Manifest destiny, restoration, and “the effort to speak honestly”

In speaking of lies, we come inevitably to the subject of truth. There is nothing simple or easy about this idea. There is no “the truth,” “a truth” – truth is not one thing, or even a system. It is an increasing complexity. The pattern of the carpet is a surface. When we look closely, or when we become weavers, we learn of the tiny multiple threads unseen in the overall pattern, the knots on the underside of the carpet.

This is why the effort to speak honestly is so important. Lies are usually attempts to make everything simpler – for the liar – than it really is, or ought to be.

Adrienne Rich

A lie can be complex, too, and truth can be simple, but as Rich says, actively propagating a lie is usually about creating an illusion of simplicity in the service of self-interest.

A few examples pop into mind from today’s world, especially of dubious individuals who have built high-profile careers on basis of big, self-serving lies, but in this post I want to explore one particular pairing of lie and truth. It’s the one about what we as a people tell each other about each other, or if you like, what we tell ourselves about ourselves. A story about the kind of beings we think we are and the kind of society that beings like us inevitably live in, and how this relates to the mind-boggling scale and drama of the changes that are now pressing down on the world we know.

The lie I’m interested in does not fit into one phrase, but it includes these parts:

 – inequality among people is natural (and equality is unnatural);

 – mental and spiritual struggle are the universal human condition (the opposite would be a delusion);

 – the overlapping environmental crises of our time are a manageable price to pay for this splendid world of bread and circus (suggestions to the contrary are hysteria) because life outside the charmed circle of civilization is nasty, brutish and short.

A truth would be more or less the opposite of the above.

No-one owns this lie, though quite a few profit by it. It’s insidious and pervasive, and we all – give or take a handful of those who walk away – buy into it. And compared with the alternatives it’s simple, because it describes the status quo.

Like the rest of the captive audience I buy into the status quo. But I also strongly sense that it is built on fiction. There’s enough evidence, surely, that state society (civilization) has been a misery machine for far too many people and is firmly on a one-way street to oblivion, and that it probably has been for the past ten or twelve millennia. Enough evidence, too, that there are successful non-state forms of society in existence today (as well as older societies existing for dozens of millennia before state society), many of which have an enviable track-record of delivering non-oblivion outcomes (and, not coincidentally, more happiness and fulfilment) for themselves, their members, and the living world they inhabit.

But if that evidence is right, then why would humans have transitioned from the one way of life to the other? I can never get my head around this. Why did our ancestors trade the health, freedom and mutual trust of tight-knit bands of foragers for the enforced hierarchies, the stunted minds and bodies, the broken human potential and the perpetual mistrust that came with being low-status farmers and city-dwellers? The scraps I’ve come across on this topic in books by the likes of Yuval Noah Harari and Jared Diamond fudge the question, I think because of the assumption, from a comfy academic perch, that the way things are now is the way that things were always meant to be. That humankind self-evidently made the right choice. Our manifest destiny.

This article, ‘How equality slipped away: For 97 percent of human history, all people had about the same power and access to goods. How did inequality ratchet up?‘ by Prof Kim Sterelny, does a great job of addressing that question.

In a nutshell, there’s a ‘Big Man’ tendency in all human societies, but some societies work harder than others to contain it. There are sharing norms in all communities, but some communities work harder to deepen and preserve those norms than others. There are pathways which favour the emergence of incipient elites, but some pathways are more prone to realising those elites than others. And there are climatic and other conditions to consider, such as the post-ice-age stability of the Holocene, which opened the way to farming and storage, which led on to surplus, property, coerced labour, accumulation of wealth and power, inter-community violence, and…. the slippery slope.

So now, here we are, close to the bottom of that slope. Apparently very pleased with ourselves and our SUVs, our space programs and vaccines, our algorithmic gizmos, our superyachts and infinity pools, our creaking democracy.… All very glossy, but best not mention Yemen or Xinjiang, or the possible impending dieback of the Amazon rainforest. And especially let’s try not to look at the millions among us who don’t so much walk away as stagger, wrecked by depression and substance abuse, over the edge.

There’s a truth in Prof Kim’s story which counters the lie. It says that we came here by a process which can be known and studied, and that we should be teaching the lessons of that  process to each other and coming generations with all our might. The lesson that inequality among humans is not and never was a given … that happiness and mental health reside somewhere in the balance between freedom and belonging (nothing to do with owning and dominating) …  that the arc of civilization, wherever it’s taking us, is something we must, where possible and while there’s still time (?), bend in favour of truth.

Rich adds:

To lie habitually, as a way of life, is to lose contact with the unconscious. It is like taking sleeping pills, which confer sleep but blot out dreaming. The unconscious wants truth…. The unconscious wants truth, as the body does.

I too believe that personal and collective consciousness wants truth. We physically need truth. Hearts crave connection, but hearts can’t properly connect with something that’s not there.

Yes, the truer story of who we are and how we got here is complicated. Telling and learning from that story entails upending huge chunks of the status quo, our inner status quo as well as that of civilized society. It means recognizing and cautioning against the maladaptations that brought us here, which takes work. It means actively pursuing equality, actively shushing if not ostracizing the would-be Big Man in our midst (and our own crazy spoilt egos into the bargain), actively shoring up the community’s innate sharing norms and calling out consumer society’s rampant celebration of self-interest.

There’s a price to pay for confronting and telling a complex truth when we’ve only ever been immersed in the simple lie. Doing so risks ripping up simple certainties, sliding the ground from beneath our feet, both as individuals and as communities. But as Rich suggests, the price of not doing so is heavier.

In lying to others we end up lying to ourselves. We deny the importance of an event, or a person, and thus deprive ourselves of a part of our lives. Or we use one piece of the past or present to screen out another. Thus we lose faith, even with our own lives.

That some people do lose faith in their own lives is undeniable, and it must be the greatest indictment of this kind of society. Truth is denied in any dominant civilization, its people pay a price, and in the end I guess society loses faith in its own existence too.

But there is always a road to restoration, even if it’s just a straggly footpath to begin with. Admitting the truth about where we are at is surely the first step along that path.

Photo credit: Alfred Kenneally/

4 Replies to “Manifest destiny, restoration, and “the effort to speak honestly””

  1. Thank you very much for this well-thought-out questioning ofs some ideas masquerading as indelible truths. “The unconscious wants truth” – this is a very interesting thought – the pre-linguistic has its own needs, its own standard of reality and truth. Is it a more truthful truth? Sometimes. Perhaps. Perhaps a foundational kind of truth?
    Very thought-provoking piece, Thanks again.

  2. Ha! I’ve been bandying the word “truth” around without pausing to think what it means. I see Adrienne Rich cannily covered that base: “There is no ‘the truth,’ ‘a truth’ – truth is not one thing…”

    If truth is infinitely complex like the weave on a carpet (Rich), and the closer you look the more there is to see, then lies would be things which cordon off little patches of the pattern and claim to have the whole story. Like our triumph of civilization story extrapolating who we are from a recent fraction of human history. But the unconscious senses insincerity and niggles away in search of holes.

    Foundational truth might be a more useful framing – thanks for bringing this up.

  3. Chris – your research and perspectives are very enlightening! Thank you for expanding my thinking 😉

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