The Way We Look to Us All | Weekly | Hudson Valley | Chronogram Magazine
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The Way We Look to Us All 

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When I was an investigative reporter, I was a mediator between the lies of corporations and governments, and the people who believe them. My primary coverage area was fraud related to health and the environment. I had two phases of shocking revelations doing this work. The first was wrapping my mind around just how trusted institutions can blatantly deceive people; by which I mean harm them, threaten their lives, and even succeed at killing them.

After I got through amassing and analyzing a document collection that proved companies lied to federal regulators, and to insurance companies, and lied in court, and fabricated fraudulent safety studies for their deadly chemicals, I had to confront the idea that people are so easy to deceive. It became clear after a while that this could only be possible if people want to be deceived; if that's their agenda.

Fraud is a special kind of crime, because it's self-concealing. The intention is to deceive, and painstaking efforts are taken to cloak the truth in something that seems plausible. Then I would read the testimony of a GE manager who said he went to 100 funerals for his employees who died of "head cancer and lung cancer" and figured out something was wrong. One hundred funerals? That's what it took?

Once someone knows that fraud is being committed, their legal status changes and the clock starts tolling on the statute of limitations. At that point any additional fraud that occurs is more like codependency.

Gradually I figured out that people seem to want and need to be lied to. I was compelled, as someone deeply interested in the human condition, to confront the fact that there are two halves to any deception: one provided by the teller, and one by the believer. I am not here to absolve corporations or political leaders of their obvious responsibility for deceiving people. Rather, I am here to say that there's something in people that seems to thrive on being deceived, and that this was by far the more difficult part of the equation for me to work through.

It's one thing to look at a public official and know that he or she is lying; there are obvious motives: protecting one's job, avoiding prosecution, avoiding lawsuits, making money, and so on.

It's another thing to look at someone who already knows they may be exposing themselves to danger and pretends it does not exist. There's a much more complex set of motives involved. It's true some of them involve a form of profit (someone's spouse beats them, but a car is included in the deal). Yet the inner psychology is much more sinister.

The problem of cognitive dissonance—simultaneously believing two contradictory sets of facts—is very difficult to address. One plays a game of hide-and-don't-seek with oneself. And this is something that humans seem to excel at. Cognitive dissonance, or what I'm calling hide-and-don't-seek, has deep roots, and most of them are associated with getting clobbered as a child.

All of the dynamics involved in being subject to corporate and state power are extensions of what happened in our childhood households. These dynamics are replayed in our current home environments, if left unresolved, and then collectively it becomes what we call society.

Getting underneath the appearance level—the one where someone pretends there's no problem, or identifies the wrong thing as the problem—takes courage. That's nothing other than the willingness to face oneself and one's problems. Our whole society is based on avoiding doing this. There's always some seeming external solution, or diversion.

One important role the president of the United States plays is as an example. Examples serve as models, which means as permission to be someone or something. Part of the example function involves certain behavior being associated with a certain reward. There is an obvious problem with someone who displays such blatant disrespect for people being given this much power. It's proof that you really can get somewhere being that particular way. Anyone who has taken care of children, animals, or adults has figured out that example spreads virulently. It's the most effective and efficient form of teaching.

Now many people are looking at an example of what they don't want to be, and don't want their children to be. Even many supporters of the incoming president recognized there's a problem here. Plenty are making excuses, and are silently appalled. Many have been listening to his hateful speech and deciding consciously that they need to be better people.

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