Knowledge, Illusion and Groupthink

Revisiting The Brave New World and
in the age of Trumpthink

The knowledge illusion is not the only one of the many self-deceptions that has continually plagued humankind, but it is one of the most self-destructive. As the global village culture is becoming more complex, we are less able to comprehend the critical challenges facing us let alone address them effectively.

We know less than we think we do.
Groupthink fills in the gaps.

—  Yuval Harari (b. 1976)

“People rarely appreciate their ignorance, because they lock themselves inside an echo chamber of like-minded friends and self-confirming newsfeeds, where their beliefs are constantly reinforced and seldom challenged.”[i]  And this ignorance is growing within the context of P-B where solutions to a disintegrating human community are all but impossible. The possibility of the radical paradigm shift necessary to even comprehend the true origin of human suffering, let alone devising a plan to transcend our dark destiny, is receding as the flood waters of the second great flood are approaching.

‘Anxiety’ has become not just a psychiatric condition
but a political one—it’s the diagnosis of the
moment for all that’s wrong with America.

—  Nitsuh Abebe

Before anything can be done to avoid the growing sense of dread on our planet, we have to calm down and assess what is going on and why. Nitsuh Abebe, the author of the article “Panic Attack” in a recent issue of The New York Times Magazine is not optimistic about our ability to do that. “What might make human beings less anxious, it seems, is having a firmer sense of what in the world is happening and what’s likely to happen next. We seem temporarily short on both.”[ii]  We can only hope that the reluctance on the part of humanity to face reality is temporary.

An example of the failure to understand American delusional behavior within the old paradigm has to do with U.S. foreign policy which both Republicans and Democrats have failed to understand. Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama were guided by what Bush called a “new world order.” Stated in idealistic and delusional terms, the bipartisan goal of the U.S. was to spread democracy and capitalism. What really drives U.S. foreign policy is the security energy center of the false-self survival strategy, or in other words, fear. Former Secretary of State during the Bush administration, Condoleezza Rice, revealed this American anxiety. “It remains, she insists, both an inescapable moral responsibility for the United States and the only responsibility that, long-term, has the potential to safeguard American security.”[iii]  The true motives of our unconscious and disingenuous leaders are hidden even from themselves. High sounding phrases are no substitute for Self-realization.

America’s misguided attempts to spread democracy and capitalism only reinforce the dominance of the false self in the global village. The American intellect is not only failing to create viable institutions of government and economics but all other institutions as well. How about the much-vaunted accomplishments of the intellect in science and technology? Surely our fears regarding our future can find comfort in the dazzling discoveries that have taken place in the realm of science over the last half-century and the optimistic predictions of what our immediate future might look like.

Indeed, what does the human community of the future look like—a utopia or a dystopia—heaven on earth or a hellish chaos? Prescient writers of science fiction offer glimpses of several possibilities. George Orwell’s 1984, published in 1949, predicted a dark future for humanity and Orwell was certainly influenced by his experience at just having lived through the London blitz. Undoubtedly, the current U.S. administration (2017) and President Trump’s optimistic theme of “Let’s make America great again,” would suggest that dystopian novels are out of fashion. Guess again my friends.

“The last few months have been hard, no doubt, the news more distressing by the hour, but there is still something perversely groupthinkish in the fact that the impulse of resistance has homed in on the same book, and that a measure of opposition to the horrors of the Trump administration is the climb of ‘1984’ to No. 1 on Amazon.”[iv]  Many Americans seem to be wondering if the current president is foreshadowing Big Brother and the Ministries of Truth, Peace, Love and Plenty, the institutions of a totalitarian state. Was the English intellectual sounding a warning that is currently coming to pass?

One cannot help but feel a certain Orwellian déjà vu feeling when listening to today’s political leaders. “The most obvious connection to Orwell was the new president’s repeated insistence that even his most pointless and transparent lies were in fact true, and then his adviser Kellyanne Conway’s explanation that these statements were not really falsehoods but, rather, ‘alternative facts.’ As any reader of ‘1984’ knows, this is exactly Big Brother’s standard of truth: The facts are whatever the leader says they are.”[v]

Some might say that Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932) set in dystopian London, but distinctly different from 1984, might have taken a deeper look at America’s dilemma, namely, the false self. “In Amusing Ourselves to Death, the American media critic Neil Postman in fact argued that Huxley’s novel was far more relevant than Orwell’s when it came to the United States, where the dominant mode of control over people was through entertainment, distraction, and superficial pleasure rather than through overt modes of policing and strict control over food supplies, at least when it came to managing the middle classes. Three decades after Postman’s account, when we can add reality television, the internet and social media to the deadly amusements available, Brave New World can still seem strikingly relevant in its depiction of the relentless pursuit of pleasure.”[vi]

Add to the pursuit of pleasure the pursuits of plenty and power and we have virtually the complete picture of the origins of the problems facing humanity in the 21st century which varies only in historical details from the genesis of suffering experienced by Adam and Eve in Genesis. In short, we have experienced a never-ending dystopia on this planet from the beginning despite being “the creature that reasons.”

Understanding the self-destruction of people in the global village will require a deeper look at the psychology of our identity than is common, even among psychologists. Most of us don’t want to look at our role in creating today’s dystopia and would rather project blame on politicians and, yes, even the scientists. “The totalitarian rulers in Huxley’s book do this not by oppressing their citizens but by giving them exactly what they want, or what they think [emphasis added] they want—which is basically sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll—and lulling them into complacency. The system entails a certain Trump-like suspicion of science and dismissal of history, but that’s a price the inhabitants of Huxley’s world happily pay. They don’t mourn their lost liberty, the way Orwell’s Winston Smith does; they don’t even know it’s gone.”[vii]

Back to social media as an example of how science has “improved” human communication. Improved? That’s assuming, quoting an early American philosopher (referring to the invention of the telegraph), “that Americans had something worthwhile to communicate.” We, of course, do not! One has to be awake to engage in communicating cogent and relevant truths. “Beyond aping youngsters, there is something inherently juvenile about social media. To begin with, it elevates superficiality, speed and the image—all youthful preoccupations—over depth, deliberation and text, which we associate with mature adults.”[viii]  Forget “mature” adults until we have “awake” adults.

Is the news we find on Facebook being used to improve society or is it yet another form of groupthink? “[Over] the course of 2016, Facebook’s gargantuan influence became its biggest liability. During the U.S. election, propagandists—some working for money, others potentially state-sponsored lulz—used the service to turn fake stories into viral sensations, like the one about Pope Francis endorsing Trump (he hadn’t).”[ix]

Can the average American tell the difference between real and fake news, and more importantly, do they even care? First, let’s address the difficulty in distinguishing bogus from authentic reality which is incidentally the central challenge facing all of us in creating a sustainable global village. “A week and a half after the election [2016], President Obama bemoaned ‘an age where there’s so much active misinformation and it’s packaged very well, and it looks the same when you see it on a Facebook page or you turn on your television.’”[x]

There is no question that social media will be instrumental in creating a future dystopia if for no other reason than it is created by the false self. “Across the globe, Facebook now seems to benefit actors who want to undermine the global vision at its foundation. Supporters of Trump and the European right-wing nationalists who aim to turn their nations inward and dissolve alliances, trolls sowing cross-border paranoia, even ISIS with its skillful social-media recruiting and propagandizing—all of them have sought in their own ways to split the Zuckerbergian world apart. And they are using his own machine to do it.”[xi]

What about human unconsciousness as a critically important missing puzzle piece in explaining why we have been unable to create a sustainable human community? Our ability, even our predisposition, to deny what is happening in our lives is at the heart of our unwillingness to embrace the deeper reality underlying the human experience, even if that reality is literally “lapping at our doorstep,” so to speak.

Our example in this case involves Americans living near the beach in Norfolk, Virginia who are denying and/or rationalizing the reality of the rising ocean level. “Like insurers, residents are playing a game of risk and timing. ‘Adaptation is a range,’ says Fred Brusso, a former city flood manager. ‘Do you need to just move your car? Do you have to put your washer and dryer on cinder blocks? Or do you need to get the heck out of town?’”[xii]

The catastrophe facing humankind has nothing to do with any specific events that are or will happen but rather whether we will find a way to respond to them instead of reacting to them. In some ways the fear accompanying the anticipated terrifying events on the horizon is worse than the happening itself. “Wetlands Watch compared the number of people on the FEMA waiting list in Norfolk with the number of houses raised in a year and concluded that it would take 188 years to complete them all. By then, of course, waters would be far higher.”[xiii]  Clearly, there will be no Moses to command the oceans to recede.

We are not so much defenseless against the effects of global warming, overpopulation, terrorism, pandemics, dirty bombs, air pollution, famine, immigration, crime in our communities, etc., as we are against our own failure to understand how the story circulating in our minds determines who we think we are and how that identity drives our behavior which is currently approaching a state of panic in many parts of the world.

Knowledge, Illusion and Groupthink

[i]     Harari, Yuval. “Received Ideas.” The New York Times Book Review. April 23, 2017, page 15.

[ii]     Abebe, Nitsuh. “Panic Attack.” The New York Times Magazine. April 23, 2017, page 16.

[iii]    Mead, Walter Russell. “Keeper of the Flame.” The New York Times Book Review. May 7, 2017, page 14.

[iv]    Deb, Siddhartha. “Bookends.” The New York Times Book Review. March 19, 2017, page 27.

[v]     McGrath, Charles. “Bookends.” The New York Times Book Review. March 19, 2017, page 27.

[vi]    Deb, op. cit., page 27.

[vii]   McGrath, op. cit., page 27.

[viii]   Wayne, Teddy. “No, Grandma, You Are Not LOL.” The New York Times. May 7, 2017, page 2.

[ix]    Manjoo, Farhad. “Social Security.” The New York Times Magazine. April 30, 2017, page 40.

[x]     Ibid.

[xi]    Ibid., page 41.

[xii]   Jarvis, Brooke. “Under Water.” The New York Times. April 23, 2017, page 68.

[xiii]   Ibid.


Find a much more in-depth discussion in books by Roy Charles Henry.

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