Peeling Back the Veils
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Living in a Culture of Appearances
As part of our collective reliance on polished masks to protect us from the vulnerability that arises in genuine communication, we have created a culture of misleading surface appearances. Advertisers know that they don’t actually have to sell the product or service they are promoting; they just have to sell the idea of it – the possibility of whiter teeth, or a fatter bank account, or a happier sex life, or a cleaner house – whether or not the company they represent can actually deliver what they are suggesting it can. Politicians know that what gets them elected is saying what their constituents want to hear, whether or not they are later able, or even intend now, to make good on their campaign promises. Church attendance rises when it can convince its parishioners that it will mitigate their fate, regardless of the fact that such a claim could never be guaranteed.
What matters within a culture of appearances is not what is true, but what appears to be true, what we can make others believe is true.
At one point, by default, I suddenly found myself the chairman of a political campaign to stop the city where I lived from adding fluoride into the local drinking water. In researching the history of the issue, I learned that the idea that that fluoride could prevent tooth decay was in fact an outright lie concocted in the wake of the Manhattan project, when US authorities were suddenly faced with the conundrum of what to do with uranium hexafluoride – a by-product of the manufacture of fissionable material for the atomic bombs they intended to produce (1). Instead of acknowledging that there was a problem, they hired a public relations firm to find a reason for the public to like fluoride. The firm hastily conducted what has since been shown to be a flawed research study showing that calcium fluoride – a naturally occurring compound – could prevent tooth decay, and then began selling fluoride (not the naturally occurring kind, but the waste products from uranium mining, phosphate fertilizer production, and many other industrial processes) to municipalities to add to their drinking water.
What I realized in conducting this campaign – which we lost in a local election after presenting the facts on television, in local papers, and in speaking to anyone who would listen – is that the facts did not matter. What mattered was that people wanted to believe that fluoride was a health benefit, rather than a highly toxic substance now being routinely added to our drinking water by companies hoping to avoid the expensive responsibilities of proper disposal. They wanted to believe that their doctors and dentists were telling them the truth, and that 50+ years of widespread public policy was in their best interest. So – even though none of this was actually true – this is what they chose to believe. And they voted accordingly.
This experience illustrates just one of many rampant throughout our culture of outright lies, deceptions, and deadly secrets hiding behind the veil of appearances. In such a culture, if we can create the appearance of justice, or safety, or democracy, or freedom, or equality, or health, or normalcy, then we need not discuss the complexities of real life where anything worth knowing is an ongoing process of discovery in which today’s truth evolves from the earnest peeling away of yesterday’s veil of partial knowledge.
What would this world be like if instead of institutionalizing untruth behind a veil of false appearances, we allowed what we were learning through our ongoing conversation with each other, and with the world in which we live, to precipitate change toward a better world for all? We can all be excused to an extent for what we don’t yet know, but once we do know, we have a responsibility to translate knowledge into action based on truth. Anything short of that becomes a culture built on lies.
As any true seeker of truth will attest, truth is a slippery animal – a shapeshifter that begins mutating the moment you grab a hold of it. This can be infuriating to one who wants to have the answer once and for all. But if the goal of a quest for truth is a deepening of relationship and the kind of growth – personal and/or societal – that can ensue when truth is sought, then it is not the destination that matters, but a journey of perpetual discovery and self-renewal in which old skins are shed as an ever-increasingly more abundant connection to the source of truth demands it.
(1) Corrie Robb, “Manhattan Project Covered Up Effects of Fluoride Toxicity,” Project Censored: The News That Didn’t Make the News, April 30, 2010,
The next post in this series is Facing the Unknown.
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