Points Of Reference
How our inbuilt tendency to assume everything is normal enables abnormal things to grow
We’re born small, helpless, and without prior knowledge. Children learn about their immediate environment as they grow and they assume that whatever environment they happen to be in is normal. This means that children growing up in cults or within zealously religionist families take their circumstances axiomatically as normal even as wider society considers such norms as aberrant.
We don’t change much as adults. Despite the enormous body of empirical knowledge assembled over the last five hundred years, religionists tend to remain trapped within their belief systems and remain almost entirely ignorant of real-world facts. People growing up in the USA automatically absorb notions about “the greatest nation on Earth” and consistently fail to perceive the astonishing gulf between hyperbole and reality. The British genuinely believe their woefully inadequate National Health Service is “the best in the world.” Moving from delusional beliefs to everyday norms, we assume our current approach to segmenting children by age at school is normal. We think that working five days per week in jobs we hate is normal. We think accumulating ever-more things we don’t really need is normal. Almost everyone, everywhere, carries around mental models that are at best only tangentially related to the facts, and almost everyone, everywhere, assumes their normal is indeed normal.
This means we all go blindly in whatever direction other people are also traveling blindly. After all, if Jim and Mary are doing it, it must be the right thing to do!
It is exceedingly difficult for people to acquire external points of reference that are reliable yet also emotionally meaningful. As we’re controlled predominantly by our emotions and only very rarely by any semblance of intellect, emotions overwhelmingly matter. The populist tsunami that has swept the globe since 2015 has been predicated entirely on unreasoning emotion and in consequence has been extremely successful everywhere. The results, of course, have been catastrophic but we humans have always been excellent exponents of denial. We believe whatever we’re told by purported authority figures, especially when it’s amplified a thousand times by the perpetually sensation-seeking mass media. And once we believe something we become incapable of assessing its implications and consequences.
Our problem now that we exist in a complex highly inter-connected global world is we lack stable points of reference that are necessary to enable us to make adequate decisions. We live in a world of manufactured reality tailored to the needs of the politically powerful and the commercially dominant. We buy with our own money shiny devices that listen to our every word and transmit them to — where, exactly? We neither know nor care because we’re like little children who are content with the toy they have in their hands, heedless of the fact it is coated with lead-based paint and has dangerously sharp edges. We vote for babbling morons who promise us safety provided we only erect enough walls both physical and legal to keep “them” outside, and we never notice that all we’re doing is building a prison around ourselves.
It’s a sad fact of life that most people are almost totally ignorant of almost everything of importance. Hence few realize that until 1915 no one needed a passport to go anywhere. This emergency measure was brought in during the Great War of 1914–1918 and was supposed to be dropped, but never was. And since then we’ve applauded as one government after another has introduced ever-more confining regulations regarding what we can and cannot be permitted to do. Whatever the rule, we rapidly absorb it as our new normal.
This is, of course, how all totalitarian societies come into being. The Soviet Union, fascist nations like Italy, Spain, Portugal, and Germany, and Mao’s quasi-communist China all acquired increasingly restrictive rules over a period of time and like the proverbial frog in water, ordinary people never registered what was happening. Everything was always, after a few days of adjustment, normalized.
In the last year we’ve witnessed a global restriction on individual freedom unlike anything ever seen in all of human history. We’ve seen billions of people corralled like cattle by hastily-contrived rules intended to protect politicians from being accused of failing to protect “their” citizens. These rules are purported to have been based on “expert” advice but it doesn’t take more than a few hours studying the supposed “science” on which this “expert advice” is based to realize that there’s practically no reliable empirical evidence supporting the panic measures. It’s all puff and noise, eagerly amplified by irresponsible media sensationalism. The harms caused have been immeasurable but the narrative remains the same. As the media lives entirely by sensationalism we cannot expect meaningful news, but billions tune into their favorite shows each day and accept whatever spurious nonsense they’re fed because everyone around them is doing the same thing.
Whether one is a dull-eyed “patriot” wallowing in the mindless propaganda of a right-wing outlet like Fox News or the Daily Mail, or a terrified “liberal” convinced that everyone is about to die of covid-19 by 14.30 tomorrow afternoon, the effect is the same: behaviors shaped by nothing more than empty assertions. Because everyone around us is chanting the same soundbites we have only this point of reference and thus those soundbites are our reality. We’re blithely unaware of the fact that when we chant them, we’re reinforcing the chanting of others. We fail to grasp that our behavior is influencing those around us just as their behavior is shaping ours. In short, we are unconscious cogs in a vast machine that has no destination in mind and is incapable of meaningful awareness.
Because we believe whatever we’re told we fail to notice obvious inconsistencies. Just a few decades ago, people attempting to cross into the West from the Soviet empire were lauded as heroes by the Western media. These were brave people, willing to risk their lives in order to achieve a better life for themselves. Today we call such people not heroes but instead illegal immigrants or terrorists. Yet for the most part they are the same kind of people we used to applaud: the exceptions who are willing to risk all in pursuit of their dream, who are fleeing from unbearable lives of privation towards countries that are so well-resourced that the vast majority of their citizens are fat, indolent, and complacent.
Just a few decades ago we were told that we lived in free societies where State surveillance would never be tolerated. Today we have brought Orwell boxes into our own homes, there are police cameras everywhere, and our phones ensure we can be tracked wherever we go. Increasingly we need apps on those phones in order to access basic services. And we now think this is normal.
A few years ago, pundits lauded the West as a place where human liberty was valued highly. Today we live in a world where governments tell us (for our own good, naturally…) that we must remain inside our homes, cannot have in-person contact even with our closest relatives and friends, and must comply with rules that quite obviously have no efficacy (if masks, physical separation, and ceaseless hand-washing really worked then why do we need all these lockdowns?). And we think it’s normal. We even embrace the Orwellian jargon of support bubbles and social distancing in order that we can feel part of the group because everyone around us is babbling about support bubbles and social distancing. But what lies behind these Orwellian jargon words? Support bubbles are really a near-total restriction on freedom of association. Social distancing is really being told that everyone around us is a potentially lethal threat.
In the UK, which persistently gets things wrong every time there’s a national crisis, young people are faced with signs on benches that tell them talking to their friends will kill people. Huge posters encourage people to “Act Like You’ve Got It!” which encourages mindless fear. “Protect The NHS!” tells people not to be inconsiderate by attempting to utilize a health service that the Brits endlessly proclaim as “the best in the world” even as their own reports show it to be mediocre at best (the Nuffield Trust points out that the UK has Europe’s worst cancer survival rates and falls far behind most European countries on a wide range of other outcome-related measures as well).
And all of this is quickly accepted by the vast majority of people as “normal.”
Our points of reference are always relative. As soon as something changes, we change too — and we don’t even notice. This is how societies fall into tyranny: one apparently small step after another, each step adding another bar to the cage, until we live entirely within the confines of a narrow cell which we take to be the normal way to live.
Of course during times of crisis urgent steps must be taken. But today everything is a crisis. The mass media relies entirely on endless sensationalism in order to generate revenues. Politicians are endlessly terrified of being held to account and being judged as having failed to do something. It’s far easier to do the wrong thing than to do nothing at all, because the media will crucify any politician who fails to jump high enough when the papers and the TV shows scream PANIC!
And so we live in a world of ever-more-strident media sensationalism which generates ever-more-foolish political responses. We live in a world of ever-more-fearful citizens clamoring ever-more-loudly to be “saved” from largely imaginary threats.
Illegal terrorist immigrants? Sure, it’s easy to report the miniscule number of former immigrants who do bad things, but who is reporting the fact that immigrants as a whole commit far fewer crimes than native-born citizens and that immigrants contribute far more to a country’s tax base than is ever used to support them when they first arrive? Sure, it’s easy to report the covid-19 deaths but who’s reporting that even the very worst-hit nations have only seen a per capita mortality rate of one-quarter of one percent, which is lower than deaths from smoking? Sure, the mass media gleefully provides details of airplane crashes, but who’s reporting that every day 100,000 commercial flights take off and land without incident?
The mass media screams death and terror on a daily basis not because this is an accurate depiction of reality but because it’s the most profitable course of action. And because sensationalism is a never-ending upward ratchet where each outlet must compete for eyeballs by being even more sensationalistic than its competitors, the result is an ever-escalating cascade of terror shoved down people’s throats.
And we assume this is normal.
After the advent of mass production it became normal (and remained normal until very recently) for people to smoke cigarettes, even though the evidence was accumulating even as far back as the 1920s that smoking and chewing tobacco caused terrible cancers. Today it’s normal for people to cram themselves with McSlop and Diabetes-Cola, even though we know without a shadow of doubt that these products are killing hundreds of millions of people.
Whatever we find ourselves doing right now is always normal. Even if, just yesterday, it would have seemed mad.
I am profoundly saddened by the fact most people fail entirely to realize just how damagingly abnormal our new normal is. On all sides we’re told to be afraid of those around us. If their skin is of a different hue then they are a “threat to our way of life” and probably even terrorists. If their skin is the same hue as ours then they are deadly carriers of invisible contagion. Our jobs will be stolen either by computers and robots or by people with skins of darker color elsewhere who work for less than we expect to be paid. Our planet is burning and everyone will either die of inundation or thirst because a shouty but highly telegenic little girl keeps telling us so, and we conveniently ignore the fact she offers only fear and nothing in the way of plausible solutions.
Fear, fear, fear. Mistrust. Resentment. Hatred. More fear. Always more fear.
No one is really planning all of this. There’s no vast conspiracy theory lurking behind the curtain. There are no cunning individuals plotting world domination. It’s just frightened foolish people doing stupid things, as frightened foolish people always do. One stupid rule leads to another in an ever-tightening ratchet of increasing fear and increasing repression, all in the name of keeping us safe. And people go along with it because they don’t have any real sense of the past nor the perceptiveness necessary to see that we are following a disastrous path. The few who perceive the dangers are powerless to change the course of events, just as those who warned against fascism and communism were powerless to prevent the events of the twentieth century. Because back then, in most countries, there were large numbers of people who embraced these ideologies as normal. Just as today there are tens of millions of religionists who embrace the normality of killing or suppressing other people because they don’t conform to primitive mythological ideologies.
Wherever we turn we see people embracing insane notions and behaving in insane ways that are rapidly normalized and then extended further. All these twisted normalities lead in only one direction, and that’s not a destination any sane person would wish to reach.
It’s a great pity we’re incapable of maintaining adequate points of reference against which to compare our increasingly dysfunctional and increasingly self-harming new normal, because few of us find it a healthy place in which to exist.