"The cultural assault on reality has increased exponentially over the decades, with unreality now the primary organizing principle and economic driver, as well as the principal psychological stratagem by which consumer age myths, values, and lifestyles are sold and celebrated. As reality and unreality have become increasingly difficult to distinguish, so too has people’s ability to differentiate the truth from the lie."
The old psychiatric phrase ‘out of touch with reality’ was once reserved for psychotic individuals failing to accurately perceive, and relate adaptively to, the evidential world. But recent years have given it a renewed and broadened usage by health professionals and culture theorists concerned about the social, psychological, political, and environmental consequences of reality erosion.
Several conditions have come together to sanction and empower the lie and make it into an all-pervasive determining force across all spheres of life, but none more so than the ascendancy of unreality culture. Whereas social theory once revolved around the cultural construction of reality, it now centers on the cultural deconstruction of reality and the way in which contemporary society has become inextricably invested in the trafficking of unreality.
For the first time in human history, it is possible to be ushered from one unreality bubble to another, almost uninterrupted, with hardly a brush with the existent world and its workings and lessons. Reality warps of every conceivable variety and degree bombard the senses and sensibilities, and go largely unchallenged by actuality and factuality, leaving common nonsense to reign supreme. But when an entire society disembarks from reality, the psychosis becomes normalized and survives as an invisible symptom of cultural insanity, even if the society is hell-bent on its own destruction. Not even the many grim realities conspiring to unleash global cataclysm and bring us face-to-face with the prospect of self-extermination seem able to rouse a useful and sustained degree of reality contact.
Historian Daniel J. Boorstin, in his 1962 book The Image, pointed out the ‘fictionalization of consciousness’ underway in the ‘Age of Contrivance’, while warning that ‘the menace of unreality’ was perverting our basic understandings of ourselves, nature, and relationships, as well as threatening the doctrines and ideals that underpin the strength of democracy, nationhood, and mature citizenship. The feverish blitz of doctored and contradictory information, he wrote, obstructs the accrual of knowledge, fosters ‘incurable illusion’, and paves the way for a bewildering pseudo-reality wherein ‘the shadow has become the substance’.
The cultural assault on reality has increased exponentially over the decades, with unreality now the primary organizing principle and economic driver, as well as the principal psychological stratagem by which consumer age myths, values, and lifestyles are sold and celebrated. Unreality has been packaged, with ever-increasing sophistication, for unthinking mass consumption, while the truth has been commercialized and politicized, and largely discredited as a primary societal value.
The unrelenting corruption of reality distorts, not only our perceptions and understandings of the extraneous world, but those of our inner selves as well. Being social and spiritual at its motivational core, human nature is the archenemy of a cultural system founded on the counter-instinctive traits of narcissism, hyper-competitive ambition, materialism, object worship, and the active pursuit of the ‘profane’. Radical consumer capitalism as we know it would fizzle if members remained in-touch with their natures and satisfied themselves in relation to their inherent human needs. So rather than furthering self-awareness, the prevailing mutation of consumer capitalism has evolved to engage dehumanization in order to keep people safely distanced from what various psychologists have identified as the ‘real self’ or ‘organismic self’.
The identity confusion and existential vacuum of the dehumanized self become ideal entry points for the implantation of the false needs, alien appetites, commodified values, and unsatisfiable desires that are the lifeblood of consumer capitalism. While frustration, discontent, and rage ensue, these often get partially sublimated into ‘therapeutic consumption’ or even one of the growing number of consumption disorders. In many ways, modern society thrives on the psychopathology that it generates in its members.
The wholesale erosion of reality has spawned a new epidemic of derealization that, unlike its dissociative disorder counterpart, is an inevitable psychological consequence of unreality culture. Among other things, this manifests in a breakdown of perspective and a losing battle to locate purpose, place, and plausible sources of meaning. The clinical diagnosis of ‘reality erosion disorder’ refers to the more debilitating costs of derealization as they impede individual coping ability and well-being. Without a stable and solid anchor to reality, a person falls prey to ‘ontological insecurity’ -- that is, the loss of confidence in the source of one’s knowledge -- that fuels, not only the growing ‘existential crisis’, but the helplessness, displacement, and alienation at the heart of the epidemics of depression, free-floating anxiety, and self-control disorders.
Reality erosion also deprives individuals of the accumulated real-world learning and experience that would otherwise allow them to exercise informed judgment and perform essential reality-checks in order to make flexible adjustments to their courses of action and thought. A highly disproportionate exposure to fallacious and unreliable ‘knowledge’ from early age can actually inhibit development of the brain’s background 'general reality orientation' -- also known as the 'executive monitoring system' -- upon which we rely for gestalt awareness, critical thinking, and analytical thought, all of which are vital for the effective management of self, circumstances, and survival demands.
As reality and unreality have become increasingly difficult to distinguish, so too has people’s ability to differentiate the truth from the lie. Many find themselves in a psychic limbo devoid of certainty and credibility, unsure whether to believe nothing or everything, which makes unreality culture the perfect breeding ground for the production, dissemination, and exploitation of the lie. There has never been a better time to be a liar, as more and more fraudsters and ‘post-truth politicians’ are discovering.
Back in 1952, in Man Against Mass Society, Gabriel Marcel was already alert to ‘the growing power of the lie’, blaming the ‘erosion of feeling for living reality’ and the dehumanizing effects of ‘the systematically materialistic mode of thinking emanating from capitalist culture’. The result is a dangerously suggestible and dupable society that rejects the role of inherited wisdom and critical reflection, and amplifies people’s susceptibility, not only to persuasion, propaganda, and manipulation of all sorts, but to illogic and irrationality more generally. According to Marcel, we have entered an age in which ‘the lie in its most insulting, most aggressive forms, is lording over all kinds of critical thought' and converting the masses into bewildered and easily controlled pawns for whom life races by as ‘a kind of incomprehensible calamity’.
Two additional sets of forces combine synergistically to mobilize the cultural war against truth and reality. The predisposition to lie, and the actual prevalence of lying, are stoked by declining levels of integrity, social responsibility, and emotional intelligence, as well as societal de-moralization, the devaluation of personal growth, and the normalization of cheating. On the other hand, the likelihood of being duped by the lie has been bolstered by the well-documented ‘critical thinking crisis’, the resurgence of anti-intellectualism, atrophied attention spans, elevated fantasy-proneness, the ‘gullibility crisis’, the stupefaction and commercialization of education, and the hypnagogic retreat into virtual reality and inert ‘digital thinking’.
The mass media has also obliged in furthering the power and reach of the lie. Recent years have seen the lying game stretched to its limits by politically biased ‘news’ corporations dedicated to keeping its audience comprehensively misinformed and misled, and righteously cocooned in their surrogate reality. The internet and social media has been especially effective at aiding the unreality boom and inseminating the lie. For example, in a large-scale study in 2018 by Soroush Vosoughi & his colleagues at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, it was found that, in all six categories of online information studied, lies spread far more quickly, and much more widely and deeply, than truths.
Yet political insanity, especially in the form of a potential descent into totalitarianism, is by far the greatest risk posed by the Age of the Lie, and one already witnessed by the global shift in this direction. In her visionary 1951 work The Origins of Totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt foresaw with ominous clarity the political deathtrap that we face today, writing that “The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction (i.e., the reality of experience) and the distinction between true and false (i.e., the standards of thought) no longer exist”. It is then that budding dictators and autocrats are unleashed to weave lies into reinvented realities in order to divide the populace, concoct false enemies and conspiracies, and justify assaults on sources and speakers of the truth. Of this, Arnedt observed “Before mass leaders seize the power to fit reality to their lies, their propaganda is marked by its extreme contempt for facts as such, for in their opinion fact depends entirely on the power of man who can fabricate it”.
Many reality-deprived and dehumanized people will compensate, and seek existential and psychological regrounding in a paradoxical way, by sacrificing themselves to fanaticism and becoming ardent disciples and defenders of the Liar-in-Chief. This ‘identification with the deceiver’ is similar to, and overlaps with, the familiar ‘identification with the aggressor’ defense mechanism. The feeding of the ‘fanaticized consciousness,’ wrote Gabriel Marcel, serves as ‘a kind of nourishment to the unconscious hunger by beings deprived of their own reality’.
Furthermore, when the news about encroaching reality worsens, this fanaticization effect can become so exaggerated that even the most outlandish of lies, and the most ludicrous of liars, are hailed with unquestioning zeal. As we choke on the follies and fallout of ‘apocalyptic capitalism’, and as warnings intensify about the collapsing ecosystem, global warming, climate change, mounting resource and class wars, and the ‘Everything Bubble’, the demand for unreality and lies, and the tolerance for liars, has never been greater.
Some of the biggest and least detectable lies preventing a collective return to reality nestle in the heart-warming images and cherished habits and rituals comprising the background static of conventional life and the rules of cultural heroism, and in the approving eyes of fellow followers that excuse blind obedience and indifference, and reassure that the ‘good life’ still resides in deference to the status quo.
Democracies fragment and lose their sense of direction once the line between reality and unreality, and truth and untruth, is lost. While unreality is the worst possible organizing principle for a society on a collision course with catastrophe, the truth, and those who seek to verify and safeguard it, can no longer keep pace with the lie. For the most part, the children of the lie remain silent and submissive, and willing to allow ignored realities to avenge themselves in the ugliest of ways. We have been seduced and shepherded into a shared delusion in which there is more promise in the lie than the truth.
John F. Schumaker is a retired clinical psychologist and academic living in Fredericton, New Brunswick, Canada.