As I work on my book about the anticommunist black legend, I have become more and more aware of the world of lies we live within. We are like fish swimming in water and not even knowing it.
Almost everything we know about the world — and almost all of our understanding of that world — comes from other people. Not just from individuals, but from groups and institutions and social practices. We share minds with everyone else, just as we share the air we breathe.
We cannot understand reality without categories to classify reality and without a framework of understanding to give it meaning. Facts alone are no more meaningful than a handful of sand picked up along a beach. To even formulate a “fact” out of the hum-buzz of sensations is a far-reaching analytical operation. And even then the result is only a bare naked fact, a grain of sand.
We have the naive belief that we simply look around at the world and see things as they are. We are unaware that this seemingly transparent perception of reality depends on a colossal structure of assumptions, beliefs, categories, words, concepts, and that these are an endowment from the social world we live within. Just consider language alone. Language gives us a hundred thousand ways of packaging reality, and each package, each word and concept, is embedded in dozens, hundreds, thousands of associations which give it meaning. And where do we get our language? From within ourselves?
It is society which gives us our minds by which we perceive and understand reality. Understanding is social, collective. Our minds are collective minds. There is no escape from this. If we are individuals we are first and most collective individuals.
But our society is also a class society, steeply divided by privilege. Powerful forces dominate society. These forces also dominate our minds, even if we don’t want to admit it. “The ruling ideas are the ideas of the ruling class.”
The collective mind — which is also our own mind — is designed to serve human interests. Some of these interests are shared equally by everyone. We all profit from knowing how to boil water. But the collective mind also serves the needs and interests of powerful elites. It promotes and protects their domination and exploitation of the rest of us.
We are shaped to understand the world in ways that serve the interests of the powerful. Which means we are prevented from understanding it in ways that would serve other purposes. The powerless, the downtrodden, the exploited, the losers, must be induced to accept their fate. Maybe even embrace it. For this reason, the collective mind is filled with lies.
This seems like a trap. The forms of thought that encode those lies are the very tools we must use to escape the lies.
You can think of it like this: the collective mind is an encyclopedia. This encyclopedia is all we have. Some of its articles are true. Some are false. Some are partly true and partly false. How do we tell which is which?
Some of the lies are subtle and profound. They lie down beneath conscious articulation in the form of unstated assumptions and sensibilities. To excavate these is a labor of ages.
But many lies are obvious. All you have to do is look.
This is a point made by the Canadian philosopher Susan Babbitt. She is speaking about US wars and imperialism.
[People] want to think the US is “leader of the free world”. It is not hard to see – thanks to books, documentaries, declassified documents, journal articles, and conferences – that US foreign policy has nothing to do with freedom and democracy. However, we have to care to know.
She speaks about the “thin crust of lies,” undetectable, that “supports myths making it easy to explain away truths, even obvious ones.” And even more important, “our daily consent,” offered “quietly, comfortably.”
Unless you care about the truth you will never know it.