Discombobulated by Alternative Realities
“We become the stories we hear.”
The setting was the Cosmos Club in Washington, D.C., late 1978. We were celebrating the introduction of a Senate bill to establish a National Endowment for Children’s Television—a concept that I had hatched, that Senator H. John Heinz III and others were sponsoring, and that my dear friend Nick would be shepherding into passage.
A big-time producer of children’s TV programs that featured a lot of unmotivated violence was there. He had just asked Nick why it mattered so much to us to help producers like him develop programs that were more constructive, maybe even inspiring to young children. And that’s when I heard Nick say: “We become the stories we hear.” He continued, “If you only tell children stories of hostility and mayhem, you make hostility and mayhem the norm. It defines reality for them.”
It has taken me almost fifty years to fully grasp the wisdom of Nick’s statement. Back then, most people watched the same few TV channels, went to the same few movies in theaters, and read the same few bestselling books. Sure, there were rival newspapers and vocal political factions. But day after day, dominant mass media voices implicitly drew us together around common perceptions of current events and themes of entertainment. We might occasionally choose to see a horror movie, but we were rarely horrified in the daylight.. Nobody was constantly whispering, "Be afraid. Be very afraid." The reality of reality was not in question, and we mostly liked what we saw.
Meanwhile, children watching TV mostly viewed prime-time adult programs, either in the evening with their families or as re-runs in the afternoon. Programming produced just for children largely consisted of Saturday morning cartoons on ABC, NBC, and CBS featuring pie-in-the-face aggressiveness. Weekdays, PBS carried “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” and “Sesame Street” and similarly well-intended programs designed to nurture children’s intellectual and social development. Disparities notwithstanding, children were learning a lingua franca that formed a common bond of sorts among them as they grew up.
No one ever dreamed that a day would come when over a thousand different channels on every TV set would tease us apart into separate little segments of our population, self-reinforcing cohorts huddled together where we might focus more and more on less and less. What hooks you: Cooking? Remodeling? Sports? Right-wing politics? Left-wing politics? High-brow theater? Low-brow cop shows? Hunting and fishing? Hey, just name your favorite, and it’s running 24/7 for you. Find your fix, and settle down. No need to change channels.
And running in parallel with TV are the “social media” that long ago outgrew mere social chit-chat. This is now where, according to polls, about half of Americans say they “often” or “sometimes” get their news. And form their impressions of reality.
Our voluntarily being trapped in information/disinformation silos isn’t news itself, of course. Everyone knows by now that our population has divided itself up by our addiction to one or another of these specialty echo-chambers where “alternative facts” freely roam unchallenged. They work well, as I learned when my beloved brother Walt’s 24/7 watching of Fox News transformed him into someone our generations-long clan of Democrats wouldn’t have recognized. And I found myself equally transfixed during the Trump years by non-stop watching of MSNBC, eager to reassure myself hour by hour that I wasn’t alone in my stupefaction and horror, desperate to know that others shared my presumably superior views of reality.
We do become the stories we hear. And the more we hear them, the more they become us and we become them.
Well, I got to thinking about a phenomenon that preschoolers often exhibit—when together in a playroom or a sandbox, for example. There might be a few toys in there, or a shovel and bucket, or whatever. And each child may individually be enjoying them, but all by themselves. Kids adjacent to each other, but not interacting. Alone in each other’s company.
This is called “parallel play”.
And I find myself wondering if that is what we adults have devolved into, with our macerated entertainments and narrow-gauge sources of “news”. With our nonstop checking of handheld devices for word from the networked-but-exclusionary worlds we have electronically wired ourselves into. With obsessive playing of hyper-violent video games deep into adulthood, a puzzling attenuation of earlier generations’ brief early-adolescent flirtation with comic books. With our gated communities and increasingly class-based caste system.
And—most incomprehensible to me—one staggering consequence of all this fragmentation of “reality”: I read reports that tens of millions of my fellow citizens still live inside heads wherein the results of a national election are considered false, despite its having satisfied every conceivable criterion by which every prior election has been certified and accepted. If reality is supposedly factual, then this alternative fact has become their alternative reality.
Or how can I comprehend that many in that same massive cohort actually are giving their lives in death by Covid, honoring a group commitment to avoiding vaccination or other preventive measures. I am trying. I really am trying. I have made honest inquiry of others, seeking understanding, but to no avail. I realize now that some people genuinely believe that a Covid vaccination shot will kill them on the spot. Meanwhile, to me, such a conviction carries overtones of Jonestown.
I find myself not only stymied in my comprehension, but shamefully stunted even in my compassion, when I watch precious human beings willing to pay that ultimate price, presumably under the sway of what appears to me a quasi-mobocratic belief system. I can honestly weep for the unspeakable loss their surviving family members suffer. But I struggle to avoid a subconscious “How could you?” to the victim. I hate that feeling, and it shames me.
Have we any hope of denoting “truth”? The question resurfaces throughout human history. I remember the White Queen in Wonderland gently upbraiding Alice who insisted that “…one can’t believe impossible things.” “I daresay,” said the Queen, “you haven’t had much practice. When I was your age, I always did it for half-an-hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”
And I’ve always nodded in hopeful agreement with F. Scott Fitzgerald’s opinion that “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.”
But far from delighting in the fantasies of Wonderland or seeking the more balanced qualities of a fine mind, we persist in drinking from favored sources only to reinforce our already divisive opinions.
For preschoolers, their parallel play is a developmental precursor to the more complex, interdependent interactions with others that will provide increasingly satisfying avenues of expression and accomplishment. Natural forces of human development, including persistent curiosity, eventually prompt preschoolers to outgrow parallel play, in order to gain greater satisfactions. Before long, they will revel in team play on athletic fields or theatrical stages or bandstands or chemistry labs in the collegial efforts that are a hallmark of maturity.
Meanwhile, we adults are hunkered down in our silos, becoming even more of the divisive stories we choose to hear. We have regressed to preschoolers’ state of parallel play. But we cannot count on a second wave of early childhood dynamics to rescue us. If our disunited States of America are to be healed, we each must choose to step outside our own silo and feel our way toward each other. With the hope of at least awakening mutual compassion if not achieving mutual comprehension, we might even compose a new story we’d rather be in together.