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Sure Wish Mister Rogers Could Help

I am feeling like a three-year-old these days. So are you. And not in a good way.


I shall explain.


I first observed the feeling we are feeling in late November, 1967. Princeton, New Jersey. Early snowfall blanketed the town. Our then-three-year-old daughter Alison tramped back into the house along with our boxer Brasse, both caked with snow from rolling around together on the lawn.


As I peeled away her clotted parka, snow pants, knit cap, mittens and boots, she noticed the football game I’d been watching on TV—UCLA vs. USC, in the Los Angeles Memorial Colosseum. She saw 80,000 fans scantily clad in t-shirts, bikini tops, shorts, shades, all basking in the sunshine.


“When did they play this game, Daddy?”


“It’s happening right now, honey.”


Even three-year-olds can roll their eyes when confronting baloney. For the first time in our brief life together, I watched her go gray with doubt--a hemorrhage of trust. Daddy just said something I have no way of believing. Why would he do that?


But you can make it worse. Just try to restore your credibility by over-explaining to a three-year-old how time zones and climatological dynamics and television technology all synergize in a way that had just prompted you to reply, “It’s happening right now, honey.”


In 1967, I was deeply involved in trying to understand how the recent arrival of TV in American homes was changing our lives. Everything. How we arrange our furniture. How we spend our time. How we relate to one another. How seeing others’ lives and glitzy possessions makes us envious. How “as seen on TV” means that sleazy products and sleazy politicians are accorded unwarranted credibility simply by dint of coming to us through this miraculous technology. I was blown away by how mindlessly we accepted this transformation. So I had diligently consumed what little research was being done, had done some theorizing of my own, was writing articles about it for magazines and newspaper syndicates, conducting workshops on the phenomenon.


But that snowy day it struck this young father that having TV in a home was dramatically more disorienting for a young child than for us adults. Used to be that a trip to the firehouse was a big deal for a little kid. Now the Vietnam war was being fought in everyone’s family room every evening. What’s going on here, anyhow? That glass box had boxed children into a chamber of disorientation. So I came up with what I dubbed the Quadrangle of Uncertainty:


· Is what I see real or pretend?

· Is it near me or far away?

· Is it happening now or some other time?

· Might it affect me or am I safe from it?


No need to explicate each of those points. You get it. And now that Alison is sixty, I think she has pretty much figured out for herself why I might have said what I said back then.


But as it turns out, our subsequent intellectual maturity was only a temporary fix. Because she and you and I are now three-year-olds mired once again in a brand-new Quadrangle of Uncertainty. Let’s have another look:


· Is what I see real or pretend?

· Is it near me or far away?

· Is it happening now or some other time?

· Might it affect me or am I safe from it?


Same questions, but new technology. Back in the day, there were only a handful of network channels. Today there are literally thousands of TV channels—or silos, echo-chambers that wall out alternative information and perspectives. And over a billion internet websites.


And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. With the advent of “social media”, half of Americans now say they rely on Facebook as their primary “news” source. Facebook? News? With three billion users, any of whom may choose to pose as news sources?


But the multiplicity of unreliable sources is almost trivial in comparison with the the big new threat today: that first question--"real or pretend?" --has become almost impossible to answer with certainty, thanks to new technologies.


Used to be one could sort of rely on the credentials of a source. But now, whatever anyone puts forth is suspect. Is that voice/image on media real or animated? When I enter the room where my grandsons are engrossed with soccer on TV, the movement of the players on the field seems 100% real. But it may just be a video game, where the action now is indistinguishable from an actual game. I honestly cannot tell whether it’s a live telecast or an animated video game, and I typically ask them which it is.


And so now we’re entering our own three-year-old phase of disorientation. New technologies like ChatGPT and other generative AI tools are quickly making it almost impossible to know whether another human being is honestly engaged with us—human being to human being—or whether we are now alone and helpless within a permanent quadrangle of uncertainty. Real or phony? Honest or mendacious? Harmful or harmless?


Does it matter? Oh, yes. We have always been susceptible to The Big Lie. Spoken often enough by a loud enough voice, The Big Lie has stupefying power to warp people’s minds—and keep them warped. But when sustained by the selective media in which we marinate ourselves, the long-term consequences are chilling. Once imprinted with a lie, we cling to it for dear life.


Just this week a new CNN poll revealed a frightening phenomenon among the tens of millions of people who believe that the 2020 election was “stolen” from Donald Trump. About 63% of Republicans or Republican-leaning Independents consistently believe the election was stolen—that is, believe Biden was not elected legitimately. But there are two factors at play in their minds, and the new poll queried both:

· One question is very specific: “Do you think there is ‘solid evidence’ of fraud sufficient to overturn the outcome?”

· The other is more general: “Do you believe the election was stolen?”


The percentage of those doubters who believe there is “solid evidence” has dropped significantly over two years, from 75% to 61% to 52%. Yes, huge numbers of people have changed their minds about “solid evidence”. They now believe no solid evidence exists.


But does the absence of solid evidence change their minds?


No.


Huh? That’s right. Overall, the number who still choose to believe that the election was “stolen” remains the same. Having given up on any need for “solid evidence”, millions soldier onward in lockstep with unreality. An unwavering 63% of Republicans and Republican-leaning Independents simply prefer to live within their own version of reality.


I cite this very current example not as partisan party-bashing but for a simple reason: the first casualty of Alison’s reaction to my statement of reality was trust. She did not trust what Daddy said. No matter that as a three-year-old she didn’t have the capacity to comprehend my explanation. Alison lost faith in me as a trustworthy guide for her life. She experienced one perfectly sensible reality, but Daddy had another. He must be nuts. I can’t trust him anymore.


What happens when trust goes away? The renown psychologist Erik Erickson outlined eight successive stages of human development, and the very first stage is developing trust in those around you. Should a helpless infant’s early experience fail to persuade her that others will feed and clothe and protect her—that others can be trusted, that she herself can be a trusting person—she becomes instead a fearful person the rest of her life, constantly on guard and unable to release herself freely, unstintingly, into relationships. (More here: https://www.verywellmind.com/erik-eriksons-stages-of-psychosocial-development-2795740)


In a corollary framing of human development, Abraham Maslow outlined seven concerns which are sequential prerequisites for ultimate fulfillment. Immediately following the obvious life-sustaining factors of food, water, oxygen, Maslow cites “safety” as the next-most-important experience which much be felt in order to continue one’s evolution toward fulfillment. (More here: https://www.verywellmind.com/what-is-maslows-hierarchy-of-needs-4136760)


And now we as a society—as a species, really—are moving into a constellation of untrustworthy perceptions, manipulative technologies, fearmongering “leaders”. When trust disappears, when safety is in doubt, when prejudicial preferences govern beliefs, when reality itself is nearly impossible to discern within a miasma of realistic alternatives, what then?


One possibility is accepting human life as hallucination. The clinical/technical definition says a hallucination is a sensory malfunction—“A sight, sound, smell, taste, or touch that a person believes to be real but is not real”. Another definition calls it “A false sensory perception that has a compelling sense of reality despite the absence of an external stimulus”.


But I think we must update our definition of hallucination. Given today’s technological arts of artifice coupled with the ubiquitous media onslaught of Big Lies and Little Lies, our shared hallucinations go well beyond perceptions conveyed by the five senses—sight, sound, smell, taste, or touch. We must add the far more frightful acceptance of intellectual and emotional perceptions that sweep us along into a compelling sense of reality despite the absence of…what?...”solid evidence”?


Solid evidence like, say, reality?


How do we proceed into a future where family, other friends, neighbors, fellow citizens cannot agree on what is real, what is true? Where computers compose convincing data or images that are phantasmagorical? Where students and charlatans alike rely on illusory AI creations to betray teachers and bilk consumers? Where one person’s observation is another person’s hallucination?


Back in my days co-writing and producing “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” we took great pains to differentiate what was real from what was pretend. The structure of each program was in three stages, like The Wizard of Oz—start in reality, transition to fantasy, return to reality. Fred used a little red trolley to ferry the viewing child from his living room, where only real things happened, to The Neighborhood of Make-Believe where puppets and fantasy could freely roam the imagination. When it was time to resume reality, the trolley returned the child to Fred’s living room.


Fred and the trolley are gone now and can’t shuttle our uncertain three-year-old selves between life-giving reality and soul-killing hallucinations. But we are not only three. We are also adults, and while we will be increasingly challenged to know whether others are deceiving us or not, we are not helpless. We can be the ones who speak honestly, test assumptions and evidence, advocate for controls on deception, be models of integrity.


After all, the thing that's on the line here is trust. Trust. Remember that thing coming just after food, water, and oxygen for sustaining life? Somebody's got to devote themselves to nourishing trust.


Might as well be you and me.











































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