Thursday, December 24, 2015

Falsehood and Marginality

"...truth is in order to goodness; and the great touchstone of truth, its tendency to promote holiness, according to our Savior's rule, "By their fruits ye shall know them."  And that no opinion can either be more pernicious or more absurd than that which brings truth and falsehood upon a level, and represents it as of no consequence what a man's opinions are.  On the contrary, we are persuaded that there is an inseparable connection between faith and practice, truth and duty.  Otherwise it would be of no consequence either to discover truth or embrace it."  (Presbyterian Book of Order, F-3.0104)

We're in a strange place right now in our national conversation, a place shaped by the wildly polar dynamics of our culture and the seething fever-dream of our socially mediated existence.  Reality itself seems to have no footing, and truth?  Truth is meaningless.

It does not matter if a claim is a misrepresentation of reality.  A Presidential Candidate can say that Muslims were celebrating the fall of the Twin Towers in America, and even though that is a bald-faced, raging, hateful falsehood, all he has to do is refuse to back down, and he's rewarded for it.  As he was for baselessly challenging the citizenship of a standing president.  An entire political party can organize itself in willful defiance of scientific evidence of a clear shift in the global climate, one where the Occam's Razor cause is clearly human industrial era activity.  Or deny that our benighted approach to firearms is not directly and causally linked with the repeated massacres in our schools and workplaces.  On the far right wing, the slur "political correctness" increasingly is just an attack on truth itself.

But it is not a question of just one extreme getting it wrong.

On the left, a movement can organize around a symbolic gesture, their hands raised in the air, even though the moment that inspired that symbol never actually occurred.  That it is a false, objectively debunked collective memory means nothing.  A crowd can gather, shouting, outside of a fraternity, protesting a crime that was nothing more than the fabrication of a mentally ill person...and then, when the rationale for their outrage is proved false, only respond with rationalizations and justifications for their outrage.  Academic postmodernity can assert, without batting an eye, that truth itself is socially mediated.  Meaning, bluntly, that nothing is "true," because truth itself is a fabrication.

What is most striking, in this, is that a willingness to fiercely embrace perspectives that are materially, empirically false seems correlated with marginality.

"The mainstream is inherently to be mistrusted," say the fringes.  "The truth is out there," say those who inhabit the margins, pointing even deeper down the path they're on.  "God is the the god of the margins," say earnest seminary professors.

Only, well, that tends not to be borne out by empirical evidence.

Those whose perspectives are most intensely radicalized are least likely to adapt those perspectives to countervailing evidence.  Those who have vested themselves--personally--in a belief system that demands radical binaries, a demonized "Other" to oppose, or in the principle of being "disruptive?"   Empirical reality, for such souls and movements, can become less and less relevant, replaced with confirmation bias and driven by ideology.

Marginality, culturally and memetically, often feels like the sociological equivalent of mutation.  That is not inherently dysfunctional.  Biologically, some mutations resonate with reality, and create a stronger being.  Many are immaterial, neither conferring benefit nor causing harm.  But a significant proportion are maladaptive, and result in either systemic dysfunction or the death of the organism.

Being disruptively marginal is ethically meaningless, because it can mean inhabiting places of darkness and falsehood just as easily as it can mean being on the leading edge of grace and hope.

The greatest danger of marginality arises from the same source that corrupts all human endeavor: our desire for power over others.  That is certainly true of the center of culture, which can react to the leading edges of change with oppression and hatred.  In the case of the margins, the danger comes from wanting to be the One with the secret truth, the one who has discovered something that no-one else has.  From a sense of powerlessness, we are drawn to the extreme, to the different, to the radical, because it makes us feel like we are more significant than the ignorant, shallow masses and in "control."

That desire was the great sin of Gnosticism, that early Christian heresy that cast Jesus as a purveyor of secret magic for the powerful.  Gnostics trafficked in codes and mysteries, comprehensible only to those initiated into the circle of power.  Humanity was damned and doomed, with only those who were strong enough to get the secret of Jesus allowed to survive.  The Gnostic Jesus does not seek out the lost sheep.  He seeks out the fattest, strongest, best sheep.

That's the strange fruit of our polarized time, as the straining edges of our extremes move outside of the bounds of the real, and into the dark phantasm of our delusions.