Why does Donald Trump say that Isis was founded by Obama, repeat it a bunch of times, and then say he was just joking? Obviously, I’m not going to try to explain his motivations. That is way outside of my — and at this point everyone’s — wheelhouse. But from a tactical standpoint, from a subtle form of communication standpoint, I can suggest one result that he is going for: Creating a cognitive association between the concepts of Obama and Isis to reinforce the idea that Obama is a Muslim — which is of course, not true. But if believed, it’s an idea that is very exploitable.
Our brains are good at creating relationships between concepts. This is one of the brain’s core functions: creating neural pathways. The more times you draw an association, the stronger that pathway. This is one of reasons why advertisers live by the motto that no press is bad press.
Google’s search engine, and neural network-based machine learning tools work this way too: They learn by repetition of associations. Some of you might remember when someone figured out how to game the search engine links system back in the 90s so that typing in the term “George Bush” took you to a top ranked result for “miserable failure.” How harmless that prank seems when compared with Trump’s social engineering stunts that are stirring the blood lust of millions of disenfranchised Americans against Obama, against the world, and sadly against themselves.
Our whole world is built on cognitive associations. We learn concepts, and then we learn which ones relate to others. We learn that we’re related to our family members. Many of us learn that education is related to success. And far too many of us learn that our national identity is linked to our personal identity and sense of self-worth.
This social fabric of cognitive associations is incredibly powerful. But it’s not composed of provable facts. It’s made up of experiences, memories, emotions, and other messy cognitive functions that are invisible to each other’s eye. Some of it is shared, most of it is deeply personal and unique to each of us. A blanket of overlapping personal realities overlays the natural world and distorts it to fit our gaze — a kind of hyperreality.
Hyperreality can be beautiful. We immerse ourselves in stories because they give us a chance to explore and play with the overlaps and intersections of our various hyperrealities. And for a while, we create and occupy a hyperreality together. So, there are things I love about hyperreality. But more importantly, it doesn’t matter whether I love it or not. Hyperreality is how people make sense of the world and their place in it. Every single one of us is wrapped in our social fabric, and we are simultaneously shaped by it and responsible for it. If we want to get past the damage of Trump, we’re going to have to deal with it in the hyperreal.
The strongest way to counteract hyperreality that is made up of provable lies is not to explain that they are lies. It’s maybe the first step for some people. Stories like this one from a former men’s rights activist, and this one from a former anti-vaxxer, show that breaking down false truths is a deeply personal process that requires critical self-reflection and growth from within. People who unlearn false truths usually have to deal with uncomfortable emotions along the way.
The fact is, we all experience the world in idiosyncratic ways from birth to death. We all are constantly living in our own hyperreality. The more we gain insight into the ways in which we make associations that may or may not be true, the more empathy we build for other people’s points of view.
Transcending Trump means understanding that the thing that ties us together is our belief in each other. I’m willing to put in the work to build an inclusive hyperreality together. Will you?
Header image from yayoi kusama’s chandelier of grief, presented at victoria miro gallery in London.
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