a statue, this is not normal, straight lines are not common in nature, nobody has a linear storyline, each of us has a web-tangle of relationships and interactions at every stage of life.
      It is okay to admit wrong and go back to an earlier reset point, the question is how far back do you go? And how can anybody stay sane during such crazy times. This comes close to what schizophrenics suffer with.

      • Those are good thoughts. I walk to work every day. My path takes me through old neighborhoods, some of the houses having been built in the 1800s. It’s not suburbia with the perfect lawns, but it is the old style of residential planning where everything is set at a right angle. It’s an artificially enforced order (and I must admit I find it comforting as it reminds me of the places I lived in my childhood).

        I often wonder how the mind is shaped by daily driving down such streets and walking such sidewalks. Everything is linear and angular and predetermined. It leads to a mindlessness, as each block and lot is the exact measurements of the last. Also, rather than locating ourselves by natural landmarks and cues, by the sun and moon and stars, by hills and streams, we reference signs that tell us where we are at.

        Our focus is narrowed down to the written word or other symbols. We don’t notice the oak but the street sign that says Oak lane or we don’t notice the fact that Oak lane has no oaks at all. This gets into our heads. Our minds are manicured, our thoughts are linear, our identities have signs on them.

    • There are many distinctions that could be made. But, yeah, symbolic ideology is all about ideological identity. That is why research has shown the majority of Americans, when given a forced choice, identified themselves as conservatives. Then when asked about their specific opinions, their views were mostly liberal, progressive, and social democratic, even occasionally on the radical side.

      But, if not given a forced choice, they’ll identify as something else; forced choice is a false choice that leads to false identity. That is the danger of lesser-evilism and all of its variants. It not only harms society but, more importantly, harms the soul. The result is alienation and false consciousness. People become disconnected from themselves, from their own sense of truth and realty. It’s soul loss, a form of trauma. Then the individual becomes a zombie, a walking sleeper.

    • The view in this post makes sense to me, despite it being prose. The words here don’t feel like an artifact. But I would have loved for more exploraton into language. When the Piraha speak prosaically, their language nonetheless disallows them to get caught in abstractions and generalizations. Or consider the Australian Aborigines.

      Their songlines aren’t mere songs for they contain objective, practical, and what might even be called scientific information about the world around them. But the way of expressing that knowledge is entirely different than how we moderns speak. This brings into question our very ideas of language and what defines prose.

      That is what has been on my mind lately. There can be a gap between language and sensemaking, along with a distinction between prose and poetry (or music), but there is also a whole other way of being. The Piraha language is not only spoken but can also be whistled and hummed, the latter often used in talking to babies and children.

      The distinctions we make between language and sesnemaking, prose and poetry would likely be incomprehensible to traditional Aborigines and Piraha that have maintained their languages in isolation. I’ve been trying to suss out what made those premodern languages so different. And, in the case of the Piraha, what allows them to be resistant to the influences of modernity, such as the rhetoric of missionaries?

      I have some theories. There is one post in the works right now, but it will take a while to fully form my thoughts. I’ve felt less than motivated lately, even somewhat withdrawn. I feel less confident in my capacity to use language well. I can sense the inadequacies and sometimes falsities of modern language. Yet I lack the skill set to know how to speak differently.

      Hence, I sometimes fall into silence. Then all I can do is listen and witness to what I hear behind the words. Still, that does not feel entirely satisfying. But my mind, heart, and mouth don’t quite feel in perfect alignment. My sensemaking is a bit compromised and underdeveloped, so it seems. Or maybe I’ve grown muddle-headed from the collective insaniity.

      • I feel less confident in my capacity to use language well.

        There is nothing wrong with any of our capacities to use language well, though some may insist there is should we happen not to speak or write exactly as they do; would have us do; and/or use the words they would choose. To internalize such nonsense would be to undermine authentic voices right along with the diversity that accompanies them. We might even find ourselves in a state of incessant self-doubt. (Perhaps, in many ways, we do.)

        Ms. Bateson also noted, “The vocabulary & expression of possible change is being eaten by organizations that keep things as they have been.” Yet, many of us are gravitating toward the sensible, regardless. Must have something to do with the squishiness of that mud.

        • I was speaking in more practical terms. It’s not merely my personal ability or talent. Much of my thought has to do with the language and linguistic culture I was raised in. That is the motivation for linguistic experiments. Through personal experience, I’m seeking to understand the effects of language.

          In that context, I have doubts about anyone’s capacity to use our present language well, at least as we are taught to use it in school and the media. That is why I study linguistic relativity for inspiration from other languages and the cultures that form with them. There is much we could learn.

          • Indeed.

            Etymology has proven useful in getting to the roots of the roots of meaning and intention driving the patterns we see playing themselves out in our world today as well, but that’s finally my point: when we utilize words and language, the meaning intended and received is often so wildly different it’s, frankly, ridiculous and/or the words and language have been so thoroughly emptied of meaning in the public sphere that it can come to feel pointless to say or write anything. Sign Language and pantomime would appear more practical than the spoken and written word were it not for the fact that we are largely speaking and writing in venues wherein the physical body and its movements — not to mention tone of voice — cannot be seen or heard unless we’ve made a vested effort to properly imagine them in another. In fact, we’ve apparently become so alarmed at the degree of mental and spiritual disconnection between humanity and Nature herself (ntm, our obvious confusion over “human nature”) that a whole new alphabet has been created to re-introduce her to us. Nature is nonetheless speaking in her own voice and language as she always has. As you say, just go outside (or “into a deep forest,” as it’s been expressed) and you will see and hear her loud and clear. So what if her voice is often translated into “human” mathematically? Does the fact that we often use the language of mathematics itself to represent her and her processes necessarily mean that we are no longer able to sense her as she truly is? If that were the case, I sincerely doubt Sacred Geometry ever would have become a thing in the annals of human history.

            Distinctions have been drawn between the meanings of “total” and “whole” among Gebserians, for example. Ergo, “whole” is the only word allowed in use for the perception and conception of wholeness (or holiness) among Gebserians, but is what Gebser meant by “total” what you have in mind when utilizing the word? Perhaps not, unless you speak German and/or you’ve read Gebser and/or are yourself a Gebserian. The word can mean only one thing in the “Gebserian” mind: the mathematical “totalizing” of “things.” It cannot itself mean “whole” under any circumstances, though that is exactly what the word means to many of the rest of us.

            Before the election, Bernardo Kastrup tweeted, “The funny thing about saying anything remotely political is that, even if you are extremely careful to say something 100% neutral, taking no sides and passing no political judgment at all, both sides will later claim you were taking the other side… Amazing.”

            Some will claim it’s not possible to say anything 100% neutral. But is it? Or do we merely tend to think so due to the fact that the “us vs them” mentality rules the day? And what of “this vs that”? Does “this vs that” mean that this and that are or must be in conflict with each other, or is the phrase intended merely to draw a contrast between bifurcated branches of the same family tree? Even if you say or write “as opposed to,” in the sense of Ying and Yang, the phrase is all but guaranteed to be taken as an indication of conflicting “viewpoints,” perceptions and concepts — as contradiction rather than anything remotely complementary.

            Furthermore, the iconoclasts of the Modern Era have spared no symbology in their iconoclasm, taking a hammer to every word out of our mouths and shattering it to pieces on the alter of Iconoclasm itself, regardless of the word’s intent, while simultaneously insisting that words are to be “seen through” rarely than merely seen. Re-ligion, from the Latin ‘religare’ (to connect, to bind), which Kastrup himself further defines as to “reconnect with our transcendent roots and source,” is a perfect example. To use that word is so often considered an absolute no-no in the public sphere, it’s ridiculous, whether used in reference to the personal process of intelligere or the social process of intelligere, i.e. sense-making. A neologism, inter-ligere, has been coined to replace re-ligere after the idea of Interbeing, and Interbecoming has been coined to replace even Thich Nhat Hanh’s word for the perception and concept of Interbeing. Well, inter-ligere is a nice word that never existed in the original Latin, but — in such an event — should we now consider either Kastrup or Hanh themselves impossible to understand? If so, why? They’re speaking plain English. If we fail to understand what they mean, is not the failing ours rather than theirs?

            If I don’t know what someone means, I have an apparently annoying and alarming tendency to inquire as to what they mean rather than presume or assume what they mean or to ask that they speak originally — i.e. in their own authentic voice — rather than merely parrot the thoughts of others, especially if those “others” are considered authoritative in any way. More often than not, such inquiries are met and perceived as trespassing and an abomination rather than merely an attempt to get to know the person and “where” they’re coming from or “where” they came by the ideas being expressed.

            Anyway, I’ve once again gone off on a tangent of cultural observation regarding the communicative difficulties we are navigating for one unfathomable reason or other. I personally find the trend deeply disturbing as I do listen and express myself with the intent to understand and to be understood. That disturbance itself may prove to be a good thing. “Word salad” may be ubiquitous, but salad actually can be quite yummy. On the other hand, “[a]aphasia can be mistaken for intoxication or mental health issues” as, I believe, can be what we’ve termed synesthesia and paracusia, especially if a person desires to make of another his or her enemy, political or otherwise, and/or dismiss him or her as perfect examples of Nietzsche’s “Last Man.” If one wishes to dismiss mere differences in cultural perception, speech, thought and language today, all one need do is call it insanity in the West. Human dehumanized and enemy made in the speaker’s mind. How convenient. And we wonder why so many of us prefer solitude to nearly any form of social gathering? Interesting.

            While it’d be nice if we could think of this as merely as phase of social awkwardness in our shared journey as humans being, it’s actually proven deadly in far more ways than one and I personally find that ethically unacceptable.

          • On the subject of language and sense-making, Charles Eisenstein has this to say:

            This crisis in communication and sense-making has been long in the making. The attempt to bend truth to serve other ends has harmed the soul of language, diverting the creative power of word toward the maintenance of illusions. Consequently, our society as a whole is helpless to change its course. That would require agreement, the building blocks of which have turned to sand. I have watched this paralysis intensify for 20 years now. In 2007 I wrote an essay called The Ubiquitous Matrix of Lies, in which I said, “As we acclimate to a ubiquitous matrix of lies, words mean less and less to us, and we don’t believe anything any more. As well we shouldn’t! We are facing a crisis of language that underlies and mirrors all the other converging crises of the modern age.” ~ From [a] Dark Mirror, Hope by Charles Eisenstein

  1. “In the split between the subject and the object lies the whole misery of humankind.” ~ J. Krishnamurti

    If I may be so bold as to assume that most readers of your blog are aware of climate breakdown and realize the phrase, et al, signifies a very real and shared phenomenon in which we are ourselves embedded and embroiled, I’d like to make note of a fairly obvious split between subjective and objective (or intrinsic and extrinsic) recognition of the fact. If there is anyone of your personal acquaintance who denies the reality of climate breakdown, you may have noticed it yourself.

    “Climate change is a hoax,” they say. Note well, however, that they also say such things as “I remember when there were four seasons. Now, there are only two.” And, “I can’t believe it’s Halloween and eighty degrees outside.” I once pointed out this “subjective” realization to someone in conversation and — for the briefest of moments — it was as obvious as the nose on your face that the connection had been made. There was a pause; a facial expression of sudden self-realization. It lasted only for a split-second, but it was there. Was the connection sustained? No. Was it ever made again? I may never know.

    There is a meme making the rounds on the Internet that reads, “Sometimes it takes more time for the heart to accept what the mind already knows.” I believe the inverse is true: Sometime it takes more time for the mind to accept what the heart already knows.

    • That’s a great example. I was thinking that this post was sparse on the examples. But I didn’t want to get bogged down in excess detail. The purpose was more getting at the sense of this illusoin of meaning, this self-deception. Getting too analytical about it would miss the point. Still, I could’ve found ways of weaving in the anecdotal to ground it in real world experience.

      Your descriiption of that other person is perfect. “I once pointed out this “subjective” realization to someone in conversation and — for the briefest of moments — it was as obvious as the nose on your face that the connection had been made. There was a pause; a facial expression of sudden self-realization. It lasted only for a split-second, but it was there. Was the connection sustained? No. Was it ever made again? I may never know.” That is exactly what I was trying to get at.

      In that moment, you saw through the charade and sensed another level of that person’s being. When observed and experienced in another, that moment of sensemaking stands out like a flame flickering in the darkness, even if it is immediately snuffed out again. It can create such an impression for the very reason it’s so easily and quickly forgotten again. But you were there. You witnessed it. And sometimes that is all you can do, ackowledge the truth in others, whether or not they are in a position to do so for themselves.

      There would be absolutely no point in arguing with that person. All you would accomplish is driving them further away into their own enforced darkness. But if you hold their truth for them with compassion, it does matter. Truth wants to be heard, wants to be seen, wants to be recognized. That person may never again return to such a moment of awareness in relation to that truth. That is sad, but awareness can’t be forced. It has to be allowed to emerge on its own. Each witnessing is the planting of a seed. Some seeds grow and some whither on dry ground.

      I love your concluding thought. “Sometime it takes more time for the mind to accept what the heart already knows.” That also touches upon what I was trying to communicate. I don’t know what people know in their minds, although I suspect they know more on this level than they admit. But within the heart, lying to oneself is much more difficult. On this deepest level, I can almost viscerally feel the truth in another, even if only in the silence of what they don’t speak. The silence can be deafening at times.

      That is a sign of symbolic conflation at work. When people use symbolic proxies, they are talking around things. There was a study done on perception and awareness by tracking the eyes of subjects. I think it might’ve involved a nude picture with the researchers observing response differences between liberals and conservatives, however they were defined in the study. I can’t recall the exact set-up, but I do recall the results.

      Conservatives, in being more prudish, looked all around the nude picture but never at it. It was proof that they saw the nude picture in their peripheral vision because they knew precisely where not to look. Conservatives,with thicker boundaries of mind, are more talented at this kind of thing. But plenty of liberals will do similar things. It’s a common ability to humans, although not equally evident. One suspects the Piraha might be less prone to this phenomenon and someone should study that

      Anyway, that is how speech works with climate change denial and such. You can sense the shape of what is not spoken by sensing the demarcation between sound and silence that draws a clear line. The person will talk all around what they are afraid to recognize. A brief moment of awareness can be banished again. But if that moment of awareness cuts too deep, they won’t be able to easily forget it again. They realize the threat of their own awareness and will defend against it.

    • We all are witnesses to each other’s truths. It’s easy to see the falsity in someone else’s words. But it’s hard to hear what isn’t spoken in one’s own voice. We tend to be mesmerized by our own voices. So, we witness the truth of others, even as others witness the truth they sense in us. This situation, after all, is collective madness. And sanity won’t return in isolation but in relationship. Witnessing is relationship. We have to relearn to relate well to our best and truest selves.

    • By the way, climate change has often been on my mind. I used to write more about it. But I began to realize that honest debate was nearly impossible. There are some good books specifically about climate change and silence, about cognitive dissonance and simultaneously knowing and not knowing. There is the outright denialism of what we directly know in our own experience. But climate change is a tricky thing in general, as we never personally eperience the entirety of the biosphere. And our memories are so short. On a related noted, when I was a child, I’d see Monarch butterflies everywhere, but now they are rare creatures. Yet almost no one talks about it, as if they can’t remember it. Our present experience obliterates past experience.

      As for claimate change, there is a connection to the increase of other creatures, from ticks to poison ivy. My mother remembers as a child never worrying about poison ivy. My best friend also recalls never getting poison ivy as a kid. Indeed, research shows that poison ivy has proliferated as temperatures have warmed. The thing is we don’t see that proliferation since we don’t go around counting poison ivy plants per square foot and then maintain decades of records of this data. But every now and then, we have a vague sense that something was different in the past. These moments of awareness tend to be brief and rarely conscious, just fleeting thoughts.

      My dad is the one with whom I’ve so often debated climate change. He was a full-fledged denialist in the past. He has softened up a bit as I’ve challenged him. Sometimes debate does make a difference. Even so, he can’t quite let go of the old narrative he internalized for so long. It was from him that I learned to be analytical and intellectual, as he was a professor. He knows how to wield skepticism, but he does so only selectively. He is skeptical toward climate change in a way he’d never be toward his own beliefs. He’ll be dismissive of climate data, even though his own academic field (business management and economics) is notorious for the weak level of evidence used. His skepticism, in the end, is irrational. It’s pseudo-skepticism.

      I’m sure that, on some level, he knows that climate change is real. It’s not about the data. Anyone who stops for a moment has to realize the impact we are having on the environment. We have destroyed most of the ecosystems on earth and are in the middle of the 6th mass extinction. Passenger pigeons used to blacken the sky and buffalo herds could be seen from horizon to horizon when they passed. Now the life of the oceans is in collapse and won’t last another generation. The amount of pollution and garbage we are pumping into the air and water is beyond comprehension. Also, Iowa has lost more than half of its topsoil with a century of industrial agriculture, topsoil that took millions of years to produce.

      That is the problem with sensemaking. We all know that we are destroying the biosphere. We all know that this will cause immense harm, that it already is causing harm. But how do we sense it. Most of us have never experienced a brilliantly starry sky, a river brimming full of fish, a field or forest with so much life that the sound of it was overwhelming. We simply don’t know what is missing, not intellectually. But that kind of world full of life is what we were evolved for. On some deep level of our biology, we know something is profoundly wrong. We are so caught up in our heads because, not only are we disconnected from our bodies and the earth, we’ve destroyed and eliminated most of the evidence of what the world once was like. It’s similar to how we genocided nearly every culture that demonstrated a different way of living, being, and relating.

      We have forgotten how to connect what we know in our hearts with the world around us. We live such contained and mediated lives. We turn to the tv to tell us what the weather is, instead of stepping outside. That is funny thing. Kids these days don’t know anything else, as they’ve always had devices. But I remember when I was younger. I almost never knew what the weather was in advance as I barely paid attention to the weatherman. For a number of years after high school, I didn’t even have a tv. If I wanted to figue out the weather, I stepped outside, looked up at the sky, and sensed the air. I made a guess what the weather would be like that day and I was usually right. We have an inborn instinct for knowing weather, but so many of us have become disconnected from it. If we can’t even know the weather in our own direct experience and we don’t take the time to watch it closely as people did in the past, what chance do we have to sense the change of climate over years and decades?

      • We get so frenzied in topics at hand that we forget long term issues like climate change, I wonder if the bleak reality is somehow related to peoples resignation to the future, a future where nature shows us more anger than kindness, hurricanes instead of butterflies.
        Are we hopeless or helpless to that future? Perhaps both, and thats why the end times narrative is still going strong, if the climate change issue is addressed, I bet you will see more smiling faces everyday, higher birth rate, and even an economic boom. People want to have a nice future for themselves and their children.
        Not dismissing current economic and other hardships.

        • I’d be curious to know how the younger generations perceive the end times narrative. I’m a child of the Cold War, if I only caught the end of it as it was winding down. The Cold War mind was obsessed with end tmes for obvious reasons. It wasn’t anything so subtle as climate change. Many of the stories told were about nuclear apocalypse, the world ending in an instant.

          That maybe didn’t prepare us older generations for grasping more subtle ways destruction could happen. Our senses were blunted to such subtleties. While our eyes were on distant enemies, we were killing Monarchs in our backyards without knowing it. The Cold War propaganda was so dominant that there was no room for anything else. Even the culture wars were simply a variant of Cold War fears about cultural demise.

          The generations following the Fall of the USSR have had a far different experience. They are in some ways more disconnected from concrete reality and visceral experience because of new media. But they are also less propagandized by the grand narratives of the past. The other thing was how the Cold War was obsessed with the future. Now that we are in the future imagined last century, I sense something has changed.

          It would be hard to imagine the equivalent Back to the Future the original Star Trek being made now. Even as people feared the present during the Cold War, they often projected their optimism into future fantasies. Much of sci-fi now is set in the present or near future, rather than the distant future. There are some exceptions like the new Star Trek, but I must admit it has a very dark bent compared to the original and Next Generation.

          So, what would change our vision of the future? What would bring back a sense of optimism? That might be why my dad has a hard time comprehending the reality of climate change, even if he probably knows it’s real. He is of the silent generation and grew up on a narrative of endless progress. He simply can’t imagine the world ending or society collapsing. On the other hand, imagining that is much easier for the younger generations, which is maybe a major cause of the declining rates of marriage and birth.

    • That’s a great quote, by the way. It’s succinct and to the point. I’ve long been a fan of Krishnamurti. He had a simple way of expressing profound insights.

      About climate change, I had another example. It came up in talking to my dad. The topic is injustice. I suspect that, as with climate change, my dad in his heart of hearts knows that the problems are far worse than his ideological views will allow him to acknowledge. To allow that fully into his awareness would be too devastating to his ideological identity.

      In passing, I mentioned the data from Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: “reliable estimates of the number of innocent people currently in prison tend to range from 2 percent to 5 percent” (
      His immediate and mindless reaction was to dismiss it out of hand. He said, “Figures lie and liars figure.”

      It was disappointing. Such an anti-intellectual attitude would not been accepted among his academic peers at the university. My dad’s response to unfamiliar data is that it is always suspect unless it confirms what he already believes to be true. This is where sensemaking runs up against a wall. Even if he knows in his heart and soul that this is horrifically unjust society, how could he ever comprehend that injustice in his direct and personal experience?

      He doesn’t know any prisoners or excons. He has never been in a prision or associated with anyone who has worked in a prison. And it goes without saying that he has never been the victim of racial profiling, class prejudice, school-to-prison pipeline, stop-and-frisk, police brutality, militarized policing, etc. He has never b been a part of a community or neighborhood that was treated by the police as an occupied warzone where the majority of the men were caught up in the legal system.

      It’s entirely an abstraction to him and so perfect fodder for ideological bias. What is known in the heart and what is known in the mind remain in separate worlds until married through the knowing of the senses. I remember my dad telling me about a refugee who gave a talk at his church. He had always had the white conservative xenophobia, but hearing this guy talk in person changed his mind, if only briefly. He suddenly saw it as a human issue, not a political issue.

      It became real in his sensemaking. But of course, his ideological reality tunnel quickly reasserted itself. That is the way it is with almost every major issue. For most people, these issues only exist in ideological politics, not personal reality. That is what gives such power to political rhetoric, in how it disconnects us and focuses us on what we have no capacity to make sense of.

    • Personal experience can accomplish a lot. Robert Sapolsky talks about this. It’s hard to hate an entire group of people when you intimately know many people in that group. There are endless examples of how human bonding overcomes fear and xenophobia. In the Robbers Cave Experiment, Muzafer Sherif tried to cause conflict between two groups of boys but failed to do so for all his manipulations.

      But under the right conditions, antagonisms can be created or allowed to fester. And sometimes the consequences can be violence or else mere othering and prejudice. This is seen with inter-trbal warfare and clan feuds where the two sides are of the same culture. The Hutu and Tutsi are genetically and culturally not all that different, as the two groups were invented by colonizers. Yet rhetoric induced one group to kill the other, including killing their own friends and neighbors.

      A similar thing happened in Europe during WWII. Some villages became divided between the Allies and Axis. In one case, a teacher took a different side than most of the people in the village and he ended up killing many of the parents of his students, the very people he personally knew. Much of WWII fighting was of this intimate nature. The ethno-nationalism involved even came to be racialized. Many Germans and English (and Americans) had thought of themselves as a common people at an earlier time, but two world wars created a cultural demarcatiion.

      Humans have the ability to perceive group differences and form them into group identities. This is true even when the differences are artificially created. Sherif did manage to get the boys to see the other group as different, if he failed to elicit full aggression. In the end, the boys wanted to be friends and playmates. In other experiments, group identites were created with varyng results: Jane Elliott’s eye color experiment, Rebecca Bigler’s shirt color experiment, etc.

      It’s an interesting phenomenon. As some of the above experiments show, this division can be created even among kids in the same class, kids who likely have known each other for years. The social categories enforced by the teacher as authortiy figure became as or more real than their personally knowing and playing with these other kids. I bet the experiments ended some friendships. In all these cases, it would be interesting to think of the role of language, without which it would be hard to rhetorically create abstract group identities.

      Think of how the kids in two experiments were divided according to color, in one case the color of eyes and in the other the color of shirts. With English, we have abstract color terms that cause us to perceive abstrat color categories. But the Piraha and some other tribes entirely lack such color terms or similar abstractions. It probably would be harder to create such divisions among Piraha children who simply wouldn’t grasp the attempt to construct artificial group identities.

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