John Higgs, in his most recent newsletter, begins by mentioning a piece he wrote for The Big Issue proposing that the super-rich be put in prison, and comparing it to the political notion now known as limitarianism (which is pretty much the same idea, just without the prison bit).
Typically modest, Higgs discounts any possibility that his article did much to advance the cause in the public eye, before turning to a more personal point:
I did learn something useful from writing that piece, though. While I saw it as a bit of a lark as I was writing it, I found that afterwards I stood by it and believed in its argument – regardless of whether anyone else did. It fitted my prejudices and baggage and I found it convincing. This taught me to be careful as a writer, because when you write something down, you trick yourself into thinking that it’s true.
Normally you have a whole mess of differing thoughts and contradictory ideas sloshing around in your head, and the amount of credibility you grant them varies from day to day. The act of writing something down turns a fluid and changeable notion into something definite and fixed, and this seems to trick the mind into thinking that it’s true. You no longer have to worry about it anymore. You just stand by it.
He goes on to suggest that this dynamic may explain some of the problems with social media, though that feels like a bit of a stretch to me: perhaps I was just always doing it wrong, but for me the problem with social media was precisely that one didn’t spend much time elaborating one’s position or argument before hitting publish.
Because I very much recognise the writing-as-road-to-Damascus phenomenon that Higgs describes, and have for a long time summed it up by reference to the Joan Didion quote:
(As is often the way with such aphoristic notions, it turns out that a lot of people have said or written something to this effect, to the point that attribution is quite a challenge unless you pick a particular expression of the idea. It was presumably easier to assume your own coining was original back in the days before some smart-arse could g**gle it and accuse you of plagiarism.)
Higgs goes on to warn of the risk of writing about things you don’t really believe, lest you come to believe it in spite of yourself. One wonders if there’s a buried wisdom here, given it’s coming from someone who has long been a fellow traveller of Discordianism? After all, if anyone has seen up close what can happen when people start not only believing their own PR, but believing the PR that they themselves concocted as an elaborate cosmic joke at the expense of a reality upon which they had decided to play pranks, then it’s surely the guy who literally wrote the book on the KLF.
But is it that easy to convince oneself of something without there being any preexisting basis for believing it, whether in the world or in oneself? We make a mockery of those “just asking questions!” guys on social media—and with good reason—but would we still mock them if the questions they were asking had implicit answers that were in line with our own worldviews? (Note Higgs’s own qualifying statement in the passage above: “It fitted my prejudices and baggage and I found it convincing.”)
I am reminded here of the old line about how “reality has a liberal bias”, which with hindsight should have been taken as some sort of warning about the imminent and comprehensive faceplant of liberalism that followed it. If, as Higgs suggests—and I would cautiously agree—one can write oneself into pretty much any set of beliefs, what basis remains for assessing their truth or falsity? This is our old friend the postmodern condition, of course, which—despite all the wishful thinking from every point along the political spectrum—has only become a more plausible description of things than it was when first proposed.
Or, more plainly: we feel like we’re drowning in propaganda, precisely because we are drowning in propaganda.
I’ve joked before that I’m old enough to have lived through the great ironic reversal of the promise of the internet. When I was reading WIRED and listening to Jesus Jones1 in the mid-90s, the great thing about the forthcoming information superhighway was that it was going to give everyone their own voice; now we look back at the three decades since then and reflect that maybe we didn’t want everyone to have a voice after all.
Gags aside, and to return to the point that Higgs was making, we might this explain a lot of the ideological flux of the moment as being less due to people being passive victims of propaganda, and more due to their active participation in propaganda.
There’s a lot of directions in which one might take that argument—one of which would be to use worldbuilding as a model for the phenomenon in the frame, and I will aim to return to that idea soon. But for now, I think the most important implication of this conclusion is that passive and/or prophylactic approaches to media literacy, no matter how sincerely aimed at making the ideological playing field flat and fair, are doomed to failure at best, and counterproductivity at worst.
It may not be a comforting thought—it is not such for me!—but nonetheless: stories cannot be fought with facts, but only with better stories.
- No regrets, yo. ↩︎