I am aware that I wrote an article not long ago with the exact opposite headline: You Aren't What You Eat. The point in that article was to highlight the many ways in which nutrition experts have let us down.
Today's article stirs the mud around a related topic. We humans are profoundly affected by another type of consumption besides what we put in our mouths, and that is what we put in our minds. I will use some analogies to bodily nutrition to help explain the point, which is that we are consuming an unhealthy diet of ideas which is making both us and our societies sick.
You will find inspiration in this week's Moral Letters. Moral Letter 111 On Clever People talks about the difference between cleverness and wisdom. We need much more wisdom and much less cleverness to solve our overconsumption of tainted ideas.
Moral Letter 112 On New Students explores why the will to change is necessary for progress but is insufficient for most. Breaking free of our existing modes of thinking and believing is hard, especially when everyone around you continues along the old path.
I am going to wish you both wisdom and a resolute will in following along today's argument. I hope you will be inspired to consider that, at least as it regards our minds, often we are what we eat.
Most people believe they are directly affected by the food they eat. Hence the successive panics resulting in regulating various components and micronutrients in food: salt, fat, sugar, lactose, gluten, GMO, hormones, and much more. It's as if we assume our body is just a physical machine, and so the food we put into our body is going to have a clear impact on how the machine works. It's just chemistry!
In contrast, people act as if their mental processes have a master governor overseeing everything in the form of our minds or consciousness. As a result, we seem indifferent to the impact of the ideas we consume because we assume we can control what we think.
Consider how badly nutrition science has performed in understanding how our bodies operate, mere machines. The consuming public suffered repeated gross errors from scientists underestimating the body's complexity. By focusing on just a small piece in a carefully controlled lab environment, they thought they could explain the whole system and failed badly.
Is it possible we have similarly underestimated the mind's complexity? Maybe there's more going on in our heads than the conductor in our consciousness we imagine is carefully and logically orchestrating our lives. Why is the prevalence of mental illness among adults higher than it's ever been? Why are more children depressed and even suicidal than ever before?
Everyone has a theory, and a supposed villain that is the cause of our problems. I am sure you have some ideas about why people are so messed up today. But keep in mind that that pretty much every decade in modern times has experienced some sort of moral panic. They each fingered new and different culprits:
- In the 1950s, youth were being tainted by rock and roll, which they turned to in rebellion against the overly conservative and restrictive systems of their parents.
- In the 1960s, it was hippies and their folk music and psychedelics who led the counterculture movement.
- In the 1970s, women's liberation became mainstream, as monogamy declined in favor of the sexual revolution.
- In the 1980s, our mental malaise came from marijuana. Remember "Just say no"? Moreover, we were told that MTV and heavy metal were the sure cause of decay.
- In the 1990s, we knew that violent videogames were turning our children into future monsters.
- Since the turn of the century, the stress of modern life itself was rendering new generations hopeless. Social media opened up the whole world to insecure youngsters' comparisons, and they didn't like what they were seeing.
Psychologists love to conduct experiments isolating the impact of one narrow effect and then suggest that the quirks and biases they've uncovered say something about the whole person. With an undergraduate degree in psychology and years of study, I can tell you that any simple explanation of why a person behaves the way they do will be incomplete.
That said, can we say anything about how the mind works and how people come to form their ideas? In some ways, psychology has been much more successful than nutrition. If we still cannot say exactly what we should eat to maintain a healthy weight, we have learned a lot about how to influence and manipulate people.
The science of propaganda has a long and dark history, but that's because it works and repeatedly has been put to nefarious purposes. Here's an excerpt from a 1930 text Social Psychology: An Analysis of Social Behavior:
propaganda means an effort deliberately to manufacture popular opinions and attitudes and thus to control popular conduct; and usually the implication is that the aims of the propagandists are concealed. The objects of propaganda do not know the purposes of the makers of the propaganda. Propaganda then is the propagation of ideas, opinions and attitudes, the real purpose of which is not made clear to the hearer or reader.
When as many as two-thirds of Russians say they support their country's war in Ukraine because they are fighting Nazis, we have a real-time demonstration of the power of propaganda. When you read that almost no Chinese under the age of 30 have any knowledge of the Tiananmen Square massacre, we have another demonstration.
I've been thinking recently about the prevalence of propaganda in the West. We are by no means exempt from people trying to deliberately manufacture popular opinions and attitudes. I wrote about this a while back in Are You Spreading Propaganda Knowingly or Unknowingly?
In some ways, because of our democratic systems, we are even more routinely subject to such campaigns. Our politicians gain power in part by detecting the winds of popular opinion and then riding along, but also in part by seeking to shape popular opinion in ways they think will be to their advantage.
Every time you hear a complex topic reduced to a catchy slogan you are being propagandized. It happens to us so frequently that we scarcely notice. Look at how any significant legislation is described by both sides to the debate. You will see almost no substantive discussion of the actual law because laws are complex, and it takes time to discuss them accurately. Instead, you see a scramble to label the law with a slogan that the media will then repeat. Was Florida's Parental Rights in Education Act an "anti-grooming" law intended to keep sexual predators from harming elementary school children or a throwback "don't say gay" law?
Since I retired, I've been traveling around meeting with people across the country. I'll tell you what's both shocked and frightened me. Not that people have different ideas and beliefs on hot button topics. That's to be expected. But that people I know to be smart and assumed to be well-informed had obvious and serious gaps in their basic information. They held opinions in good faith but were acting without all the facts.
When first confronted with this scenario, my initial response was to interject the missing information into the conversation. Have you heard about X, and doesn't Y change how you feel? Here's where the scary part comes in. People genuinely don't like to contemplate the idea that they may be wrong. We think we're good, logical people. Thus, when someone points out an inconsistency, a missing fact or something that would require us to admit we were wrong, the overwhelming response is to dismiss both the information and the person supplying it.
I don't want to give specific examples of my conversations, because I would send a number of you into cognitive dissonance. That is, you'd say, "I never heard of that. What's James talking about? I know my sources are good. He must be crazy." And you'd dismiss my whole argument as flawed. It's easy, though, for you to recall times where some idiot disagreed with you on a basic point. They were so obviously wrong, they either ignored facts or simply didn't know fundamental things. That's what I'm talking about.
Come back now to your faith in the idea that you have a mental governor (or mind or consciousness) that regulates how you think about the world. You can consume any media and make up your own mind what your values and beliefs are, right? Well, if that's so, how do you explain the average Russian or Chinese person's beliefs? Surely you don't think their minds work differently than ours.
Not to stretch the analogy, but there is every reason to believe modern media is feeding us a diet of junk food. Blatant propaganda that, because we're force fed it, we come to accept. Much of what we think we know is wrong. And people are missing vital nutrients from their diet of information and ideas. As a result, we don't know what we don't know.
Is there any solution to this problem? I am not sure. My advice is to keep an open mind. Be less sure about what you think you know. Allow for the possibility that you cannot so easily control what you think, and that you may be influenced by what you consume. That chances are good none of our media is impartial, even though I know you think yours is. If we are being propagandized, even a little, remember that consuming poison is never going to make us healthy.
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