The World We Live in Does Not Exist
How Narcissism Arises and Why Empathy is Critical
This is the final piece in my oversocialization series. Please see the introduction here.
A week ago, I had this to say on socialization and “truth”:
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.
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.
But this doesn’t give justice to the ability for institutions, especially the dominant agents of socialization, to shape these maps. For “the media lies!!!!!” is barely scratching the surface of the power of these institutions. The true danger isn’t that the media merely lies but that they can invent whole new frameworks and contexts that make their lies seem more plausible than the Truth.
One might react to this with something along the lines of:
“We live in a simulation. Reality has been replaced by a carefully constructed and propagated set of illusions. We no longer have contact with reality.”
But what is this “reality” that we supposedly had access to beforehand? Can you tell me what is going on halfway around the world right now? Absent the ability to teleport or astral project, you rely on others to inform you.
And so we have institutions capable of weaving entire Worlds out of thin air. Fabricating contexts ex nihilo to make sure that any new information that emerges fits in nicely with their priors. Self-delusion is a damning process, but it begins from the maps handed down to us by those in Power.
But this is painting a rather grim picture, perhaps darker than I intend.
No system is without contradiction. No Map is perfect. The ideals of learning, of internalizing new experiences, is that one can expose these contradictions in the system. Find gaps in the Map that were unseen before. To embark on a journey into uncharted territory, and surrender oneself to the whims of fate.
So how do we escape?
Getting back in contact with “reality” can help.
How many of you can name all of your neighbors? Do you know what they do for a living? Where their kids go to school? What they like to do on a relaxing Saturday?
Doubtful, and yet instead we are able to recite the (focus group-tested, curated, and fabricated) life stories of people we have never met before and who have no idea who we are. A virtual world of far-away events has become more important to us than that which is happening in our own neighborhoods.
And when we trace where the rise of narcissism began in our society, perhaps this is where to start: when we became conscious of people beyond our physical ability to interact with. Only those who are capable of an almost infinite empathy could truly conceive of the billions of humans on this planet as being full persons like those who you are intimate with. And this infinite empathy has serious issues of its own. Ironic that the very disposition our moral laws demand leads inevitably to a kind of schizophrenia.
In my post on McKinsey, I noted John Hamm’s monologue on the shadows in Plato’s Cave and narcissism (it isn’t a platonic metaphysics 101 lecture) from season 2 of Legion. This quote is key:
Unlike the allegory of the cave, where the people are real and the shadows are false, here, other people are the shadows. Their faces, their lives. This is the delusion of the narcissist. Who believes that they alone are real. Their feelings are the only feelings that matter, because other people are just shadows. And shadows don’t feel, because they’re not real.
But what if everyone lived in caves? Then no one would be real. Not even you.
I am not a full person to you. I am a shadow. Perhaps a shadow with depth; with contours and gradients. But a shadow nonetheless. And you are the same for me. I do not know you. I don’t know what you truly care about deep down. What drives you to get out of bed in the morning (or keeps you under the covers in despair).
And that’s okay. But we must acknowledge this. We must acknowledge that it is easy to write off others beyond our immediate experience, because they simply aren’t full people to us. They aren’t real.
And this is so dangerous because shadows can be manipulated. I can make my shadow taller far more easily than I can make myself taller. And institutions can do this as well: manipulating the shadows to make our fellow man seem like a monster to us.
Perhaps the most damning thing we can do, is allow institutions to convince us that entire swaths of people are less than human. We may not be able to viscerally experience the existences of these far away humans as full people, but we can certainly rationally grasp that their lives are valuable.
This does not mean embracing shadows as fully as embracing the full people around you. To do so is not to elevate the shadows to full people (this is impossible), but to denigrate full people to being shadows. Caring about them only as an Idea. It simply means recognizing that someone who is a shadow to you, is a full person with their own experiences.
This is why empathy is so critical. Our society is “hollowing out” because we perceive ourselves as being surrounded by shadows, instead of people. And these shadows are frequently presented as monsters by the institutions that control the information flows in our society. We must resist this, and see each other as full persons, worthy of dignity and respect.
So Where Do We Go From Here?
It is important to understand that we can escape from this predicament. Hope is not lost. There is much worth saving in this world. Do not give in to despair.
Starting next week, I intend to start another series I am tentatively calling my “effective populism” series. While the oversocialization series was mainly focused on identifying and critiquing problems, the next series will be focused on solutions (both on a personal/local level, and on a political/societal level).
Remember, the friend/enemy distinction is not the basis of politics. It is not the most fundamental distinction. It is simply all that remains after the other ties that bind us have been severed. We need to rebuild those deep ties and connect with others on a level more significant than friend vs. enemy.
And I hope to begin presenting ideas to help us get there.
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Much love, my friends.
It sounds like your rational faculties see us headed into a full-blown largely inescapable dystopia, but your heart doesn't want to succumb to pure pessimism. I think I share your feelings. For the last couple of decades at least, I've increasingly relied on that dichotomy between the hysterical interhuman hatred and conflict promoted by the institutions that rule the "ether" and the largely congenial, peaceful, loving social world that seems to continue to exist nearly everywhere on the "ground". That's still largely true for me, but 2020 was the year that the ether affected the ground as never before, and 2021 seems on track to continue that trend. But it's always good to hope for the best, and prepare for the worst!