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A roller-coaster ride of highs and lows, progress and pain, punctuated along the way by profound intellectual discoveries. As modern technology expands the possibilities of that experience, it has also exposed some dire threats; existential problems humanity absolutely must solve if it wants to keep itself going.

One of the more recent threats to emerge doesn’t involve a bomb, an infectious disease, or a natural cataclysm:

The infliction of premeditated harm through the spreading of falsehoods is proving itself to be a frighteningly lethal weapon. And while society stares down its menacing barrel, the defense against this weaponization of truth appears, so far, elusive.

From the beginning, humanity’s critical binder was its innate capacity for storytelling; a practice that weaves local culture and brings people and communities together. The capacity for storytelling distinguishes us from all other living beings. It probably began when we began, in caves, around a fire. Eventually, the printing press came along and distributed society’s early written words, and then a radio projected our spoken words into every household. Television eventually put visual information to words and sounds, and with it, the ability to tell stories with remarkable sophistication. Satellites soon projected our stories everywhere on Earth. And with the internet and smartphones, stories by every human everywhere on the planet now stream unabated through every eyeball, into our minds in every place, time, and situation.

As our stories spread, so has humanity’s capacity for deception.

For thousands of years, humans have told tales that celebrated their tribes, but also spread fear, promoted hate, and sold an endless array of cons and worthless promises to one another. But facts were always looming out there somewhere, just waiting to be exposed. And when broader society finally got wind of the damming facts, informed judgments would eventually move society, albeit painfully, forward. Once the masses really knew and understood a terrible truth, oppressive kings and tyrants were overthrown. Deceivers shrunk away in shame.

Misinformation confuses and divides communities.

When knowable, provable facts become unparsable from harmful lies, society devolves into chaos. We are watching in real time as society’s sustaining mechanisms are rapidly being rendered ineffective. Today’s willful deceivers now possess tools sophisticated enough to convince large numbers of people of utterly insane things. Deceptions spread online like a plague, infecting the masses, driving us into polarized camps where we now routinely unfriend friends and become estranged from family members. Entire governments have discovered how to employ misinformation techniques to sow political division among their neighbors, then exploit the fractures they create. Many of our own citizens now believe their elections are routinely stolen, their government deliberately releases deadly viruses, and their media are controlled by Satan-worshiping pedophiles. Worse yet, a growing number of these individuals now serve in government and currently enjoy an outsized influence in our policymaking. This trend appears poised to not only continue, but accelerate.

Two significant societal developments set the stage for this poison.

First, technological advances have enabled us to avoid most forms of personal discomfort. Second, the ever-expanding power we hold over our personal ecosystems has resulted in a society dominated by supersized egos. Today, society has the ability to avoid difficult conversations, to choose whatever truth they find most agreeable, and to sidestep the personal growth that hard truth forces. The power to regulate one’s emotional temperature at all times brings a false sense of being all-powerful, all-knowing, and in complete command of everything that affects us.

The confluence of these conditions now makes us particularly vulnerable to the weaponization of truth. The blatant lie masquerading as truth is the modern opioid so many of today’s discomfort avoiders and malignant egoists happily swallow to avoid the pain that inherently comes as the price of progress.

Among us are the woefully ignorant, who consume the lies and digest them happily without resistance and the delusional, who discern the truth, but tell themselves the lie, that everything will be just fine. We also have the elites, folks with enough money and resources to hide from it all, and the smarts to take their unfair share from an incompetent government along the way. And finally, people like me, blinded by my own liberal outrage. Have I consumed too much liberal media and not enough counterpoint? Has my own ego distorted the clarity of that outrage?

Have I become my own story’s unreliable narrator?

Today, each one of us pops our personal truth pill of choice. And these highly addictive pills just might be the most diabolical weapon mankind has ever created; a drug that blurs the truth and turns us all against each other. As a society, we are dying a little bit more each day; a death from a thousand distractions.

Over the past several years, I’ve personally experienced the damaging effects of this weapon in many ways. For me, it began one fateful day in 2015, an iconic escalator ride, a bombastic reality TV star running for president, ranting about how immigrants were criminals and rapists.  But what started as seemingly harmless pomp and showmanship quickly escalated into a dangerous brushfire as primaries were swept and establishment politicians swept away; an entire political party remade at the whim of a terrible deceiver.

I took my daughter to a town hall hosted by our local congressman. This potentially valuable civics lesson was hijacked by an auditorium filled with people waving banners demanding our state send a delegation to the My Pillow guy, Mike Lindell’s, conspiracy spectacle. “Look, I have 400 articles right here on my phone,” railed one wild-eyed woman. I now frequently see a blue pick-up truck on our local roads and at nearby convenience stores, its exterior emblazoned with a sticker reading, “FUCK JOE BIDEN AND FUCK YOU FOR VOTING FOR HIM.”

I lost or significantly damaged my relationships with several military friends, one of which ended in a screaming match over the phone. Our local newspaper started running Letters To The Editor, the page 3 dominated by one particularly angry citizen who opposed gun control and local school board diversity initiatives, whose menacing rants the editor saw fit to publish almost every week. When I engaged that editor as to why my—or for that matter, any—differing opinions weren’t published, a day-long vitriolic email exchange ensued, prompting me to cancel my subscription to the paper.

An annual Christian music festival that had once filled my wife and me with positivity, last year devolved into a mini-MAGA rally, complete with anti-abortion speeches and a parking lot full of political (red) bumper stickers. I can no longer have a substantive conversation on social issues with my only living blood relative other than my mother.

I feel bullied by my country.

Anger and bewilderment now simmer perpetually below my surface, easily triggered. I never thought I’d be the crazy old man we used to make fun of. Sadly, I have become that guy. I feel so profoundly alone in it all, that I believe it is in fact making me crazy.

The last straw for me broke last month. I’ve been in a local writers group for 11 years, the latest iteration of which included myself and three published female writers, all about my age. I recently shared an ambitious piece that envisioned society’s future on its current political trajectory. Their high praise for the writing was tempered by how uneasy it made them all feel. I took in their feedback, then began what turned out to be a lengthy rant of my own about it all. Desperate to unburden myself, I laid bare my angst in what I hoped might be a real exchange with real people, seeking common understanding.

But as I ranted (and that’s exactly what it was), I felt the room gradually recoil. By the time I’d talked myself out, one of them declared she felt attacked and stormed out. And in an instant, eleven years of camaraderie between four people abruptly ended. Just another casualty in the war on what is and is not the truth.

Each of my storyteller friends reflect what I see in today’s society; the prioritization of comfort and superiority, the protection of egos that resist even a few risky minutes of unease. The swiftness at which friends who’d socialized and collaborated for so many years can be cast aside to protect our fragile emotional ecosystems, is stunning to me. And worse yet, while I have an unusually high tolerance for discomfort, I can no longer even trust my own perspective, because I can’t find an appropriate place or time or group to genuinely engage.

I thirst for differing views that may further inform or sharpen my own.

But tragically, I fear we’ve lost that capacity for growth in this country, and I openly mourn that loss.

Regardless of the results of the next election, or the next (presuming elections actually do continue here), I feel an overwhelming urge to totally reset what is left of my life, and to do it somewhere else. My wife and I are actively contemplating my early retirement and a move to Northern Italy. We will scout locations later this summer, find a rural town somewhere where we might live simply, sip local wine, make new friends and escape this chaos. But can we really escape what’s happening here? Is there any place on Earth where this incessant battle for truth isn’t raging?

Or maybe I won’t run from it. Maybe I’ll stay right here and just lie by the pool and invite like-minded friends over for an endless booze and liberal media-fueled bender. We’ll toast our own superiority and cry out “told you so!” as Billy Joel’s “I’ve Loved These Days” plays softly in the background, democracy’s final hours narrated by the sound of Rachel Maddow’s voice taking us to the fade.

Climate change, nuclear war, space junk, bio-terrorism, pandemics; I never in a million years would have dreamed that humanity’s ultimate unraveling would be caused by the thing that wove us together in the first place:storytelling.

Devin Householder

Devin is passionate about writing, reading and remaining in emotionally harmful relationships with losing sports teams. He suffers quietly (except on Sundays) with his loving wife and daughter in Rhode Island.

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