Tuesday, February 01, 2011

The Gorgon Gaze of the Expectant Audience

Brad Warner:

As Mr. Choprah has learned, people will pay good money to be told by a religious authority figure that they will live forever. People have paid damn good money to hear that from religious authority figures for a very long time and in cultures across the globe. It is quite a reliable strategy for making a living.

...I don't necessarily think that Mr. Choprah is cynically exploiting his readers by telling them lies. He says what he says in order to create a reassuring feedback loop from himself to his readership and back again that helps relieve his own fears of death. This is also a time-tested strategy and appears to work for some people.

The question of the exact ratio of witless fraud to manipulative liar that constitutes Deepak Chopra is an academic one, and not all that important. The results are the same in any case, no matter what he truly believes in his heart of hearts.

But "believe" is kind of a funny term when you really think about it. What does it mean to really believe something? Does it mean you are about as sure as you can be without having direct proof, as in believing that gravity will still be in effect and the sun still in the sky tomorrow? Or does it mean something more like hope? Either way, as with all abstract concepts, the term exists in contrast to its opposite, doubt. Claiming to believe something implicitly allows the possibility of doubt. And when we're talking about such a momentous and emotionally charged issue as the possibility of life after death, you can bet your sweet bippy that the boundary between "things we know to be objectively true" and "things we desperately want to believe are true", poorly demarcated at the best of times, becomes practically nonexistent.

What I find interesting is in the way Brad puts that: Chopra is just as much a prisoner to his audience as they are to their own perceived need for someone wiser than them to tell them all the answers. Yes, I know, the poor bastard, imprisoned in his several mansions. Forced to endure a retinue of underlings fanning him, popping grapes into his mouth, and throwing themselves across mud puddles for him. What I mean is: Deepak, being a confused shaved ape like the rest of us, though a fantastically rich one, is no different when it comes to falling prey to the fear of nonexistence. I'm willing to allow that he has genuinely wondered about all the big questions in life just like anyone else. But if there ever were a time when he felt free to do so, surely he doesn't have that freedom now. Whether by happenstance or design, he's been presented, or presented himself, as a guru. Does he truly believe he has all the answers? Well, the positive reinforcement from his devoted fans probably helps assuage any private doubts he might have. As the bank account keeps growing, and the adulation pours in; as his identity as a sage gets ever more firmly cemented in place by the feedback he gets from hundreds, thousands, millions of others, he had better believe it for the sake of his psychological well-being. There's no way he can ever allow himself to say those simple words, "I don't know." No one has time for a wise man who qualifies his statements constantly with things like, "Of course, that's just my opinion...I could be wrong...I'm no more of an expert on this than you are...I've never considered that before, actually...fucked if I know." Well, if you don't have any clear answers, then why should we listen to you? And if no one's listening to me anymore, who am I?

Being able to freely admit ignorance is what keeps us mentally supple. It's what keeps us from being too proud to learn anything new, too afraid of losing face to ask a question, too stubborn to change our mind when necessary. But few, if any, would have the courage to face an audience of people trained to hang on your every word and do just that. The more you come to see yourself as a person with a message, the less chance you'll retain that flexibility. The worst thing that could happen to any sincere truth-seeker would be to look back over their shoulder and see an army of followers looking back at them.


  1. I think the best gurus are savvy enough to know that they are purveyors of comforting words and, they think, guidance that will help their followers achieve a better state of mind. So even if they don't believe their own words, they can still think they are providing a useful service.
    I like how Warner places some of the responsibility on the followers for reinforcing their guru's delusions.

  2. Brian M11:48 AM

    This post is all kinds of awesome, Scribbler. Noel also makes a good point. I would also argue for the amazing human ability to segregate ideas and beliefs, to "believe" contradictory things.

  3. "Beliefs" are often just words people know they are expected to say. Which is very frustrating if you take them (people, words, or beliefs) seriously.
    "things we desperately want to believe are true"
    There is, of course, no reason to expect a correlation between what we want to be true, and what is, in fact, true. It's amazing that so many people fail to grasp this fairly obvious and, in some contexts, well known fact.

  4. There is, of course, no reason to expect a correlation between what we want to be true, and what is, in fact, true. It's amazing that so many people fail to grasp this fairly obvious and, in some contexts, well known fact.

    Yes. This still has the power to shock me; I don't know why. I guess I really thought that most people above the age of, say, eight, had learned that part of maturity is learning to see the difference between objective facts and subjective hopes. It sometimes really pains me to realize that I simply can't communicate with someone on religious or political issues, because they refuse to even allow for one second the possibility that they are not entitled to their own facts. We're just speaking totally different languages.