The first obligation of a writer is to mess with people’s biases, making them question the reliability of the filters they use to construct reality. We are all in the reality construction business. But the building material comes from quite different sources. You can build a grand structure of reality without using a single brick from the warehouse of facts and evidence. If someone asks you whether you are biased, you might inquire which of the 93 Decision-making, belief, and behavioral biases, or did the person have in mind one of the 27 social biases or possibly one of the 47 Memory errors and biases?
You might think of these biases like the searchlights used in London during the Blitz in World War II to spot and shoot down enemy intruders. We are bombarded daily with ideas, thoughts, facts, opinions, evidence and our biases distort, deflect, and filter the information as we process it. These are our prison walls. No one can scale them and be free.
Billions of people live inside such socially constructed structures erected from ancient holy books, customs, beliefs, and rituals. When a tsunami of facts washes over these ancient structures, showing they are false, unsafe, and unreliable, what do people do who live in these buildings? They hunker down and claim their traditional structure of reality is stronger than ever. And the heretics with their ‘facts’ and ‘evidence’ are condemned and vilified. Ever since the science revolution in the 17th Century, the battle over what material is appropriate material for social constructs of reality has been waged.
An article in Macleans titled America Dumbs Down observed, “A national poll, conducted in March for the Associated Press, found that 42 per cent of Americans are “not too” or “not at all” confident that all life on Earth is the product of evolution. Similarly, 51 per cent of people expressed skepticism that the universe started with a “big bang” 13.8 billion years ago, and 36 per cent doubted the Earth has been around for 4.5 billion years.”
The first obligation of the average best selling writer is to pander to people’s biases, confirming their vision of reality. Not all best sellers are cynical attempts to make money. Accidental best sellers like Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century is a good example of a book that undermines conventional economic wisdom, exposing the bias and fraud of many contemporary economists.
To make people think for themselves critically in an age where independent thinking is uncomfortable, out of fashion, and suspected to be a covert tool of the elites to undermine faith and religion. An example of the trend in the Macleans article: “Last month, the school board in Meridian, Idaho voted to remove The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie from its Grade 10 supplemental reading list following parental complaints about its uncouth language and depictions of sex and drug use. When 17-year-old student Brady Kissel teamed up with staff from a local store to give away copies at a park as a protest, a concerned citizen called police. It was the evening of April 23, which was also World Book Night, an event dedicated to “spreading the love of reading.”
The crucial question is what do we use language for? Every culture and time throughout history has addressed this question. In our culture and time, the debate continues. By examining the controversies about literature and the world of ideas found inside books, we can take a snapshot of how we address this question. Without language and books we can’t communicate about the past and the make predictions about the future. This makes language potentially dangerous. This explains why the past in every culture is a manufactured product. The reality of the past when challenged leads to conflict, assassination, exile and stigma. Students are not so much taught as indoctrinated. And the task of envisioning the future, which draws lessons from the past, becomes riddled with the serialization of errors, lies, and illusions continued from the past.
Language in print establishes our sense of reality so completely that we become accustomed to perceiving the world visually. Our other senses: hearing, touch, smell, and taste atrophy as we explore the world through analogue and digital print worlds, and the visual worlds of YouTube, TV, and movies. By controlling what people see, they can be easily programmed to share a homogenous reality—social or political. The financial control by the elites over the medium of print and images is a guarantee of their power and influence can be extended and remain largely unchallenged. One of the first tasks of coup makers is to take control of the media. And they seize TV, radio station and threaten others in social media for good reasons.
We design the space we call the ‘present’ by reference to this unreliable account of the past. When students enter that design space in school and university they can come in for a shock. We can’t tell them they’ve been lied to and deceived most of their life, instead we warn them to brace against a ‘disturbing’ scene in a play or book as it might unsettle, confuse or disconcert them.
The number of books being read per person is in decline. Ignorance and anti-intellectual attitudes are in vogue. The New York Times reports a trend in American colleges that seems to be a parody, something Jon Stewart would run on the Daily Show.
“Colleges across the country this spring have been wrestling with student requests for what are known as “trigger warnings,” explicit alerts that the material they are about to read or see in a classroom might upset them or, as some students assert, cause symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder [as] in victims of rape or in war veterans.”
That’s not a mistake. This isn’t an article about 10 year olds in a South Carolina redneck country school; it is about colleges throughout the United States. Though, I am skeptical of the NYT’s author’s claim. The author offers the usual anecdotal evidence without supporting data to support the claim of a mass movement in this direction. Let’s assume, for purposes of argument, that the big data supports this claim of a countrywide trend in American colleges in support of trigger warnings to be issued by professors assigning plays, poems or books with disturbing themes, characters or events.
Isn’t one of the purposes of a college education the goal of exposing students to a wide range of ideas, cultures, histories, and theories as an introduction to the reality of the world? Yes, Johnny and Mary, the world is often in conflict over ideas, events, personalities, and history. If you read Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut, who found himself at ground level during the fire bombing by the allies of Dresden, you will discover one way of processing such a traumatic event. Every great book ever written triggers an emotion, upsets values, threats the orthodox views, and, yes, makes you appreciate we have always lived in an uncertain, contentious, messy, dangerous world, where people are injured, disappeared, killed, tortured and abused. Shouldn’t college students have an deeper, more diverse, complex understanding of ways that reality are fashioned in our world?
Apparently that view is a minority in the American trend for bringing in a system of ‘trigger warnings’ as the last step toward creating a state of near total control. If I were one of the oligarchs, I’d very much support and fund such a trend. The reality is anything that might threaten the oligarch’s social construct of reality is deemed a threat to all. The trigger warning is itself a warning about who has their finger on the trigger and where the barrel of that gun is pointed at writers as diverse as Shakespeare and Virginia Woolf.
The New York Times article gives a couple of examples, “Among the suggestions for books that would benefit from trigger warnings are Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice” (contains anti-Semitism) and Virginia Woolf’s “Mrs. Dalloway” (addresses suicide).”
The new purpose of university education has narrowed considerably as it has gone into the mass education business. Trigger warnings become a strut in the new infrastructure of reality to reinforce the prevailing view that college is a place to learn job skills. Our biases ensure that we are hardwired to believe things that are not true.
Recent studies have shown that most people live in a ‘fact free zone’ and debunking lies and deceptions brings in Backfire Effect like ack-ack guns firing at the incoming facts until the barrels melt. These people, it appears, need protection from the blitz of images, facts, opinions that challenge their personal operating system of reality. Having internalized the message, the herd becomes self-censoring. The Elites react negatively and intervene when an individual or group attempts to divert the masses from their auto-pilot setting. For example, someone may ask a dangerous question: Is wealth equitably distributed by unregulated capitalism?
America is, in other words, trending toward the Chinese model of higher education. Intellectual and emotional controls are a step away from eliminating the awkward that may get in the way of learning how to build a bridge or computer program. If a professor must live under the shadow of a trigger warning, the temptation will be to avoid any literature that might have such a trigger for fear that his warning was too little, too late, and he is open to a law suit for failure to make a full and informed disclosure in a complete warning. Every professor would need to retain a lawyer with expertise in what is an appropriate trigger and how to give effective warnings. Does society want to go down that path? It seems there are many in America who wish for this path.
Students are cocooned in a manufactured reality where disturbing, disruptive or destabilizing images, scenes, characters might upset the reality that has been pre-ordered and assigned to them. The Oberlin College guideline is specific: “Be aware of racism, classism, sexism, heterosexism, cissexism, ableism, and other issues of privilege and oppression.”
Unfiltered, ugly, twisted, confusing and threatening reality is an enemy to those in power. Most people are willing to hand over their liberty and privacy to escape that reality. Oligarchs know this about the human condition and they exploit this design defect to their and their heirs enduring long-term advantage.
The techniques of control are outright repression as in Orwell’s 1984 or soma in Huxley’s Brave New World. We are learning this is a false choice. In many countries the oligarchs use a combination of both techniques to quell rebellion and to dampen fears of the disturbing, inconvenient truths of most people’s lives. Issues of ‘privilege and oppression’ are triggering events. We must warn students that an assigned book might create an uncomfortable sense of cognitive dissonance.
Not all messages are allowed equal passage along the pipeline of information. The medium has more than one way to deliver a message and more than one message: the most powerful symbol of blocking the herd from seeing what the caretakers wish them not to know about their plans, policies, and self-dealing is ██████████. When a non-authorized person wishes to send a public message over the heads of the caretakers which alerts the herd of a danger, a misdeed, or abuse the message is blocked are behind a wall: ██████████. Analogue or digital, the traffic of ideas, information, and theories is under constant surveillance, censors patrolling space, searching for the words and images that challenge authority’s version of reality. We can follow their trail. Our overlords leave behind their historical signature of disapproval ██████████ erected like a tombstone over the grave of a murdered thought.
Trigger warnings are a sign of attempts to restrict and ultimately to abolish cognitive dissonance. No one should be surprised by this desire. Thais often say that thinking too much gives them a headache. That view, as it turns out, may now represent a larger, universal attitude in many other places.
Deliberate calculation, skepticism, doubt, and calls for falsifiable theories are time-consuming, slow thinking in a world where change accelerates and people are afraid of being left behind. The sheep keep dogs as house pets not quite seeing the terrible irony of that relationship, without seeing what has happened to the wolf over evolutionary time has happened to them.
Marshall McLuhan, The Gutenberg Galaxy, more than fifty years ago saw then what we are experiencing now: “Homogenization of men and materials will become the great program of the Gutenberg era, the source of wealth and power unknown to any other time or technology.”
Trigger warnings are another example of the Hyperreality that maintains an environment for the herd. In dense concentrations in modern cities, the members of this herd, individually and collectively, remain calm, content, and undisturbed as they study, work, eat, love, pray and shop. The gates leading from one to the next enclosure should give the appearance of freedom. People need to believe they glide along one seamless path where they are warned in advance against any thoughts or images that might disturb them. Guidelines are issued to carefully monitor and control ideas, reports of psychological states, degrading and horrible experiences, injustice and arbitrary action as if they are about to be injected with a dangerous drug. The best of literature is dangerous as it shows the manufactured reality is a drug of the worst kind of oppression.
The future is a fight against a model of reality that is a monopoly, controlled and protected and defended against dissent. We are already far down the road where our reality is one manufactured under close supervision, blending entertainment, status, prestige and pride. Non-corporate media has noticed how big corporate media has been relatively quiet in reporting about a Princeton Study that showed the considerable power to influence government policy held by the economic elite. Information has been sufficiently filtered by big corporate media and the question is how long before non-corporate online players make the old filters irrelevant? The information dam will bust. People will know who has what and where they’ve stashed it. It seems the chase has started.
I try to imagine how this will work out. The economic elites still operate the main feed line of what you experience everyday. Every object around you throughout the day connects you to a product that comes off the feed line. Personal emotional attachment and engagement becomes detached from day-to-day reality. We are attached to what isn’t real, and reality, which we no longer engage with, seems less and less real. Disneyland is the prevailing metaphor, the 3D cartoon world. The artificial environment becomes the new real. The Eiffel Tower displayed Disney World in Orlando becomes as ‘real’ to the visitor as the one in Paris. People no longer can distinguish one from the other. A copy becomes as valid an experience as the original. It is inside this blended reality that students are shielded against an earlier world of experience and reality where bad things happened to good people.
The best writing will continue to explore the sharp edges of reality, the hypocrisy of power, the abuses of authority, the inequity and injustice of those behind the veil. It is a rearguard action as those who have used truth to challenge power, only to discover that those in power deflect truth under the guise of protecting youth from the harmful consequence of truth. We have advanced technologically beyond what our ancestors could imagine while emotionally running on the same treadmill that Socrates pointed at in the public square. And that cup of hemlock takes a new form as we escape deeper into the world of sheep forgetting the history of dogs.
Marshall McLuhan wrote in Gutenberg Galaxy: “We now live in the early part of an age for which the meaning of print culture is becoming as alien as the meaning of manuscript culture was to the eighteenth century. ‘We are the primitives of a new culture.’” We enter this new culture will our bias guns fully loaded and blazing away.