Seeing the Fnords

Or: why I keep referring to an obscure term from a 45 year old satirical novel.

Back in 1975 Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson published The Illuminatus! Trilogy. In the novels they described a mind control technique that the Illuminati* (a secret society in the novels that supposedly had huge influence over world affairs) used to keep the population docile and spending money.

The books outlined a technique in which Illuminati-controlled teachers and schools would indoctrinate children while they were being taught to read. Using behavior modification techniques such as hypnotism and aversion therapy, the children would be taught to fear seeing the word fnord. Eventually the children would no longer be able to consciously see the word on the page, but would have a sense of unease. The Illuminati would then sprinkle the word fnord in news articles about topics that they wanted the population to avoid thinking about. No fnords appeared in advertisements, nor in news articles on topics favorable to the secret rulers of the world.

During the course of the story, several characters were able to break their conditioning, becoming aware of the existence of these mental controls (and thus no longer subject to them). As soon as they overcame their conditioning, they’d be able to see the fnords in the newspapers, thus becoming a threat to the Illuminati overlords.

Since reading the Illuminatus! trilogy many years ago, I’ve used the concept of seeing the fnords as shorthand for the experience of becoming aware of some aspect our societal conditioning that helps keep power structures in place.

In the novel, seeing the fnords was the breakthrough. After that, you’d be out from under the control of the secret societies.

On Twitter, where I spend a lot of my time, you’ll see conversations about people who are asleep to issues like racism, presumably written by people who are no longer asleep, and who are thus ‘woke.’

In real life, seeing the fnords is something that has to be done over and over again. I don’t believe that there’s a crystalline structure in your mind that, once shattered, you are free of. Instead, the assumptions that we live inside are so subtle, so flexible, so longstanding, and so valuable to the privileged few they protect that we have to awaken many times. In fact, I’d argue that we’re never likely to be done finding more fnords. On top of that, just becoming aware of the conditioning isn’t enough to overcome the related problem. So once you wake up, you have to go to work on the issue, and one of the first things you’ll realize is that you’re fighting against the lassitude of the rest of the sleeping masses you were so recently part of. That social inertia is deep and daunting.

I’ve been meaning to write this post for a while because I expect that relatively few of my friends on Twitter have read The Illuminatus! books, but wasn’t sure how to structure it. Then, earlier today, I wrote a brief thread on Twitter in which I worked through some of the implications of expecting white people to be aware of issues of Blacks in America, given the many structures keeping them/us/me ignorant of those issues. Earlier in May I’d also written a related thread, and I finally had a sense of where I wanted to go with this post. I no longer just wanted to explain how I define and use the word fnord; I want to touch on some of the fnords I’ve found myself, and how just becoming aware of things doesn’t do a lot to change the world.

As an aside, I want to acknowledge that if any of the ‘Twitter woke’ ever read this, they’re likely to instantly write it off as an elaborate excuse for white supremacy, or an excuse for not being a stronger activist. They might describe this as ‘hand waving’ away the issues I mention here. Those imaginary Twitter elite may have a point. I’m not much of an activist. But I do hope that I’m a bit better of an ally and a bit less of a jerk every time I find another fnord.

Anyway, a few months ago I found and started reading a book by Jared Yates Sexton called The Man They Wanted Me to Be: Toxic Masculinity and a Crisis of Our Own Making. It is a challenging book for me, and I haven’t finished reading it yet. But I liked the book enough that I looked up the author’s Twitter profile and started following him. Because of that, I sometimes see people mentioning or criticizing him, and in early May I saw someone tearing him a new one, claiming that Jared’s careful definition of white supremacist terrorists as a thing separate from white supremacy itself showed that he was being soft on white supremacy. The poster said something like ‘terrorism is just white supremacy in action.’ I see the validity of what they wrote, but I think it’s too narrow a definition. White supremacy is so integrated into American (and, I suspect, British) culture that most of it is invisible to most white people. Certainly, terrorist actions like church bombings are examples of white supremacy in action, but so are far more common and mundane things, like casual discrimination in hiring, or not seeing Black people as people who have innate value. Those mundane expressions of racism harm people consistently, but in a far less obvious way. I’d guess that most people who support white supremacist values never think of themselves in those terms. They don’t know they’re racists. When they see video of vigilantes or cops shooting Black men, they’re not consciously in favor of those deaths. When activists rail against racism, these people don’t understand that they’re the ones being described, or if they do, they don’t believe it.

Most aspects of the human condition are not stark yes/no or on/off states. I think it’s fair to say that most things exist somewhere along a scale of severity. If modern-day lynchings are at the most extreme end of the scale that describes white supremacist thought and action, at the other end is something like this statement that I saw earlier today: “It’s not that I don’t like you, it’s that I don’t care enough about you to have an opinion.” White people are trained to ignore any other culture than their own. That’s a level of disdain that’s hard to see, and devilishly difficult to overcome. It requires learning to care about people.

Systemic racism is one of the fnords. It’s uncomfortable to face. White culture doesn’t have to say things flat out like “you’re better than brown people.” Rather, you’re given plenty of opportunity to feel warm feelings about noble and heroic white people, while being gradually taught to ignore the very existence of Black and brown people. Historically there were large swaths of the US where a person could live their entire lives without ever meeting anyone who wasn’t white. For instance, in the town in Massachusetts where I grew up in the 1960s and 1970s, I only recall one Black family. Even now, white and Black culture is so carefully segregated that white people can live their whole lives never knowing a Black person more than at the most shallow level.

Ordinarily, we’re not taught how to recognize systemic racism. White people think that if they’re polite to Black people, they’re not racists. But systemic racism is baked right in. When whites see other whites succeed, they believe that it’s because of the hard work of those folks. When they see Blacks fail, they believe that it’s because those folks aren’t hard workers. You might hear jokes about the ‘old boy network,’ a very weak-soup recognition that people don’t always get ahead in life on their own merits. Waking up to the reality that you and your friends are supported at every turn while Black folks are stymied at every turn is a shock. Not only do you have to learn to recognize how you yourself benefit from a system that holds down everyone who doesn’t look like you, but you have to recognize that your success was not all yours. You might have to recognize that you’re not the wonderful person you have been taught you are. That discomfort is part of the ‘fnord conditioning.’ No secret society had to use hypnosis to drill that fnord into you. It’s woven in to your mind day by day by your family, your school teachers, your friends, the TV shows you watch, the stories you read, the awards you get, the colleges you get into.

Unraveling all of that is hard work, and traditional society rewards you when you don’t do that work. When you shy away from the fnord, you reinforce the fabric of the system of racism we live in.

But wait, there’s more! For a low, low price of $19.95, you also get misogyny, toxic masculinity, homophobia, transphobia, American exceptionalism, hidden class structures, late-stage capitalism, and the inevitable outcome of all of these things: violence. The violence takes many forms, from domestic violence to police violence to gay bashing to vigilantes hunting Black teens through their neighborhoods.

Nearly everything that I described earlier in the section about systemic racism can be rewritten with few changes to explain how difficult it is to become aware of these other structures. A Black man who is acutely aware of the racist structures he struggles against may not be more than vaguely aware of the benefits he gets from the sexist structures that the women in his life are injured and constrained by.

One good thing about fnord hunting; you can get better at it with practice. Once you’ve done an honest inventory of yourself and your early and continuing indoctrination into American class and racial structures, it might get a little easier to notice other similar structures. If you can face the discomfort involved in recognizing your privilege here, then you might be able to face the discomfort in this other category. Oh, you weren’t aware of your subtle discrimination against people with disabilities? Now you have a chance. Been making off-hand jokes about mental illness? Hey, it’s Mental Health Awareness Month! Why not read up on it?

If you find yourself getting a bit exhausted at all the work that wokeness entails, you might wonder if it’s worth it.

I believe it is worth the effort, and not just because it might make you a slightly better person. It’s because these structures hurt everyone. Toxic masculinity doesn’t just hurt women. It hurts men. Racism hurts white people. Bigotry poisons everyone around it. Sex discrimination hurts society by limiting women’s contribution to, well, everything. Late-stage capitalism reduces people to cogs in a machine, or grinds them up to feed the elite.

I believe that anything we can do to weaken these ancient power structures can lessen the amount of poison we are swimming in. Like the proverbial fish who is unaware of the water it is breathing, once we can learn about these controls that are reducing our humanity, the more choices we have, and the more humane we can learn to become.

*Not to be confused with the historical Bavarian Illuminati.