April 3, 2020
Although the legend of Faust is one of the Germanic world’s foundational narratives, its archetypes and themes were already established by the time Goethe codified them in his 1808 play. They have since become universal. The idea that somebody would sell their soul to the Devil to gain something or rid themselves of unhappiness is as resonant now as it was in Renaissance Europe. It has inspired books films and artists to such an extent that its derivatives now have their own Wikipedia page.
It even inspired the real-life myth of blues musician Robert Johnson, which recounts how he sold his soul to the devil at a crossroads in exchange for success before dying at the age of 27. Although, in my opinion, none is as haunting as the 1926 expressionist film adaptation of Goethe’s tale from F W Murnau.
And what did Goethe’s Faust sell his soul for? What was worth eternal damnation?
Access to the knowledge of all things so far known.
Now that we have it, it’s worth considering what the human race is actually doing with instant access to the knowledge that was once worth a man’s soul. On that score you can pick your own examples of how The Internet has become a conduit for misinformation as much as information and how filters like Google legitimise uninformed points of view as much as those of people who know what they are talking about. We can also speculate about how all of this can be amplified through processes such as the Dunning-Kruger effect and play on the prior thoughts, prejudices and emotions of people.
To a great extent, we already get all that. But, one of the things that doesn’t get talked about enough, certainly compared to the well worked notion of ‘fake news’, is idea laundering.
A laundered idea can be widely accepted as true when it is overly simplistic, shaky in some other way or even complete bullshit
While fake news depends on ‘the strategic and purposeful production of ignorance’, idea laundering does not necessarily imply a deliberate attempt to introduce poor or partial ideas into public discourse. It is the process whereby an oversimplified idea or piece of misinformation is repeated so often that it acquires a patina of legitimacy and ultimately becomes a presupposition.
One of the most toxic aspects of this is how ideas can be laundered through seemingly respectable sources of information, including in those in academia, even if it is most commonly identifiable in the output of the PR industry. (Which currently employs six times more people than there are journalists, according to this report.)
This is a particularly insidious form of misinformation because while the proclamations of anti-vaxxers, flat-earthers and climate sceptics are easily disprovable to anybody with an ounce of interest in facts, a laundered idea can be widely accepted as true when it is overly simplistic, shaky in some other way or even complete bullshit.
In many ways this can be more problematic because, while we might fully engage our critical facilities when faced with obvious fake news, laundered ideas might bypass those defences without us being fully aware that we are buying into an idea without giving it full scrutiny or being aware of the problems it might foster. The sleep of reason produces monsters.
The philosopher Harry Frankfurt set out his own thoughts on the matter in his famous essay On Bullshit in which he declares on the problem we have in spotting something that is not true or not entirely true while echoing the words of the stoic Marcus Aurelius. “Recognizing truth requires selflessness. You have to leave yourself out of it so you can find out the way things are in themselves, not the way they look to you or how you feel about them or how you would like them to be.”
The implications for the workplace
Away from the general point, we can observe the laundering of ideas on a daily basis in the many articles that appear on a wide range of workplace issues. Some of them we publish ourselves based on presuppositions that do not bear close scrutiny or, which do not reflect their own underlying complexity, or which might provoke an emotional response if placed under too much scrutiny. This is what happens when an idea becomes a well laundered and core idea.
Most of the workplace stories that are published should acknowledge that they are, at best, only looking at one facet of an issue. To claim otherwise would suggest we have perfect knowledge of people and their interactions and it would be daft for anybody to suggest that.
You can see it all at play in the most commonly pushed ideas about open plan offices, about millennials, the gig economy, the impact of context-free workplace design, flexible working and the effects of sitting. Once you fully accept a laundered idea such as the one that declares sitting is the new smoking, that an open plan workplace is the worst thing ever inflicted on workers and that millennials are not the same as the rest of us, all else can be assumed to follow.
It’s not so easy to overcome such preconceptions if we are not aware of them in the first place. And no PR person or journalist ever faces much resistance to an idea based on a well laundered supposition about work and workplace. But to make sense of complex issues to any degree, we must be aware of our own responses, as Harry Frankfurt suggests. The science backs him up on his philosophical take. As neuroscientist Daniel Levitin writes in his book A Field Guide to Lies and Statistics: A Neuroscientist on How to Make Sense of a Complex World, “critical thinking doesn’t mean we disparage everything, it means that we try to distinguish between claims with evidence and those without.”
We start that when we look into our own presuppositions as well as those ideas that we know to be demonstrably false.
Main image: from Goya’s The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York