Education vs. Manipulation

“There comes a boiling-point in the scale of all intellectual development, at which all faith, all revelation, and all authority evaporate, and Man claims the right to judge for himself; the right, not only to be taught, but to be convinced.”
On the Fourfold Root of the Principle of Sufficient Reason, Arthur Schopenhauer


The makers of the ever-tempting potato chip, of the I-can’t-eat-just-one variety, are not the summit of culinary craftsmanship. What they do is package substances that were rare in our evolutionary past; typically fats and salts. Since the human body needs small quantities of these chemicals yet they were rare in our ancestral environments, we are born craving them. This is nature’s way of saying, ‘get up off the couch and go find some.’

In come the chip manufacturers, swooping in and capitalizing on a human being’s powerful deep-time imprints. Defeating the purpose of the cravings, we are right back on the couch with a bag of chips in hand. We can say we are all free to choose to eat that first potato chip or not but we are approaching a slippery slope here. Using some of the deepest cravings of our physiology as temptations have made McDonalds and their ilk some of the most pervasive food suppliers on the planet.

I call this an Aikido move: external powers with their own agendas use your own power against you. In the case of nutrition-less fast-food the strength they are using against the consumer is the intelligence that is found in the body’s ability to regulate the intake of food so it provides every little element that is needed to maintain its homeostasis. This is a very strong intelligence which unfortunately for those hoping to avoid heart disease and fortunately for the profits of said companies, does not include an equally strong shut off signal. Such a signal was not needed in the environment of scarce salt and fat in which these neural circuits were laid down in the genetic code.

Are said companies providing a service, as they claim, or are they manipulating their consumers?

Might some similar dynamic exist within the complex world of human psychology? Of course it does. Rational people are not spending the millions and millions of dollars it takes to develop a Super Bowl advertisement as a contribution to our stock of cultural art. These are mini-dramas full of damnation and salvation, always delivered in ever more provocative ways to bypass the consumer’s critical thinking skills. Like the chip manufacturer, the maker of such images is zeroing in on and using for their own purposes powerful motivations for human behavior which were first laid down in our species thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of years ago.

We can choose not to watch but again it is a slippery slope where somewhere these activities cross the line into mental manipulation pure and simple. It also needs to be said, and we need to understand very clearly, that not seeing any corporate advertising is impossible for anyone who must take an active part in their own survival in our modern societies. To say don’t watch is a little disingenuous.

When one of those little advertising ditties occupies your head, you kind of need to let it play through to its finish don’t you? There is a craving here of sorts. Take a moment, right now, to remember the last time you had a really good potato chip. Feel the crispness, hear the crackle, taste the salt. . . Now, can you sense how much you want a chip or would want that second chip? Can you feel the glands in your mouth region react just to the thought of a chip? Might the mind react equivalently in its own domain?

The advertisers are working with a single goal: to get you to buy. This purchase will take place if you are persuaded that it will benefit you more than saving your money or spending it on something else would. We think of ourselves as rational purchasing agents who just want something (badly, now!) even though we are witnesses to the types of messages we have been subject to concerning the products. Well, all those advertising dollars are betting that human beings do not, in fact, work this way. Their messages are all about how with the purchase of their X you will finally be popular, happy, sexually worshipped and all the other shop-worn goodies in their bag of tricks. Their messages are designed to bypass rational thought. They work directly with the emotions and the symbols and myths that pertain to the archetypes of human consciousness.

Advertising adjusts a consumer’s belief and value systems – and it works to the tune of billions of dollars a year. The ad man’s guiding rule gives the whole show away; “create a need, and then sell it.” This is how it’s recursive, Catch-22 works:

Step One: make you feel unhappy, unfulfilled, and lacking
Step Two: show people happy, fulfilled, and satisfied
Step Three: link the happy people’s happiness with owning X
Step Four: you don’t own X yet? Go to step one…

I consider this a grand scale experiment. The human mind has become a Petri dish in which very deep pockets are working hard on the creation of viruses that can resist even the strongest antibiotics. What is the antibiotic? The consumer’s ability to reason and choose values for themselves. An ad wants to place an imprint in your memory that equates happiness with the purchase of their product. Since deep time’s mysterious purpose in fashioning us so that we seek happiness, almost like we seek salt and fat, failed to take the advertiser’s doodad into account, the ad men take it upon themselves to hijack the desire for happiness. That is the whole point.

Traditional teaching says that there are some environments that are more conductive to the practice of virtue than others. I suggest the environment of the mass media mind is one in which it is very difficult. There is not much that is wholesome and uplifting out in the cultural wastelands of these times. I think artistic media can be good at reflecting collective issues and darker motivations for the winds of history blowing through our times but we need to understand it is not the innocent escapism it advertises itself to be. We would all be wise to learn to be satisfied with a little less stimulation.

Are you starting to get a sense that creating a sustainable society is going to take a bit more than just changing our light bulbs? I’ve talked about potato chips; an extension of these ideas to the politics and policies of the modern world is left as an exercise for the reader.

Compare these wily ways of advertising with a teaching lesson. A classroom teacher will use primarily verbal skills, the language of reasoning, instead of using larger than life symbolism. As the lesson progresses a skilled teacher will help the learners make connections between the new information and related things that they already know. This places the new information within the context of the whole person and the knowledge and values they have already ascribed to. After the rote memory lessons like the ABCs and the times-tables, teachers need to include a presentation of the evidence for why what is being taught is considered real and true. The teacher’s goal is for each student to fairly weigh the evidence for and against a proposition and thereby come to their own conclusions.

Manipulation is born in the ego’s hubris. It uses whatever power it can get its hands on to control the world and other people. Doing so it creates the dog-eat-dog world in which we are all fighting our way to the top against billions and billions of other people equally desperate to win. The alternative is to approach the world and the people in it in a spirit of cooperation, from the place of loving-kindness.

Both the teacher and the advertiser are looking to install their information into your long term memory, which as we saw last week means they want to create a neurobiological imprint within your nervous system. But there is a difference. To make the difference as stark as possible here is a simple model:

Information -> memorized aka imprinted ->
Education: judged: accepted or rejected and the imprint strengthened or weakened accordingly
Manipulation: bypass conscious judgment: repetition of stimulus and the use of the shocking, feared and the irrational to strengthen the imprint

Mindfulness can allow us to catch a glimpse of the imprints in action. Observing when the rational mind is involved in decisions, and when it is not, is itself a rather powerful technique. When things come over you, you might want to ask: is this a legitimate desire and need for who I am, born from my own values, or is it something implanted by someone else? What we are talking about is who is in the driver’s seat. Mind manipulation has all but replaced learned discussion in the public sphere. Robot programming is all the rage as a literate society dwindles. The blind are leading the greedy and at this rate both will fall over the ecological-crisis cliff. Pray tell, dear reader, how are you going to get off the bus?

Meditation and contemplation are ways to learn to grab the wheel and steer your own vehicle, your own body-mind. It probably needs a little cleaning; a little work here and there; it might even be carrying someone else’s luggage in the trunk but still. . . Good Sirs and Madams, your chariot awaits.

2 Replies to “Education vs. Manipulation”

  1. It’s easy to avoid almost all advertisements, including Super Bowl advertisements. Just don’t watch live TV. We have been living that way since 1997. Just Don’t Watch is easy when you Just Can’t Watch. Good post; thanks.

  2. True that, and thank you for turning it off. The set of ads you likely deal with through the internet, in stores and by the highways are likely a lot easier to dislodge from your skulls. More power to you and yours.

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