Shadows of the Truth

FireA video went viral on social media channels showing a polar bear supposedly being friendly to a dog. (“Awwww, how sweet!”) However, anyone with any knowledge of predatory behavior could tell you that this is a predator toying with its prey. People see and hear what they want to see and hear.

When I discovered the World Wide Web in the early 90’s, I was thrilled. Unlimited, uncensored information at my fingertips! The idealist in me rejoiced at the idea of the democratization of information. Looking back, I’m afraid I was very naive. In the present-day overkill of (conflicting) information, people filter the information by only reading and viewing that which they want to see or hear. And so ignorance and misinformation are just as (if not more) rampant than in pre-Internet days.

Most of the regular readers of my blog will agree with me that ignorance and misinformation played a very strong part in the recent US elections. So let me move on to a more delicate example: the movement against vaccination. Many people who are against vaccinations of any kind think of themselves as progressive. I must confess to having been very ambivalent on this subject for a long time, until I was forced to decide if I would get an influenza vaccine. The amount of information on the subject on the internet is overwhelming, and seems to be mostly made up of diatribes against the integrity of medical science. But when I seriously studied the information and talked to a wide selection of people, the evidence of its advisability was convincing.

Prejudice is nothing more than an unfounded opinon about a subject or group of people. Prejudice is based on ignorance. We tend to blame the Internet for spreading false information. But how many people give any subject serious thought? Don’t most people believe and pass on what they read on the Internet or hear on the news? What has happened to critical thinking?

A blog I enjoy reading, Forsetti’s Justice, has used the metaphor of Plato’s Cave to explain what happens. This animated video does a great job of describing the metaphor. Imagine a race of people, chained inside a cave, so that the only information they perceive is from shadows projected onto a wall. There are people, usually also chained, who explain to them how to interpret the shadows. If one person escapes the chains and finds his way outside the cave, he perceives an entirely different reality. But, if he returns and tries to explain what the world really looks like, he won’t be heard or understood.

You can compare it to the Four Stages of Competence, a model I’ve used in my counseling practice: In stage one, one is blissfully unconscious of one’s incompetence. At a certain point, something happens that makes you painfully aware of your incompetence (conscious incompetence, stage two). This is an extremely uncomfortable state to be in and can cause a great deal of stress. You can do two things about it: You can embrace it, learning and growing into stage three (conscious competence) and, ultimately four (unconscious competence). Or it can make you so uncomfortable that you escape back into your blissful ignorance.

Why are some people triggered by conscious incompetence to ask questions, explore, and learn, while others retreat into ignorance? Obviously, if your entire world exists of shadowy projections on the wall and people telling you what they mean, you may never become aware of your lack of knowledge. I grew up in an intellectual milieu. Questioning the world around me was encouraged, not suppressed. Not everyone is that lucky. But it seems to me that upbringing and proper education are the most critical factors. So how do you go about influencing this? I’m not entirely sure of the answer and I welcome your input in the comments section below.


  1. I’m a firm believer that you are a product of your environment.

    I think the only way to change our current path is to make every effort to lead by example.

    • Thank you, Dan! Yes, leading by example is a very good way to educate people, I think. The question here is: will those who are already resistant to the message be willing to see the example? I would like to hope they are.

  2. Mary-Lou Gillette

    Dear Maddi,
    As a child, I grew up listening to the Shakespeare Club of Lisbon Falls, Maine recite what was referred to as a “collect” at the opening of each meeting. Sixteen women met in each other’s homes to study Shakespeare’s plays. My grandmother was one of the founding members, and I can still hear the individual voices that floated up the stairway to my bedroom just off the upstairs hall. Later in my life, I was asked to join this Shakespeare Club and I came to know and revere the women whose voices I knew so well. These women were mostly retired teachers, and all of the meetings were conducted with a strict adherence to Robert’s Rules of Order. It was a very formal and thoughtful group of women, but when the meeting adjourned I would hear warm conversations and frequent outbursts of laughter.
    Politics and religion were forbidden to be discussed at any time. What was discussed, aside from Shakespeare, was done in a way that each individual in turn was asked to contribute, without interruption, their opinion on the subject. While opinions were often differing, all were respected. I do not ever remember voices being raised in anger, but as an adult I do most certainly remember the thoughtful contemplation of the group when an individual member was speaking.
    And so, I suggest that it might be “respect” that missing from our society today. Here is the “collect” that began each and every meeting for well over one hundred years and one I recite when I feel overwhelmed by life…

    Keep us, O God from pettiness;
    let us be large in thought, in word, in deed.

    Let us be done with fault-finding
    and leave off self-seeking.

    May we put away all pretense and meet each other
    face to face, without self pity and without prejudice.

    May we never be hasty in judgement
    and always generous.

    Let us take time for all things; make
    us to grow calm, serene, gentle.

    Teach us to put into action our better impulses,
    straight-forward and unafraid.

    Grant that we may realize it is the little things that create
    differences, that in the big things of life we are as one.

    And may we strive to touch and to know the great
    common heart of us all; and
    O, Lord God, let us not forget to be kind.

    Mary Stewart

    Post Script…Maddi, your blog is wonderful.

    • I love this tale, Mary-Lou. Your mother instilled in you the very important principles of treating others with respect and listening with your heart.
      The tradition of “Council” is one we inherited from the Native American people. The basic rules of Council are:
      1. Speak from your heart, speaking of the things that are important to you
      2. Listen with your heart, not interrupting for your own interpretation
      3. Speak in the moment, not preparing your words beforehand
      4. Speak to the heart of the matter, not wasting words

      I’ve learned that people come to a deeper understanding of each other when they confer in Council.

  3. In this instance-I believe the environment has changed due to changes on how we communicate. I’m afraid that this lesson will have to be learned individually and it will take a long time.

  4. Critical thinking requires analysis of facts which in turn requires research. In other words we should all have to make an effort to understand something well enough before passing an opinion. But it’s easier not to. Although I try not to express an opinion on anything until I feel sufficiently qualified to do so I know I do sometimes based on gut-feel. That’s not so good but I still do it. Not too often I hope. I think (note the caveat) that many people just shoot from the hip because they are too lazy to explore anything and now they have been given a free stage. And by golly they are going to perform like Donald Trump. I haven’t taken the trouble to study him and he may be a highly intelligent man for all I know.. What I do know is that if he is he is doing an excellent job of keeping it secret. So inevitably the internet, just like any other media, is filled with amazingly good information and loads of crap. No one is going to sort it out for us. If we want refined information we have to go to, say a reference library. It takes a lot of hard work to write a book.

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