How and When Do Phenomena Become Reality

I’m thinking a bit about how things become real to our culture, and what seems like a process. If there is anything here I’m only at the beginning of working it out.

What set me thinking about this, now, is the “discovery” last weekend that Russia was committing evil acts, abominable acts, war crimes, in Ukraine. Here are just a few things which preceded that early April “discovery.”

  • February 28: “Kharkiv under intense shelling by Russian artillery now. Civilian objects are targeted. Preliminary reports indicate dozens of casualties.”
  • March 1: US Secretary of State Blinken says that Russian strikes “are hitting schools, hospitals & residential buildings. Civilian buses, cars, and even ambulances have been shelled. Russia is doing this every day—across Ukraine.”
  • March 3: Video verified by The New York Times shows the bombardment of Chernihiv, Ukraine, near apartments, pharmacies and a hospital.
  • March 6: Russian forces fired mortar shells at hundreds of Ukrainian civilians as they fled.
  • March 7: Red Cross says an evacuation route out of Mariupol in Ukraine was mined.
  • March 9: WHO reports at least 18 attacks on health facilities in Ukraine since the start of the invasion; also on March 9, Russian forces bombed a maternity and children’s hospital.

I could go on, easily. On March 23, the US government formally declared that members of the Russian armed forces have committed war crimes in Ukraine. Also of course back in February Russia launched an unprovoked and unjustifiable military invasion of Ukraine—no pretexts, no puppets, just over the border with guns in hand—which is pretty much the most essential war crime of all.

But last weekend all kinds of people were shocked to discover that Russia was committing evil acts, abominable acts, war crimes.

Now there are obvious ways to think about this. Obviously, people can be exposed to information repeatedly before it really sinks in; even if I’m quantitatively somewhat faster on the uptake, some times, I’m sure as hell not qualitatively different. There’s also the tendency of our culture, particularly journalism, to “discover” things again and again and again. There’s the option of roaming into semiotics, and the possibility that e.g. “mass graves” or “corpses found with bound hands and cranial gunshot wounds” trigger more reaction than “ambulances have been shelled” or “fired at fleeing civilians” or even “bombed a maternity hospital.” Or maybe it was war crimes, before, but now it’s genocide.

But something nagging at me is how, after the first reports of war crimes “discovered” last weekend, people began fixing upon further discoveries which proved—something. For example, intercepted radio traffic. Also, satellite photos. Russia is caught in its own lies!

Some of this, certainly, relates to the enduring faith in secrets. But I have just a faint sense that there may be a recurring process, here. Certainly America’s response to the Capitol Putsch looks very similar. First the very obvious, open reality of Trump and other Republicans actively working to overturn Trump’s election loss. Then the “but now it’s outright shocking” development which emphasizes the already obvious, open reality. Then the attempts to prove something, to uncover something, through digging, documenting in detail, collating, formalizing.

I’m sure there are lots of examples which fit this pattern. In 2003, e.g., a big liar 1) who along with his allies obviously wanted to go to war against Iraq 2) told lies to falsely justify going to war against Iraq, and 3) much later, American elites “discovered” secrets, among them that the lies were not true.

But different scenarios are also interesting. While authorities responded to the September 2001 terrorist attacks with digging, documenting in detail, collating, and formalizing, for most purposes reality pretty much emerged instantly. “Islamic terrorists hijacked planes to attack America” was a consensus reality without delay, and stayed that way, with corresponding sweeping reactions; no secret proofs really required. Some demand for secret proofs existed, but manifested mostly as the “9/11 Truther” fringe which as far as I know stayed a fringe. Plenty of valid questions and details hardly even amounted to a fringe interest. The era of 9/11 and Bush’s wars was of course also that of a somewhat infamous but probably still underappreciated quote: “People like you are still living in what we call the reality-based community. You believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality. That’s not the way the world really works anymore. We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality.”

Karl Rove couldn’t create the reality of a successful second George W. Bush term, and his swaggering pretensions to empire proved largely fantasy. But “the reality-based community” is not necessarily vindicated. It seems more nebulous than ever, but to the extent that it has some existence, what is it, where does it come from?

At this point I have the beginnings of some questions, possibly interesting, and not a lot further than this.

Of course physical reality exists, in a sense which is as meaningful as the idea of existence. A skyscraper and a pile of rubble on the same site are realities. A missing limb is a reality. Food is a reality, especially if you’re very hungry and obtain it. But so much is abstract—for example money—and so much that is physically real is not practical for us to verify directly.

I can think of at least three agencies by which, in that context, things “become reality.” There’s the legal system, which is slow and fallible even when very functional, but a functional legal system does create realities. There’s political elites, who seem very effective at creating realities when dissent among them is minimal, e.g. the politics of America after 9/11/2001, or an autocratic state which exercises a monopoly on publishing and broadcasting. Political elites can also be effective at creating reality when there is dissent but they create multiple realities, which are awkward and maybe unsustainable, as we’re exploring in America. Then there’s news media, which certainly creates realities, such as “who won the election.” In some ways, as agents which create reality, political elites and the news media seem like subcategories of one whole. Both of them e.g. can work much faster than the legal system. Both of them can create what most of us at one time or another would call false realities, such as “America has been losing jobs under Biden.”

Then there are more exotic possibilities. Maybe money creates reality, but does it do so in any way besides reordering physical objects, or influencing one or more of the three agencies listed above? Do social media interactions create reality, independent of those agencies, and if so is that just an enhanced version of strange phenomena like rumor and superstition which existed long before the internet?

For the most part, “reality” seems to be elite-led, which raises good questions about democracy and many assumptions around it.

It seems like a better understanding of reality and what makes it is very important. There’s an old quote which I haven’t been able to find, about incompatible ideas of reality coexisting until they come into direct conflict, usually at the end of a gun barrel; recently, Zelensky came close to an update of it, warning that if countries can’t rely on the UN to provide security, that will leave weapons as their only option. One might apply that beyond the UN and security, to institutions and shared reality.

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