“We live, I regret to say, in an age of surfaces”
says that most exquisite of British snobs, Lady Bracknell in Oscar Wilde’s perfect play of manners “The Importance of Being Earnest”.
The abhorrent superficiality which seems to be the keynote of the modern age can be so demoralising, yet such superficiality has been the hallmark of much of human “society” forever.
Soundbites have replaced dialogue, memes, in-depth commentary. News is old before the day is done and often is a joke on the internet before the next day has begun. Everyone has an opinion and history is touted as something mutable, simply because each writer has a different perspective on the facts.
Was it always so?
Jane Austen commented in ‘Persuasion” that
“My idea of good company…is the company of clever, well-informed people, who have a great deal of conversation; that is what I call good company.’
‘You are mistaken,’ said he gently, ‘that is not good company, that is the best.”
So here we have a women of most extraordinary talent showing three hundred years ago that deeply satisfying, stimulating dialogue with people who are “well-informed” was a rarity. That she could exist in a world where stupidity and superficiality were the norm while never descending into bitterness or malice in her writing is a testimony to her great mind.
In a less articulate way, one of the characters from the English comedy ‘The IT Crowd’ summed it up quite succinctly.
“People! What a bunch of bastards!”
The only difference between the age of Jane Austen and the world today, when it comes to humanity as a whole, is how much more quickly we can discover the superficiality that floods all the media and succumb to the zeitgeist which calls us to be a part of it.
With a click of a button we can add to the millions of other voices now deluging the world with their views on religion, politics, conspiracies and a million other ill-conceived notions that lead people to leave a permanent record of their ignorance and bigotry via social media.
Where once the ignorant had to be content with gossip and rumour shared around the village well or in the rural market place, such idle gossip is now the property of the entire global community.
Little more than a hundred years ago Mrs Slipslop, who prided herself on knowing everything, could give her false opinions to the few hobbledehoys who, without education or understanding, trapped in a tiny village, would lap up her words as gospel truth. The rest of the world was unaffected by her prattle. Now Mrs Slipslop can jump on Facebook, or set up a blog or just spark off a falsehood on a global scale because she enjoys making up “fake news” for the sake of getting attention.
Are we to be, like the hobbledehoys loitering on the village green, victims to ignorance, accepting each piece of superficial trash we hear, or is it time to take stock and think a little about what makes us think?
God, or evolution (perhaps both) gave us reason, but exercising this is far harder today than it was in the past.
With so many mixed messages out there, dressed up as truth in fancy packaging, it is hard to separate the wheat from the chaff. In fact, it is in the interest of all media that makes a living of convincing you that you are right in believing and following them, that you preferably remain as unthinking as possible.
“But I pride myself on my perspicacity!” I hear you say.
But what makes you choose the beliefs you hold? What makes you defend with a dogmatic fervor your truth?
I know people who, to all intents and purposes, have excellent understanding and reason and yet will defend the most outlandish standpoints or conspiracy theories in direct contradiction to all their other behaviour.
There is a vast difference between keeping an open mind and embracing nonsense as truth.
One of the truest phrases in the bible is in Corinthians,
“We see through a glass, darkly”
To assume mankind is in possession of perfect knowledge is the height of arrogance and the cause of great danger. To believe we “know” more than our neighbours or have discovered “truths” only available to the illuminated few is the start of the slip onto dangerous dogmatism.
Tragically the extreme end of religious belief demonstrates how destructive a belief that one tiny group possesses perfect truth can be.
It is a rich and valuable thing for every human to reflect on their existence, the divine and even the profane. But to simply turn on the internet and search for truth is the most certain way of never finding it.
More than ever, we need to strive to educate ourselves properly before embarking on the alluring pathways through the internet. We should have a good knowledge of history, both our own and the world. We should have a good knowledge of our own cultural backgrounds and customs and understand the origins of customs and backgrounds of people around the world. We should appreciate art and understand the movements that developed in response to different times in history. We should have at least a basic knowledge of philosophy and world religions, not so we can decide what to believe, but to understand why others do so and why.
“But who has time for that?”
Take a moment to work our how much time you spend everyday idly watching the latest “reality” show, or browsing the internet. How many hours do we spend flitting from one distraction to another and never see it as time wasted?
I love the internet, I love netflix, dvds and blogging. but I try to intersperse this with some good old fashioned reflection and research.
So before you claim you have no time to educate yourself, take a look at what you do have time for and give some thought to the following. Perhaps it will make you think a little more about why you think the way you do and question some of the superficial beliefs you hold.
- What is the motive behind the information?
Who is producing the information you read or hear? Is it in their interest to have you believe their standpoint? A news outlet that can convince you to need to read what they have to say out of fear or anxiety will make money by playing to your emotions. A conspiracy website will thrive if it can convince you that it holds privileged information that appeals to the human desire to possess something that others do not or make you believe you are smarter, more informed or part of the “chosen few”. “Vanity working on a weak mind produces all kinds of mischief.” says the incomparable Miss Austen
- Is an ancient belief unquestionable because it has existed for thousands of years?
Once people were condemned as heretics because they discovered the earth was round. Not all ancient religious beliefs are immutable or unquestionable. Food laws in the old testament made sense where no modern medicine existed and you could well die from eating parasite ridden pork or unrefrigerated seafood. Homosexuality was feared in a society where all you had was your family clan to keep you from starvation and from want. To procreate was the essence of the family unit at a time where infant death rates and loss of females at birth was exceedingly common. To have a Seth or a Shem not interested in keeping the clan furnished with new family members was enough to terrify them into compliance with dreadful tales of hellfire and retribution. In Western societies furnished with welfare systems and reduced infant mortality rates does this clan preservation still have relevance today? Yet how obsessed are we still about the legitimacy of homosexuality in Western culture?
- Do you understand how the internet works
Fundamentally the internet exists, not as a philanthropic venture designed to give you access to all the knowledge of the world, but as a means for people to gain fame, exposure, win followers and first and foremost, to make money. This is not in itself an evil thing, but we cannot assume that the internet is there for our own individual good. Google, Facebook and most social media has embedded algorithms that monitor your browsing and compile your personal information so they can shape the information you receive. Unless you browse with absolute anonymity (a proposition which I question) you will receive, mostly unknowingly, information and suggestions that match your profiles and previous browsing history. This is great if you enjoy finding information on recipes or your favorite hobbies, but it is terribly dangerous if you are searching for truth. It is postulated that most people believe many of the nonsense on the net simply because they believe they are finding supporting evidence for the doctrines they develop, unaware that they are finding nothing more than complex algorithmic links to similar information (or misinformation) based on nothing more than that they have looked at similar information in the past.
The speed at which you can reinforce a preferred standpoint by searching the net is terrifying. The sheer amount of information gives you the impression that what you read must be true, as so many are saying it. I found for example that an extended search for paranormal “proof” videos on You Tube eventually leads to endless repeats of the same footage, re-branded or re-edited on video after video, but you have to spend a huge amount of time to find this out. By then, most people are hooked and believe. Put a person who has limited access to education in possession of a computer and start feeding them pernicious information and you can see how quickly fanaticism can be bred.
- Is “leaked” information the truth?
Many sights claim to possess “leaked” or “secret” information which give you the “real” story. Supposedly this information has been kept from the public so you are duped into believing the status quo. These sites might purport to have discovered the new “wonder” solution to weight loss or “instant six packs” or they may purport to expose the corruption behind major powers. Again, these might be interesting but they are usually fake or gross misrepresentations of the information they claim to possess. Is it really the case that most governments operate in complete opposite to public policy and interest? Does all classified information only exist to “cover up” the truth? Of course not, but people love a good story and distrust authority, so they lap up the information on these sites with little discernment or thought. Get enough people to spout this new “truth” and you launch a juggernaut that is very hard to stop.
It is a fact that so much of the hatred of the Jewish people in modern history stemmed from a fictional work, a chapter from ‘Biarritz’, an 1868 novel by the antisemitic German novelist Hermann Goedsche written in the mid nineteenth century which had as its plot a Jewish global conspiracy to control world finances. This poor work of fiction fell into obscurity until it was used as the basis of a Russian tract called “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion” purporting to be a “true” historical document and formed the basis of the doctrine of genocide espoused by the Nazis. Copies were published in hundreds of thousands of pamphlets by Henry Ford who believed it true and is even still in use today as a historical text in some parts of the world. If you think conspiracy theories are just harmless crank interests then this is the perfect example of how dangerous believing “secret/leaked” information can be.
So think before you think. Ask yourself why you believe what you do. Tease apart your beliefs and question yourself regularly. Is there such a thing as truth? I absolutely believe there is, but can we, as humans with only our limited knowledge an understanding, know absolute revealed truth? I cannot be so arrogant to assume I ever can.
The joy of life is discovering truth but keep an open mind and be prepared to adjust and rethink your views. Know why you believe what you believe and be willing to try and understand why others may believe differently and perhaps you can end your days a wiser and more enlightened soul than you were as a child.
Shakespeare summed it up perfectly 500 years or so ago.
There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.
Your mind is a precious and wonderful thing. Keep it open!