Some Notes on Doublethink
Amy Writes Words, #19
Today I have a few loose thoughts for you.
They are about false consciousness, about doublethink (my other newsletter this week also references Orwell, who knows why), about self-deception and self-delusion and some similar ideas that the Polish poet Czesław Miłosz writes about in his book The Captive Mind. They’re about authenticity and covering and about lies and secrets and silence.
It’s a small offering. Some thoughts, not yet fully formed, on the nature of some of the kinds of mental gymnastics that we may find ourselves performing, sometimes unconsciously, in the course of living our lives and doing our jobs in the general vicinity of what I keep calling Tech Capitalism.
These are only some thoughts that seem to me to be connected, and important, maybe. I do not yet have an argument. In fact, I may never have an argument, and that might be okay.
These ideas might be meant only to be felt, to be experienced, to be considered.
Maybe these are in fact notes toward, not an essay, but a poem.
Maybe they are notes toward an essay, but not one whose job it is to make an argument.
I will refer you to Audre Lorde, who I referred you to last week, but to a different essay this time, the short and scintillating “Poetry is Not a Luxury”:
Sometimes we drug ourselves with dreams of new ideas. The head will save us. The brain alone will set us free. But there are no new ideas still waiting in the wings to save us as women, as human. There are only old and forgotten ones, new combinations, extrapolation and recognitions from within ourselves — along with the renewed courage to try them out.
Here, then: maybe some new combinations of some old and forgotten ideas.
First, a conversation with an acquaintance who works at one of the FAANGs.I’m acquainted with a lot of people who work at the FAANGs, and I have had many similar conversations with many of them.
I asked the person what they thought about the scandal over what happened to x employee who was advocating y.
It’s hard to say, they hedged. It’s hard to know what really happened. The FAANG says that person did a in violation of b policy. And they do take that policy seriously.
I don’t really like to get into that, they continued. I just try to do my job.
They admitted to feeling cynical about their work, about their employer, about all of it, really. But they didn’t ever talk about that cynicism at work or on social or anything.
I know you are all about authenticity, Amy, they said. (I am). But I just don’t think I can afford to be authentic at work.
Yes, I said. I have this conversation with many people in tech. It is as if the conditions of our employment, our good tech jobs with our good salaries and our good benefits, force us all to engage in a kind of doublethink.
Yes, that’s a good word for it, they said. Doublethink.
Orwell, describing doublethink:
To know and not to know, to be conscious of complete truthfulness while telling carefully constructed lies, to hold simultaneously two opinions which cancelled out, knowing them to be contradictory and believing in both of them, to use logic against logic,[…] to forget whatever it was necessary to forget, then to draw it back into memory again at the moment when it was needed, and then promptly to forget it again, and above all, to apply the same process to the process itself—that was the ultimate subtlety: consciously to induce unconsciousness, and then, once again, to become unconscious of the act of hypnosis you had just performed. Even to understand the word—doublethink—involved the use of doublethink.
Of course he was talking about Stalinism, and Tech Capitalism is certainly not Stalinism.
And yet, there is something there for us, it seems — something about the winking in and out of consciousness of certain painful or uncomfortable facts about the world, about our own lives. About self-delusion, about what people these days sometimes call self-gaslighting.
“Why did you leave z company?”
“I wanted something different, I went in search of my own dreams.” Retroactively supply yourself with the dreams in question, make it intentional. Believe it to be intentional, deliberate, a choice, because you can sell it better that way.
“Why are you passionate about the mission of this company, about our product?” “I believe the children are our future.”
Coinbase calls itself “a mission-focused company.” Have you not heard of Coinbase? Such a noble mission, one that requires its employees to give up every other noble mission they might have, for example, racial justice. We don’t talk about racial justice at Coinbase, we talk about the mission of crypto.
Crypto’s not a mission, it’s a con. Don’t @ me.
In 1953 the Polish poet Czesław Miłosz wrote a book called The Captive Mind. The book is about the plight of the intelligentsia under the ‘people’s democracies’ (in other words, under Stalinism).
Officially, contradictions do not exist in the minds of the citizens in the people’s democracies. Nobody dares to reveal them publicly. And yet the question of how to deal with them is posed in real life. More than others, the members of the intellectual elite are aware of this problem. They solve it by becoming actors.”
To identify one’s self with the role one is obliged to play brings relief and permits a relaxation of one’s vigilance. Proper reflexes at the proper moment become truly automatic.
I refer you again to another reading I sent you last week, "Your Profession is Not Your Personality": “The trouble is, when your job is your identity, you may never be happy, but you also don’t have to act like your job is the most important thing in the world to you. It really is.”
Miłosz again: “To identify one’s self with the role one is obliged to play brings relief…”
At my last job, before I left it, in a team-building exercise over Zoom, I made a joke.
Max overheard the joke and yelled from the other room “Don’t ever say that word, not even as a joke!” The word was not any kind of slur. It’s just unpopular with people who own businesses.
I won’t tell you what the joke was.
This is the curious position that managers of people may find themselves in. I’m not saying anything new, of course. I am only taking some old and forgotten ideas and recombining them.
Whose interests do the managers represent? We know that we are workers, albeit privileged ones, and yet we must represent Capital. We know we must be people-focused but we understand that in the end we will be expected to follow the rules of Capital.
Even when we genuinely do not believe Capital’s rules are good even for Capital, we are expected to play by them.
We talk about the importance of authenticity and empathy and we mean it and yet there are words we will not say, opinions we may have and choose to keep concealed.
What joke should I not have made?
To the extent that we do not perfectly believe, that we must conceal our true opinions, we poison ourselves.
Sometimes it is easier to practice self-deception. Sometimes it is easier to say well I don’t have all the facts.
My point is not that I am a hypocrite or you are a hypocrite or that we are all liars or that we live under any kind of Stalinist system.
Adrienne Rich, another poet, a contemporary of Lorde’s, from “Women and Honor: Some Notes on Lying”:
In speaking of lies, we come inevitably to the subject of truth. There is nothing simple or easy about this idea. There is no “the truth,” “a truth” — truth is not one thing, or even a system. It is an increasing complexity. The pattern of a carpet is a surface. When we look closely, or when we become weavers, we learn of the tiny multiple threads unseen in the overall pattern, the knots on the underside of the carpet.
This is why the effort to speak honestly is so important. Lies are usually attempts to make everything simpler — for the liar — than it really is, or ought to be.
In lying to others we end up lying to ourselves… Thus we lose faith even with our own lives.
The unconscious wants truth, as the body does.
There is a danger run by all powerless people: that we forget that we are lying.
Most of you reading this essay are not, I wager, powerless people. I am not powerless. And yet still, something about our condition as workers in Tech Capitalism causes us, maybe, to forget that we are lying.
Rich again, in “Conditions for Work: The Common World of Women” (1976): “The question of economic survival, of keeping one’s job, is terribly real, but the more terrible questions lie deeper where a woman is forced, or permits herself, to lead a censored life.”
That quote appears in a talk I gave in 2019 at a small conference in Omaha, in which I argue that as a workplace becomes an increasingly safer place to be authentic in, it will see increased productivity, because hiding the truth from ourselves and one another is exhausting. When we are forced to reduce ourselves merely to units of labor, we feel increasing pain, increasing exhaustion.
What I did not yet face in that talk was the extent to which at a certain point it may become impossible to achieve total authenticity at work.
For most of us, increasing authenticity may lead first to better productivity but then to cynicism and despair. We may find ourselves admitting that most of the work we do at work is essentially meaningless, if not actively harmful.
We may find ourselves recognizing that whether we show up with authenticity or not we have to pay our bills, that what we enjoy about our work when we enjoy it is hardly ever the goal of the business, but the relationships with the other people, maybe the ability to solve some problems for customers, our paychecks, the health insurance, even, perhaps, the snacks.
For many of us, when the pandemic stripped most of that from our work, and added on top of it more work, much of it unpaid and unacknowledged, for many mothers in particular, some of our own delusions about ourselves and our careers and our work came crumbling down:
What does it mean to be worth something? Or worth enough? Or worthless? What does it mean to earn a living? What does it mean to be hired? What does it mean to be let go?
— from “Fuck the Bread. The Bread is Over.”
Ultimately the world is burning and almost all of our hysterical venture-funded unicorn-obsessed, scale to win, self-driving rockets to mars industry is a fever dream mostly benefitting a very few very wealthy madmen at the cost of giving up on a livable future earth for us all.
Here, go watch this:
Yes, I can say some of these things in this moment because I am not quite so worried about paying my bills, and yes, if you want to dig up reasons my commentary about venture-funded unicorns is, well, a bit rich, really, it is not hard to do that.
But ask yourself if you believe the things I’m saying have some truth in them whether or not you judge that I risk something real to say them.
I risk some things but not others. I will not be disappeared, for example, probably no matter what I say and to whom. My sense of risk is distorted because I have never known real risk. Small risks, yes. But not death, not imprisonment. All that is true.
As an aside, this is why the outrage over cancel culture has always been so misplaced. Go get yourself a copy of The Commissar Vanishes, go read The Gulag Archipelago, if you would like to see what cancel culture really looks like.
Dave Chappelle is still platformed by Netflix so he can say terrible things about trans people and pass them off as jokes. The three trans employees of Netflix who spoke out publicly in objection to this have been placed on leave, on account of their disrupting a meeting they were not invited to.
Ask a Netflix employee what they think about that and maybe they’d say “well, they were suspended because they crashed a meeting. I mean…I don’t know, you can’t just crash a meeting like that. I guess I don’t have all the facts.”
I am in no position to judge that hypothetical Netflix employee. I’m really not. I (genuinely) don’t have all the facts. “The question of economic survival, of keeping one’s job, is terribly real…”
Apropos of nothing except health insurance, i.e. medical bills, i.e. survival, psychopharmacologists are hella expensive, as are psych wards. I have a pre-existing condition.
Obamacare guarantees I can buy insurance on an exchange, at least, if I do not get it through an employer or through a partner’s employer. There is nothing guaranteeing Obamacare, however.
How much money is enough money to ensure I can pay out-of-pocket for therapy and psychopharmacology and psych meds for the rest of my life, if I somehow lose the ability to buy health insurance?
Some of the psych meds, although they are generic, would still “cost” thousands of dollars a month if “insurance” didn’t “pay” although we all know that in fact they don’t cost insurance thousands of dollars a month, they only “cost” that much when the insurance doesn’t “go through”.
The bland look on the pharmacist’s face when he hands me a month’s supply of antipsychotics and says “that will be fifteen hundred dollars.”
Even for someone like me who risks little in saying some things about capitalism, who has resources, that’s a bracing thing to hear, standing in the Walgreens next to the hand sanitizer and the rapid covid tests.
The most bracing thing about it, though, is the look on the pharmacist’s face. His studied refusal to acknowledge that I might be surprised or distressed by this number, that I might do anything but just quietly pay it.
I am sure it is very hard to be a pharmacist and to tell people all day long that they need to come up with insane amounts of money for no good reason in order to pay for the right to continue to live. I can understand why a pharmacist might cultivate blandness. He knows it is insane and yet there he must stand all day long doing the thing. “That was the ultimate subtlety: consciously to induce unconsciousness, and then, once again, to become unconscious of the act of hypnosis you had just performed.”
I devote my small, generally not risky efforts to the edges of the tech ecosystem, I suppose, where I have some small power to move some small number of people in some small way that might perhaps be helpful, I suppose.
A twitter thread by Dr. Devon Price, who wrote an excellent book you should all read called Laziness Does Not Exist:
If you would like to see someone truly eviscerate both the “striver” mentality and the mentality that leads people to casually suggest we simply break our own striver mentality chains, that would be Dr. Price:
You can read up on false consciousnessor you can subscribe to Fast Company and devote yourself entirely to its cultivation.
I put all of these ideas in a pot together and I stir. I wonder about how to categorize the various ways we make our our peace or don’t with the contradictions in our lives. I’m not arguing for purity, for perfect authenticity, perfect honesty. Purity is always a dangerous illusion and the truth, as Rich wrote, is always more complex than the lie.
If by now you still think my argument is that you are a hypocrite or I am a hypocrite or we’re all phonies, every last one of us, and Holden Caulfield hates us all, well, you missed the part up above where I said I did not have an argument, exactly, and that maybe I never would.
from the title of a book by Adrienne Rich: https://wwnorton.com/books/On-Lies-Secrets-and-Silence/
a term I have never bothered to define precisely and that I should define and I will (or grab someone else’s serviceable definition), but not today.
for the record: I ran this entire section and the entire essay by said person and made some changes they requested before going on to publish. If you talk to me about things that I then write about, please know I will always do this.
I mean no disrespect to the Whitney Houston song.
Also in the book On Lies Secrets and Silence. Don’t @ me about my references, I don’t have a bibliography management app. I make notes like a cavewoman in paper books and on post-its.
also sent to you last week, didn’t realize that list was actually homework, did you?
not Marx, it was actually Engels who first used the term. The More You Know.