Society is Constantly Lying

There is a story in which a man makes the gaslights in his house flicker, and every time his wife notices this, tells her he hasn’t seen anything. Over time, she starts thinking she’s going crazy.

Society also does this, albeit (probably) less intentionally.

Humans are notoriously bad at judging a source’s reliability–take about 1,600 years of near absolute faith in the literal truthfulness of the Bible, a book that’s obviously nonsense.

Increasing quantities of easily accessed information in the past century have made people much better at discerning bullshit, but we have a new problem: we’re now getting almost all of our information about the world not from direct experience, (Hey, it’s raining on me! I’m wet!) but from reports from other people–books, newspapers, media, the Wikipedia, your best friends, etc. Our general ability to judge the reliability of sources is therefore up against far more potential sources of misinformation and manufactured consent.

Common ways society lies:

1. Discordant Sum: Since your exact experiences are unlikely to be identical to everyone else’s exact experiences, your reality and society will probably be slightly discordant. This is generally innocuous, innocent, and easy to deal with–you just have to realize that you happen to like handbags more than everyone else, or are poorer than the people on TV, or hate chocolate.

Sometimes it’s a bigger deal, like if you are naturally more or less aggressive than the rest of society, have kids who don’t act like other kids, or you have been made one of the secret Presidents of Earth. Sometime society is wrong. Sometimes you’re wrong. It can be very hard to tell the difference.

2. Active lying to sound “nice”: people say a ton of nice-sounding stuff, like, “Appearances don’t matter,” “be yourself,” “don’t care what other people think about you,” “everyone is beautiful,” “school is fun,” “learning is valuable for its own sake,” “You don’t need other people to be happy,” etc. These lies may be valuable to a subset of people, but they are also harmful to another subset. If you take this advice seriously, say, by wearing sweatpants to job interviews and picking your nose on dates, you will discover, very quickly, that society actually cares A LOT about your appearances and behavior. And at least those are things you *can* change. Fat, short, and ugly people can do very little about the fact that society discriminates constantly against them.

Nerds and aspie people seem particularly likely to believe these lies, perhaps because they lack the natural impulse to imitate others that would normally counteract them. Nerds follow these rules, and then are confused when they are treated badly because of their appearances, and may decide that the rest of the world is “bad” for not following the “rules” and valuing dumb things like appearances.

But if you try to point out that these are lies and actually terrible advice, you will get attacked. How dare you say that fat people are more likely to be poor! You’re just fat-shaming! No, fat people are discriminated against in hiring. (I have had this exact conversation with people on multiple occasions.) It’s bad enough to lie, but attacking people for pointing out that these are lies and harmful is just low.

Also forbidden: the suggestion that dumb people might have trouble managing their money and getting high-paying jobs, which could make them disproportionately poor. The suggestion that you should care what other people think because they have actual power to make your life better or worse. That spending increasingly large amounts of money on education is not always increasingly valuable. That society’s behavior standards might actually be good. That most humans do best when in relationships of various sorts with other humans, the desire for which is instinctual. Etc.

The good thing is that once you do realize that this is all BS, you can actually pick the ways you want to comport yourself, dress, spend your time, etc., within your own natural limits and income, to get the results you desire. If you want to get a job, you can dress and comport yourself like a job applicant; if you’re on a date, you can wear clothes appropriate to a date. In personal life, you can pursue relationships that make you happy without feeling guilty about being weak. in more extreme cases, people should not feel bad about using plastic surgery, hormone therapies, liposuction, or other techniques to alter the ways people treat them, or if those are not options, at least they can understand that society shits upon them for reasons that aren’t their fault.

3. The News Agenda: The media (and now, websites and blogs) pick certain news stories to emphasize, often manufacturing completely a-factual scares, eg:
A. European witch-panics
B. Justification for the Mexican-American War
C. Anti-Semitic propaganda circa 1930-1945
D. Satanic Daycare Scare
E. Monica Lewinski Scandal
F. Numerous non-existent crime waves
G. Benghazi
H. “Internet Predators”
I. “Rape culture”


Some of these panics have been entirely fictional, like the Satanic Daycare Scare. Many involve manipulating story-selection, eg, by suddenly switching to only covering one sub-set of crime so that it sounds like there’s been a huge jump in that kind of crime.

The average person is unlikely to actually know statistics on these issues–do you know the recidivism rates of different kinds of released criminals off the top of your head? How about a breakdown of crime rates for the past three decades? There’s been a lot of talk lately about police shootings and race, most of which focuses around a few well-publicized cases, but how much do you actually know about the subject?

The dangers of making bad decisions based on manufactured moral panics ought to be obvious: you might literally burn innocent people at the stake, pass restrictive laws to stop non-existent problems, waste valuable resources, or completely miss real problems that actually need work.

And once people get deep into these kids of panics, it can be almost impossible to talk them back to reality. People tend to assume the only reason you would question the factual validity of the panic is to stop them from rooting out and destroying the evil. You must be on the side of evil, otherwise you wouldn’t be claiming it doesn’t exist.

Unfortunately, a discussion about the difficult task of, say, determining optimum levels of immigration and streamlining the system so it is fair and efficient, just isn’t as much fun as either yelling about how the immigrants are destroying America or yelling about how conservatives are mean to nice, beneficial immigrants.

The media also does a lot of lying about subjects that aren’t scares or panics, like the common claim that more school funding and more college will solve all of our problems.

4. Fiction: Obviously fiction is made-up, but most people don’t have Don-Quixote-style problems with books. Problems araise when book authors purposefully and consistently lie, which, by the way, they do.

They lie for two reasons:
A. To be interesting. If books reflected reality exactly, they’d be a lot more boring.
B. To push agendas or “educate” the reader.

I realized this after spending quite a while on writers’ forums, and reading a thread in which authors were explicitly talking about fudging reality. Sure, they said, the vast majority of time, X is like FOO, but why can’t it be like BAR? Why not portray X as BAR?

For example, sure, most math majors might be male, but why not a female one? And the best students in your class are probably disproportionately Asian, but why not black? Most penniless orphans remain penniless orphans, but why not have the child adopted by a rich, loving, childless couple? Most kids don’t really like school, but why not a book about kids who love school?* And I assume that most people in Pakistan are actually pretty happy with their own society, but why not a book about someone who wants to change things?

*(If school were really so much fun, we wouldn’t need so many books to convince kids that it is. We don’t have to read kids books about how awesome ice cream is, after all.)

Combine “the counter-factual is more fun to read about” and “I would like to encourage the world to think this way,” and books (sitcoms, movies, etc.) can give a distorted view of the world.

As a result, if your experience with X is primarily through literature, you may end up massively overestimating the likelihood of BAR. And if someone else points out that FOO is actually far more common, you may end up accusing them of trying to defame or lie about X, or otherwise acting in bad faith.

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