The president of the United States lies; just 2 weeks ago, he falsely claimed that most previous presidents didn’t call the families of fallen soldiers. We have a cognitive bias that makes us more likely to believe something when it is repeated, whether or not it is true. Repetition of incantations is an essential tool of the sorcerer.
Scared yet? A lot of us in the world of information services are kinda shook. Our civilian leaders keep calling the fundamental assumptions of our democratic epistemology into question. They are tugging on the strings of the rug we stand on and of how we know what we know. From erratic and reactionary nonsense coming out of the twittershoot of the commander in chief (evidence: many and various inconsistent tweets, including federal intrusion into private business to suggest a way to handle First Amendment rights of private employees, which is inconsistent with the “small government” and “free enterprise” views also espoused by him) to high-ranking administration officials casting doubt on the nature and existence of knowledge and truth itself, information, knowledge, understanding, and civility are assaulted to bring forth a nightmare Orwellian horror-world.
Maybe you or some of your friends, like mine, are feeling worn down by this scary year and are horrified by the lack of respect for critical media inquiry, for consensus-building and peer review. The moorings have shifted. The commonweal broke a spoke. The geese are flying backward, and the bats are hunting horses. But don’t worry, trick-or-treaters, it gets worse …
A Curse on Both Our Houses
The dominant political worldview in the U.S. depends on the dialogue, if not dialectic, between what we call “left” and “right”: There is a bipartisan security consensus, a new world order of international agreements, and a willingness to let the embers of the Cold War slumber un-stoked, all of which are possible only because enough of our “left” and “right” concerns create a Venn diagram in such a manner that we have been able to proceed with broad agreement about America’s role in the wider world.
Even for the grislier bits of internal nickel-and-dime matters, such as the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP), Medicare, LGBT+ rights, or which state gets to keep which military bases, we have come to a common “good enough”—even if the way we got there has been through backdoor dealings. “Cornhusker Kickbacks” seem too often to be the modus operandi in the “swamp” of Washington, but even as we move forward in the muck, we have moved forward together.
With the rise of alternative realities, as has been remarked on many times in the last year, we are facing a political crisis that is a symptom of a crisis in our polis. Yes, our secret sauce was a witch’s brew, but now even that sauce is overheated and splitting in the cauldron. The people and the media’s ability to civilly disagree has broken down and left us vulnerable to outside attack.
But I propose that a more sinister attack is arising from this condition, and it is being exploited by sorcerers on the inside. Hear me out.
Information and Magic
Hexes and spells surround us. Clever jingles, touching stories about insurance plans, and enchanting logo designs fill our commodified world and act as sigils. These sigils are patterns that shortcut normal information processing and upload new realities into our experience as easily as software updates correct glitchy apps on a phone.
“With a name like Smucker’s, it has to be ____!”
“Nationwide is on ____ ____.”
Golden arches = consistent French fries
These symbols may move in and sway us with their narratives before we even realize that we’ve seen or heard them. When they are built into larger story structures, the theory goes, they may become hypersigils or metasigils that begin reshaping the world in their own image. This type of tool in the hands of the power-fixated would portend a dangerous and grim new world for critically thinking, source-tracking, malarkey-detecting information professionals and those we serve.
The horror show here is the radically expanded use of sigils by our new government. We have seen the president launch sigils against his enemies—renaming them with some belittling caricature and repeating the spell again, again, again. Now, when I say “Lock her up!” do you think you might have some guess at the “her” to whom the statement refers? Does “Lyin’ Ted” refer to Theodore Anthony Nugent or to Rafael Edward Cruz? The spells have already enchanted many millions.
Consider all the new spells that have been set loose this last year and activated to create a new world: We need a “red team, blue team” approach to climate change (as opposed to the established scientific method). The inauguration crowd was the biggest ever, period, we are told. There are such things as “alternative facts,” they say, which must be held up equally alongside other (mere?) facts for consideration. Media machines that ask hard questions of those in power or that speak truth to those in power are “fake news.” “Not a lot of people know [various things],” says the president (even when we do).
Spells spill out from the U.S. capital, enchanting and confusing the uneducated and mis-educated masses. Those masses are the people we information professionals serve, and it is our responsibility to break the spells by demanding evidence and teaching the ability to entertain difficult questions about complex issues. Our Malleus Maleficarum will be “Politics and the English Language,” the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine, Six Thinking Hats, primers on rhetoric, “Thou Shalt Not Commit Logical Fallacies,” Frankfurt’s On Bullshit, and any other aid to clear thinking, well-constructed arguments, and allies of the nonpartisan search for truth.
This is our new Halloween, and there will be no dawn unless enough of us pour our salt in a circle on the Earth, banish the demons of samsara, and demand the re-establishment of a rational and enlightened discourse from our leaders and our fellow countrymen.
Magic and sorcery have a truth hiding in plain sight within their illusions: We get to make our worlds with words and with the truths (or lies) those words represent. Don’t let the sorcerers win.