Friday, January 27, 2017

Wall-eyed

Google kindly explained an unfamiliar term I've noticed popping up:
"Gaslighting" is what people, usually powerful ones, do to break down others, usually less powerful, by getting the latter to question their own sanity. It's one of a number of terms cropping up in accounts of how authoritarian regimes dominate their populaces. Disinformation isn't just falsehood masquerading as truth, but an attack on the people's confidence in truth itself - and our capacity to know it. You can lead people away from reality to a fake world of certainties and authorities by stealth, but "gaslighting" works in a different way, since it seeks to undermine rather than anaesthetize. It works with lies that are egregious, easily falsifiable, and gratuitous, like the ones issuing from the new occupants of the White House. There are results only baldly big lies can achieve.

Or am I just imagining it? Is the president mentally unstable or am I, for believing reports suggesting as much from sources it's irrational to believe ("intelligence," "the media," "climate science") - at least when they describe such grotesqueries?

On my new phone there's a widget called "News" which offers a regularly changing set of headlines - four at a time. When I first got the phone, I selected familiar names from the media sources on offer, but more recently I've let it default, since it includes links to articles from sources I don't already consult. One of these sources is Fox, and from it I've learned about the alternate reality of which the sources I've so long thought trustworthy are in full denial. In any case there's no overlap with the New York Times, Washington Post, Guardian, Time, CNN or even Wall Street Journal - other regular sources in Apple's default mode.

In this foxy world, it's not the president who's unhinged but people like the hysterical woman in Florida - originally from Oakland - who was arrested for slashing a Trump sign (at a sign store!) because it was "ruining her chili"! Likewise it's not the president but the media who are obsessed with comparative inauguration turnouts. Loony celebrities at the Women's March (the big news about which was the hypocritical exclusion of pro-life women) were applauded for treasonous outbursts! Ill-bred children at that march confessed to setting fires! Meanwhile a black waitress at a Washington restaurant named Langston Hughes was delighted and astonished to find that three white guys from West Texas who'd come to town for the inauguration left her a $450 tip (on a meal of $72) since we're on our 45th president, with a note explaining that patriotism knows no color. In the face of such a swell of nationalist love, how to explain that my home state of California is contemplating seceding, having established that its values are incompatible with those of the rest of the USA, a "Calexit"?

My insanity takes the form of a nervous self-questioning. Are my usual sources as unbalanced? Have they not only failed to report on the happy harmony of America but made me unable to believe it when confronted with it? Can anyone be trusted who claims so insistently to be trustworthy, who keeps wanting to show you their evidence, and see yours, who accuses everyone of having an agenda but themselves? Who claim to take things literally when nobody else does, I mean really?

I don't want to close off access to this alternate world, because I believe that democracy works by constructing a shared world, and I need to know what others are being told is happening. It's not easy to bridge non-overlapping data sets with their inevitable relative distortions, but it's possible. People don't want to be misinformed. Well, they shouldn't want to be. It cuts me to the quick to see the quest for shared truth - that is, for truth - trivialized.

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