Beta Culture: Adrift in an Ocean of Lies

Beta Culture JPGOne of the things I have in mind for Beta Culture is a culture-wide focus on – and awareness of – lies.

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A quick aside: One of my Wise Old Sayings I Just Made Up is:

“Lies are camouflage for predators, protective coloration for the weak.”

Meaning I separate lies into two broad categories, based on the relative power of the entities involved. In other words, though I have strong feelings about not telling lies – I try to NEVER do it (which doesn’t mean I’ll answer every question asked; some of my shit is none of your business, or anyone’s) – if armed brownshirts came to my door tomorrow and asked me if I was hiding Jews in my attic, I would instantly and convincingly lie my head off, earnestly telling them how much I loved the Fatherland but thinking behind my totally-innocent smile “Screw you, Nazi jackwagons.”

So when I talk about lies here, I don’t totally exempt the “protective coloration for the weak” lies (and I certainly don’t think equals should ever lie to each other), but I’m mainly focused on the ones told by predators.

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Back to it:

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the subject of lies. In my estimation, we live in this massive sea of lies, but we’re so used to it we think it’s normal. Most of the time, we aren’t even aware of it.

Once you start paying attention, though, once you decide that living in a sea of lies is ABNORMAL, you really do start to notice. You stay in this perpetually astonished state, that so very many lies are sailed out at you, from a thousand different directions, in just about every moment of your day.

Give you an example:

I rented a Toyota Corolla a few months back when I drove up to Ottawa to Eschaton 2012. I observed that the speedometer was calibrated up to 150 mph. I didn’t push it, but I’d be surprised if the car would go much beyond 90 or 100.

So why did it say 150 on the speedometer? Not for me. My guess is that it was for this one person only – the guy looking at the car on the showroom floor. He’d look at it and go “Wow, 150 on the speedo! This is totally a powerful car!”

So there’s a bit of manipulative psychology – a little bit of up-yours – deliberately designed into the car, and only for that one brief moment. After you’ve bought it, you’d discover that the 150 was a lie, but hey, you would have bought it already. It’s not like you can take it back.

I can just bet that, reading this right now, most of you are thinking some version of “What’s the big deal? Everybody knows stuff like that goes on, and we all pretty much make allowances for it.”

But do we really? The fact that Toyota, a fairly reputable car manufacturer, sees fit to do it means they think it works. That we are NOT, in fact, making allowances for it, and successfully resisting the lies. That we’re buying the cars because we believe the lies.

(I don’t mean to sound like I’m picking on Toyota. I’ve owned several Toyotas, and I was buying their long-lasting trucks at a time when American automakers were screwing over buyers with 70,000-mile heaps of junk.)

I have to wonder, what would life be like if there weren’t so many lies in every moment of the day?

Regarding lies, there are three things going on in our current cultural surround, and all of them seem important to me.

A) One is, the auto manufacturer – and the thousand other purveyors of lies – believe it’s okay to manipulate you with lies.

Sure, there’s no guarantee the thing will work on any specific “you,” but on you-in-a-statistical-sense, it will almost certainly work. Meaning, no one person is guaranteed to fall for it, but there are enough people out there in the 300-million-strong U.S. market who WILL fall for it, just enough to buy a goodly number of Toyota Corollas.

The point is, succeed or fail, Toyota thinks it’s okay to TRY. To make the effort to lie to you in this small way in order to achieve an end result that benefits them.

And as far as society is concerned, it’s perfectly legal, perfectly justifable, and you-the-ordinary-little-fish are on your own. In the social fish tank in which we all swim, these multi-billion-dollar sharks can prey on you, and it’s okay. It’s not like they’re killing you, after all, it’s just a little fudging of the truth. And no one person gets hurt all that much. (You know, unless they’re COMPLETE idiots, and that’s pretty much their own fault.)

B) The second thing is that WE think it’s normal. The whole of our public lives (and for many of us, our privates lives) is predicated on the expectation of lies.

Really, in the case of Toyota and company, it’s no big thing. It’s just business. What would advertising be like if you couldn’t exaggerate, right? You have to bend the truth a LITTLE bit, or nobody would notice you or your product.

And hey, as far as politicians are concerned, you couldn’t have a political campaign without a few wowsers getting tossed out, right? After all, you can’t make everybody happy, so campaigning is the art of bending the truth so that each group likes you as much as possible, dislikes you as little as possible.

So, little-fishy consumer, you face the big-fishy corporations and big-fishy politicians and you take your chances. That’s just the way life is. Learning to see and deal with lies is part of growing up, y’know?

Doesn’t matter that they have the upper hand, with all sorts of psychology and manipulative tools that gives them free rein in bending you to their will. Doesn’t matter that little-fishy you probably has no more than your own one mind, with virtually no one else in your corner against them. It’s fair because … well, because it’s normal.

And hey, unless you can PROVE they’re lying to you, and PROVE that it’s hurting you directly, there’s nothing to be done. Because of “innocent until proven guilty,” they get the benefit of any doubt.

C) The third thing is this seemingly mundane but really rather amazing fact: If you don’t know what’s true in the world around you, you cannot reason about the world around you.

Let me repeat that:

IF YOU DON’T KNOW WHAT’S TRUE, YOU CAN’T REASON.

Seriously, if you don’t have any solid facts in your head, the mental process that might otherwise be labeled “reasoning” is anything but. You might proceed with the same mental gymnastics that serves everybody else as reasoning, but if you “know” that Toyota is totally trustworthy and totally on your side, or you “know” that George W. Bush is absolutely honest, absolutely brilliant, and absolutely patriotic, you’re going to get some less-than-useful results in your final estimation.

Think about the freaky reverse-reasoning built into some of our familiar religions. That death brings Life Eternal, or that the end of civilization would be a massively good thing. There are people who believe it utterly. They would fight you if you tried to tell them different.

Think about the utterly transparent lies and manipulations of FOX News, and the Tea Party founders. There’s this fantastically obvious foundational aspect of it all, that people can be convinced to vote against their own interests, and in favor of the interests of distant billionaires. Because of the lies fed to them daily, hourly, the victims are literally unable to understand their own needs, so much so that a true friend who tried to tell them they were being savagely manipulated, and to their own real detriment, would be branded a hater of all things good and right and American.

But even aside from those obvious examples, society-wide, we think lies are so normal that we barely protest them. If and only if a lie affects us in a directly negative way do we bother even to become interested. Otherwise, we seem to feel that it’s nothing we should get involved in.

But along that path we neglect to realize that an atmosphere of the casual acceptance of lies has a pervasive effect on society itself.

That effect, in my estimation, is deeply profound.

Yet at the same time, it’s almost invisible. It’s there, affecting every aspect of our lives –  if you don’t know what’s true, you can’t reason, and if your entire society doesn’t know what’s true, isn’t allowed to know what’s true, you have an entire society with a crucially crippled ability to operate in the real world – but it is immensely hard to see because our entire society, the over-culture in which we all live, evolved within that condition.

Lies are part of the nutrient broth in which our culture has grown, and this has been the case for thousands of years.

Entertain these ideas for a moment:

1) That every lie told to you has some effect on you, however small.

2) That there are so many lies out there that you have to fight, constantly, to know what’s true – a battle that not only taxes and tires you, but that keeps you in a condition of relative uncertainty and constant low-level stress (that might not even be all that low-level).

3) That an atmosphere of lies in society has an effect on society, that that echoes back into your private life as well.

4) That it doesn’t have to be that way.

Suppose you, little fishy, were backstopped by a culture that had a great deal less tolerance for lies. Suppose there were 20 million of you, or 50 million of you, or a billion of you, and you all KNEW, as part of your deepest sense of self and community, that lies were not okay. That certain lies were predatory. That you deserved better. And that you simply did not have to stand for being lied to by the sharks, however much they might think they had the right.

Suppose you walked out every morning with the basement-level certainty that in every business and political dealing – as strong in your mind as the feelings Amish men have about beards, or as Muslims have about pork – “You damned well DON’T lie to me and my people. There will be a reckoning if you do.”

It doesn’t matter right this instant that it’s hard to think about how this ideal might be carried out in real life. We’re so not-used to entertaining the idea of a low-lie society  that it’s tough to imagine how to bring it about, or enforce it. But can you at least imagine that life might be a little bit better for you, and the people you love, if the liars had to be more careful?

I can.

No, I can’t see the details just yet. I’m hoping that once the idea of Beta Culture catches on with people (if it does), that once a critical mass of people start thinking about it in earnest, mechanisms can be discovered or invented that will make the thing possible.

If nothing else, if millions of us someday simply decide we no longer have to put up with lies, I have to believe it will make a profound difference.

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  • otrame

    I know you are not talking about just advertisement, but it would be a good place to start. I remember my daughter-in-law mentioning that in the UK you can’t say something in an advertisement that isn’t true. Now, of course, you can use words carefully, and be deceptive while still telling the truth, but if you claim “This thing will increase your gas mileage by at least 20%” you better have an independent source of data that says that, indeed, that thing will increase your gas milage by roughly 20%.

    When I was a kid, there were similar rules in the US. I remember specifically that Listerine got into trouble for claiming something that wasn’t true (I was about 7 or 8, I think, which makes it a LONG time ago). I guess those rules were part of the evil regulations that made doing business so impossible for hard-working people is this great country.

    As for politicians…. wouldn’t it be nice if getting caught in an outright lie was at least embarrassing? People talk about how “immoral” our country is, but they never mean that.

    • trina

      Well that depends on if anyone bothers to check the truth of their claims!
      I remember Ribena getting in trouble a few years back because some high school students were testing various liquids for their vitamin C levels and discovered that their drinks contain practically none, despite being advertised as having 10x the vitamin C of an orange.

    • brucegee1962

      There are also ways that advertisements can lie while technically telling the truth.

      For instance, “No other toothpaste gets teeth whiter” just means that they’re all exactly the same. There are plenty of other examples.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100000827478206 jimbaerg

    Sam Harris has mentioned the possibility of a lie detector that actually works. Such a thing would detect when people are saying things they don’t believe, but I suspect a major part of the problem is people successfully lying to themselves.

    All religions, 9-11 truth, antivax, antinuke, & a host of other ideas are demonstrably bullshit, but I doubt more than a small minority of the people pushing these ideas are conciously lying.

    Getting people to recognize problems like confirmation bias in their own thinking would be a big help, but that will be a long battle.

  • katkinkate

    Then there’s all the lies we tell ourselves and all the ways our senses and brain fools our perception. Most of what lies advertisements can get away with these days are them taking advantage of the sloppy way our mind works.

  • katkinkate

    Should I shout ‘Jinx’?

  • Hank Fox

    I’ll give you two government-related non-advertising examples that jump out at me.

    1) Right after 9/11, when the dust of destroyed buildings still filled the air of New York City, Christine Whitman, the head of the EPA, assured New Yorkers that that air was “safe to breathe.” That was a total lie, and too many of the people who believed it — and their hapless children — ended up with long-term respiratory problems.

    2) Every government lottery depends on millions of people shelling out money, day after day, year after year, basically for nothing. For the illusion of great wealth which they will never, ever get. Lotteries are a predatory lie, sucking the life out of people who can least afford it.

    • brucegee1962

      I don’t entirely agree with the lottery thing. I think everyone likes to daydream a little about what they would do if they were wealthy, but are also honest enough to realize that they’re unlikely to ever win American Idol or get onto an NBA team. I don’t buy lottery tickets, but if I did, it would be with th understanding that it was purchasing the right to daydream.

  • jaytheostrich

    Personally, I would bet that car speedometers are standardized to some extent, and that’s why they all go up so far at the top level despite the crappy performance top of most cars. But I have often wondered in the day when they are all computer-controlled why they don’t cap out all cars at about 10 ticks past the highest speed limit of road in the country they are sold. That would cut boneheads trying to street race on major highways down a bit, and if you don’t do it on law enforcement vehicles, might cut down on duration of dangerous high speed pursuits?
    Just a thought.

  • otrame

    Lotteries are a tax on people who don’t understand statistics. *

    *not mine, but I no longer remember where I got it.

  • Randomfactor

    Without disagreeing with your essay in any way…are you sure the speedo wasn’t rated 150 Kph instead of Mph?

    I like the distinction “always provide accurate information–to those who are entitled to it.” Your customers are. Your lovers certainly are. The judge and jury are. Thugs and trolls on the Internet? Screw ‘em.

  • http://atheistpassivist.wordpress.com/ Kilian Hekhuis

    “IF YOU DON’T KNOW WHAT’S TRUE, YOU CAN’T REASON.” – Well, garbage in, garbage out, but that doesn’t mean the process itself is botched by the garbage in.

  • StevoR : Free West Papua, free Tibet, let the Chagossians return!

    Actually I think its more the other way around as in :

    If you can’t reason then you don’t know what’s true.

    How can you tell when people are lying or when information X is possibly false?

    Start reasoning and thinking – okay the speedo goes to 150 km but how likely is it it can actually go that fast?

    Start testing the hypothesis if you get the chance, eg. take it to a racetrack one day and see hw fast youcan drive it (but reasoning then also warns you, hey that might break the car! So maybe not? How much do icare how fast it goes?)

    Start assessing the source of your information and how reliable it is eg. its aused car salespersonand we know their reputation, then again I’ve bought three cars from the same yard and this particular salesperson car seller has never yet sold me a lemon or lied to me, etc ..

    Yes we get lied to, on the internet famously “No one knows I’m really a dog!” Or is that you? Or another commenter, you know the one whose always licking himself and talking about the car she caught the other week and how much he hates cats!?

    Point is, determining the truth of something is part of why we reason. The more we reaosn the moreliekly we are to tell lies from truth. Or am I mistaken?

    Reason also tells us -sometimes usefully – to be careful of being sucked inand believing only what we want to believe. Experience often helps that to if memory serves.

    A world without lies, a world with less lies? That’d be nice – probably – but reality is what is whether we want it to be or not.

    • TM

      If we are fed bad information that appears very convincing, then our ordinarily useful reasoning skills can lead us to a damaging conclusion. If one believes the lie that “water has memory,” it stands to reason that chemistry is wrong, and any claim a chemist might make is now suspect – after all, they didn’t take into account the “memory” effect. Some theists believe such vague claims as “god is love” and “all good things come from god,” and it seems only logical to them that atheists, due to their rejection of the concept of God, have rejected love and all things good…

      So I guess I would rephrase the statement as “if you don’t know what’s true, you CAN reason, but it won’t do you any good because you won’t have any confidence in the result of the process.” Hmm… it doesn’t have quite the same punch.

      Anyway, pure reasoning can help you find logical inconsistencies in a claim, but many lies are more like “this pill will help you lose weight” – they require some sort of empirical test, and as a “little fish” you may not have the resources or time to rigorously test every single such claim you run into every day.

  • StevoR : Free West Papua, free Tibet, let the Chagossians return!

    ^ Dang-nabbed gosh-burned typos and spacebar fails! @!$$#@!#@! Oh well, y’all get the gist anyhow I hope.

  • douglaslm

    I know the answer to the speedometer thing. Many speedometers work on an analog system (even the ones with a digital display) by measuring the rpm of the drive shaft. Because gauges are the most accurate in the middle of their full range deflection and the least accurate in the upper and lower 20 percent, the typical “cruise speed” is placed in the middle of the full range. Which means if you want a gauge with a mid-range at 70 you require an upper limit of 140.

  • Jim Johnson

    douglaslm:
    Good info, but it doesn’t really excuse the manufacturer. The display doesn’t have to go to 150 just because that’s the endpoint of a range centered around 70. The manufacturer could easily create a normal 0-110 dial, then calibrate the speedometer as you described, allowing the needle to push on past 110 all the way to an invisible 150, and it would function just fine – even if actually reaching that speed would break the speedometer in that setup, because the dial will never experience that high a speed since the auto cannot reach it.

    Mr Fox:
    I agree with everything you said, but I would add that my major frustrations about our culture of deception are (1) the fact that it’s no longer really acceptable to call someone a liar – even if they demonstrably are, the backlash against the person calling them out is so strong anyone witnessing it is hesitant to do it themselves if it is called for later, and (2) once someone’s caught lying, everyone just shrugs it off as a one time thing. If you are caught telling a lie, then everyone present knows you are a liar whose word cannot be trusted. If you do it publicly, then everyone who is part of that public knows it. Yet prominent people are caught lobbing whoppers all the time, and people continue to listen, even knowing the source is suspect.


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