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Wednesday, May 29, 2019

We are living in an age of unreality

Whenever escapism takes over, it's because communication has become nearly impossible.

T he wars of the 20th century were fought over ideologies. The wars of the 21st could well be over facts.

We blame gen-Z'ers for many things: voting for people who still have their hair, watching TV on those little telephones, and driving up the price of avocados. But worst of all, perhaps, is they're not having nearly enough sex with each other.

That might sound like a case of ‘no matter what happens it's bad news,’ but based on my knowledge of biology, it turns out that having sex is actually a good thing.

I've always joked that, if adults wanted young people to have less sex, the best way would be to give them sex education. After endless hours hearing about fallopian tubes and herpesvirus, they will conclude that sex is boring and dangerous and will want nothing to do with it. But I was only kidding!

I don't envy the Z'ers: Facebook is sinking like a rock. It just tossed out three billion fake accounts. The cost of getting indoctrinated in college is skyrocketing. It's increasingly hard for anyone to get accurate information.

Compare two popular news sources: The Guardian and Breitbart. Both serve some straight news mixed with an equal amount of outrage bait. Both serve highly politicized audiences. In The Guardian, the subtext is always the same: more government is needed and Republicans are standing in the way. In Breitbart, it's the opposite. They're in different worlds with different facts. All news sources do this with greater or lesser subtlety.

The natural reaction is to withdraw from the news altogether: if it's too much work to disentangle fact from opinion, the only solution for many will be to create a fantasy world where at least the basic facts are not in dispute.

That's how we ended up with people like that British couple from Wigston, Leicestershire UK, who got married dressed as their favourite (favorite just doesn't express it) Hogwarts characters and used a quote from Severus Snape in their vows. These were not teenagers, mind you, but fully grown adults.

I'd have to check the original source to be sure, but I think the quote they used was that line where Snape looks down his nose at Harry and says “I . . . may . . . vomit!”

Well, the problems of two muggles don't amount to a hill of beans in this world, and it could have been worse. They could've dressed up as Brie Larson in Captain Marvel. Or Optimus Prime. Or two dragons from Game of Thrones. But why would two grown people want to play dress-up at all?

In Tolkien's books, you can always tell when one of the characters is going to die: they take a moral stand on something, or someone leads them into battle. It's much the same as when the actors in GoT give us clues, as if trying to remind us that it's only a fantasy, by sneaking a Starbucks cup, water bottle, or laptop cable into the scene.

Maybe that happens in the real world, too: people always seem to give off clues that they're going to die, as if they subconsciously know.* Maybe it's a clue from whoever or whatever is imagining this world, but even within the so-called real world (and some days I'm not at all convinced), something is going wrong with the information we can access.

Our movies are about people with magical powers: movies about Orcs, people flying about on dragons incinerating whole towns and then getting stabbed, people shooting force lightning from their fingers. It's not just a fad; it's the normal response to being exposed to fantasies in the press.

The same thing happened before WWII: we got War of the Worlds and The Wizard of Oz. When telling the truth is too hard, people automatically stop trying to produce the next generation and take refuge in fantasy. Fantasy movies make a better connection to people, their human interactions, and their fears than the official made-up version of reality.

Some commentators say those who provoke division between the races and sexes are playing with fire. But escapism is a form of division as well—a division between what people say and what they want to say. In the past, whenever an age of unreality happened, it was due to one of two reasons: either people were not free to speak the truth, or because there are so few shared facts that communication is impossible. These days, we have a bit of both. So why, then, does it feel as if something terrible is about to happen?

* It is well documented that elderly patients often have dreams of death before the end, as if their subconscious mind knows what's about to happen. But, so far as I know, it doesn't happen for people who are, say, about to be hit by a bus.

may 29 2019, 5:44 am. last edited may 29 2019, 3:35 pm

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