“So it is best to think of moral progress as a matter of increasing sensitivity, increasing responsiveness to the needs of a larger and larger variety of people and things.”
Philosophy and Social Hope, Richard Rorty, italics in original
The map is not the territory, the menu is not the meal, and the thought is not the thing it refers to. Yet these representational images are not nothing; they have power.
The modern human environment is one saturated with images, representations created by, for the most part, advertising agencies and their clients. They serve a single purpose, pursue a single goal: to convince people who already own a lot that they need to have more. In the world they craft it is sensible that those well off should occupy themselves with increasing their store of goods and services the planet has to offer as opposed to doing something else with their current abundance.
It is a bit astonishing. Studies show how short-lived the buyer’s high actually is and supporting the consumerism habit is an all encompassing endeavor requiring full time jobs and all the rest. You would think numerous dissenting populations would be found scattered throughout our society but we do not see that. This mono-myth has captured the social imagination. Even while running faster and faster just to stay in place and seeing our very earth-home being poisoned and mangled species after species, mountain after mountain, and sea after sea it is impossible for us as a society to imagine any viable alternative to business as usual. The economic growth paradigm by which we have organized our fossil-fueled industrial civilization no longer serves the interests of our species but we are unable to voluntarily replace it.
It is not replaced because by and large the great majority of the members of these societies do not really object to the agenda being promoted by the advertisers of business as usual. The economic growth paradigm allowed increasing numbers of families to find relatively secure circumstances. Among our deepest human needs are those that seek to provide for and support those we love, our family and friends. Humans have always sought these things. So the advertising art did not need to invent its seductions out of whole cloth, the ingredients were handed to them ready made, as it were. Their art consists of hijacking our empathy that leads us to provide for one another.
The mono-myth works through an obfuscation. As our societies grew ever more secular they became prey to various attempts to move heaven to earth, to re-clothe the old religious imagery in more mundane garb. We see this in the gladiator games, sex gods and goddesses, heroic quests and always, always either explicitly or in the background, the implied belief that somewhere there is a charmed circle of “beautiful people” for whom life on earth is perfectly satisfying. They own all the right things, look the right way, know all the right people, and do whatever is exciting, dangerous, sexy, cool or otherwise awesome about being alive. This is our consumer paradise. It is what we see when we pull back the veil on our worlds of television, movies and internet.
This is the power of images.
The whole world has become bewitched by this tantalizing chimera. The vision of the consumer paradise convinces its acolytes that pursuing it will provide them with a meaningful life. Our communication devices have indeed brought us closer together than ever, sewing opportunities for compassionate understanding everywhere but they are also a Pandora’s Box. The unleashing of the consumer paradise meme from within the nexus of our societal self-reflections as found on all our screens, which Michael Greer aptly dubbed our prosthetic imagination, diverted the care and concern once expressed towards family, neighbors and neighborhoods into alienating narcissism. Shorn of the intimate ties to people and place that once provided meaning and security, the naked consumer is born. Stripped of the compassionate tenor of interpersonal interactions in a society that places competition above all other values, getting ahead becomes the one sanctioned activity.
Looking at how many billions of dollars are spent annually on the advertising that props up this world view I cannot help but entertain some deliciously subversive thoughts. It looks to need a serious effort to co-opt these altruistic tendencies we find among friends and family. Helping others, being of benefit to others is obviously a viable alternative world view. Many people over the centuries have formed meaningful lives in the service of others instead of shopping. Those billions of ad dollars providing content for our prosthetic imaginations basically drown that signal in their barrage of hymns to the consumer paradise.
I have had moments where the whole PR-drawn cognitive environment in which we live suddenly looks both starkly manipulative and tawdry. At those times it seems obvious to me that we have a freedom to choose to extend the same efforts towards teaching and promoting empathy and compassion that we currently invest in teaching and promoting violence, competition and narcissism. I’ve said it before and I’m sure I’ll say it again – what the human mind creates the human mind can undo.
There are two points I’d like to make and then will wrap up on a practical note. The first point is that as our growth paradigm continues to stumble and fall on its way towards tomorrows defined by limits to growth, the societies that have taken the vision of the consumer paradise to their bosoms will be facing more than just a crisis of infrastructure and energy delivery. A loss of faith is an equally devastating feature. There is a real danger that the cognitive dissonance that propped up this vision in the teeth of all the evidence to the contrary will collapse, leaving people feeling like they wasted their lives pursuing the wrong goals. They will also react with a disproportionate anger to the loss since it involves religion as much as Wall Street.
The second point is more personal. We live in an age of decadence where everything goes. It takes but a few clicks to access any perversion, absorb images of any conceivable violence and generally saturate oneself in the hyper-real. Parents have been warning their beloved children about ‘those parts of town’ forever. Today the parents – inner and outer – are stunned and mute as that part of town became the only town. Cutting at the fiber of the intimate relations of conscience and concern has poisoned the strength of human dignity. Dignity comes from respect; respecting what it is to be a human being, respecting the earth by whose bounty such being is possible and respecting one another as equal in this being. With dignity we are able to face into the winds of change from the storms of the age and not flinch. No shallow, manipulative self-esteem program is going to deliver the goods if this fundamental respect is lacking. We cannot stop the billions of dollars being poured into catering to our basest desires and spreading traps for the unwary who are ignorant of just what is at stake here. We can however choose not to participate in the worst of it.
Which leads to a practical point: Learn to fear becoming desensitized! Only partly tongue in cheek: save the splattering of brain pans and the chopping up of bodies to the shamanic visualizations and save the sexually charged images for making love or other moments of non-dualism. Then they remain effective tools of the psyche’s transformation. If the salt has lost its flavor, with what will it be salted?
The contemplative is learning to tame the mind. Time spent with the mind brings profound respect for the power of its various states. Most of those states are mediated to consciousness through images of one sort or another. Images can drive a jealous person into a murderous rage or trap a fearful person in their paranoia. They can drive people crazy and, it is taught, they can lead to the very edge of enlightenment. Taming the mind begins by recognizing its power and evolves to involve working with its images to ultimately transcend them. Last week we looked at a mandala and I offered a few suggestions about how it might be seen to be expressing something meaningful. Here is another one. Those gates on the square have guardians in them. These guardians of the thresholds protect the treasures that lie within. The gates are our senses. Remain watchful over what images you allow to penetrate your inner sanctum.
Like all things, even the actions of these protectors is best in moderation. There is no wisdom in going overboard and cutting off all contact with the imaginal discourse of our societies. Nor am I suggesting you expose yourself only to what the ego finds most comfortable. Our social nature is nurtured through our socio-linguistic and imaginal games. We reach others’ hearts using them. What I suggest is we train in picking and choosing them skillfully.