Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Personhood

 ''We can choose to use our growing knowledge to enslave people in ways never dreamed of before, depersonalizing them, controlling them by means so carefully selected that they will perhaps never be aware of their loss of personhood.''  --Carl Rogers.

The quote above sounds as though it were made today, when in fact, it is from 1961.  Since that time, our society and our technology have advanced, and our media now plugs into our lives on a number of levels.   Controlling people is easier than ever before

Television is not just some off-the-air, three-channel phenomenon, but a 500-channel High Definition brain-programming tool that is hard-wired into nearly every home.  The average American watches 4.6 hours a day of it - most of their non-working, waking hours.

But media saturates our lives further.  Most folks listen to the radio during the morning and evening "Drive Times" when they commute back and forth to work (and most folks can think of no other way to live).

But even at work, or on the way, or in-between, we are assaulted by images from our smart phones, our texting devices, our social networks, our news sites, our instant feeds and messages.

In short, we are "plugged in" to an electronic media machine that was inconceivable in 1961.  And much of this media influences us, in ways we are unwilling to admit to.  Subliminal messages from social networking sites, blog-sites, comments sections on web pages, newsgroups, and the like, can influence the way we think, act, work, and consume.

The Internet promised to be a new frontier, free of the commercialization of television, radio, and the print media.  But instead, it has morphed into a network with only one or two channels, for most users.  Many folks log on to the Internet every day at work, and check their e-mail, and perhaps one or two other sites - a news site, perhaps one sponsored by their e-mail provider, a social networking site, such as Facebook, and perhaps some commerce sites, such as Craigslist, eBay, and Amazon.  And much of this is done on company time (for companies not bright enough to block such sites from employees while at work).

And folks tend to gravitate toward sites that reinforce their own preconceptions.   If you are a far-right, gun rights advocate, your beliefs will be reinforced, not challenged, on a gun-rights website and discussion group.  And most of the "discussion" centers  on calling opponents silly names.  And don't think I am picking on the NRA crowd.  Go to a handgun control site and you will see similar values-reinforcement, and similar name-calling.

Today, more than ever before, we have a whole host of data available to us, at our fingertips, on demand, for anyone to access.  And yet, today, most people seek out only the information they want to hear.  They pre-filter the vastness of the Internet to see and hear what validates their preconceived notions.

And yea, we all do it, to some extent or another.

“The structure and organization of self appears to become more rigid under threats and to relax its boundaries when completely free from threat” (Rogers, 1951).  When someone is presented with ideas contrary to their own world-view, they retract and tighten their hold on their preconceived notions.   Thus, ideas challenging their own norms are shunned.  In an interactive media environment, like the Internet, this leads to the person selecting the media with is least threatening to their world-view.  We have enough bandwidth today, on television, the Internet, or radio, for all possible views or variations of views, to be expressed.

The Liberal watches the Daily Show, reads the Daily Kos or the Huffinton Post, and listens to NPR.  Each outlet reinforces their existing beliefs, and like old re-runs on TeeVee, is "comfort food" to the psyche.  Similarly, the conservative watches Fox News, listens to Rush Limbaugh, and blogs on right-wing websites.  Disturbing or opposing views are never seriously analyzed, but rather caricatures of opposing views - views which can be safely considered "moonbat" and disregarded.

Thus, rather than become a medium of open discussion and consensus, the Internet - and our modern media in general - becomes a series of compartments, where people park themselves to listen to their own ideas bounced back at them, over and over again.

Mega-dittos, Rush!

Within these comfort-food enclaves, individuals can be nurtured and fed - and weaned onto new ideas.  Carefully orchestrated "talking points" can be repeated, over and over again, to create a narrative that, within a news cycle or two, you start to believe was your own, original idea.

Ideas are floated like trial balloons.  A few years back, no one really cared about immigration.  Suddenly, it is the number one concern, for many Americans.  Why?  Because a carefully orchestrated campaign told you it was important, that's why.  And before long, you begin to believe that your views on immigration are your own.

I use that as an example.  It could be anything, from Abortion, to Gay Marriage, to the "War on Christmas" - and it makes no difference if you are Left or Right, Conservative or Liberal.  These ideas and positions are sold to you like soap, and you buy them and you have a preferred brand - which you believe you chose and like based on its merits and your personal "tastes".

And many of these ideas are ideas about consumption itself.  Buying things, we are told, is a patriotic duty, in order to help our consumer economy.  If you stop spending, you are being unpatriotic.  And you may think this is silly, but Presidents have said this - as well as Governors and Mayors.  Keep spending to help the economy!  And I have heard this thought echoed on chat rooms or in discussion groups.  "Money was meant to be spent!" one fellow chirps.  Why bother investing?

And so on and so on.   Daily, we are bombarded with messages to consume.   If you watch television or even go on the Internet, you will see ad after ad for cars  - mostly touting monthly payments, rather than overall cost.  We are pushed to consume, rather than build wealth.  And most of this consumption is for things related to status - to show others how successful we are - or think we are.

And of course, the debt industry is right there to help you out - with every transaction.  Want to buy a car?  Finance it, of course!  Buying furniture?  Rent-to-own!  Buying a cheeseburger?  Put it on a Visa card - and get flyer miles!  And of course, you want to participate in the "American Dream of Home Ownership" don't you?  Government-backed mortgages are ready and waiting!

Before long the consumer is spending as much every month on interest payments as they are on actual things they buy - perhaps more.    I know that I was paying about $1600 a month interest last year, between the mortgage and credit cards - almost $1800 a month, the year before then.   If I had car payments, well, the amount would be far higher - perhaps over $2000 a month.

If you factor in taxes and whatnot, the amount of money the average person has to spend on actual things is probably equal to or less than, what they are paying in interest.

Debt becomes a modern-day form of slavery.  Perhaps not slavery in terms of Antebellum days, but slavery nevertheless.  People work hard to give away a third of their earnings in taxes, and then another third to banks in interest charges.  They take home a tiny pittance and think themselves "lucky" because they got a deduction on their interest payments.

In the abstract, it is an interesting scenario, and one wonders how we managed to sell ourselves - or be sold on - this idea.

But fortunately, there is a way out.  While we can't prevent ourselves from being manipulated by the media and the powers-that-be all of the time, we can unplug from the media, stop insisting on being "up to the minute" on news all the time, and also unplug from consumerism.  The less you are listening to (and watching) these poor normative cues the easier it is to think for yourself - to think things through, away from the din and distraction of the modern world.

And yet, so many of us do the opposite.  We are drawn to the flickering glow of the Cathode Ray Tube (or today, the flat panel display) like moths to the flame.

You know, that usually doesn't end well for the moth.

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