Independence Day, July 4, 2020

Be Careful What Reality Tunnel You Get Stuck In

During these highly strange, volatile and uncertain times I find myself obsessively tied into the media and the internet to find out what is the latest world-shattering event. It can be exhausting and wearying looking at what is happening online and trying to sort through and evaluate the range of opinions you encounter. As I cruise around the web via social media and various sources of information I find myself dipping in and out of what seem to be altogether different realities.

We hear a lot about “the Political Divide,” the great line between the Red States and the Blue States. But rather than a mass divided in two down the middle, it seems more like a fragmented landscape with many different camps of opinion, each living in its own world mutually exclusive of others. The Obliterated States of America.

These vastly different points of view about the simple matter of wearing a mask to help prevent the spread of COVID do not just stack up in a Left-Right configuration. I find all sorts of strange divisions across the political landscape.

A Patchwork of Policies
Prominently we see a faction on the far right that frames the idea of wearing a face mask as an egregious intrusion upon their rights, and that’s what they are focused on, what makes them so angry. They don’t want to talk about the disease or how it spreads because they don’t believe it exists anyway. They believe Donald Trump when he tells them it’s merely a Democratic hoax devised to bring him down.

Then there’s another, apparently larger group of people who say it’s not a political issue, it’s just a matter of science, just looking at the cause and effect of what has enabled some countries to contain the spread while we are increasing our infections, hospitalizations and deaths at a rapidly accelerating pace.

These are generally on the center left part of the spectrum, people who are not necessarily politically minded at all, but just see the threat and the most practical ways of stopping the spread.

But these are only a couple of generalizations about the range of opinions on this issue. There are many other variations. As usual, some seem to have drifted so far to the left that they have ended up on the right, or holding positions in common with those on the far right, though perhaps for different reasons and arriving there from different directions and premises.

I came upon some recent posts of a prominent New York writer who is characterized as a “media critic,” more or less in the tradition of Noam Chomsky or Neil Postman. Back in the days of Bush, Cheney and the Iraq and Afghanistan wars I found myself pretty much in line with this guy’s opinions. Now nearly 20 years later I discover that he has evolved in a different direction than I have and seems to inhabit a different universe than what I am seeing.

In earlier times I generally agreed with his criticisms of the news coverage of major media. But in the world of Donald Trump everything has been turned upside down and inside out.

In one of his recent posts he said, “There is no pandemic.” The hospitals in Dallas are operating as normal. The story we hear on the media is a “government-media” lie, designed to oppress us as the economy collapses and we become increasingly desperate and vulnerable. Masks do not protect you, he said, they will kill you.

I like to keep an open mind. I’ve found myself to be fundamentally wrong many times and have had to radically change my world view to accommodate new knowledge and insight.

Certainly I see some truth in some of these statements. I do feel that we as a people are becoming increasingly desperate and vulnerable as we take one body blow after another. We’re punch drunk.

And yes, the masks don’t technically “protect you.” Even those who advocate wearing masks don’t say that they protect you, rather that they protect others from you. So you have to hope that while you are making efforts to try to protect others that they will do the same for you. If we all wear masks, we protect each other.

And yes, it seems possible that a mask could kill you under certain conditions. If your breathing was totally sealed off and you kept breathing the same air, it would run out of oxygen and you would suffer from hypoxia or hypercapnia. But that’s not really happening to all these millions of people wearing masks. They don’t create a perfect seal.

To take those grains of truth and ramp it up into “Masks don’t protect you, they will kill you,” seems a huge overreach. It’s provocative and will get your attention, which seems to be its purpose. But by its choice of emphasis it is at best misleading. It sounds like a mask has no purpose but to kill me, and if I put one on I will probably die soon.

It’s admirable to be a contrarion if your purpose is to show the errors of politicians or the media. But sometimes it seems the purpose is just to stake out a unique niche in the mediasphere that sets you apart from the herd. You can present yourself as one who always knows a little more than most other people. And to prove it you can say something that is really shocking, and has at least some truth in it, if you can parse it.

But I can’t buy this idea that “there is no pandemic.” It’s real. I have known people who have been infected and ravaged by it, people who died. The healthcare workers who appear in videos pleading with people to please take the disease seriously because the emergency is putting them through hell are not actors. This is not some elaborate production of the Deep State.

There is some reality to the concept of “Deep State.” But it has little application to the problem of whether or not to go along with the safety measures designed to protect us in this dire emergency.

I’ve heard many other opinions and speculations that are far from any of these outlined here so far. There’s a lot that is intriguing and deserves further attention. Maybe we will have to completely change our models of how viruses work, of what is actually killing people.

At first we heard the COVID was only affecting older people. That turned out to not be true. We heard that it was mostly people with pre-existing conditions, and then it seemed that morphed into “only” people with pre-existing conditions. There was a lot of “They were about to die anyway,” or “They died of something else but the cause of death was listed as COVID because it was the last thing they got…”

But most of that stuff is turning out to be untrue. I know people personally who have been devastated by it. It’s not just another strain of the flu and it is real. And places that have strictly practiced social distancing and masks and hand washing, have brought it under control.

Now we have the rest of the world to compare our performance with. It is like a controlled scientific experiment that shows differences in outcomes from different approaches to handling the pandemic. And clearly we are at the bottom of the barrel globally. We’ve done worse than anyone any way you measure it.

But that doesn’t matter to those who reject science as a matter of principle. Anyway, because we have let it get out of control while other countries reined it in, they are opening again and we are in the middle of a raging increase. And now they are shutting us out. That’s another body blow to American business and especially the travel industry.

So those who pushed to disregard safety precautions in order to open the economy again have instead thrown the economy back on its heels again and forced governors and mayors to backtrack on earlier plans to open. Meanwhile other parts of the world are getting back to normal business again.

Mass Confusion from the Top
If we in America had had a unified vision of leadership at the top instead of this balkanized patchwork of confusing and contradictory information and guidance, we might have been able to really open by now as European and Asian countries have done.

Since Congress or Facebook or the administration have not done much of anything to prevent it happening again, it’s likely that Russian intelligence is still using brilliant schemes such as Cambridge Analytica did in 2016 to sow dissension among Americans, feeding their fears with horrifying stories to rouse them into hating and distrusting their neighbors.

Perusing this vast landscape of diverse opinion can be wearying, frightening and confusing. But this is a time when we can’t afford the luxury of apathy.

When I read that a progressive writer that I used to largely agree with was saying that there is no pandemic, Dr. Fauci is an evil gnome and masks are an insidious plot to kill you, it made me shake my head and wonder if I were losing my grip on reality. But it seems Timothy Leary was right. We all live in our own, separate reality tunnels.

Leary, the Harvard professor who became famous as an advocate of psychedelic drugs, coined the term “reality tunnel.” It refers to the idea that we all perceive the world through our own filters based on our beliefs and conditioning. In a sense we all live in separate realities.

As I look at all the various world views I come across on the internet in relation to any issue, I have to try to figure out what’s true and what’s not for me.

If we all live in our own reality tunnels, I guess it follows that there must be a larger reality that contains both yours and mine and everyone else’s. I guess the first step is to recognize that the way we see things is not necessarily the only way to see them, that my reality is not necessarily the same as others are living in. And maybe we can start to try to see that larger reality.

That might provide some hope that we can learn to live together, as Sly Stone said, like “Everyday People.”

Back to Home Page