The mess the United States is in right now began over 500 years ago, with the invention of the printing press. If you let me explain (this is a long one!), you’ll gain a profound metaperspective that makes sense of what appears crazy, but isn’t. I find great peace in that and perhaps you will, too. I hope you think your own peace and understanding is worth the time.
We begin with a crash course in the history of western consciousness over the last 500 years and what it means about today.
Prior to the Renaissance, reality was not negotiable like it is today. People operated with a “way things are.” Whether you were a Christian, Muslim, Jew, Hindu, Buddhist, etc., you were “all-in.” People didn’t weave together teachings and synthesize ideas like they do today.
This was an objectivistic era, meaning whatever your take on reality, you held it as objectively true and not subject to individual opinion. If you were a Christian in medieval Europe, it was because you were raised that way, and everyone around you was, too. You didn’t have freedom of religion; in fact, straying from your pre-determined would get you alienated at best and killed at worst.
Predictably, this got old. The clergy abused their power and got richer by selling absolution and working with nobility (remember “the faith and the crown” in Game of Thrones?). The poor but faithful got poorer. Around 1500, the invention of the printing press set in motion a radical shift in consciousness. It was a “big bang” of subjectivism that still ripples through our society today.
The translation of the Bible from Latin (that only clergy could read) into German, which was then mass distributed, allowed people to interpret what the Bible meant themselves; that is to say subjectively. It threatened the centralized power of the Catholic Church and empowered the people.
This led to the Protestant Reformation and hundreds of revolutions in Europe and its colonies as the (objective) Divine Right of Kings was attacked by the subjective point of view of individuals. After over a thousand years of being told what to think about reality, people wanted to make up their own minds. Over time, democracy as a subjective system of government replaced objective monarchies. Freedom of religion and speech became more and more the norm.
It’s hard for us to imagine what this must have been like. We take for granted the freedom of independent thought, speech, and the importance of the individual in ways that were heavily repressed until the Renaissance. The de-repression of the individual is why that time period yielded so much art, philosophy, music, etc.
But as George Bernard Shaw said, “A little knowledge is a dangerous thing.” Here’s a summary of some key philosophical teachings in chronological order. Notice the increase in the importance of the individual’s perspective and the decreased emphasis on objective truth.
Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) defined the “social contract” as self-interested cooperation which became the foundation of modern capitalism. He believed that humans were selfish (negatively subjectively-oriented) at an essential level and needed absolute monarchies to control their self-destructive tendencies.
John Locke (1632-1704) asserted that all people were equal and independent, and everyone had a natural right to defend their “life, health, liberty or possessions.” This was a direct source for the U.S. Constitution (written 1787). He also gave us modern conceptions of identity, and the first theory of mental conditioning, which is critical to argue the subjectivistic view; i.e. “each of us has our own take on reality because of our individual experience and conditioning, so who can say what’s true?”
Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) taught that an objective reality existed, but the mind’s (subjective) distortion of experience renders it unknowable. Therefore, reason (rather than scripture and clerical interpretation of it) is the source of morality, sharply departing from religion. He advocated for democracy and international cooperation, which obviously would include diverse, subjective viewpoints.
Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855) was dubbed the “father of existentialism,” an approach that emphasizes the existence of the individual as a free agent who determines their own development via free will (strongly against the determinism of the Church). He argued, “subjectivity is truth” and “truth is subjectivity.” He accepts objective facts, but argues that it’s more valuable to investigate one’s relationship to facts, because this is the genesis of behavior. Oh, what a slippery slope that turned out to be!
Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) gave us the idea of a “super-man” who has the power to create meaning because, he thought, there was no objective order or structure in our world. For Nietzsche, the subjective perspective was the source of our greatest power. The Nazis took this idea and ran with it, attempting to create their own Aryan reality.
Do you see the pattern so far? The rising tide of individualism, as a rebellion against persecution under objective Catholicism, changes the very way we as humans see what it means to have a life. The advent of psychology would take it even further.
Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) and others during this time created psychology that delved deeper into the individual, subjective experience than anyone before. He made a science out of examining exactly how people create their own unique realities through projections that serve to protect emotional wounding. Hang in there, we’re getting closer to the here and now.
Predictably, organized religion continues to wane in popularity for a number of reasons. Its objective foundations are eroded by increasingly subjectivistic sensibilities. To adapt, religions concede rigidity, but statistics show atheism and agnosticism on the rise as religions lose members.
The decline of western religion made space for interest in eastern thought. Buddhism first came to the U.S. with Chinese immigrants in the early 1800s, as well as by texts brought back from travels to the east made easier by improved transportation technology.
During that century, eastern teachings were clear in the literary works of American authors and philosophers like Walt Whitman, Henry David Thoreau, and Ralph Waldo Emerson. “New England Transcendentalism” was America’s first synthesis of east and west, centered in my hometown of Concord, Massachusetts.
By the 1950s and 60s, a number of Buddhist teachers emigrated to the U.S., Canada, and Europe and set up centers. These teachers and teachings were popularized by the leaders of experimentation in the 60s and 70s, featuring improvisational music, mind-bending substances, and advances in civil rights.
This was another peak moment in history for the individual, especially for women and African-Americans who gained (on paper) equality during this time as individuals. Remember that slavery wasn’t abolished until 1865 in the states–that’s how long it took for humans to see individual rights irrespective of color (and there’s a ways to go).
Ram Dass, Jack Kerouac, Alan Watts, Allen Ginsberg, Timothy Leary, and others made elements of eastern dharma-like meditation and radical self-inquiry “cool.” In fact, it was that generation that coined the phrase. But something got a bit mixed up in the process. Eastern dharma, primarily Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism, Shintoism, and Confucianism were all founded even earlier than western religions.
They were just as objectivistic as Islam-Judeo-Christianity, only with substantially different pictures of reality.
But most westerners didn’t adopt eastern dharma objectively. They didn’t see eastern teachings as an objective model to live by. Instead, they saw it as a means for their individual freedom and self-expression. Some people became monks and exhibited great discipline, but this was rare. It’s the masses that define the culture, and the masses headed toward the false freedom of “I-get-to-believe-whatever-I-want” subjectivism that humans have spent thousands of years fighting for.
This is where things get interesting. There are some tenets of eastern dharma that were subtly but critically misinterpreted in the late 20th century. For example, it’s popularly believed that the Buddha taught that “perception is reality,” meaning there is no objective reality and rather than the reality you experience is your own creation.
This is a profound oversimplification that leads to notions like “nothing matters” and the idea that we literally live in a simulation like in The Matrix. The Buddha taught that, and this is verified by psychology, that we create our reality through projection that layers on top of the actual reality.
But because we ourselves are part of reality, it means that in one way even our deepest illusions are real. Eastern teachers tell us we’re living in an illusion not as some kind of absolute truth, but as a strategy to wake us up. The more sophisticated teachers talk about how the relative, day-to-day aspects of life are just as real as the Divine Ground of Being, because whatever the ultimate reality is, would have to include everything and exclude nothing. Can you see the logic of this?
But the idea that the individual is actually creating reality itself is incredibly seductive to the subjective individualist. It offers freedom from the limits and boundaries that we as a species have struggled with for millennia, and the oppressive imposition of those boundaries from corrupt authority figures. For many less than scrupulous and/or rigorous eastern teachers, selling the idea that there is no objective reality is understandably tempting to a market that already has a rebellious nature.
To add to this conundrum, the idea that “perception is reality” holds a fair amount of truth. Most personal empowerment models today utilize what originated in Nero-linguistic Programming (NLP) as a “reframe.” One of the most powerful examples of this is when one changes their perception of a situation where they feel like a victim, to seeing their contribution to what happened.
This can be momentarily difficult, but lead someone to profound empowerment and change. So it appears that the person is changing their perception and changing reality, but it’s more accurate to say they change their experience of reality, such that they shift to a realer reality than where they were.
The popular notion that changing your mind can change reality requires that the mind be more powerful than Reality Itself, which is the kind of profound egoic and spiritual narcissism that is the hallmark of extreme subjectivism.
These distortions along with others are what produce the spiritual sub-culture of ungrounded, unrealistic, bliss-seeking New Age spiritualists who mostly do not realize what they’re doing: continuing to test the boundaries of subjectivism as a continued rebellion against oppression that still drives us in the collective unconscious.
In the end, everyone is on their own journey, and there is no value-judgment. We cannot know what someone should or should not do, but it may help to understand patterns in the evolution of consciousness so we might learn lessons an easier way.
The lesson for most human beings alive today is to find freedom within boundaries, where most people try to do so without them. As a species, we continue to pendulum into subjectivism further, and Life appears to challenge us to reign it back. The climate is changing, encouraging us to change our ways, yet many people (subjectively) deny this is so despite the overwhelming (objective) evidence.
The millennial generation tends to run entitlement and arrogance, and wants to command large salaries with little work experience, or become successful without “paying their dues.” The Trump administration coined the term “alternative fact” in 2016 regarding attendance to his inauguration, and the contradiction threatens to become part of our lexicon.
So is it any wonder that on January 6, 2021, a group of domestic terrorists attempted a coup under the delusion that the election results were fraudulent? This was a logical next step for the pendulum to swing to.
The question that has me on the edge of my seat is, “How far will subjectivism go before there’s a mass-correction?” Was the U.S. Capitol invasion a final straw that draws sufficient accountability? Or does it need to get worse before we wake up?
The important thing to see here is that, in context, the issue is not white supremacists, or personality cults, or any particular political party. The problem is the idea that people feel entitled to create their own reality irrespective of facts, which in the U.S. is protected by the first amendment.
If this scares you a little bit, then you understand what’s being said. We live in a system that encourages extreme subjectivism, and it’s easy to observe it’s gotten out of hand. The only solution I see is to make misrepresenting the truth illegal and enforce it as often as traffic violations. All we currently have is perjury, which requires being under oath, but what would happen if we had laws about truth like we did theft?
There could be misdemeanor lying like shoplifting, and felony level lying like what Bernie Madoff did, and many levels between. The Republican Congressmen who voted not to impeach Trump last week, when the direct evidence inarguably demands at least a trial, would be charged with felony deflection of truth. Conviction would cause them to lose office, and attend a rehab program for the truthfully challenged.
To be fair, Democrats do plenty of lying themselves, although not as boldly. Biden once alleged that Bernie Sanders was backed by nine Super PACs, which was untrue. Obama made a campaign claim in 2007 that there were “more young black men in prison than attend colleges…in America.” Fortunately, that wasn’t true at all, according to the Washington Post. It’d be difficult to demonstrate malintent, but I think it earns a $1,000 fine as a “misrepresentation of truth with the intent to influence a federal election.”
If one could demonstrate that it was done on purpose, knowing it was untrue (mens rea in law, the intention of wrongdoing), or that the person repeated the lie after being confronted with the truth, I’d call that felony 1st-degree lying, punishable by up to a $10,000 fine and required attendance to truth-rehab.
The clients in the rehab facilities could do the vast amount of fact-checking work that the new laws would require. That would give them a respect for the truth and an opportunity for them to give back to the society they lied to.
Leaders ought to be held to a higher standard of truth and automatically have exposed lies become a part of their permanent record, which anyone could see on a government website. In fact, it would make sense that anyone running for office would have to complete their truth-training beforehand.
Many “graduates” from the centers for truth-rehabilitation centers could become the truth-counselors themselves, because we’re going to need a lot of them! Journalists could subscribe to facts approved for public use to report. All of this would serve to incentivize and monetize truth, which is not the state of our world today, and why we’re in so much trouble: our current system rewards dishonesty with money and power.
Is the truth-police solution too “big brother” for you?
What if that reaction is the very problem?
I know what you’re thinking. This could be executed so badly that it becomes an Orwellian nightmare. Any good idea, including democracy, makes a mess when poorly executed. What if it could be done well? It could begin in a small town as an experiment and evolve and scale from there. It would take leaders of incredibly high integrity, who could be trusted to unerringly choose truth over their own comfort and/or personal benefit. And it would require rigorous checks and balances, the kind the U.S government is supposed to have but doesn’t.
How much of your reaction may come from the conditioned entitlement to make up your own reality? What is that costing us? We’ve experimented with taking our notions of freedom to degrees never thought possible. We can artificially make babies. We can clone sheep. We can genetically engineer food.
We can take every last drop of oil out of the earth. We can create substances like plastic that last 1,000 years. We can deny the existence of a virus or climate change and concoct conspiracies about it. We can pretend the loser of the election is actually the winner.
We can. We can. We can. We flex our freedom like a drunk teenager speeds around in their first car, unconsciously begging for boundaries, while they explore the limits of their power.
We are finding those limits as a species.
How about we ask a little bit more often whether or not we should? Can we find freedom within boundaries without rebelliously rejecting every one we come across?
I don’t know what it will look like, or when it will come, but there is going to be a reckoning. Everything has a price, and disbelieving that won’t make it untrue.
We cannot lie our way to freedom, avoiding the consequences of our actions. Whatever the inevitable correction is and whenever it comes, it will feel to many like a loss of freedom (just like reasonable attempts at gun control), and the fear of going back to a pre-Renaissance authoritarian regime will arise.
Consider the conditions that helped foment the Protestant Reformation, before our crash course began. The Great Famine of 1315-17 and the Black Death of 1347-1351 reduced the population of Europe by half or more. Popular revolts had already begun and civil wars between nobles and serfs were widespread, along with international conflicts like the 100 Years War between France and England.
What is now known as the “Crisis of the Late Middle Ages” is the darkness that birthed the enlightenment of the Renaissance. The printing press was a unique solution to a widespread, deeply and painfully felt problem.
First, in other words, things got bad. Really bad. Not COVID bad (1-4% mortality)…Bubonic Plague bad (50-70%) My advice? Buckle up. History tells us that extreme subjectivism will get a lot worse and do a lot more damage before the next renaissance, because unfortunately humans still learn best through suffering. I really hope I’m wrong.
The printing press, over 500 years ago, gave us the tool we needed to find our individual voices and think for ourselves. Now we do that so well we’re destroying ourselves. What is the 21st-century printing press that will help us move closer to reality?
To say social media is a printing press on steroids is an understatement of the millennia. It has been used to spread misinformation and change the outcome of elections around the world, most recently by Cambridge Analytica in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. But this isn’t really new, the Nazis pioneered propaganda about 100 years ago, yet we still haven’t seriously regulated free speech.
Before Trump was impeached last week (and he’s yet to be convicted), Twitter and Facebook suspended Trump’s accounts. By what authority? Do you see the problem? He wasn’t asked to leave a restaurant. He was cut off from an audience of billions of users.
These companies already have to function as a kind of truth police because they are dubiously accountable for disseminating misinformation. But the only reason they didn’t censor Trump long ago was to serve their own business interests, not to serve the truth. And this is not to fault these companies, as they have their own fiduciary rules by which they must abide. It’s to point out how unnavigable things are with our current system.
If, for example, Mark Zuckerberg decided to censor Trump before it became so obviously necessary, the members of Facebook’s board could have sued him personally for the damage it did to the company. That’s the pickle every social media company is in: disseminate dangerous information in the name of free speech or regulate it and risk alienating users, lost revenue, and exposure to personal lawsuits.
It’s absurd to expect companies to police their own allegiance to truth, without the training or the incentive, the same way Fox News and MSNBC can’t hold themselves accountable for sensational journalism.
What’s needed is a fourth branch of government to do what journalism (mostly owned by corporations) and the other three branches have demonstrated they cannot do: actually provide checks and balances to bring us back to truth–that thing that continues to fall out of favor while we wonder what’s happening to the world.
What will help people realize they can’t think critically? What will help people see their distorted conditioning is making their choices? What will help us bear the discomfort of being wrong? Can we afford to wait for people to “get it” on their own while it hurts them and those around them? Is it a civil right to be misinformed, confused, and deluded? Many people seem to hold it that way. What will make truth matter again in this beautiful world I care so much about?
I wish I knew, and I can’t wait to find out. In the meantime, it’s my honor to be a beacon for truth-seekers in a world of extreme subjectivism. In the meantime, let’s see if Trump tries to pardon himself. It’s an entirely predictable data point in the evolution of extreme subjectivism, the human obsession to escape the boundaries of reality.