Just as the value of money can be deflated[i] in the material economy, so can the honest search for truth in the public domain of ideas and morals. The truth, or the signaled truth-seeking of people, can be viewed as increasingly hollow and cheap when their claims aren’t matched by actual behaviors and sacrifices made. In a society where people use idealistic claims and truth-seeking to boost their own identities, idealism always appears to reek of hypocrisy.
The following is a slightly edited extract from Hanzi Freinacht’s book ‘Nordic Ideology: A Metamodern Guide to Politics, Book Two’. This is the second book in a series on metamodern thought, a work of popular philosophy that investigates the nature of psychological development and its political implications.
If we don’t deal with our deeper existential issues and our underlying fear of death, we tend to invest more emotions in, and cling more eagerly to, our “ego”; our sense of being a separate and righteous “self”. Because a lot of our ego identity is built on having the right opinions, being on the right side of moral struggles and being righteous, we thus have profound inner stakes set against any proposition that could seriously challenge our moral or political standpoints.
It has been shown by students of the psychology of death that even a subtle reminder of our mortality can make us more selective and prone to confirmation biases and less receptive to information which would disprove the positions we currently identify with.[ii] In other words: Our underlying fear of death makes us clasp to our ego, which in turn makes us resistant to truth and to honest conversations about central topics.
I should mention that there are empirical findings suggesting that people who develop higher “emotional complexity” (a personality measure closely related to higher stages of self-development) tend to have much lesser anxieties in relation to death and aging.[iii] This suggests we can support inner peace by supporting personal development, and that this in turn supports truth in society—or rather, its truthfulness.
Hence, the inner insecurities we all bear with us deflate the perceived value of truth-seeking on a massive scale. Given that society is becoming more complex and people are required to have more coordinated, abstract and correct opinions about more matters than ever, this is nothing short of catastrophic for the self-organization of society. The discourse becomes poisoned as we are all limited by our own identifications and hopes.
Of course, we can’t just “get rid of the ego” and be done with it. Everybody needs to have a sense of self and maintain a reasonably positive self-image to feel okay as they go about their day. But we are staring at a very crucial correlation here, one that is possibly instrumental to the very survival of our civilization. It goes something like this:
- The average underlying fear of death in society is proportional to the identification with the ego.
- The identification with the ego is proportional to our tendency to identify with certain moral and political conclusions, which curtails any attempts to challenge these notions.
- Forms of inner work that let us deal with the fear of death and help us to disidentify with the ego, such as serious meditation practice, will—on average, over time and as a collective—help us maintain a more functional and sane discourse in which people more honestly seek to know the truth.[iv]
Can you see it, dear reader? It’s the deflation of truth.
Can you see how cheap the truth has become since we all prefer being right over being wrong (and enjoy proving others wrong, never giving them space to save face) just a little too much? Can you see how this is linked to an underlying insecurity we all share? Can you see that this deflation of the truth is a deeply transpersonal phenomenon (meaning that it resides both deep inside each of us and in our relations), as any conversation you will ever be in can and will have its very parameters set by the willingness of all parties involved to entertain the possibility that they’re wrong about something? Can you see how “the ego” has hijacked truth-seeking in all aspects of politics and society, even within yourself?
Again, the point isn’t to “transcend the ego” so that we “can all see the truth”. That would be silly. The point is that society—and its members—can be more or less emotionally and existentially mature, more or less invested in identities, political or otherwise.
This hijacking of our strivings, this massive devaluation of all the most precious gems of existence, does not stop at the search for truth. Take any other of the central human endeavors: moral struggle, the creation and expression of beauty, spiritual attainment, the cultivation of love—all of these are hijacked in a corresponding manner. You see a bunch of kids struggling against injustice, and you just know deep down and instinctively that their moral outrage is likely to be more about self-inflating identity-seeking than about genuine moral concerns; their less-than-exemplary behaviors, intellectual inconsistencies and eagerness to accept simple and judgmental ideas all belie that morality is being remote-controlled by the ego and its struggle to place itself at the center of the universe and above others. Beauty becomes pretentious “artsy art” or the impulse to possess and display the beautiful as something indicative of our own splendor. Spiritual seeking becomes a smokescreen for the display of the superiority of our pure soul—a claim that conveniently enough cannot be disproven and takes no effort on our behalf. Even love becomes reduced to a grim game of exchange and power relations.
And what a loss all of this is; what a ubiquitous tragedy! The deflation of truth and of all the greatest values in life.
The cynics of the world are proven right again and again: don’t trust idealism to save the environment and moral conviction in the face of injustice (it’s “virtue signaling”), don’t believe the sensitive heart of the artist (it’s all posturing), don’t believe the people who claim that spiritual goals are more important than worldly ones (it’s just a strategy to score points without making an effort), and don’t even live for love. All of it always turns out to be a lie, at least in part. And as things stand, the cynics, for all their crudeness and stupidity, often turn out to be right.
But the point is that—even as these things are indeed often based on lies, even if they are conceited and steeped in falsehood—they are still the greatest values of existence: the true, the good and the beautiful. Due to our collective existential immaturity, however, we perpetuate a situation in which people’s strivings for these noble ends cannot be trusted. This existential immaturity is not an eternal or necessary quality, however; it is something that can and must be challenged and outgrown. And it’s not binary; through contemplative practice, self-knowledge and self-acceptance we can reduce the grip that ego identification has on all of us. It’s a scale— and together we can climb the scale towards higher collective freedom.
That’s the ultimate goal of Existential Politics: to see that ego identification can be rolled back, that the fear of death can be eased at the deepest level. Thus the genuine striving for the good, the true and the beautiful can be unleashed in our lives and beyond—to see that truth and idealism can be sought with the metamodern rebel wisdom we have called informed naivety.
Many can handle the truth, but how many of us can handle the truth about the truth?
Hanzi Freinacht is a political philosopher, historian and sociologist, author of ‘The Listening Society’, ‘Nordic Ideology’ and the upcoming books ‘The 6 Hidden Patterns of History’ and ‘Outcompeting Capitalism’. Much of his time is spent alone in the Swiss Alps. You can follow Hanzi on his facebook profile here, and you can speed up the process of new metamodern content reaching the world by making a donation to Hanzi here.
[i]. The technical term for which is, ironically, inflation.
[ii]. Solomon, S., Greenberg, J., Pyszczynski, T., 2015. The Worm at The Core. On the Role of Death in Life. London: Penguin Press.
[iii]. Bodner, E., et al, 2015. Anxieties about Aging and Death and Psychological Distress: The Protective Role of Emotional Complexity. Personality and Individual Differences, vol. 83, pp. 91-96.
[iv]. And yet, the issue is not that straightforward. It has even been shown that practices of yoga and meditation can have the reverse effect—i.e. an increased identification with the ego, simply because people feel self-important for having taken part in these practices. This should not lead us to despair, however; it merely suggests that, again, there are many layers to these kinds of practices and that the mind is really good at turning things around for purposes of ego-boosting. See:
Gebauer, J. E., et al, 2018. Mind-Body Practices and the Self: Yoga and Meditation Do Not Quiet the Ego but Instead Boost Self-Enhancement. Psychological Science, vol. 29, 8, pp. 1299-1308.