Over the years I’ve had the occasion to travel repeatedly to many cities and towns from BC to ON for business. Even with podcasts and satellite radio available, it’s still interesting to tune in to local radio stations when visiting an area. Listening to local stations helps this visitor get a finger on the pulse of the community. It’s a way to reliably find something to talk about that’s top of mind of those living in the region. It can be sports related, events, or news. What has struck me is how news stories that are national or international in scope are treated differently from town to town. From presentation to prioritization, the news isn’t the same from place to place. The headlines differ, the contents, too. It’s like the news has been shaped to be seen and heard for the specific community. I’m even more struck when talking casually about certain news stories with people. The views and discussion seem to mirror the perspective presented on local radio. Whether it’s a conscious effort to craft news narrative in a way that’s welcomed by listeners or that listeners are shaped by the news heard, I don’t know. Our thoughts are somewhat composed by the info to which we’re exposed. Different regions hear different “facts” and develop different perspectives as a result.
Several thousand years ago, Plato wrote what’s known as the Allegory of the Cave contained within his treatise The Republic. It’s a classic that offers a great visual for the limitations of each of our versions of reality. Plato introduces readers to a group of people that, since birth, have been shackled and fixed in place deep in a dark cave. They have been positioned such that they each face the back of the cave. Behind them is a fire that burns which creates light in the cave and casts shadows on the wall in front of the prisoners. There are also others that live and move freely behind the captives that make various noises and with hand gestures or other objects cast odd shadows. These people are, literally, puppet masters. They are creating the reality that the captives see. The noises and shadows shown on the wall in front of the shackled people represent the reality of the prisoners. This is all they see and all that they have ever seen.
One of Plato’s prisoners notices one morning that his shackles have broken. He’s able to move freely. He turns around and views a new world. The puppeteers are off somewhere, yet the things they use to cast shadows lie on the ground. The fire crackles, burns, and provides light. The free prisoner sees light at the other end of the cave and moves towards it with curiosity. He sees the outside world for the first time. He sees green grass, trees, and clouds floating gently in a bright blue sky. He’s filled with awe and wonder at his new, expanded reality. He realizes that what he’s been exposed to up until now isn’t all there is. What he thought of as his entire world was an illusion imposed upon him by others. With this realization he’s motivated to share his insight with the other shackled souls.
He returns to his place in the dark depths of the cave and seeks to share his learnings. He’s met not with wide-eyed wonder matching his experience but doubt and ridicule. Their eyes haven’t been opened to what he’s seen and even entertaining the possibility is too much to comprehend. They think he’s the one that’s dropped off into the deep end. He sounds like he’s lost touch with reality as they know it. They see a difference in his eyes, posture, and mannerisms. Yet, they don’t see it as positive. They see it as dangerous. The doubt and ridicule morph to anger. The others threaten their freed friend and each other that seeking to leave the comfort of their current reality is a bad idea that will be punished. The devil they know is deemed far safer than the devil they don’t.
Plato’s allegory of the cave is as applicable to us today as it was 2,000 years ago. There are a number of lessons we can learn from it. First and foremost, our realities are a result of our inputs.
Our realities start with us. We use our senses to make sense of the world. It’s not just what we see, but what we hear, touch, smell, and taste. Our confidence in our reality grows as we cross reference our experiences with those around us. Where they seem to be seeing, hearing, touching, smelling, and tasting what we are, our collective sense of the world around us becomes stronger. Just like Plato’s prisoners that were seeing, hearing, smelling, and touching the same things, they had a shared sense of reality as a result. From the consensus resulting from similar shared experiences our confidence in the accuracy of our interpretation of the world grows where that can expand across geographies and then across times in history. Where what we’re seeing and hearing is similar to others as well as others in varying corners of the world on top of those who came before us, then we can be confident that we’re stumbling across universal truths. Without these layers of affirmation, we should recognize that we’re only seeing a slice of the world and that there may be other interpretations that are equally or more accurate still to uncover.
What are some inputs that influence our reality? Culture (what’s cool and popular), marketing and advertising, expectations of others, our family, our peers, our education, our news sources, and more. Many, if not most, of us simply accept these external influences as outside of our control and the only ones available. Moreover, the culture, expectations of others, advertising, family values, and peers all vary from region to region. The exposures available to each of us differs and so, too, does our individual view of the world as a result. Much of our own experience of reality is influenced by other forces. The values, lessons, and experiences our families provide for us as we grow up are to a large extent outside our control. This is also the case with respect to the subjects and materials covered in school for much of our childhood. The news we watch, if any, determines yet another sliver of society to which we’re exposed. Over time, though our reality may seem perfectly clear to us, it’s not the same as what someone else may be seeing. The lens through which we look influences what we see. As Henri-Frederic Amiel offered, “All appears to change when we change.” When we change our vantage point, our reality changes. Yet others have offered, a carpenter sees all problems as being capable of being fixed by a hammer whereas a surgeon sees all problems as being fixed with a scalpel. What we know determines how we look at things.
Our realities are increasingly diverse as a result of the exponentially growing number of inputs. A couple of generations ago, there were just three TV channels in the US which meant everyone was watching the same things at the same times. Our views were more aligned as a result. We were more like Plato’s prisoners standing side by side watching the same channels. The numbers of viewers for TV shows was huge. Chris Hayes noted in his book, Twilight of the Elites, that “CBS’s Walter Cronkite would speak to nearly 20 million people every night during his heyday, an audience larger than all three network evening newscasts combined in 2010.” This, too, was the case for musical albums, for example. Music was distributed through record label companies limiting what was available for consumption. It’s a different world of abundant inputs across genres. Nowadays, the networks viewership continues to decrease while other web-based viewing grows. Podcasters like Joe Rogan reach viewers in the order of 100x that of networks like CNN. Whether it be books, movies, videos, articles, music, and more, the variety available is virtually limitless. Instead of one cave, we’re now spread across many thousands of different caves each with different shadows and images being cast in front of us.
There are many contexts where we seek to control what someone or another animal sees. In each of these cases, the act of influencing what the other sees is done more for the benefit of the person controlling the vision of the other and not for the other. For example, hostage takers may blindfold a prisoner in order to disorient them and make them easier to subdue. In a separate example, why do work horses or race horses have blinders placed on their heads? It’s done to limit their ability to see and focus their gaze so that they are easier to control. Propaganda is an intentional act done in order to influence others. It’s limiting what information others are exposed to in order to better control their thoughts and, in turn, behaviors. Are you allowing others to place blinders on your vision limiting your view of the world?
We’re like Plato’s prisoners in many ways. What forces are behind you making the noises you hear and the shapes you see? The first step once we realize someone else is pulling our strings is to cut them. Seek to control your inputs. Stop being a muppet or someone else’s puppet.
In The Gift of Fear, Gavin de Becker writes, “Since we are the editors of what gets in and what is invested with credibility, it is important to evaluate our sources of information.” What media do you consume? Why? How often? Where are you allowing your attention to be led? However, unlike Plato’s prisoners, we’re not shackled. We have some freedom to move, to change our vantage point. We can choose our inputs. We can try new sources of information. We can even turn things off all together. In the Noise of News we talked about the benefit of reclaiming time spent listening to what someone else has determined as “important.” Tucker Carlson in a recent speech at Turning Point USA offered his standard response when asked about where he gets news he can trust. Carlson’s said, “I don’t get any news. I don’t need any. Are you joking? I haven’t had TV in like decades. I wouldn’t read the New York Times at gunpoint. I don’t want that in my head. It’s worse than porn. It’s horrible. And, it’s just bad for you. Don’t put untruths into your head on purpose.” We have choices as to what we consume.
Do you know the default lens through which you view the world? Do you know of other views that are out there? Can you consciously shift from perspective to perspective? Are you constantly choosing the lens through which you look? Are you working to try on different glasses from which to view the world? The acronym GIGO for Garbage In, Garbage Out is a useful one for us to consider. Our reality, though not 100%, is to a significant degree capable of being influenced by our individual choices. In other words, we’re responsible for our reality. We can make dutiful DEPOSITs. That is, we can Decide to Put Only Strength Inside Today. Choose what you will consume. Equally important, choose what you will avoid. Accept responsibility for being the architect of your attention and explore all corners of the cave of your reality. Dare to venture outside and see the sunshine of fresh ideas. Plato’s Allegory of the Cave is a useful construct to draw on. In a future article we’ll touch on some additional lessons that Plato’s Cave offers including, we see what we want to see, our perspective is but one of many, thinking differently can be dangerous to your social life, and opportunities lie in working to refine the resolution of your reality.