Mind Matters — On Mind Muddling

I wonder – who would have the bigger field day in the US today. Would it be Mark Twain or Charles Dickens? We pride ourselves at having grown past the evils and ills of these writer forebears. Mark Twain’s sagas supposedly got banned from some school curricula for the impropriety of his use of the “N-word”. We consider ourselves beyond prejudices and slavery, so perish the need for a twelve year old to read Twain and start thinking critically about what the parallels might be between the 1800’s and our times. Perhaps that is the unspoken undercurrent that swirls around Twain’s writing. It is too pertinent to now and not at all irrelevant. Reading Twain might create too much thought – a subversive activity perhaps. And who needs Charles Dickens’ diatribes? Scrooge learned long ago to be generous and redeem himself of his greed, didn’t he? So what relevance could Dickens possibly be for Wall Street or for any of us dependent upon the stock market for our retirement? And care for the common good? Didn’t have it in Dickens day, don’t need it now, socialism, you know. Never mind Adam Smith either. Turns out that the 19th century author of The Wealth of Nations was the capitalist who claimed that wealth needs to be distributed.

Moving along in time, remember 1984—George Orwell’s not Reagan’s? Big Brother was coming to take over our minds so we could no longer think for ourselves. “Whew,” we say as we express relief. That didn’t happen, we were forewarned and we “didn’t go there.” No one has got us so controlled: Big Brother is not watching us!

No, perhaps Big Brother is not watching us. But—we’re watching Big Brother. And I think mind muddling works even better this way. This way it’s so easy—no rats in a room need scurry all over us to make us conform. Nah, Big Brother got us good and got us cheap. I think the plan is to dumb us down to the point where we have so little capacity for critical thinking left that we’ll believe anything that incites our fear or numbs us with some addiction or distraction.

I know, I know, all the way back to Socrates, the older generation worries about what is to become of the next generation. However, it is also true that history has its patterns: avaricious eras, empire building eras do have their downfall. So I do, along with Socrates, wonder about our youth. A child’s brain all the way through adolescence is not at all a finished entity. The teenager’s prefrontal cortex, where cognitive skills about deliberation and decision making occur are being formed, so—garbage in, garbage out—might go the refrain. If kids (and adults) pummel their brains constantly with violent actions and verbal abuse where are they headed? And where are our heads when we as parents who are their role models either believe scathing and demeaning talk show hosts or at the very least think they are amusing? What has happened to real discourse? Or real news, for that matter?

I send my sympathies to the Jackson family at the loss of Michael. However, isn’t it interesting how his death has become major news for days, overriding civil unrest in Iran, the ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, climate change, starvation and violence in Africa, the healthcare crisis, torture, and on and on. It is so easy for us to project ourselves onto the celebrity that we wish we were (or sometimes it works in the reverse, we project our worst fears about ourselves on the negative “celebrity” we despise) Big Brother knows this, feeds this. If we’re dumbed down enough, we’ll never know what hit us right between the eyes—POW!—to that prefrontal cortex.

There is a lot of buzz about how to maintain mental acuity: do Sudoku, crossword puzzles, etc. That’s good but it is not the antidote to media mind muddling. We really do need to role model, for our children, critical thought that questions what we see and hear; we need to question ourselves why we think reality shows are real and why we listen to lies as though they were lullabies.