Human beings have a desire for certainty that is inborn and part of the wiring of our brains. We seek certainty because it rewards us with a feeling of satisfaction and the comfort of order. We avoid uncertainty because it causes a sense of insecurity and anxiety.
We gain certainty in many ways. For instance, at a very low level, it is satisfying to know that when we put one foot in front of the other time and time again it will get us to our chosen destination. Rewatching our favourite movies also brings certainty because familiarity with the plots and characters means we know what to expect. That’s why mind games like Sudoku and crosswords are popular. They’re predictable and satisfying. Doing chores like washing clothes, cleaning the car, or tending to our gardens provides order and, for some people, pleasure.
The more ambiguity or the greater the prospect of threat, the more our sense of insecurity and anxiety will grow. When living in times of great turmoil, as we are at present, when traditional certainties about politics, culture and health are breaking down, it is a very human response to embrace ideas that profess to offer us absolute answers and enhance the perception of control we have in our lives. This is a process that in recent years has become known as getting “red-pilled”.
The red pill and blue pill dichotomy
The term “red pill” comes from a scene in the film, The Matrix, in which the main character, Neo, is presented with the choice between learning a potentially unsettling or life-changing truth by swallowing a red pill or remaining in contented ignorance by opting instead to take a blue pill.
The blue pill represents continuing to subscribe to the unquestioned consensus reality we have been socialised into our entire lives. A continuity of the current state of affairs, i.e. living life without knowing its real meaning or running away from the truth to continue living life in the ways we have always known.
By contrast, swallowing the red pill means becoming aware of information that awakens us to a new world and reveals the invisible lies and boundaries of what we thought we knew. The seductive quality of the red pill prevents further investigation and often underpins the ostensible certainty of a particular group or community in the correctness of its opinions.
People often undergo red pill awakenings after having become disillusioned with mainstream narratives. Think about the number of conspiracy theories and ideologies that have flourished in the last 18 months as people attempted to make sense of the COVID pandemic. Consider the impact of QAnon and how it emerged as a common thread among the men and women arrested around the US for their participation in the Capitol Building insurrection earlier this year. In the long run, the dramatic moments of insight that follow the “awakening” from whichever red pill we happen to swallow often turn out to be wrong or, at best incomplete interpretations of an infinitely complex reality.
I’ve had my own experiences of such red pill awakenings over the years. I now understand why I was so seduced by Marxist philosophy during my time as a university student in the early noughties. For several years that followed, I looked at and analysed the world deterministically through a Marxist lens.
It also helps explain why, when I was developing a critical awareness of gender-focused feminism, I over-indulged the ideas of Men’s Rights Activists. I didn’t recognise at the time the divisive and one-sided nature of my argument was just mirroring back at my opponents the apparent certainties and partial truths I was criticising.
Venkatesh Rao, author and contributor to the blog Ribbon Farm, explains how red pills tribalise us. When we take a particular red pill, we “gain membership into a community of those who the same red pill has awakened, and recognise each other through various shibboleths.” We become active agents in a community that knows who the enemy is and invoke outrage and scorn on anyone who dares to disagree with us.
Rao goes on to say, “the problem with red pills is that you can get stuck in a false consciousness created through affiliation with fellow possessors of secret (but really just closed off from critical questioning) knowledge.”
Maybe the red pill we took was a small part of the truth? Or, perhaps, it was just half right? It might be more right than the blue pill, but not a complete truth in itself?
An obvious way to tell when we are talking to someone who has been red-pilled is when we hear them say things like “I’ve got it all figured out”, “I know what is really going on”, or refer to an often unspecified “they” who we are told are conspiring to “divide us” — usually delivered with an excessive level of confidence and evangelical zeal.
How then do we counteract and overcome the growing tendency for red pill thinking in these increasingly complex times? The answer is simple but putting it into action takes time and practice, particularly given that it requires a mindset which contrasts our natural propensity to seek certainty.
Enter the grey pill
Rao has introduced a third pill into the blue pill/red pill dichotomy called the “grey pill”, which dilutes the apparent certainties of the red pill and puts one in a state of nuanced uncertainty. To take the grey pill is to relearn the value of questioning and doubt once we’ve been seduced by supposed answers and certainties, leaving comforting secret societies for continued growth.
A note of caution: the grey pill might free us to become more creative thinkers, but it can also disrupt our regular functioning operating system. In short, being grey-pilled can provoke a full-blown existential crisis. If we question everything, we question the fundamentals of why we do anything.
However, a pay-off awaits those who manage to survive their existential crisis. Because, as Rao puts it, those who do survive, “regain an appetite for life, and experience an almost imperceptibly slow, but steadily compounding, takeoff into an intellectually alive life” as it “gets recentered around generative curiosity and openness to experience, as you resist the temptation of limiting patterns of affiliation.”
Getting grey-pilled can be summarised as a three-step process:
- We begin with our unquestioned certainty about an aspect of life;
- Then we are introduced to a new way of thinking, which questions those certainties, and we begin to see the world and ourselves in a new light;
- The last step is if we, for any reason, start to question this new way of thinking, we begin to realise the situation is much more nuanced than we initially thought.
There is no pre-judgment of information as trivial or profound, true or false in such a state. Instead, we learn and grow from every encounter with novelty. Rather than looking for one big life-changing dose of knowledge we hope will be the last, we learn to craft our own path out of changes big and small. We stop doubling down on the biases of our red pill “insights” and embrace the persistent unknowing of the grey pill.
The key to successful grey-pilling is to consume a balanced diet of perspectives, from the political left, right, middle, the mainstream media, alternative media or anything else, treating every perspective with scepticism and to an ongoing process of appraisal. That is not to say one who has opted to swallow the grey pill never takes a position, but the position we do take is one whereby we consciously aim to separate signal from noise, find partial truths and synthesise what we learn as we go.
Much of the content in this piece originally appeared in an earlier article of mine: Navigating The Culture War: Suggestions & Self-Reflections.