Observations on the Abuse of Language (Part N)
We’ve all received forwarded emails. The sender is a friend or acquaintance – unless it’s from a third party who has hacked the sender’s account. But if there are multiple links in the chain (Fwd: Fwd: Fwd …), we have no idea who originated the message, or what it will be. In most cases, I’m inclined to hit the delete button.
But after opening enough of these messages, we know pretty well what to expect, in general, which depends on the last forwarder. In my experience, it’s usually something relatively harmless, or puerile, in a few familiar categories. Jokes about an Irish wake; or illustrations of husband-wife competition; or photos of young nude women with big breasts, hitchhiking in California, golfing in Florida, surfing in Hawaii – actually, doing anything anywhere, so long as they’re young, nude and have big (even grotesque) breasts!
The messages I get are forwarded in the spirit of amusement. From what I hear, countless people receive similar messages in the same spirit. The internet age allows some of them to go viral, catching the attention of millions. Before the Web era, ‘amusing’ items were passed by letters, or word of mouth, via radio, TV, theater productions, or social gatherings. The would-be ‘amuser’ had a harder task in those environments, when audiences were more demanding, and failure to amuse (or even causing offense) was a greater risk. My mother used to quip about uncritical audiences, “I wish I were so easily amused.”
More problematic than forwarded emails are the videos, posts, pictures and other memes passed along or “shared” publicly, e.g. on Facebook or Twitter, that are attention grabbing and completely anonymous. In many cases, they are ‘shared’ because they are naturally appealing, like home videos of someone solving 3 Rubik’s cubes while juggling, or cats doing what cats do. If nothing else, this kind of amusment takes more and more of people’s time out of every day and week. Few people would dispute the fact that screen-watching time has been steadily increasing, especially since the internet era began. It can even become a “behavioral addiction” – in fact Irresistible – as a recent pop-psych book claims. (See the thought-provoking variety of comments on this site.)
More importantly, memes provide an opportunity to persuade uncritical people to take on attitudes and beliefs that are harmful, false and corrupting. A friend recently pointed out a good example one of his acquaintances sent, that has been going around since 2014 or earlier, as part of a negative (‘smear’) campaign against Hillary Clinton and Barak Obama.
The only true claims in this ad are the biographical facts and titles of Alinsky’s books (quoted from Wikipedia). There were 13 rules in Rules for Radicals, and no item in the list above vaguely resembles anything Alinsky wrote, anywhere. He spent most of his professional life as a community organizer, starting in Chicago’s Back of the Yards Neighborhood Council (BYNC) which he established in 1939 at age 30, with Joseph Meegan. He traveled to many other cities to advise groups who wanted to improve conditions for their blighted communities. In the ’50s, his focus turned to Chicago’s black ghettos. His confrontational methods annoyed Mayor Daley, who nevertheless later said, “Alinsky loves Chicago, same as I do.” A good sense of Alinsky’s contentious style can be seen in this 1967 interview by William Buckley on “Firing Line”.
That politicians Obama and Clinton were interested in Alinsky’s approach to community service is not surprising. To imply that they were following a plan as part of a Soviet-style conspiracy to undo American democracy is outrageously false. But the people who pass this on are already inclined to believe it, whether the initiator believes it or not. It illustrates well the effective modus operandi characteristic of all advertising today, both political and corporate, which is to appeal to and manipulate our hidden desires.
Modern marketing rests on psychological principles discovered by Freud, and developed by Freud’s American nephew Edward Bernays, who began as a press agent for important entertainers (like the visiting opera star of the Twenties, Enrico Caruso), but was hired for European propaganda work at the onset of WWII, and returned to America to advise government agencies and private business clients until his 1961 retirement.
The foundation of Bernays’ modus operandi was his conviction that most people are irrational and selfish, and will follow their primitive instincts in stressful situations, regardless of the consequences, unless externalities or the conventions of society block the way. This crowd or mass psychology – so well discussed in Freud’s 1921 Massenpsychologie (Group Psychology) – can be used for political propaganda, in wartime and peace, and applies equally well to marketing efforts of private and public business. Bernays called his work ‘public relations’ rather than advertising. In a 1927 article “The Minority Rules”, he said,
But instead of a mind, universal literacy has given [the common man] a rubber stamp, a rubber stamp inked with advertising slogans, with editorials, with published scientific data, with the trivialities of tabloids and the profundities of history, but quite innocent of original thought. Each man’s rubber stamp is the twin of millions of others, so that when these millions are exposed to the same stimuli, all receive identical imprints. […]
The amazing readiness with which large masses accept this process is probably accounted for by the fact that no attempt is made to convince them that black is white. Instead, their preconceived hazy ideas that a certain gray is almost black or almost white are brought into sharper focus. Their prejudices, notions, and convictions are used as a starting point, with the result that they are drawn by a thread into passionate adherence to a given mental picture. [Cited in Wikipedia, “Edward Bernays”]
A good but depressing summary of Bernays and his controversial influence is the 4-part, 2002 BBC documentary directed by Adam Curtis: “The Century of the Self.”