When I was growing up, I noticed a curious behavioral pattern in a relative. When she didn’t like or know the “truth,” she just made something else up entirely. In the beginning I was too young to really process it, but even then, I had the feeling that her revisionist approach to life was similar to looking at a photograph of her and having her try to convince me that it wasn’t her. The dissonance was confusing, especially for a young kid, but as I grew older and learned more, I realized that her behavior served as a defense mechanism in a world where she was powerless. Now, decades later, I understand it much more because everyone does it; it’s just a matter of degree. We’re all powerless in the context of the universe, and that’s scary, so we all have ways of dealing with it so that we don’t become totally unhinged.
It doesn’t help that the truth is somewhat fungible. It’s a matter of perspective. Two people can view the same event and come away with two different perspectives on what happened. Each recollection will be colored (and biased) by their own cumulative experiences. Nevertheless, there is generally a set of facts that we can agree on. If two people are standing on a street corner and they watch a man cross the street walking toward them, they can agree that he crossed the street even though they may argue about whether or not he stayed within the crosswalk. That nuance doesn’t matter in the grand scheme of things, but it can be a point of contention nonetheless.
Those nuances can explode in the face of the general powerlessness we all feel. So much so that a whole new set of “facts” emerge. The question moves from “did the man cross the street?” to “why was the man in the street to begin with?”, and that motive becomes a rabbit hole of ideas that distort reality beyond recognition. Suddenly, the basic fact that he crossed the street becomes irrelevant. A quick search on the internet can give you an idea of how this progression can get out of control. Back before we were all connected by this digital leash, outlandish and clearly illogical ideas flourished in the intellectual wastelands of society mostly out of sight. Now, they have their own websites promoting ideas that don’t withstand even a modicum of critical thinking.
Unfortunately, it feels like more people are falling for these versions of the truth. Maybe the slick websites give them a feeling of legitimacy. Maybe our feelings of powerlessness are minimized when we latch onto these crazy ideas because somehow they explain things that make sense based on our limited experiences. Maybe we need these versions of the truth to make us feel better or to prevent us from becoming unhinged. I don’t know, but every time someone starts babbling about something that clearly fails the sniff test, I think about that relative of mine and her distorted versions of the truth, and she doesn’t seem so crazy anymore.