How Is It We Know

...And Act Otherwise?

I first wrote about this issue in 1999 - one the the early entries in this Notebook. In the nearly ten years since then, the same questions keep coming back to me: why is it we do not better meet our commonly held standards? Even if we have distinct disagreements in regards many issues, what would be the social consequence if we did, at minimum, act appropriately where there is broad consensus? Are our actions, in fact, the real reflection of our values and the standards and those we talk about merely a smoke screen or, at best, a weak aspiration? Is the breach between our advocacy and our individual and social behavior getting wider as it seems to or is it our “reporting” of these things getting better? Is this gap the reflection of changing values or a failure to practice them? Is the size of the gap the consequence of a greater aspiration or a lowering of morality? How is it that almost all media, entertainment and art can be understood only if certain values and standards are indeed agreed to, yet the reality so parsimoniously evident in out society? Is the almost relentless focus on these values merely propaganda? A huge distraction to keep attention away from what is actually happening? A seduction to promote self-righteousness satisfaction without the necessity to take action? A vast intellectual Ponzi scheme?
The term which keeps coming to mind is MENDACITY.
December 1, 1999 Entry [with edits]:
The Cain Mutiny is a complex story with many shades of good and bad. There are no players who are totally right - or wrong. It is a real world drama of the clash between competing requirements and agendas. Yet, for all that, it is not that difficult to sort it all out. In the the end mendacity is revealed. This is an excellent novel and movie to illuminate my question: how is it that movie after movie, we “see” human character for what it is - in all of its varied forms, in a media that depends on a high level of consensus to be effective in delivering its message - yet we continue to support and follow the social “norms” that the movies almost universally reject?

This is the question. Take the crudest sitcom, grade B or best-made movie. We seem to know what is right. We see mendacity for what it is. Good wins or, at least, is seen for what it is. There is a great deal of social agreement about these things even among those of different political and moral traditions. Why then? Why do we make, by default, a social world that is so different than our commonly expressed values?


Answer this and you answer a great deal. Our Art shows us that we should be and can be. Yet, we let our lives be less - far less.


This question haunts me. I really cannot resolve it. It is not that we do not generally know - it is that we deny what we know. Why? Where does the fear come from? Why do we think “we can get away with it?” You can read back 500 or a thousand or longer to dawn of documented civilization years and see this awareness existed. The difference between then and today seems to be that today it is not as much an issue as in prior times. Let the lawyers sort it out seems to be the prescription. Is honesty even expected?




In the past of few options and poverty you could almost explain it away. In our world today, how can you? If anything, we fail to match the courage and integrity of our forebears who had far more challenges than we do and lived in a world where the consequences of dissent were much greater.


When will humans have enough security, wealth and practical power to do what is right rather than what is expedient? When will humans learn to live in a way that does not lead directly to killing one another and other life forms? Few of us would go up to a baby bear cub and blow it away but our policies and the way we design our habitats, economies and infrastructure systems is killing at an unnecessary and unprecedented scale. From animals, to disenfranchised human populations, fauna and the planet itself, it is all one vast killing field. All life has become a commodity.


It is simple is it not? Stop doing what you believe to be wrong.


It is one thing to disagree about what is right. There are complex issues that mean finding the best path a long and exacting process. Legitimately held opinions can be different on complex issues. But for a beginning, why cannot we just do what we all agree to be appropriate and each of us does believe to be best?


This, at least, eliminates bad faith and deliberate compromise.


In the Cain Mutiny, for example, the right and wrong of it is clearly drawn. Not that the issues are presented in an over simplistic way. One can have a degree of sympathy for each of the characters and totally agree with none of them. But the themes of duplicity, cowardliness and evasion are left un-compromised This is not a complex tale and not simply a collection of cliches either.


There are hundreds, no thousands, of stories like this. They compel at the time. Yet... As a society we seem not to learn. Do we not believe there will be consequences? Do we believe that sometimes it is possible to get by? Do we believe that there really is no choice? Do we just not think? Can we not see beyond the immediate consequences? Can we not connect fast food with cows with rain forests with our personal health, child obesity and the health of our planet?


Employing the Cain Mutiny as an example is apt - when we act in this manor it is a mutiny. A mutiny on the good ship commons. We leave the human race a little less each time. We compromise ourselves as individuals. We destroy aspiration. The infrastructure of our society is neglected and its institutions compromised. We survive by not seeing as seeing is too dangerous and painful. As individuals, most do their best in what only can be described as a very strange social circumstance. As a society, our actions are simply clinically insane. Yet, in our humor we know idiotic and self destructive behavior - we laugh at it. In movies, novels and plays we know dignity and heroic action, we can see stiffening mismanagement, abuse of power, thief for what it is, and wonton murder. We very nicely follow social protocols and stand in line to visit these entertainments then in the world of our daily lives destroy almost every virtue we pay to see again and again... and, again.

Is this not strange?
July 18, 2009 Update:
The term MENDACITY means the tendency to be untruthful from the post-classical Latin mendacitas, from Latin mendax, mendax, lying. Mendacity in a single person, while not admirable, is one thing. There is usually a motive. An individual may be seeking to hide something s/he considers shameful or may be seeking to gain something without merit. While not likeable nor noble, this can be understood. The mendacity I speak of here is of another kind and magnitude. It is when a society chooses to systematically lie to itself.
This is certainly not an uncommon trait in human society yet the scale of it today, in combination with our present circumstances, is without recorded president. That this is generally true, globally, I think can be argued. In terms of the U.S., which I can directly observe and engage with, is without question.
There is no question that one’s goals and moral ideals will exceed practice - else what value are they? If they were the same there would be no difference, hence no information, feedback, learning and growth. However, there must be aspiration. In the U.S., today, it seems to me that we have seduced ourselves into believing our own propaganda. While we have many factions each believing they hold the truth, each of these act as if for them there is little need to improve just the requirement to get others to understand and change. As a society, we look upon the rest of the world as far behind us in almost all respects. Rhetoric has been confused with reality. since we are the epitome of our values and our values are prefect, there is no difference between them and nothing to learn or aspire to. What is left is to get others, defined as anyone with the effrontery to disagree with us, to accept what we say and do what we want. If necessary, reluctantly of course as we are a compassionate people, we will use force to see that they do so. Meantime, more and more, our collective actions seem more like the actions of the villains in our popular media while we assert louder and louder that we act according to our highest ethical, moral, religious, philosophical and political principles.
It is not that there is not controversy and dissent in our society. It is that each group accuses the others as being in violation of our ideals. Not everyone can be right about this. And, when challenged from outside, we rally together to declare the rest of the world wrong and ourselves as the last shinning light of freedom and moral worth.
There are notable exceptions of course but it is amazing how they can be shunted aside, made suddenly marginal when they cross certain covert yet broadly known lines. Even famous, noteworthy and well established people can quickly be excommunicated from this club which has no name yet all of us are expected to belong.
What is interesting is that it is these people, no matter if they be just ignored, die discredited, ruined socially and financially, are killed or sometimes miraculously triumph proving their cause right, are the very heroes in our movies, TY shows, books and popular myths. And, the establishment presented to be almost totally venal and wrong. Yet, this huge disparity is rarely spoken of, pointed out, or it seems even seen. When it is recognized, it is usually via humor. As I have pointed out, humor which would not “work” except that we really do “know” the contradictions being pointed out.
To many Americans, this cartoon from the 05 World Economic Forum Meet in at Davos will not be seen as humorous. It may be considered offensive - an example of a degenerate “old Europe” point of view for we know that 9/11 was the worst atrocity in modern times taken against a nation that did absolutely nothing to provoke it; a nation that had done everything possible to advance freedom and help others with no gain in mind for itself. I remember a U.S. Senator try to, patiently, explain to a group of European and Middle East leaders how this was so, how we were totally blameless and our response completely reasonable, balanced and justified. This was a session to discuss the split between the U.S. and Europe and was attended with good will from people on all sides of the issue. While harboring no ill will for the U.S., these leaders could not comprehend what they were being told and the Senator could not comprehend that they could not.
Yet to anyone - no matter from where - who had diligently studied history and politics of the last 200 years, traveled to many counties who had experienced terrorism for decades - even hundreds of years, the irony of this cartoon can be seen particularly upon experiencing reentry into the U.S. at the time it was drawn. Nothing can justify 9/11. To say that we had no part in its making and it was an act of envy and dislike of our accomplishments is at best naive and at worst pure propaganda. I argue that anyone who had enjoyed a fair sampling of lauded popular American media would see through the propaganda in a minute. Except...
Except for a paradigm which allows us to see the inanity of the same thing in one context yet not in another.

Matt Taylor
Flying from Detroit to San Francisco
December 1, 1999

July 18, 2009



SolutionBox voice of this document:


click on graphic for explanation of SolutionBox

posted: December 1, 1999

revised: October 4, 2009
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(note: this document is about 10% finished)

Copyright© Matt Taylor 1999, 2000, 2001, 2005, 2009

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