Mystics and even a few quantum physicists question the reality of this world. Since I’m neither, I won’t hazard a guess, but a practicing physicist talks about his Big TOE (Theory Of Everything) in the video below that might blow your mind. The reality I want to write about is this one most of us take for granted as “real.” But how real is it, really?
I’ve often thought about how we mistake opinion for reality, but since I moved to Cambodia, it has become clear how profoundly our beliefs and opinions affect our perceptions and even our health.
When I write “Cambodia”, what kinds of images flash through your mind? Probably scenes of poverty, war and corruption. Corruption is a big one amongst expats here. There’s a large segment of the expat community here in Sihanoukville who firmly believe all the police, even the traffic police, are corrupt.
One day I got pulled over for not wearing my helmet while riding my motorbike. No sooner did I turn off the engine than another motorbike was pulled over. It was a middle aged man and his wife.
“They only pull over foreigners!” the man said indignantly, thinking, no doubt, he’d get a sympathetic hearing from me.
“Look around you,” I replied. “There are three Khmer riders in front of us.”
A blank look came over his face, as if he was erasing data that didn’t compute with his version of reality. He then turned to his wife. Together, they started shouting abuse at the police. They caused so much trouble, the policeman in charge told me to go on my way so he could focus on these two “skoot [rhymes with foot] barang.” Skoot barang means “crazy foreigners” and you hear it said a lot in tourist areas.
How to Create a Negative Reality
Expats frequently express their outrage about the Sihanoukville traffic police ripping them off. In some cases, it seems like they do, if their reports of being fined $5, $10 or more are true. All I know for certain is that I’ve never been charged more than the going rate of 3000 riel (about 75 cents) for driving with my lights on in the day or not wearing a helmet. I can’t state it as fact, but I strongly suspect that those who get fined more either try to evade the police or behave rudely or aggressively when they’re pulled over. I know it’s true of at least one person who, after boasting that he raced past the police one day, ended up being pulled over and over-fined so often afterwards, he finally sold his motorbike. Later, when I got to know the police through Sopheak, who sometimes gets called upon to translate for them, one of them told me they harassed him because they wanted him off the road.
How to Get Sick from a Perfectly Good Meal
There’s a Facebook group, “Expats Living in Sihanoukville” I think it’s called. This morning, someone asked, “What’s the best Italian restaurant in Sihanoukville?” Most comments were simply recommendations, but one said, “Whenever I go out too [sic] eat I am always completely disappointed and usually suffer bouts of food poisoning for days after the somewhat hapless experience.” This was my reply:
Rather bizarre comment about food poisoning. I eat out virtually every night at a Khmer or Western restaurant. Got sick once on fish and chips at a Western-run restaurant near the Hill. That was 6 years ago.
Am I just lucky? I don’t think so. I think this person is so convinced restaurant food in Cambodia is going to be contaminated, he gets sick from it. In medicine, there’s a word for a similar phenomenon. A nocebo is the opposite of a placebo.
How to Turn Imagination into Reality
In another Facebook post, a guy wrote, “I witnessed a crime in Sihanoukville!” and went on to describe the crime. While riding his motorbike back to his guesthouse on the Hill late one night after drinking with his buddies at a downtown bar, two Khmer men passed him on their motorbikes. Then, for no apparent reason, they slowed down and rode side-by-side. Sure they were thieves, he took off his helmet and whacked one of them on the side of the head, causing them both to fall off their bikes. No, that wasn’t the crime he “witnessed.” The “crime” was more like one of those pre-crimes in the film Minority Report. He imagined they were thieves, therefore they were thieves and he meted out “justice.” Weirdly enough, most readers praised him for what he did. Only one pointed out that what he witnessed was not a crime, but “suspicious activity.”
A combination of alcohol, possibly drugs and the fact that the guy knew he was driving on a section of road that is frequented by thieves at that time of the morning (2-4 a.m.) probably explains why he was in a fearful state of mind and firmly believed the two young men were out to get him. I don’t know, maybe they were, but young Cambodians often slow down and ride side-by-side so they can talk to each other. Thieves usually race up from behind and take their victims by surprise.
The point is that the myths we live by directly affect our perceptions of reality. The way we behave and even our attitude alters the way the world behaves towards us and serves to support our myth.
Myth and Reality in the United States
I like Seth Godin, but don’t idolise [spelled right – I’m using Australian English today] him like everyone else seems to. Sometimes he gets it wrong. Such was the case, I think, in one of his recent posts, The media needs a narrative. After giving some examples of historical myths that are accepted as reality, he wrote: “All this myth-making reminds us just how strongly wired we are to believe in things that both make sense and feel right. They feel right because of who told us, and when. Culture creates reality.” No, Seth, culture does not create reality. Culture creates myths. Sometimes unintentionally, but often intentionally.
Does anyone remember way back during the Bush presidency when one of GWB’s advisers told journalist Ron Suskind, “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality”? That was in 2002, when the Bush administration was creating the reality of the War on Terror and using myth-making as a means of garnering support. The administration made the war palatable to the American people by first creating a myth. In the case of Afghanistan, the myth was that Osama bin Laden was hiding out in a labyrinthine cave in Afghanistan, issuing orders to his vast terrorist network via sophisticated communications devices. Not long afterwards, it was the myth of Weapons of Mass Destruction in Iraq.
Nothing changed when Obama was elected President. A pretence for war was created in Libya, excuses for drone attacks in Yemen, Pakistan and elsewhere and a myth about Syria’s Assad gassing his own people in Syria. There’s a ray of light in that last one, because nobody has bought the line, but surely they’ll come up with another one sooner or later.
The empire and corporatocracy it depends on create myths to disguise unpleasant realities, too. I can think of half a dozen off the top of my head, but one of my favourites is the myth of bottled water.
It all started in the 1960s, when soft drink sales were levelling off. They needed a healthy alternative, so they chose water. Even after it came to light that much of the water “from the source” (which implies pure spring water) they were peddling was actually tap water or ground water, sales of bottled water continued to soar. Why? Because their myth of “pure water” remained a “reality” in the minds of consumers. For the record, not only is bottled water no better than tap water, the bottling process is an environmental disaster. Here are some things I learned while doing some article research for a company that sells water filtration systems:
- Tap water has to pass more rigorous safety standards than bottled water.
- Numerous tests have proven bottled water is no safer to drink than tap water.
- In blind taste tests, tap water is mistaken for bottled water and vice versa.
- It takes three times as much water to make a water bottle as is contained in the bottle.
- 17 million barrels of oil are used each year to make plastic water bottles.
- Just 12 percent of plastic bottles are recycled.
You name it and there’s a myth for it. The scary thing is, these corporate myths are successfully turning our food and water into commodities we can only obtain from them at a price. That’s the agenda behind GMOs and it is the agenda behind bottled water.
I don’t have anything against cultural myths per se. What I don’t like is that the empire’s myths are causing untold misery throughout the world. I know the people of the United States are basically decent, otherwise their corporate masters wouldn’t have to create myths about terrorism, humanitarian wars and despotic leaders whose people were begging us to depose. They wouldn’t have to create the myth that GMOs are the only hope for the world’s poor or that the NSA is spying on everybody for their protection.
Here’s an idea. Why not stop giving the myths that enslave us the status of reality and create our own myth — a myth that sets us free? This video may help show how to do it. As the Beatles sang: “All you need is love.”