Messages to my mother II

My Mom and I have some great email discussions – which are at least coherent. Our phone conversations usually operate on a wavelength of shared communication that render them virtually impossible for others to follow or understand. In person it is usually even worse for bystanders. One of the many reasons I love discussing things with her – she understands me, even when she disagrees with me.

She usually throws out some great remark that sends me out to the web in order to refute it (always the most fun for me) or admit she was right (always the most fun for her).

My mother and I had another nice email dialogue about my previous post today dealing withPhoenix, mistruths and Cargo Cult Worlds. I’ve edited my reply for clarity and hope you like it.

My Mom explained that what she was more focussed on was the real problem of women being abducted off the street, raped and then dumped. That may not show up in any statistics, particularly in Phoenix, but is still kidnapping.

I replied:

That is exactly what I am talking about. People have taken a narrative – girls getting kidnapped off the streets of Phoenix and America – that is horrible and needs to be addressed. But the statement that is used use to support this narrative – Phoenix is the kidnapping capital of America – is not based on any facts. It is not based on anything that exists in the real world. It is completely made up.

Thus the Cargo Cult World. One where people try to create a reality, a narrative, based on facts that are not real. And, it should be obvious that constructing a Cargo Cult World is not only seen in one political party or one economic class. I think it comes from an attempt to understand something quite complex by applying simplifications and metaphors that just do not work. Much as the Pacific Islanders did not understand the principles and facts behind air flight but thought that building replicas of planes would recreate the reality they saw during World War 2.

Humans are exceptionally good at recognizing patterns and at constructing fairly complex metaphors in order to survive. I personally think that this ability is one of the things that has made us such a potent species. But sometimes the metaphors get scrambled, the narrative describes a false reality. That seems to happen when societies are undergoing some fundamental changes such as from agrarian to industrial. We have a ton of actually stories that reflect this, from The Jungle to The Grapes of Wrath to Cry the Beloved Country. Each describes creating a new societal narrative as the old one crumbles away, and the social strife that destruction entails.

Humans and societies produce narratives to help their members understand the world and how to react to it. But when things are changing, when new narratives may need to be produced, well these are the most dangerous times. That is when Cargo Cult Worlds come into existence for many people, where false narratives are used to create only a simulacrum of reality.

I just do not understand how anyone can honestly create an argument using untruths and falsehoods, especially one dealing with such a potent horror as kidnapping and raping girls. Wouldn’t the best solutions in the real world involve using real facts, not lies? Why not create a narrative based on facts? That is actually quite easy.

Why not just say that many vulnerable women in the undocumented population are being kidnapped and raped and we need to discuss ways to stop it? How does continuing to discuss a false narrative help solve that problem?

My mother and I have had some great back and forth on this. One upshot is that she does not like the term narrative as, to her, it implies a story which is obviously made up and not true. But any really good fictional story is true. It may be based on events that have not occurred but it describes something about ourselves that touches truth or requires us to examine our own truths.

I’m using it more in the psychological, cognitive sense as the stories and metaphors we create to deal with the world, to make sense of the reality we experience. They are our best attempts to say something true, even as the best made-up stories try to say something true.

Even made-up stuff can be useful if leads to truthful revelations. But basing stories and narratives on lies can never lead to truth in a deeper sense.

Humans create rules of thumb and heuristics to deal with the world. They are usually in the form of pithy sayings, stories and narratives. Good ones allow us not only cope but make very fast decisions based on ‘common sense’ because they do a good job describing the real world.

However, narratives based on lies will result in ‘common sense’ solutions that are not based on reality and will likely lead to poor results. It will lead to a Cargo Cult World which only mimics reality.

If my rule of thumb is that all felines are docile, loving and playful creatures that would never hurt me, then I am in trouble if I approach a cat with an arched back, fur on end and snarling. I am even more in trouble if I approach a wild tiger for the first time.

Doing our best to make sure that the personal narratives that we use to support our view of the world are based on truthful data and not lies will be necessary if we hope to solve the tremendously complex problems that the real world is now throwing at us.

Because those problems are much more complex than what to do when a tiger crosses our path.

3 thoughts on “Messages to my mother II

  1. This is why picture books are so important! One learns what a tiger looks like. Then when one is all grown-up, one carries a gun and shoots the minute one sees a tiger. (for that matter, never go near a cat!)

    1. Even before picture books there were oral traditions. The point is that any village in Asia, for example, that had an oral tradition stating that all felines were wonderful and you should pet any you see, would have either had to change its oral tradition when tigers came by or it would perish.

      Having a false view of the world due to poor input data is non-selective and can result in severe consequences. In this case, the villages that had good data – tigers will eat you – and an oral tradition that says to run like the dickens, will probably have greater success when tigers lurk.

      My view is that dogs are often much better companions to put the effort into, especially if they have strong personalities. Of course, my shiba inus are so much fun because they combine the aloofness (I am king, worship me) and the sheer goofiness of cats (look a ball of yarn) with the warm personalities of dogs (where have you been all day. let’s play). But they are a handful and not for everyone.

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