I was listening to a very smart man give a brief presentation on the history of New York City, focusing on the fact that New York is the only major US city founded on the bedrock of trade. To illustrate his point, he described how the Statue of Liberty, one of, if not the most prized landmarks in the US, came to be. That it was a gift from France to celebrate America as an icon of freedom and democracy, a country that welcomes immigrants with open arms. Lies!
It was actually the tireless, life-long effort of an impassioned French sculptor, Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi, who relentlessly pitched a number of governments and cities on his vision to build a massive lighthouse in the shape of a woman from around 1867. Upon failing to find a city willing to fund his dream, he conceived various crowd-fundraising tactics to construct the statue in Paris, such as charging visitors admission to watch it’s construction and petitioning the French government to run a national lottery.
Eventually, it was the American newspaper magnate Joseph Pulitzer who helped him finish building it and find a home for it in NYC. Together, they coined a brilliant marketing strategy, whereby every individual who donated a mere penny to the cause had their names printed in Pulitzer’s newspaper. The result? A dramatic increase in public donations from readers excited to see their names in print, a huge bump in circulation for Pulitzer, and a grand statue of ‘Liberty Enlightening the World’ (in French – La Liberté éclairant le monde).
Oh, and one more thing. The original design was not the Roman goddess Libertas, as we all know the statue to be. It was in fact ‘a colossal woman holding up a lamp and wearing the loose fitting dress of a fellah, a slave, to stand as a lighthouse’, which Bartholdi envisioned standing at the entrance of the Suez Canal. Yep, you read that correct – the Statue of Liberty was originally designed to depict a fat slave…!
Needless to say, I was left speechless. Colossally blown away. Amused, confused, enlightened and for some reason, a little scared. What other nefarious lies have been fed to our wanting minds over the centuries? How much has history been re-written to serve a desired narrative? (Answer: a lot.) How does the truth get buried so deeply, and/or the myths and fables take hold so determinedly?
Even scarier, what will the humans of 4015 believe about the ancient civilization of 2015? Will the history books speak of inequality, terrorism, climate change, injustice, greed and inaction? Or will they be reading about the defeat of ‘evil Islam’ and the much needed ‘natural drowning’ of the nations and cities that ‘chose poverty and lawlessness’? (Note: it may not be ‘humans’ reading the history books, but robots. And they’ll likely not be ‘books’ per se but digital scripts of zeros and ones.)
Later on, the very same day I learnt about La Liberte, I caught a glimpse of how rapidly misguided information spreads, a strange bitter taste of facts misconstrued. I was engaged in a warm conversation with a seemingly educated woman about her business. As I was about to leave the event, she calmly asked me: ‘Oh did you hear about the news in Kenya today?’ I looked at her with my eyes switching from subdued interest to wide-eyed terror. ‘Today? What news?’
Please note: 1. This was Saturday, 14 November 2015, the day after the horrific ISIS attacks in Paris.
2. My phone had been dead for over three hours…
‘A bunch of students were killed! Over a hundred I think!’, she exclaimed. ‘Wait, what? Today???…’ Naturally, my entire being went into panic mode, imagining the worst of the worst, cursing my dead phone, confused and terrified. I asked her to kindly show me her phone (that she didn’t rush to it immediately upon seeing my trembling hands baffles me). She grabbed it, and opened up Facebook. Facebook! No, not CNN, or BBC, or even TMZ, but Facebook. As she scrolled through her news feed trying to find the ‘source’ of her breaking news, my panic began to evaporate, with stirs of irritation taking it’s place. ‘I just saw it, it’s trending on Facebook right now!’ My eyes glazed with fury. Eventually, she found her ‘source’, a post from a friend linking to an article about the attacks on Garissa University. Yes, the link did clearly state the date – April 2, 2015.
Now, there are a lot of ways to interpret this well meaning, but blithely ill-informed woman’s actions. Though I walked away furious to have been driven to panic by an inept, Facebook-dependent stranger, her ignorance shook me. In actual fact, news articles about the Garissa attacks were trending on social media post-Paris, likely initiated by those commenting on the lack of media attention garnered when a non-Western nation suffers. But, informed commentary morphed into alarmist statements, thanks to those who hadn’t heard about the Garissa attacks until now. Upon seeing the headline – ‘147 students dead in a terrorist attack in Kenya’ – you can imagine why an uninformed individual would run with it, willfully skimming over context, details (such as, ahem the DATE) or even a general outline of the article.
OK then, so there are many barely literate fools amongst us and perhaps we can blame the Internet and social media for allowing these fools to come to light and spread their stupidity. If we’re being honest, it’s not just ‘them’ to blame; ask me about details of the attacks in Beirut, or the on-going massacres in Nigeria and I admittedly won’t be able to give more, any more than a cursory overview. Or on a much lighter note, the Statue of Liberty was most certainly a gift from France, a proud beacon of America’s ideals! Or so I would have proclaimed prior to last Saturday.
Here’s the thing, it’s not the nature of the mis-information being spread that bothers me. I mean, does it really matter whether or not the Statue of Liberty was a gift from France? And certainly the aforementioned woman had well-meaning intentions. While our history books and common understanding are splattered with lies and half-truths, we’re also taught that history is indeed written by the winners, those in power, those who survived; therefore a very biased, self-serving perspective. But though this mostly results in innocuous fables, it can’t be denied that the history of humanity is rife with nefarious acts of lies, propaganda, manipulation and destruction.
All judgments and implications of morality or good vs. bad aside, I totally understand how and why propaganda-like information becomes such a powerful tool of manipulation. I also understand why erroneous, but attention grabbing headlines and stories disseminate so rapidly. After all, last month I wrote about how the human mind is engineered to see patterns, create narratives and believe stories that resonate most deeply with one’s perspective and situation. When you think about it, what choice do we have but to believe?
It all starts before we even have an understanding of ‘truth’ itself. Are there any individuals who lie to us more than our parents? Necessary, loving, protective and innocuous lies perhaps. But lies nonetheless. And that’s perfectly ok, from my perspective! What else are you going to say when a five-year-old asks about sex, or seeks comfort when cucu (grandma) seems to have disappeared? How else is a parent meant to stay sane amongst a bombardment of inexplicable questions, rambunctious behavior and a world brimming with tragedies and terror?
Our schools are the next step in the myth propagation treadmill. The strictly adhered to curriculum, the carefully written and selected textbooks, the blanket of knowledge we must learn to function in the big scary world as adults. Again, I get it. Though the intentions of our educators are less subjective and protective, the goals of producing knowledgeable, hardworking individuals who can conform and
contribute to the workings of society is necessary for nation-wide economic growth, development and security. Producing a bunch of 18-year-old anarchists unable to complete basic math and who lack a broad understanding of how the world came to be the way it is, is obviously a recipe for disaster.
That we’re taught to believe certain truths, half-truths or untruths about life is understandable, however ‘right’ or ‘wrong’, ‘moral’ or ‘immoral’ the facts themselves may be. That we continue believing what we’re taught and/or told repeatedly also makes perfect sense; what reasons would we have to question things? Unless presented with offers of reasonable doubt, why would you even think about questioning general information? Just imagine, as a child you’re taught that all black people are worthless, evil criminals, and you are to have zero to no interaction with them. Then as an 18-year-old, your first interaction with a black person is being robbed at gunpoint. A self-fulfilling prophecy, pure bad luck or evidence of the ‘truth’? You and I may argue for the former, but if you don’t know any better, can you be blamed for concluding the latter?
Which brings me to the core of what bothers and scares me; the fact that either we’re not taught, or have lost the ability or motivation to question what we’re told and what we read. The beliefs, stories and headlines presented to us over and over again. I may be biased, being naturally more curious than that cat who got killed. But I’d rather be the curious, albeit dead cat, than fall victim of ‘the big lie’ where…
“There is always a certain force of credibility; because the broad masses of a nation are always more easily corrupted in the deeper strata of their emotional nature than consciously or voluntarily; and thus in the primitive simplicity of their minds they more readily fall victims to the big lie than the small lie, since they themselves often tell small lies in little matters but would be ashamed to resort to large-scale falsehoods. It would never come into their heads to fabricate colossal untruths, and they would not believe that others could have the impudence to distort the truth so infamously.
Adolf Hitler, Mein Kampf, vol. I, ch. X
I know, quoting Hitler is a very extreme, perhaps even manipulative, way of making my point. However, Hitler knew and grotesquely abused the fact that the general masses are inclined to believe something, anything, repeated over and over, and the greater the declaration the less likely we are to question it (um, Weapons of Mass Destruction anyone?)
But, you may be thinking, where’s the line between healthy skepticism and flat out paranoia? How does questioning the veracity of a Facebook post become, or not become, an obsession with conspiracy theories and ‘me against the world’ fanaticism? How does one go about normal day-to-day life in society if compelled to question every statement, headline, opinion and fact publically presented to us?
Well, more than likely, if you’re bent towards paranoia, you’re probably already paranoid. And though there is a pretty thin line between skepticism and paranoia, my point is not to question everything but to revere your right and exercise your ability to question. Because what happens to our history books if we’re not striving to uncover and communicate the truth? Do you want to go down as a mere bullet point, a shameful error in humanities progress, or even worse – a blank space?
I’m also saying this: please, please for crying out loud, DO NOT primarily receive your news sources from social media. If that’s the way we’re headed as a society, we might as well write our own headlines for the robots: ‘Idiot humans dig their own graves causing mass hysteria spread via the so-called Facebook!’