What People Are Getting Wrong This Week: ‘Reality Shifting’ on TikTok

What People Are Getting Wrong This Week: ‘Reality Shifting’ on TikTok

Social media platform TikTok’s misinformation policy is fairly robust, at least on paper. It explicitly bans content that contains “medical misinformation about vaccines or abortion” and “misinformation about voting,” as well as a general prohibition on content that “undermines public trust.” (You have to go to Twitter/X for that kind of thing.) But TikTok’s community guidelines don’t ban more esoteric bullshit about “reality shifting,” “manifesting,” and a whole lot of other esoteric beliefs. As a result, these out-there ideas are finding a new audience among the mostly young people who use TikTok. And TikTok is doing nothing about it. Which is good.

What is reality shifting?

Simplified, reality shifting is the belief that we can shift our consciousness to alternate realities. It’s (very loosely) based on the “many-worlds interpretation” of quantum mechanics that posits that all possible outcomes of quantum measurements are realized in some universe, and thus there are an infinite number of realities—like in that movie, Everything Everywhere All at Once. The leap that TikTok’s reality shifters make is thinking there’s a way to visit these alternative realities, either corporally or just mentally. As far as anyone can prove, there is not, but if you’d like to try, you can check out this video for instructions or watch every video on the hashtag in some alternative dimension where you have all day.

What is manifesting?

Reality shifting has the sheen of novelty to it, but it’s actually a close cousin to the older idea of “manifesting,” another belief with a strong fan base on TikTok. While it’s often surrounded by exhortations to meditate or visualize, manifesting, at its most basic level, is the belief that you can have whatever you want if you believe you can have it. It’s wishing, with extra steps.

Where does all this come from?

It seems that each new generation finds a way to talk about manifesting, reality shifting, and other fringe spiritual beliefs. Since it was published in 2006, over 35 million copies of the book The Secret have been sold. (Spoiler alert: The secret of the title is “if you wish for something hard enough, you’ll get it.”) The Secret was a modernization of the new-age beliefs that were popular in the 1990s, which were based on the “human potential movement” of the 1970s, which was based on the esoterica of the hippy generation in the 1960s. If you keep going back in time (literally, if you want to reality shift), you arrive at the “second great awakening” of the early late 1800s-early 1900s, where spiritualism, freemasonry, and transcendentalism were on-trend.

What’s the harm in wishing?

While it seems pretty obvious that people can’t have whatever they want just because they want it—just look at everything—but is it a bad thing? Yes and no.

On the harm side of the column: Believing that the universe delivers whatever you order only really works if you’re privileged. It’s way easier to think, “I have all this money because I really wanted it!” when you already have all this money than it is to ask, “Where’s that car I ordered?”

It’s also a pretty callous belief system. Manifesters like to pose as compassionate, but a belief in a generous universe or the present-giving God of the “prosperity gospel” movement (less popular on TikTok, more popular on Facebook ) means that anyone in an unfortunate situation must want to be in it—that kid who has cancer must want to have cancer, or he didn’t pray hard enough.

Also on the negative side of the ledger: the gurus, preachers, and politicians who prey on the gullible. And when believers try to make laws based on their beliefs. And UFO cults with suicide pacts. So there are a lot of negatives.

Why we shouldn’t do anything about it (except feel smug)

But on the other hand, there has always been a counter-current of occultism informing American beliefs. You can see it in the longtime popularity of astrology (another TikTok favorite), the ready availability of Ouija boards in toy stores, and the existence of your local palm reader. People are meeting some basic need, whether it’s through horoscope and vision boards or Sunday morning church services. I don’t understand it personally, but like Sinatra said, “I’m for whatever gets you through the night.”

There have been attempts to rein in new religious movements in the past, and they tend to be disasters. After the Jonestown mass suicide for instance, anti-cult sentiment was strong enough that a cottage industry of “de-programmers” sprung up, and there were actual court cases where serious people argued that it was lawful to kidnap your relatives if you really didn’t like what they believed and really didn’t approve of who they hung out with.

Wringing your hands about the people who believe weird things on TikTok—and the grifters and frauds getting rich off them—isn’t the answer. First, it’s boring, like the confrontational atheism that was popular online a decade ago. But more importantly, Western culture, when it’s working correctly, is built on the idea that people should be able to believe and say whatever they like. even if it’s stupid—freedom and all that shit.

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