Hoaxing at the End of the World

What happens when we can’t tell the intentionally preposterous from the incidentally ridiculous? Does it mean we’ve reached the end of our rope? When we can’t tell hoaxes from reality, it serves as yet more evidence that we don’t have any solid way to judge.

Most recently from my adopted home state of Wisconsin, we see the hilarious story of Chop & Steele. These two goofs pretended to be innovative fitness instructors. They went on local TV news shows to demonstrate their stupid workouts, including smashing Easter baskets, hitting each other with sticks and racquets, and doing a variety of things with tires. As Steele explained about one maneuver: “This one works your delts, your tris, your plaps.”

Work those plaps.

It was hilarious and obviously ridiculous. But the news shows couldn’t tell. They welcomed Chop & Steele as fitness experts. And now they’re mad. Chop & Steele are being sued for their fakery.

The local TV news shows aren’t the only ones who look idiotic. As SAGLRROILYBYGTH may recall, the academic world was embarrassed by a similarly ridiculous hoax twenty years ago. Professor Alan Sokal at NYU published a garbled nonsense essay in the journal Social Text. As Sokal explained later, his satire was an attempt to prove how ridiculous academic politics had become. The fact that his nonsense essay could be published, Sokal wrote, proved that “some fashionable sectors of the American academic Left have been getting intellectually lazy.”

No one likes to be goofed on. It seems, though, that when satire moves so close to reality, we’ve reached some sort of sad equilibrium.

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  1. This sort of thing happens constantly in every age. If it’s symptomatic of anything, it is sufficient diversity and pluralism so that everyone has to entertain the possibility of totally, radically other views and behaviors as someone’s normal. Think of the Society for Indecency to Naked Animals, a long running hoax in the 60s. Or the famous history of the 16th century miller in The Cheese and The Worms. Or Chaucer’s Miller, which shows that even within the relative homogeneity of medieval catholic culture there was tremendous social diversity. Even among people of the same class, there are the gullible and the gulls. Jewish folk humor is full of the same thing — there are always those people who trust what they are told from authorities so much they override commonsense, which is just the empiricism of personal experience. Those who go by experience are more savvy, more individualistic, more creative, more disturbance-causing, less puritanical, but they too may concoct foolish conspiracy theories. If everyone could simply admit they are all in the same situation of deep existential ignorance, that would be a good starting point. If there is a problem, it is not the magical and fake sources of supposedly authoritative information, or the fact that all are fakeable. The problem is overconfidence and over-reliance on any source or method. The problem is the ineradicable persistence of fools and everyone’s tendency to become one by losing sight of their true status as ignorant food for worms.

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