What if we’re wrong? What if we’re the bad guys?

I was listening to this series on YouTube about the old “GamerGate” drama a few years back, and it got me thinking about some of the stuff that’s happening right now, especially in politics, but which also touches on alternate spirituality.

The central point – at least, my takeaway – is that there are a lot of people in modern American culture who are afraid to be wrong. Because their identity is so tightly wound up in their beliefs and actions – or even in the way they see themselves – that it feels like an existential threat to be wrong.

People will go to great lengths to avoid being wrong. Even believing in the wildest and least probably bullshit. Like the deep-state. Or white replacement theory.

But we alternate-spirituality folks have a pretty close relationship with believing wild and improbable bullshit.

Hence this post.

Degrees of truth

Not going to spend a lot of time here, because it’s not the point of the post. But I think it’s worth going into the different levels by which a thing can be true.

Provably true: We can prove that viruses exist, because we can look at them under a microscope. We can prove that we’ve been to the Moon, because we left a mirror up there to bounce a laser off of. We can prove the Earth is round, because far-away objects go below the horizon. There are certain things that are true simply because they can be proven with experiments or observation.

True for me: There are some things that are true for me, which might not be true for other people. Large groups of people overwhelm my nerves. Reason and compassion are more important than faith. Spirits are real, inhabit most objects, and can be interacted with.

True for you but not me: Just like there are things that are true for me and not you, there may be things that are true for you and not me. Crowds of people are energizing. Jesus Christ is the Lord and Savior. Faith is more important than logic or critical thinking.

Not true: There are some things which are simply not true. The sky is green. Birds can breathe water.

Not true but I believe it anyway: Here’s the most interesting case, and the one most relative to this post. Some people may (or may not) know a thing is false, but they believe it anyway. The Covid vaccine includes a 5G microchip that allows Bill Gates to mind control people. The Earth is flat. The Deep State is out to get me. Carrying the right crystal will heal me. God wants me to bomb an abortion clinic.

As we’ve seen on social media in the past few years, people will go to great lengths to reinforce their belief that they are right. (Or that they are a good person.) Even resorting to insane mental gymnastics to justify their views, even in the face of definitive proof that they are wrong.

David’s First Test for Truthiness

I have a simple test to evaluate a source. Are they willing to admit that they were wrong, misled, or mistaken? If not, then it’s not possible for them to be 100% correct.

Because in order to be correct, a person has to fix their mistakes.

No one gets a skill the first time they try it. No one. That’s the whole point of the “jump test” in The Matrix.

It’s the whole point of science. We don’t know the answer, so we ask good questions, try to make things work, and make things better as we get more data.

So if someone is claiming that they are infallible, and they have the answer, and they are always right -they are almost certainly wrong.

The social cost of being wrong

One of the things that fucks up Americans, is that there is no tolerance for making a mistake or being wrong.

Cops never admit when they make a mistake when shooting someone.

Corporations never admit that they were responsible for harming people.

Governments will be quick to point out that “mistakes were made,” but never to acknowledge who actually made those mistakes.

All of those influences seep into the greater subconscious of the people who live in that system. Consequently, Americans tend to refuse to take responsibility for their mistakes. And if someone does make a mistake, we treat it as a gotcha. “Now you owe me, because you made a mistake.

As humans, we make mistakes. But our society doesn’t allow mistakes.One of the ways that we reconcile these conflicting beliefs, is that we excuse our statements and our actions with our intent. “I didn’t mean to hurt your feelings.” “I’m not racist, I have black friends.” “I’m trying to save babies, not take away people’s freedom.”

(I’m sure you’ve thought of several other examples.)

Scott Adams discovered the social cost of saying racist shit.

The Frosts discovered the social cost of advocating for child sexual abuse in some of their books.

J.K. Rowling discovered the social cost of saying transphobic shit.

The thing about social costs, at least at the time I’m writing this, is that they vary depending on the social group a person belongs to. Saying the phrase “It’s OK to be white” among a bunch of BLM supporters is going to (rightly) make you a pariah, because it’s a racist dog whistle. That same phrase spoken at a DeSantis or Trump rally will draw cheers.

These social costs of being wrong – or saying the wrong thing – create an anxiety in people that, if they say or do something wrong, they will lose their job, their house, their family, everything. This is a very real threat. Speaking out against Trump’s claims of a “stolen election” has resulted in death threats to election workers. Speaking out about the harassment and mistreatment of women in the gaming industry has led to stalking, SWATting, doxxing, and physical threats.

The intersection of social costs and beliefs

In today’s hyper-connected social world, we cross paths with people with whom we have absolutely nothing in common. In the internet’s infancy, this was thought to be a feature.

However, social media has caused people to silo themselves into social bubbles that reinforce their beliefs – even down to the literal definition of words that they commonly use.

For example – what does the word “woke” mean when your alarm goes off in the morning? What does it mean in the Florida education system? What does it mean in a college-level Critical Race Theory class?

So we simultaneously are reinforcing the narrow range of beliefs in our social media bubbles, AND we are exposed to people whose very existence stands as a challenge to whether we can hold those values and still be a good person.

All of this to say – simply by existing, or going through your normal day, you are going to upset someone. They are going to think you are wrong and evil just for how you look, or what you say, or what religion you practice.

I’m not saying it’s good.

I’m saying is this is what happens.

About those bad guys…

Most reasonable people aren’t going out of their way to hurt other people.

There are people who do.

But most reasonable people don’t. Because they either have seen, or can imagine themselves being on both sides of shitty treatment.

Also, most reasonable people understand that people who have a certain appearance or ethnic background have been treated pretty badly in the history of the US, and they don’t want to make that worse.

I think that among the people who are above-average intelligence, a lot of people realize that other people are different from them. And they realize that they very well might be the bad guy in someone else’s story. And they take steps to try to not be the bad guy – while realizing that it’s possible that they are.

I think that among people who are below-average intelligence, there isn’t the same ability to consider what something feels like from another person’s perspective. They never stop to consider whether they are, in fact, the bad guys.

Unsurprisingly, there are a lot of individual and social behaviors that are associated with the inability (or unwillingness) to consider the feelings and perspectives of other people.

Might makes right. This is the belief that if someone can use their strength or the threat of violence to coerce another person, then that makes them correct.

Hierarchy / pecking order. This is the belief that there is a natural hierarchy, in which some people get to tell others what to do, but are not accountable to those beneath them.

To the winner go the spoils. Winning, or being in a position of authority, entitles one to privileges and benefits that are not available to those of lower status.

I win you lose. This is the belief that in order for me to win or succeed, it must come at the cost of another person losing or failing. Also known as the zero-sum game.

I know I’m kind of ragging on people of lower intelligence. I don’t mean to imply that they are less human, or less deserving of compassion. (Though I will say that stupid people in positions of power make life a lot harder than it needs to be.)

Rather, I’m trying to acknowledge that some people struggle with higher-level cognitive functions, but they still need to find their way in the world. And unfortunately, that way very seldom seems to come with the consideration that a) they might be wrong or mistaken, and b) that they might be the bad guys.

No one thinks they’re the bad guy

I think I’m a good person for writing about this, and bringing it to people’s attention.

Inevitably, some people are going to think I’m a horrible person for thinking these things, let alone saying them out loud.

My intent is to help people see that they might inadvertently be causing unnecessary harm by not considering it. And to serve as a warning that people can seem like they’re not a bad guy, while they are actually behaving as a horrible person.

Especially when it’s me. (As in “me,” the person reading this.)

Navigating all this bullshit

My therapist and I have a long-standing conversation about living a lie. On some level, no matter how deeply we believe something, we know when something we’re saying or doing isn’t true.

We may not even be conscious of it.

But it still affects us.

One way we can start navigating this reality, is to be honest with ourselves. If we don’t know something, it doesn’t help to pretend that we do.

On that front, I think it’s it’s important as Pagans and Magicians to acknowledge that a lot of the shit that we do is play-pretend.

Not all of it.

But come on.

There are people out there who literally believe that crystals can heal their cancer, or that a 1-800-psychic can tell them the best path through their life (for a fee.) That is belief that actually harms people.

A second step is to recognize the difference between provably true, and true-for-me (or true-for-you). This lets us decide whether we can agree to disagree (do you prefer steak or chocolate?) or whether we need to stand our ground (yes, the Holocaust actually happened).

A third step is to be aware of the social group you’re in, and how it differs from other social groups. You don’t need to write a dissertation on it, but some social awareness in broad strokes is helpful. Knowing the general definitions of the words you’re using will help you more effectively navigate a particular social group.

A fourth step, somewhat related, is figuring out how to evaluate a source for credibility. “Stuff they don’t want you to know” is seldom provably true. Same with “The secrets of the universe that are hidden from all but the Chosen Ones.” Learn how to tell the difference between someone who knows what they’re talking about, and someone who is telling you what you want to hear.

A fifth step, again somewhat related, is learning how to ask good questions and challenge ideas. By “challenge” I don’t mean “criticise,” but rather to ask “are you sure about that?” Sometimes an idea passes. Sometimes it doesn’t, and needs to be revised.

A sixth step is to be willing to be wrong, and fix where you made a mistake. This is something we’re really bad at as Americans, for reasons outlined above. There has to be a way that a person can come back from a social overstep, if they can admit their mistake, make reparations, and change their behavior.

Are we, in fact, the bad guys?

Well, I would say that for a certain group of people in the US, yes. We are, in fact, the bad guys.

Because we intentionally practice a spiritual path that has not been sanctioned by their religious authority.

We aren’t at the point where we need to keep that stuff hidden away, lest we be burned at the stake. (Hopefully the Constitutional protections of freedom of religion continue to hold for non-Christians!)

But are we inherently the bad guys?

As a group, I think most of us want something more than what Christianity offers us. We want to live in an enchanted world, and we want a stronger connection with Nature.

As individuals, I think we’re always the bad guys in someone’s story. But for the most part, unless you’re playing some zero-sum game by exploiting the people around you, no we’re probably not bad guys.

It is helpful, I think, to occasionally think honestly about whether we’ve become the bad guys. And if we realize we’re doing things that harm other people, maybe we should reconsider those things. I mean, one of the ways we get better is by realizing we were wrong and fixing it.

Lastly, there’s David’s Nazi Test. I find it helpful, now and again, to look around to see where the Nazis are. You know, the people who blame Jewish people, LGBTQ+ people, or non-white people for all their problems, and who offer up violence as the solution. If the Nazis think they belong on the side that you’re on, it should be a big honking red flag that you should re-evaluate your affiliation with that group.

Thoughts? Email me at dmkoffer at gmail dot com.