Misshapen by Deception

Deception is hardly new. The serpent lied to Eve. Cain lied to God. Laban and Jacob deceived each other so badly they had to set up a cairn as a marker and reminder not to cross into each other’s path. One of the business practices the prophets condemned nearly three millennia ago was using fraudulent scales.

Deception is not new, but we are in our day have nearly perfected it. And no one person can even comprehend all the ways our lives rest on lies. No wonder we feel anxious, suspicious, and fearful.

Before you get out of bed, you’re lying on a mattress of some sort. Most newer mattresses are loaded with newer chemical compositions (thousands of them) which are untested, for the long term, regarding our health. For a third of our lives. But the mattresses are sold as wondrously healthy for our sleep.

You go to the kitchen and prepare breakfast. You pour cereal, milk, and orange juice. Each is in a package that looks identical to the products you bought a few years ago. But “shrinkflation” means you’ve paid more for less on everything.

While eating breakfast, you scroll through the news and social media. While you try to read, ads for all sorts of, ah, “things that will make you and your life better,” constantly move about like a blower-driven noodle in front of a payday loan business. “Hey, look here!!” The ads make bold claims about how taking this supplement, wearing these clothes, driving this car, eating this superfood, doing this brain-teaser will make you happy, healthy, and wise.


And social media companies and feeds? Snakes in the garden, telling us what the human-created algorithm directs us to see. But what about everything else going on that the algorithm “decides” to leave out? And have you ever taken one of those quizzes on social media that might include a birthday, favorite childhood food or TV show, or what’s on your bucket list? All designed to capture information from us to sell our data and tailor ads designed to sell us what we are told—repeatedly—that we need.

Food. Some years back chef Jaime Oliver produced a short-lived TV series focused on a town in West Virginia (Food Revolution) with among the highest rates of childhood obesity. In one classroom scene with elementary or middle school kids, he showed them baskets of garden-grown vegetables and tubers. He held up a potato. Most of the kids did not know what it was. The he held up a picture or package of fast-food French fries and all the kids recognized them immediately. All the kids knew were processed foods.

While society’s inclination is to blame individuals for their lack of eating control, recent research points to the success of processed food corporations designing products to lure us into their world, and keep us there. Processors have perfected the addictive ingredients and smells of their products, hitting the “bliss point” of the brain with precision. In a similar way to how a Disney resort invites you into their world and designs everything to keep you there, and many apps are designed to keep you within their app, the business model of food processors is to keep us eating their food. But what if, as the new studies seem to confirm, the foods are inherently unhealthy? And, even so-called healthy foods are sold by showing us a picture of a great mound of it while a healthy serving is really a quarter cup, or the foods are sold as “fresh” but are grown in soil that passes toxic chemicals all through the food chain.

Here’s the nature of the traps: unless one lives on a property that is self-contained, off the grid (and therefore not reading this blog), that produces or harnesses all your food and energy and raw materials, one cannot see and know all the ways we are being misled, with intentions that are designed in the interest of market share and profit rather than our well-being.

I know. I know. There are excellent companies, for profit and non-profit businesses—such as houses of worship and local small businesses—that have integrity, that sell what they say they sell, that are honest and helpful.

But my gosh, there are so many that are NOT.

One could say much more about deception, ranging from Prosperity Gospel preachers to the fiction of plastic recycling to political campaign ads and constituent letters…

How can we know the difference between reality and spin? I used to think information curators, such as reputable schools, libraries, journalists, and non-profits, could help us. And they do—except that reputable sources are now viewed through the same polarized lenses. Finding curators trusted by more than one side is very hard. So, I have my facts and you have yours.

We wonder why we are anxious, defensive, fearful, and lack trust. Perhaps it is because we are, in scores and scores of ways, being assaulted by deceptions from the time we awake until the time we hit the pillow. And no one can be “a responsible consumer” for everything one consumes.

William James wrote that we become what we attend to. The founders of our religions said something similar. We live today in an ecology of deception; we all attend to and make decisions based on deceptions. What, then, are we becoming?

Dr. Gary Peluso-Verdend is president emeritus at Phillips Theological Seminary and is the executive director of the seminary’s Center for Religion in Public Life. The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author. Learn more about the Center’s work here and about Gary here.

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