Almost twenty years ago, Jim Carrey starred in the critically acclaimed film, The Truman Show, written by Andrew Niccol. I loved the thought-provoking premise, and I find even more applications now than I did then.
In case you missed it, here’s a summary: A corporation adopts infant Truman Burbank in order to use him as the star of a TV reality show watched 24/7 throughout the world. Truman, unaware of the fact that everyone he knows and every situation of his life is programmed on an isolated island, is just beginning to question his reality. Ed Harris plays the show’s director, Christof, who goes to any length to keep Truman ignorant of reality, which would ruin the show’s success.
Christof’s statement towards the end of the film really struck me: “We accept the reality of the world with which we are presented.” Well, sure. Why question it? We’re secure in it. And, if we become aware of life outside ours, it’s easy to blame “outsiders” for problems and it’s comfortable to believe “our” way is better than “theirs.” Hasn’t that been a successful political, religious, economic, and social tactic throughout history? Think about it!
What I loved about the show in 1998 was how it exemplified those who accepted without question, for example, advertisers’ sales pitches that our value lies in the “stuff” we have. Or how we are slow to become aware of our ingrained prejudices and stereotypes of whatever kind. Or how we accept our religious stories, all written before discoveries in cosmology, quantum physics, and even evolution. It’s challenging to move beyond the reality in which we grew up and/or to understand those who live outside it!
By now you have probably guessed why I find The Truman Show’s imaginary premise especially applicable today. In the U.S., at least, we seem to be captive within the world presented by various media. Echo chambers thrive in social media. Listening to “the other side” can be judged disloyalty to “our” side. Those who live in “the other reality” actually do threaten ours, and thus it is easy to fear them and even think them evil. This seems true regardless of which “show” one currently stars in. Christof spoke truth when he said that we accept the reality of the world with which we are presented. We barely notice, or we excuse, its exaggerations or errors.
Even with willingness to be empathetic, many are ignorant of other cultures. When I read Hillbilly Elegy (which I highly recommend), I was stunned to realize that here was a world about which I knew just about nothing. How easy, then, to judge those who act — and vote — from it. I had to consider that, given the same circumstances of education, culture, and heritage, would I have been any different?
It’s no secret that some news choices can reinforce our prejudgments and make exaggerated statements about our chosen “team” (think Breitbart, FOX, MSNBC, Daily Kos). Ditto for social media. Both sides can perceive the other as spiritually and morally degenerate, a threat to American values, and conspiring to defeat what they hold dear. Because we came from a dualistic, either-or mindset (us and them, good and bad, true and false, etc.), we have been programmed to accept one and reject the other.
At least we are aware of the biases some stations and papers will present and that other news and opinions will be absent, refuted, and judged “fake.” What about sources we watch such as local news, that present biased news and opinions without indicating their source? Because of mergers and acquisitions, massive corporations dominate the U.S. media landscape and control what we see, hear and read. In many cases, these companies control everything from initial production to final distribution.
When one or two entities own local news channels and demand that they air slanted news and opinion pieces, we might have no warning. How is our reality altered when, for example, a newscast has a daily series on Terrorism Threats? Who gives balanced statistics of where our deaths and dangers really come from? The emphasis on what is not a major threat both increases fears and neglects genuine concerns. No wonder fortunes are spent preventing problems that either don’t exist or are minor, causing money needed for real concerns to be not available. Perhaps we are called to write or call and make our viewpoints known.
I periodically receive emails marked something like “You won’t believe this.” I usually don’t, and I check with one or more of the sites created to monitor factual accuracy and debunk rumors. These three are reliable: FactCheck.org, PolitiFact.com, and snopes.com. (I then return this information to the sender and the other receivers.)
The Truman Show spoiler alert: Truman begins to notice and to question inconsistencies. He begins to doubt the validity of his environment. He becomes aware that his life’s package is somehow incomplete. He risks his life to resolve his growing discomfort — and in the end he literally pokes a hole through his fake sky-dome and exits beyond it. There he is united with his true love, whose campaign to “Free Truman” was not in vain.
As I see it, the moral of The Truman Show for those who care about ecospirituality is this: Like Truman, we are exiting, or have exited, the world and consciousness in which many of us grew up. We feel called to live in a world, a universe, that is intrinsically interconnected, in which everything and everyone deserves respect. We all came from the same stardust; we all share it within us. Because the world, and each of us, is constantly evolving, we are becoming new each moment. We can create a future where people — starting with ourselves — are accurately informed, discerning, and contributing to a win-win future where all life is mutually enhancing and the accepted goal is the greater good of all creation.
Speaking with those who — because they live in another show — reject the threats to all life from climate change, nuclear proliferation, violence, pollution, poverty, inequality, trafficking, species extinction, etc., can be very challenging. We can do it better if we try to understand the “show” in which each of us “stars” and listen to others with respect and patience.
Good law schools “demand that [students] imaginatively and sympathetically reconstruct the best argument on the other side,” I read recently in TIME (July 24, 2017, Heather Gerken, dean of Yale Law School). “Lawyers learn to see the world as their opponents do ….” We should fight for what we believe, but “it’s crucial to recognize the best in the other side and the worst in your own.”
Trying to understand the “reality show” that defines opponents and informs their fears and judgments might not always, or immediately, be effective, but it is the most successful method to date.
I welcome your suggestions/ stories of how to escape, or help others to escape from, faulty or incomplete reality shows.