(Part 4 of my Oversocialization series. Read the introduction here)
An existential crisis is deeply painful. To lose one’s bearings and be cast adrift amongst the chaotic forces of the world is not an experience many wish to have.
And so, each of us have ways of making sure we don’t fall into these crises. We shape our maps, control our contact with (or acceptance of) the World, so as to ensure we always “know where we are”. Even if our map of the World is deeply distorted, it is more comfortable to be deluded than it is to be lost:
Inside of our heads, we assimilate (or reject) information into our mental model of the world. Each one of us does this. We construct a mental map of how the World truly is, and we then judge further experiences based on that mental map.
One might say that our map of the World interfaces with our map of moral space. We understand the world through narrative, motivation, values, and norms. But it would be unfair to say that our map of moral space is “superimposed” onto our map of the World. They are an irreducible union.
And so, I already have my Truth before I encounter a new event. I may not be consciously aware of this, but there is information that can be assimilated and information that must be rejected. If I fail to properly curate my experience to fit my preexisting map, I will fall into existential crisis.
We all do this; however, of course, the oversocialized person is the least capable of changing their map of the World:
The oversocialized, with their moral map determined by elevating the internalized goods of the socialization process to be their highest goods (or perhaps having no other goods at all on their map), are the least capable of changing their map of the World. For these two maps are irreducible in the psyche of a human.
So what are these mechanisms we use to protect ourselves from existential crises?
See No Evil, Hear No Evil, Speak No Evil
“Out of Sight, Out of Mind”
The single crudest (and yet, perhaps, most useful) way of regulating our contact with the World is to simply outright reject anything that makes us uncomfortable. “Out of Sight, Out of Mind”, for lack of a better term.
It allows one to signal their virtue while ignoring (or at least suppressing) any awareness of the kinds of devastation that goes on around the world (both material and spiritual) to support the state of affairs that allows one to virtue signal in the first place.
You may consider this somewhat related to “skin in the game”: If I am not forced to have contact with the World in a substantive way, if I am not forced to deal with the realities of the World, I will be able to maintain my cocoon of delusion.
Language as Violence
Language is perceived as “violent” because it threatens the individual’s perception of themselves. “Violent” language is language that could destroy your sense of self today, and force you to develop a new identity. This is painful, perhaps even more painful than a simple punch.
Language that would force us to shift our maps of the World, whether this is a shift in moral space via a change of values or a shift in “physical” space via a change in how we understand relations between People and other Things out there, is threatening. Language that would otherwise threaten our sense of self, our sense of “where we stand” in the World, of what our value is, can (or perhaps must) be construes as an attack. Hence, violence.
Down the Rabbit Hole
Of course, the crudest way of dealing with potentially threatening information is usually not easy. Continuously rejecting contrary information is exhausting, and it is more likely that in the absence of any other regulatory process, encountering this information a sufficient amount of times will indeed lead to shifts in one’s map (even if it occurs through a painful reorientation of ourselves in the World).
The next regulatory mechanism we use (frequently in conjunction with outright rejection) is doubling down: to draw battle lines in the sand and build more and more extreme fortresses to keep out the waves. Each wave that comes in weakens the castle, the map of the World, that I have built, and it becomes a vicious struggle between my ability to delude myself and the pressure of the World coming into contact with me.
We see this in the gradually increasing extremism of opinions of many:
Where does “white guilt” come from if not from the development of holding an ideal of equality and then believing that holding that ideal demands one rejects the privileged position “whiteness” grants you? If my moral map states that “whiteness” is some Thing that grants those who hold it a privileged position in the World, and I perceive “equality” as a value, a ‘good’, that guides me, of course one must reject this “whiteness”.
And this is only made more obvious with the relation of friend/enemy politics and the derangement that results. If the other side is bad, I cannot attribute to them any motivations that I would perceive as good, like caring about workers rights, etc. They must only be analyzed to have bad intentions. Which means two things:
I will attribute to them intentions/values I perceive as bad, even if they did not have those motivations at all.
I will accurately perceive their intentions, but in already considering them bad, I will update my map of moral space to reflect those intentions/values as being bad.
This is also why “intelligence” =/= clear-sightedness. The ability to recognize patterns and pull conclusions from data quickly has little to no bearing on your ability to build accurate maps of the World (especially of the moral space dimension). In fact, one may argue that a greater ability to rationalize away information that makes one uncomfortable would increase the tendency to delude oneself.
Fabrication ex Nihilo
Another way to go beyond just crudely rejecting information that threatens your map of the World is to invent a context for that information that ends up affirming your understanding of the World, and accepting that information+nu-context.
Hence we see concepts being continuously redefined. Media narratives not only pick and choose what parts of the information to show you, but actively distort that information further through framing with (sometimes entirely) fabricated contexts. Repeat a lie enough times and people will start to believe it…even the liars.
And as we enter into the frame of oversocialized friend/enemy politics, we must be constantly redefining terms. If my enemy supports X, X must be redefined to ensure it properly reflects the evil of my enemy. If my friend supports Y, Y must be redefined to ensure it properly reflects the good of my friend. If these redefinitions demand the fabrication of new contexts to make sense of them, so be it.
Perhaps the most obvious example of this, going along with the example in the last section, is the fabrication of invisible ‘goods’ and ‘evils’ that purportedly drive society. These don’t need to have any grounding in the World, so long as it allows me to keep the core of my map of the World intact.
These invisible ‘goods’ and ‘evils’ become forces in their own right, and any contrary information that would threaten them is just as easily rejected. Their ability to mystify the real relations and dynamics of the World in service of keeping one in a cocoon of safety makes them extremely powerful.
I appear to be painting a deeply pessimistic picture of the world with this series so far, and I want to reiterate that socialization is not totalistic (hence the diversity of opinions and the reason this substack even exists) and there are ways forward.
The best we can do is be willing to engage with new information openly, and humble ourselves before our own uncertainty about how the World actually is. It is only through humility and empathy that we can begin to rebuild some semblance of a meaningful public order.
The most important thing here is that people will not leave their blanket of safety unless they see a fleshed-out alternative that also speaks to them. You CAN change people’s opinions, and their maps of the world. It is possible.
Wednesday I will be interrogating the (in my opinion) most prevalent and damning derangement on each side of the political spectrum (at least in the US).
Next week, I will begin my “Effective Populism” series, and I hope to begin explaining what a platform of alternatives would look like.
For now, care for those around you, and try to prevent the brainworms from eating your sense of empathy.