Back during my days back in Austin, I walked passed the main building often on my way to class. Inscribed on its facade is the following:
Ye shall know the Truth and the Truth shall make you free.
Ironically, these words are sourced from the Book of John as an appeal to accept the Holy Ghost in order to achieve eternal salvation. But never mind that. Despite the theological origin of the phrase, I always liked it. I feel learning unshackles a person from the constraints of ignorance. Ignorance is a prison, limiting one from knowledge and blinding them to the world as it really exists.
At times, though, the truth hurts. It really hurts. In learning new ideas - the unseemly details of past events, and the inconsistencies of cherished narratives we hold dear - our view of the world is shaken and shattered. The uncomfortable realities that manifest from our new-found knowledge can lead to the following scenarios:
- We accept the truth and change our views accordingly (if reluctantly) based on new data.
- We ignore the new truth to end the unsettling feeling that arises after such discovery.
- We dismiss the truth as false out of a deep conviction we already know the one and only truth.
I strive to choose the first option every time the opportunity presents itself. And yet it's hard. Giving up my religion and my political ideology was hard; once those were gone, I developed a void where these ideas once took center place, and trying to fill that void with substitute ideas only let to more confrontations with uncomfortable ideas. No doubt I am not alone with this feeling.
Why do we resist? We should recognize the errors of our ways and accept the truth, accept reality. Sure, it's embarrassing to admit a mistake, but in the end we should be able to recognize the inherent advantage in our new found truth. But still we resist.
I don't think anyone will know the answer to this question other than to say that humans are not logical animals. We are much more than automatons who follow basic commands preset from a creator. We base our lives on emotions and feelings and would rather cherish these feelings more so than to recognize and appreciate the cold reality.
Still, while it's useful to understand that humans are inherent emotional creatures, not rational ones, these emotions can lead to detrimental reasoning.
Some weeks ago, I passed by my sister's snow cone shop. However it happened, our conversation steered from what apps to install on her new iPhone and to a discussion of welfare. Keep in mind that my sister graduate as a Social Work major, is steeped in the literature of welfare statistics, and was once vehement in debunking the stereotypes of welfare abuse and its perceived prevalence. Years of working outside of field of study, opening up her own business, and being a mother has drastically changed her views on welfare.
She now rails against welfare abuse. Her once liberal views have veered towards the right. This, despite knowing the statistics. In fairness to my sister, she is cognizant of this change and tries to remember the evidence from her years in school. But alas, that's not enough. And it's not enough for a very obvious reason:
Her new truth feels good.
And if it feels good, sounds good, then it's true. Damn the facts. Anecdotal evidence may be worthless to any practitioner of logic and skepticism, but boy, does it ever work in shaping a person's narrative of the world.
I know what the standard skeptical/atheist refrain would be. You must teach people how to think properly, logically so they can base their beliefs on reason and on the evidence. It's a nice sentiment, and works great if we're talking about a single thing a person will not put much attention to in a day-to-day basis, like alternative medicine or other pseudosciences. But such reasoning has a hard time challenging an established narrative.
If a narrative makes sense and feels correct to someone, what can be done? And considering that our entire political culture is dominated by these self-insulated narratives, I have a hard time thinking much can be done. And I'm not just referring to my sister's views on welfare.
People actually think anthropogenic global warming is a hoax. People really think that Barack Obama is an evil socialist autocrat hellbent on destroying Western civilization. People actually think that there's a cabal of corporations that seek to impose free trade and unbridled capitalism on humanity. Faulty narratives are pervasive.
Anyone seeking to sway political discourse one way or another must understand that showing statistics, charts, or photo evidence is not enough. But again, anyone seeking to sway political discourse would be advised to take a critical look into their own assumptions and ask if they are proselytes of the one, objective truth, or dupes like the rest of us.
I wish I had an answer. But considering this has been the way humans have thought since the dawn of our species, I doubt anything can change this. Indeed, I think that while combatting the most harmful narratives would be advantages to all of us*, maybe we should just agree to disagree on most narrative conflicts. Maybe this is prudence speaking, or just exhaustion on my part.
There are times I do wish I did not know and accepted the comfortable narratives most people do have. I would like there to be a God. I would like there to be an ultimate political truth. But I just can't bring myself to reject what I've learned, to reject the history and my skepticism to accept a truth that is most likely true. Ultimately, I could not accept the Catholic faith I grew in. I could not accept the veracity of the claims Conservatism, and then Socialism offered.
The narratives may be comforting. The narratives may offer a community of gnostics who are self-assured compatriots of the one, self-evident truth. I do wish I could just accept ignorance and bathe in her warm bliss. But I cannot. If you want to know why I am repelled by organized religion, by political parties, by ideological movements, this is why.
I wish it weren't the case.
And the funny thing is, while I do know enough to call shenanigans on this or that narrative, I do not know enough to actually formulate a narrative for myself. I don't know enough. Period. So not only am I repelled by groups I yearn to join, I'll never have the means to find such a group.
I may be free, but I can assure you, it's no picnic.
*Narratives that actively promote violence or inflict deadly harm on a person. So think violent Jihadism, Fascism, Communism, Anarchism, or the promotion of homeopathy to a cancer patient. Anything that is self-evidently physically killing an individual.