Humans are smart social monkeys. As long as you have the group’s favor, you really don’t need to worry about anything, because the group of humans surrounding you has the power to insulate you from (most) threats. They can also give you things. And in modern first-world countries where things like plagues and foreign invasions don’t happen a lot, there are few to no external threats that can kill you, or even inconvenience you very much. So your lot in life is, for the most part, determined by other people’s opinion of you. You’re protected from the things that could hurt humans in the past, and the goodies you want also come from other humans, so you get ahead by getting them to like you. You keep your job by making sure your boss likes you; you get more money by making sure management likes you enough to promote you; you keep your friends by making them like you; a salesman makes money by schmoozing; a lawyer convinces by looking trustworthy. This is human interaction.
This is, by itself, not a bad thing. Humans are, relative to other animals, pretty clever and their social systems allow for a lot of nice things to happen. For example, humans who are really good at math and science get paid a lot of money for being engineers and doctors because the other humans need roads and bridges and surgery and so on, and the engineers and doctors have a lot of prestige, which is good. Humans are successful because of their social systems, and the whole thing with social status isn’t all bad.
The problem lies in what is commonly called the Rube-Goldberg principle, which states that, the more moving parts a machine has, the more likely it is to malfunction. This applies also to the “machine” (i.e. system) of human social interactions. Once it reaches a certain level of complexity, it starts to screw up and not always work properly for the same reason that computers malfunction more often than wrist watches and the same reason that a complicated system of pipes is harder to fix than a single pipe. More complexity is more problems. Now, especially among the middle classes and above, and especially in rich industrialized countries, there are almost no threats outside of other humans, and there is almost nothing that you want that you can’t get from other humans. As a result, other people’s opinions become more important than reality, and this is where the trouble starts.
Humans in rich countries know instinctively that their fortunes depends almost entirely on the group’s opinion of them. So they avoid saying anything that would “rock the boat” or “cause drama.” When social disharmony happens, the people who experience the social disharmony will have a negative reaction to whoever caused the disharmony. This causes groups of humans to ignore things that ought to be fixed, because pointing out the problem will cause a bad reaction. A banal example of this is the guy who drinks way too much every time he goes to the bar with his friends; nobody wants to be the bad guy who tells Mr. Drunk-ass to tone it down, or even if they do, they won’t push it too far because doing so will make him freak out. And when he freaks out, the other people in the group will come down on the person who made him freak out, for causing social disharmony. Thus, bringing up the objective truth — that Mr. Drunk-ass drinks way too much whenever we all go to the bar — is likely to cause social disharmony, so nobody mentions it, and Mr. Drunk-ass turns into Mr. Sad Middle-Aged Alcoholic after a few years.
I venture to guess that this is one thing that kills civilizations. Whenever a society becomes rich and powerful and successful, this dynamic kicks in, and then nobody mentions the barbarian hordes on the northern border or the rebellion in the western provinces or the fact that the currency is being devalued, because who wants to be a downer? It’s much easier to schmooze at banquets and make a killing off of selling silks or focus on studying for your examination to become a bureaucrat, make a butt-load of money, and then head for an isolated villa with some slaves and a nice little vineyard where you can ignore the problems of the world. Kind of makes you wonder why the media suddenly begins screaming about celebrity gossip whenever something potentially significant is happening in the world, as if they make more money off of pleasant distraction than reporting potentially bad news. Humans don’t like bad news.
Now, to wrap all of this up, I want to examine the terminal phase of this problem, which is where every truth becomes offensive. Why is this? Why do people suddenly become offended by anything that is true without reference to the group? I think it’s because, once you’ve been insulated by the group for long enough, you unconsciously know that you’re living in an artificial reality. You know that everything you discuss with your friends and coworkers or colleagues or whatever is just self-referential group fluff. And you unconsciously know that, if reality from outside of the group impinges on the conversation, there’s a strong chance of disharmony. If all we ever talk about is self-referential gossip, then we will instinctively avoid anything that is too real, because that has a chance of rocking the boat, and that’s no good if we’re trying to get ahead. This is where truth becomes offensive just by being true, and this is where we are in deep shit.
If I haven’t rocked the boat too much by writing this, or if this answer felt like a much-needed breath of fresh air to you, feel free to show your appreciation with a donation. 1$ a month helps because it makes it more likely that other people will donate due to the bandwagon effect (social status!) and costs you less than a cheeseburger at McDonald’s.
Additionally, I have a little fictional story that I recorded as a radio drama, which you can listen to on my YouTube channel: