Posts Tagged With: existential contradiction

The Crisis of the Dress and the Wisdom of the Idiots.

If you have been on the internet in the past week, you have probably come across the dilemma caused by this dress

This issue of perception has caused a sort of existential crisis on the internet, as people’s reactions have ranged from being perplexed to having anxiety attacks.

This is not, however, is not the first time humanity has struggled such an issue. and while we have tried to explain the issue away, others have used similar crises to draw wisdom about the human condition.

Sufi teachings, for instance, contain a story with some eerie similarities:

The Agarin was a Sufi sage of the Middle ages, well known for his wisdom and teachings. A Frankish king heard of his wisdom, and being a lover of philosophy himself, sought out The Agarin to learn from what he knew. The king arrived in all pomp and pageantry, and presented himself to the Agarin. When the king asked to be taught, The Agarin told the king that before he could be taught the great wisdom, he had to master the basic lessons. The king, proud of his studies, stated that he already knew the basics. The Agarin offered a test to the king, to see if he truly had the foundations of wisdom. He asked the king and those that traveled with him to line the main street of the city.

The following morning, the king and his party lined the main street of the city. When all was ready, The Agarin’s students streamed into the city, marching, singing, playing instruments, and performing. At the completion of the spectacle, The Agarin stepped forth and announced that the test would consist of a single question: “What were the colors of the robes worn in the parade?”

The king laughed at the simplicity of the test. “Blue!” he announced, as those who stood beside him cheered his victory.

The other side stood in silent fear, until one of the party responded, “Your highness, they were brown!”

The party of the king exploded into an uproar of outrage. One side defended the king observation of “blue” and accused the others of treason for challenging the king’s observation. The other side swearing only that they could not lie to their king, swore the robes were brown, and begged the king for mercy. Accusations of betrayal, insanity, and beguilement were thrown at members of each side, until finally The Agarin called the parade back into the city.

“As you can see,” he said to the king, “one half of each robe is blue, and the other half is brown. What you expected from the world kept you from seeing the world as it is. When you can understand that, then you can being to learn our wisdom.”

(Paraphrased from Idries Shas’ The Wisdom of the Idiots story of “The Two Sides”)

For the Sufi, the lesson to be learned involved our assumptions about the world and the limitations of our perspective. We learn to be secure about the world by making it predictable, by making it knowable. However, even though there is an actual absolute world around us, our ability to know this world is restricted by the limitations of our human perspectives. We exist in the world, but our experience of it is filtered through our limited human senses, and even more limited human understanding. As such, the “reality” we build our sense of security on is limited. Most of us cannot accept this, the crisis it produces sends us into a terror because it forces the truth upon us that this sense of safety is a facade.

When the illusion of security falls, there are two possible responses. The first is double down and deny the challenge, to declare the flawed belief as fact and then to attack the facts that defy it. This is the path of certainty, as you no longer hold beliefs, you no longer have changeable ideas, you are certain that the world is the way you need it to be to feel safe and secure and there is no other way to see it. The second is to accept the limitations of your own understanding of reality, and to learn to function in a world without certainty.

In our current world, we lean heavily towards the path of certainty. Our social and political discourse thrives on certainty. We don’t talk to each other any more, and we are lucky if we even talk at each other. We mostly self insulate, refusing to even consider the other even has anything of value to say. We buffer and insulate ourselves against any challenge, attacking and ridiculing the sources of such challenges. We have to be absolutely right, and anyone else has to be an idiot.

But like the Argarin’s robes, this picture creates an undeniable challenge to our certainty. The dress exists, it has definite certain colors, but our perception of what those colors are has been different due to effects of light on our ability to understand and interpret those colors. The panic and existential crisis produced is so salient because we have become so entrenched with our habitual reliance on certainty that we never learned to deal with the inevitable challenge that is so absolute that we could not attack or explain away. And like the king, that unassailable challenge came in the form of a blue dress.

The answer to put this dilemma to rest is to remember our limitations when it comes to knowing the word, to remember our perceptions are filtered through flawed senses and into an even more flawed apparatus for understanding them. The answer lies in accepting that how we perceived the dress has been different than how others have perceived the dress and the realization that we might not have perceived it as it actually exists. Many of us cannot do that, but those of us who can are choosing the second option, choosing to abandon security and certainty  to learning more about how the world really is by accepting the limitations of our perspective.

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The Psychology of Modern Political Stupidity: Why it’s so Manipulative and Effective.

If you are watching the current political debate (aka, if you are breathing and being constantly bombarded by it), you might have picked up on how it seems that campaigning politicians and certain state legislatures have detached themselves from any notion of rationality and reality. Laws have been passed requiring women seeking abortions to undergo mandatory probing so invasive, it could actually be considered sexual assault. Rights of access to contraception (a means of preventing abortions) are being denied based the beliefs of employers, despite the beliefs of the workers. Obama is back to being an alien Muslim. Corporations are people. The government wants ignore economic concerns just so they can take away your guns. Following a religion based on a guy who fed the poor and promoted peace and social justice requires ignoring the poor and promoting violence and discrimination. Rush Limbaugh is still on the air. It is just getting stupider and stupider.

But is there something more insidious behind the stupidity? What could be the gain from divorcing yourself from reality in such a way? And why does it seem to be working?

As it turns out, there is a specific psychological reaction that these stances are hoping to invoke: existential terror. Once they get this mechanism going, they no longer have to provide argument, no longer have to debate, and no longer have to justify anything. And here is how it works:

I have previously discussed the fundamental human existential crisis, that we are torn between our infinite creative symbolic potential, and our very finite material bodies. One of the consequences of this crisis is that, unless we develop very sophisticated methods of accepting our deaths, we reflexively deny our reality of death, and desperately defend that denial. The way that people deny death is that they come together to build a series of symbolic structures to act as shields. We call this “culture.”  Culture is not in itself a problem, it provides a necessary support and security that we need to function in a highly frightening reality. Ideally, the goal of these symbolic structures should be to foster an eventual independence from them through the creation of the more sophisticated acceptance of our mortality. Some symbolic structures have been able to do this, and have created some of the greatest leaders we revere. However, the larger part of society has not installed this important process, leaving us largely vulnerable to our fear of mortality and vulnerable to a manipulation by this fear.

When a person is reminded of their mortality, or when their protective structures are threatened, they react instinctively against it by clinging to their symbolic defense structures ore fervently. They quickly demarcate themselves from those not of their culture. People who violate their cultural norms are lashed out against, because those violations challenge their symbolic defense structures. People who defend their cultural norms, the “Culture Warriors” are looked to as the heroes to defend these symbolic structures and help the person to reestablish their denial of death. Simply put, when you remind people of their mortality, or when you threaten the symbolic cultural structures, they will react in terror and give their power over to the person who promises to reestablish their cultural safety as a  reflex devoid of higher evaluative rational thought.

This  is not hypothetical or theoretical. This has been confirmed in research.

The strange and surreal stances that are being taken in modern politics can be explained through this mechanism. If you look at the content of the stances, they either 1) contain a threat of mortality or 2) contain a threat to symbolic structure (culture, religion, etc) that defends against mortality. At the same time as these threats are presented the person who introduces the existence of the threat attempts to establish himself as the candidate who is the strongest culture warrior by providing the most extreme (and irrational) solution to the threat

Abortion for instance, is referenced both 1) as the death of the unborn and 2) a threat to a symbolic cultural ideal of strictly controlled sex (sex is our animal selves, and therefore must be controlled because to give into out animal self is to deny our shield of civilization). The more extreme you are in defending against this death and threat, the more of a hero you are. Abstinence is the extreme symbolic antithesis, and supports the cultural ideal. Planned Parenthood, is the cultural threat because 3% of it’s activities goes to providing safe access to abortions (and the deaths and maiming of back alley abortions are justified to the pariahs who challenge this structure). Contraception is off the table because it enables unwed sex, and likewise challenges the symbolic structures. All of this ignores the reality that abstinence only programs don’t work, and that through providing contraception and education, Planned Parenthood prevents twice as many abortions as it provides. If the goal were to truly end abortion, then you would endorse the evidence supported practices that actually reduce the unwanted pregnancies. However, the goal is to get elected, so you need to  become a culture warrior, reality be damned.

This can be seen in the other stances. Guns are another symbolic means of defending against death, which is why the threat of having guns taken away (note: usually brought into the conversation by those who support gun rights in the extreme, and rarely by their opponent, unless in reference to a recent gun related tragedy). Homosexuality is opposed based in it’s “threat to marriage,” another symbolic cultural structure, and homophobia more or less is caused by the threat it presents to rigid gender roles and rigid social hierarchies. Corporations are touted as the defenders of economic freedom, and to  challenge them based on crimes they actually commit is to challenge the symbolic status quo. Asking people to care about the poor or dispossessed, or have mercy on others challenges the absolute rightness of your defense system by pointing out some flawed consequences.  A mosque or Muslim community center becomes a symbol of cultural invasion and any request to respect the religious beliefs of another threatens the supremacy of your cultural shield.  Obama is not a citizen and a Muslim, making him someone not of our culture. The claims seem irrational until you notice the pattern. They all create symbolic threats that invoke a predictable reaction: “I will vote for you and do what you say if you make the fear go away.”

So that is the origin behind the stupidity of modern elections. It hurts us by creating oppressive extremist laws. It drags down the conversation by excluding real discussion on the topic, and silences more reasonable voices (yes there are some very reasonable voices in these parties), because once the fear structure activates, reason is thrown out the window. Finally it hurts us because it essentially “hacks” the election, focusing on psychological tricks, not the actual needs of the nation.

Can it be fixed?

We know what is causing it. Diagnosis is the first step towards treatment. And if our instinctual fear of death is the problem, then there is a solution that lies in conquering that fear. Some cultures have developed methods, so we know it can be done. And even though we don’t have to copy another culture’s way of solving this issue, it is possible for us to find one for ourselves. But we have to acknowledge the issue, the problems it causes, and the possibility for the solution.

Otherwise, we will just go farther down this political spiral of stupidity.

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