In 1799, the Spanish painter Francisco Goya published a compilation of 80 aquatinted etchings (the Caprichos series) in which he criticized the irrationality and ignorance rampant in the Spanish society of his time. The most famous of these etchings depicts a writer asleep at his desk surrounded by bats, owls, and other creatures swarming about him that in Spanish folklore were associated with the mysterious and evil. The title of the etching, written on the desk of the writer, is “the sleep of reason produces monsters”.
I am writing this post in the year 2021 in the United States, and although a gulf of 222 years and more than 3,000 miles separate me from the Spain of Goya, it is my opinion that Goya’s thinking is very relevant to our society today. In the past few years, we have all witnessed with growing frequency how reason has slumbered in the minds of millions foisting a number of monsters upon our society.
We have seen firsthand how disinformation and misinformation have spread like cancers capturing the imagination and wills of people and spawning things like disdain for journalists and scientists, COVID-19 severity denial, and vaccine hesitancy. We have experienced an unprecedented level of polarization in our society to the point that those seeking a middle ground are attacked and ridiculed. We have seen how millions have insulated themselves from ideas and opinions that go against their beliefs, preferring instead to listen to those that tell them what they want to hear. We have seen the rise of philosophies, narratives, and frameworks of knowledge that run contrary to reality, ranging from isolated unfounded conspiracy theories to warped world views like QAnon.
One example of a particularly dangerous monster is the skepticism regarding the 2020 election. Many Americans have been fed misinformation that this election was a fraud, and many Americans have believed it despite the fact that no evidence has been uncovered that indicates this is the case. And perhaps one of the most memorable portrayals of the mindset of the fraud believers was revealed in Jan 4, 2021 during the Fox Business Network program “Lou Dobbs Tonight” by its host Lou Dobbs who had been a frequent broadcaster of conspiracy theories. Dobbs was interviewing the director of a pro-Trump Political Action Committee (PAC), and he said the following:
We’re eight weeks from the election, and we still don’t have verifiable, tangible support for the crimes that everyone knows were committed, that is, defrauding other citizens who voted with fraudulent votes. We know that’s the case in Nevada, we know it’s the case in Pennsylvania and a number of other states, but we have had a devil of a time finding actual proof. Why?
Many eyes opened wide, and jaws dropped that day. Here it was, revealed in all its brutal matter of fact casualness for all the world to see: the sleep of reason.
Although Dobbs to his credit, and unlike many fraud believers, did admit that there is no evidence for the fraud claims, he then goes on to state that everyone KNOWS that such fraud happened, and wonders why it is so hard to find the evidence. The disconnection is glaring! We normally base our knowledge that something has happened on evidence, therefore lack of evidence cannot support such knowledge. Reasonable people would accept that knowledge that is unsupported by evidence is not trustworthy and, in fact, is not knowledge at all – reasonable people. Only two days later Americans came face to face with the monster spawned by this irrationality when a mob of Trump loyalists stormed the Capitol seeking to overturn the results of the election and to harm or kill our elected representatives.
While many dismiss the storming of the Capitol as the actions of a few, there are millions of people that still believe that there was fraud in the elections. And while most of these people don’t sanction the extreme behavior exhibited by the criminals who stormed the Capitol, these people can vote and request that their elected representatives act on their will.
At the time Goya made his famous etchings, the system of government in Spain and many other countries was a monarchy. In such a system the average citizen has little influence on the actions of their government and how it affects them. However, the United States is a democracy. In this system, the people elect their leaders and can pressure them into taking certain actions. This is the strength of democracy, but it can also be its weakness if a significant number of people who are not acquainted with reality elect and pressure their representatives into supporting fictions. The current modifications to election practices that are being enacted in several states are an example of this.
It is not my intention to issue an opinion on the merits of these modifications, but I just want to point out that these modifications are being implemented mostly in response to skepticism about the validity of the 2020 election. However, because based on the evidence this skepticism is unwarranted, it follows that the enactment of these modifications is unwarranted too. Rather than being proud of the fair and transparent 2020 elections with a historic turnout, a significant part of our population views them with suspicion or is convinced that fraud took place and that something must be done about it. And this, of course, can affect the dynamics of reality. If a substantial number of people elects and pressures their leaders to uphold a fiction, this fiction in terms of its consequences paradoxically will turn into a de facto reality that will affect others.
It is important to counter misinformation and fight for the wills of those who have accepted it or who are considering accepting it. It is important to awake reason and vanish the monsters that its slumber has begotten. Goya understood the danger of the sleep of reason more than 200 years ago, and we must also understand it today, and with more urgency because in a democracy the people have the power to alter the dynamics of reality. And we cannot allow reality to be compromised.
The etching by Goya is in the public domain.