Solo show about why our brains no longer work.
Audio production by Steven Toepell of Bohemian Passport Inc.
TRANSCRIPT (Not exact)
I begin this episode of The Filter with some questions. For you. Have you found, over the past few years, and especially over the past few months, that your brain doesn’t seem to be as good as it used to be at comprehending the world around you? Do you feel not just overwhelmed by how much is happening, and by how much new information you have to make sense of in such a short time, but that your very ability to reason about your world seems to be under assault.
If so, I don’t think that’s an accident. I think it’s an inevitable consequence of the times we live in, and in particular of the complete breakdown of the forces that helped us understand the world, the breakdown of accountability, and the rise to dominance of narrative driven journalism and the reactionionary mob as central forces in our lives.
But before getting into that, I want begin with an observation. Just as a nation can, as famously declared, contain a lot of ruin, but does have its breaking point, our minds can contain a certain level of hypocrisy or cognitive dissonance, but not an infinite amount.
In fact, to be human is to accept the necessity of living with contradiction. Everyone is a hypocrite, and much of what looks like hypocrisy is merely the conflation of a group of heterodox individuals, with what is presumed to be their group philosophy. Or sometimes’s it’s just the personal failing of someone to live up to their stated goal. For example, if a guy who decries the evils of drinking to others, drinks like a fish at home, not a hypocrite, he’s an alcoholic who knows first hand how bad
To varying degrees, we all live in this state of mismatch between rhetoric and reality, and so far as I can tell, we always have. Our public selves are always lies. We code switch. We fail to live up to our own standards.
This mismatch extends from the personal to the societal. We have official, establishment lies that bear only a vague resemblance to reality, or are strictly aspirational. These range from the fundamental to the trivial.
Two hundred plus years ago my birth nation declared that all men were created equal, in a time of widespread slavery. Today I live in a city where most of the doors marked with “Emergency exit only, alarm will sound,” open silently and are the normal ways to leave a building. At first that bothered me. Quite a bit, actually. Now I barely give it a second thought. Small disconnects with reality, like this one, make a ripple in the pond of our brains the first time we see them, but the ripples diminish over time as re-wire our brains to understand that “Emergency exit” just means exit.
To extend the analogy, the state of the pond represents our capacity to comprehend, assimilate, and reason about our world. Except for the most autistic among us, the Emergency exit lie won’t take us down for long. But more consequential lies are like bigger rocks tossed into our pond-like brains. It takes longer for them to settle down. On a personal level, these can have a profound and lasting effect. Sudden death of a loved one. Partner who cheats on you. It may take weeks, months, or years to recover from these, not just in terms of emotional stability, but in terms of basic rational thought.
In The Year of Magical Thinking, author Joan Didion recounts how, after losing her husband of several decades, she finds herself unable to throw out his shoes, thinking he might come back any moment. These moments of disconnect with reality take a long time to fade.
In the pond of our brains, the size and duration ripples arising from multiple disturbances at once, can have non-linear effects. The death of a co-worker we know casually might be slightly disturbing. The death of two within days might take us down completely.
Even deaths, though, are ultimately comprehensible. They may represent a break with what we expected reality to be, but we also know they are an inevitable part of our reality.
Our brains have an even harder time dealing with direct assaults on our perception of reality, and from events that induce cognitive dissonance. This are like boulders splashing down into our ponds after careening down a mountain.
One of the words that’s entered the public discussion over the past few years is gaslighting. It’s used to mean pretending a reality doesn’t exist that plainly does, to mess with someone’s mind, but I think the best way to understand peak gaslighting is with an example I made up years ago during a intellectual battle with a fried to see who could come up with the biggest mindfuck.
Suppose you had a roommate you wanted to drive mad. You might steal little things from her at odd intervals. A pair of scissors, a favorite mug, a bra. Whenever she asked if you’d seen these things, you would of course deny that. After moving out, you’d use a copy of your old key to break in and continue to steal little items every now and then. I’m sure you can see how this would mess with someone’s mind. But to really screw with their mind, you might do this. Years later, after you’ve stopped stealing things, you could package up all the items you took into a big box, but replacing them with close lookalikes, and send that package to your old roommate anonymously.
Imagine the state of her brain as she opens up the package and tries and make sense of the contents. Believing you are crazy can bake your bagel. But then seeing that you’re not crazy, but still incapable of making sense of the what you’ve presented her with or how it got there, I suspect that would be completely undoing.
This, in my view, is where we at at. We are all collectively and individually, gaslit by forces that, instead of coping to their lies, pivot to even deeper, more meta, deceptions.
If the agenda-driven journalists, politicians, and experts around us admitted admitted to their lies and biases when pressed, and accepted some form of consequences for their bad faith arguments and godawful recommendations, there would still be anger on our part, but our brains could cope. Going back to my peak gaslighting example, if you had you instead admitted to steeling all those items before moving out, her reaction might be to yell at you and it might be to demand repayment, but there would also be mental relief and healing as she learns she wasn’t, after all, loosing her mind.
But those journalists, politicians and experts no longer admit when they were wrong. And there has been no apparent accountability, for anyone.
The journalists who rode the string of fake bombshells to ratings highs in the Trump era, have seen their audiences decline, but they’re still on the air. Still making millions of dollars a year to continue providing their audiences with narratives that bear little connection to reality, but that conform to the biases of their fans.
In a moment of gaslighting that made the most extreme example I could come up with seem like a little white lie, last year journalism watchdog show On the Media from NPR finally admitted that yes, the Russia Collusion thing had been a hoax, and yes, and every center-left media outlet gotten that wrong. But, host Bob Garfield assured us, the fault lay with Trump and how untrustworthy he was, and not with the fine upstanding journalists or their narrative-driven unwillingness to do independent investigative work, or their willingness to promote an unsubstantiated theory. The media had just assumed that Untrustworthy man was untrustworthy. Perfectly reasonably on their part, right? In fact that’s how the media was supposed to do its job, wasn’t it?
As a listener, you might have one of two reactions to this masterful job of gaslighting about gaslighting. One would be to break your brains trying to make sense of an excuse has a superficial resemblance to coherence, but upon closer reflection looks like a simulacra of sense, a box of items that look vaguely like the ones you lost, but are are not quite how you remember them. Are they fucking with you? Or, maybe, in the end, you are the crazy one.
On the other hand, if you want to believe the that your media outlets weren’t at fault after all, then you might swallow Bob Garfield’s blue pill. The problem with that is that you now live in a fantasy land. Instead of going down the rabbit hole of truth, you’ve abandoned your brain’s own ability to reason properly about the world, in order to protect it from confronting the fact that it was living in a false reality. Your ability to make sense of the world has been ceded to people who will fill it with a substance that bears some vague resemblance to coherence, and helps you preserve the disconnect between your biases and reality.
This is why blue-pilled people need such a strong bubble around them, and act out with intolerance, sometimes violently so, against anyone who comes close to them a contradictory narrative, especially if they thought that person was inside of their own bubble. It’s a breach of defences, a chink in the armor that protects brains that have intentionally made themselves soft and weak, incapable of handling arguments that contradict pre-existing beliefs.
Now, you might argue, those beliefs, even the beliefs of people in a bubble, change. In fact, sometimes radically so, and within short periods of time. That’s certainly what it looks like at the surface level, and that contributes to the feeling that everyone has lost their minds, which itself can make one feel crazy. Disconnect from reality can be contageous.
Often times, though, what’s happening is that logical consistency or alignment with data have been sacrificed to the goal of upholding a more important narrative. The coherence here, lies in the maintaining of a moralistic fable in which the person speaking has placed themselves in the role of protagonist and good guy. That’s the core truth that must be maintained, and over the past few years it’s increasingly applied in the context of partisan politics. Outwardly it may look like a person or tribe is forcefully arguing for two contradictory positions, but what they’re really saying, in both cases, is we are the good guys. All the rest is weaponized hysteria, designed to attack the evil enemy and reassure the protagonists of their uprightness.
Take for example the recent flip-flop on protesting, wherein those who objected to having their jobs destroyed in the name of stopping the spread of the pandemic where, derided as grandma killers. Just weeks later, massive crowds of protestors were uplifted as heroic, sometimes by the very same medical professionals who condemned the previous demonstrations. These other protests were defended as good because the cause was deemed to be good, which is just another way of saying the tribe represented by the jobs protesters is evil, but ours is good. You are grandma killers, we are bravely standing up for a noble cause. Trying to pick this apart at a logical level, or point out that the virus doesn’t care about ideology, it only cares about crowd size and density, is to demand consistency at a level that’s irrelevant to the fable’s self-appointed protagonists. The consistency they need to maintain, is that their tribe is good, and the other tribe is evil.
It should be noted that this turns the medical professionals into political actors, basing their recommendations on moral and not epidemiological or health concerns. The argument from those supporting the protestors in JUST THIS CASE, is that racism is a health issue, which perhaps it is, but certainly losing one’s job and social outings and having your business destroyed is a health issue as well, and the argument misses the link that explains how mass protests are likely to have a net positive benefit on health. After all, we were told by Governors opposed to lifting the lockdowns, that you may get some benefit from having a job, but the virus is death. Period. End of story. In other words, you are bad because you want people to die, we are good because it’s healthy to protest racism.
This kind of moralistic gaslighting is its own assault on people’s abilities to react rationally. Twenty years ago I had a discussion with my ex about the culture in Capitol Hill, and how strange it was. This was back when it was simply known as Seattle’s gay neighborhood, and not the place we are all now pretending has become the micro nation of Chaz or Chop or whatever it happens to be, or not be, when you hear this episode. My ex replied that being hated did strange things to individuals, and by extension, to groups. What looked like insanity to me, like the embrace of HIV positive status as a positive thing, was really just a reaction to an atmosphere of hatred. To put it in my words, the persistent assault on this group of people, had generated what appeared to be an incoherent and irrational response. Again, in my words, not hers, we had broken their brains, so we shouldn’t be surprised to see some crazy looking shit when they began to reject not just our hate, but also any perspective that might be linked to the effort stigmatizing them, even if that perspective was rational.
Hatred, it should be noted, can warp not just the brains of the hated, it can destroy the minds of the haters, as is the case with those theoretically professional medical professionals who have abandoned consistency, in favour of maintaining their demonization of the group they despise, even as their underlying advice does a 180.
These kinds of haters tend to construct thick ideological bubbles around themselves, to protect the fiction that they are the good protagonists in a story and their opponents are moral monsters. This makes them natural gaslighters in conversation, as they automatically see any argument or data that contradicts their beliefs as irrelevant or unreal. It’s a conspiracy theory. Or an assertion without evidence, they say, while ignoring any evidence they disagree with as completely dismissable.
If we lived in a culture that strongly supported rules of discussion opposed to ignoring facts or dismissing arguments based on who was making them, then it would be easier to push back against this kind of gaslighting. But instead, the prevailing identitarian ethos privileges feelings over facts, and in particular the feelings of those who have aligned themselves with groups considered to be marginalized. So long as someone can locate themselves inside the bubble on the side of the righteous, they are welcome to cover their ears or scream hysterically to drown out anything that looks like incoming fire.
In the past, even opposing ideological tribes practiced internal enforcement, rebuking members of their own tribe if they stretched the truth too far to make an argument, or resorted to name calling or other tactics that departed from norms of civil discussion. This internal enforcement no longer exists, at least to the side in the bubble. It can’t exist for them.
The people in the bubble are natural gaslighters because they are blind to complexities and tradeoffs. The people arguing with them might start by recognizing that yes, X is a problem, but that the proposed reaction to it is a bad idea. To the people in the bubble, complexities and can’t exist. They must be denied. Ignored. Scoffed at.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen a blue checked twitter person post some video that shows a complex interaction between two people, and their comment is, This is a horrible abomination we should destroy that person, referring to the person they don’t identify with. If you try to point out that the situation is more subtle than they are suggesting, the response you get back will always be a personal attack or name calling. To them, you are refusing to recognize reality when you try and argue that the people in the video can’t be neatly sorted into good and evil. Though not intentional, their disposition is nonetheless an extraordinary act of war on your ability to make sense of the world. You are being told you couldn’t have possibly seen what you just saw, because only evil people and their apologists would see it that way. In other words, it’s not complicated, and you’re just a monster for pretending it is.
You can see how, in this dynamic, compromise is impossible, which makes calm, rational thought even harder. Imagine being in a relationship with someone who never gives an inch, on anything, or who knee jerks in the opposite direction of everything you do. Relationships like this end quickly, unless the more flexible partner puts themselves in the role of perpetually cucked appeaser, who sacrifices their own perception of the world, and ability to reason, to their fear of upsetting their partner.
Or perhaps you’ve encountered someone this dogmatic at work, and your brain hurts at the end of any day where you were in contact with them. It doesn’t take many of these people to make a workplace toxic. Media outlets seem to be particularly dominated by such people lately, perhaps because social media has a way of amplifying the voices of the most aggressive and online people, who are often agenda driven journalists.
To bring things back around to my initial point, seemingly self-contradictory beliefs and actions are a key part of the human condition and rarely remarkable. Small breaches and hypocrases are like pebbles tossed into the clam pond of our brains, creating small waves that quickly dissipate.
At the height of the lockdowns, what bothered me most wasn’t that politicians who issued shelter-in-place orders were caught sneaking out to get illicit haircuts. What really baked my bagel, was that both my former and my current country were headed down a path of economic suicide, cheered on by the masses, and acknowledged by absolutely no-one in a position of power. It was as if everyone had agreed to pretend that a tenth floor emergency exit led out to a fire escape, when instead it was only a hundred foot drop.
What’s the rational way for your brain to react when everyone around you seems to have lost their minds? To me and a few others it seemed like, in the name of combatting some virulent form of gangrene, everyone was asked to chop off the body parts most likely to get infected first, and anyone who questioned the madness was told that they must want everyone to die, because, as already rhetorically established, the virus was death.
How does one cope, rationally, with such a world? And what if the world starts lurching from one over-reaction to another? What if the culture we live in becomes a culture of mass hysteria, and reasoned discussion is rendered obsolete by mob action?
Just four years ago, though it now it seems like an eternity, a massively overweight co-ed lost her shit at a college talk and shrieked at a panel of speakers she disagreed with, violently flailing her thick arms. Her meltdown was caught by a cell phone camera, and the video went viral. She was given nickname Trigglypuff and turned into a meme. Four years ago the online consensus was that her hysterical response to an opinion she disagreed with was a joke, an unhinged over-reaction.
At this point, though, I see Trigglypuff, aka Cora Segal, as a kind of tragic figure. Apparently she’s the daughter of a well respected Harvard scholar of classical literature. Then, somewhere along the way, things went very wrong for her. Or, perhaps, they went exactly as might be expected given that her behaviour is completely in-line with what her environment cultivated: performative outrage as catharsis. Shrieking as a shield against incoming attacks to her sense of identity and righteousness.
Cora, it turns out, was just the canary in the coal mine. Four years later, all of our brains are being melted because facts and reason have been rendered irrelevant, subservient to the power of the image, and of virally spread anger.
All revolutions are spawned by anger of one sort or another, and not all anger is wrong. A properly functioning filter on reality isn’t one void of emotional depth. Emotion is a core part of human life, and wholesale rejection of it leads to a sterile kind of stoicism, or to that strain of Buddhism that rejects all attachments, rending the believer incapable of valuing the life of their child above the life of a garden slug. Extreme physical detachment, as in the ability to sit in some kind of trance while you set yourself on fire and burn to death like a statue, is just as profoundly inhuman. It’s disgusting and frightening, in a way perfectly captured by Michael Ignatieff in an old New Republic book review about martyrs, titled The Scandal of Certainty. His point was that martyr’s can display an indifference to suffering and sacrifice, or even embrace of it, that shocks our modern sensibilities, and in my view rightfully so.
Horseshoe theories are hot right now. These are the ideas that if you go way out along a particular spectrum, say the political one, things start to bend around and look more similar to the other end of the spectrum than they do to the middle. When it comes to the spectrum of emotional response and its importance to our humanity, I’m firmly in the camp that these two ends nearly kiss each other, and the completely detached humanoid, or stoic martyr, is frightening in a similar way to a Trigglypuff. Neither of them can be reached or reasoned with from a shared foundation of respect for humanity.
Just as with political horseshoe theories, there are some differences between the ends. In the previous century, philosophers indifferent to individual human life, teamed up with egg-headed social scientists to centrally plan economies, starving tens of millions of people to death with ideas that couldn’t be reconciled with human nature, even though in theory their math checked out. Those who questioned the math, or tried to stop the train of communism before it careened off the cliff into catastrophe, were instead run over as mere obstacles who’d put themselves in the way of progress and the people.
This century, it’s not so clear what the rise a world driven completely by emotion will bring, but so far it looks like chaos and the viral spread of fear and anger. This fits completely with the theory of previous Filter guest Vin Armani, about the rise of the devouring mother and mob rule as dominant social forces.
To me, it looks like the destruction of our collective cognitive abilities. As we lurch in almost magical lockstep from hyper focus on one perceived existential threat to another, and from one extraordinary over-reaction to another, the only consistency is that those who wish to be concerned about more than one thing at a time, or to consider the downside risks to our reactions, are drowned out by hysterics.
Or collective emotions are robbing our collective brains, starving them of oxygen as we lurch like crazed zombies from one all consuming issue to the next. Meanwhile, in a frightening echo of the catastrophe of the communism, we’re seeing the return of struggle sessions, a technique wherein dissidents are confronted by angry peers demanding they apologize for their heretical thoughts and actions. Try maintaining your ability to think and reason when an angry mob demands that you apologize for stating that 2+2=4.
I think the zombie analogy here is right, and it ties together the two dysfunctions of hyper detachment, and hyper reactivity. In fiction and the movies, we have two kinds of zombies. Those that slowly and relentlessly hunt for fresh brains, indifferent to their decaying arms and shot off legs, ever moving forward with blank faces, their own brains reduced to liner reasoning about a singular object of obsession.
And then we have the what I’d call the “I am Legend” style zombies. Rabid and enraged, they are consumed with an unquenchable bloodlust, and frenetic energy borne our of an extreme panic and hysteria at the sight of anyone not yet zombified themselves.
To me, our current zombie apocalypse seems populated by this second kind of creature. Everyone is out for blood, everyone is filled with partisan hatred. Cancel culture has been taken to such an extreme that actual human lives have been cancelled. Madness is contagious, and even more so when madness is the accepted norm.
If it seems like your brain is having a hard time finding a place for calm, rational thought, that’s because it’s hard to think clearly when you are forever surrounded by angry mob of Trigglypuffs.