by Samuel Aydlette
Imagine three prisoners are chained to a cave wall. Since all they can see are the shadows on the cave wall from everything passing behind them, they assume that there is no greater reality than the shadows on the wall. But one day, one of the prisoners escapes her shackles and turns around. For the first time, she is able to see actual reality and realizes that the shadows are nothing but an echo of a much larger world. Plato wrote of this allegory in his book, Republic, to illustrate that one should attempt to see reality as it actually is and not merely how it appears to be. For most people in middle class America, our lives revolve around the things that affect us most directly. Most of the time, our minds find themselves dwelling upon our finances, our relationships, or how to improve our social status. However, much like the prisoners in the cave, the American middle class see only the “shadows” of reality and are ignorant of the broader reality going on. There are economic, social, and psychological constraints imposed upon us by many of society’s most powerful institutions, which largely go unnoticed by the general public. If these controls were removed, people would have a greater chance to achieve self-actualization.
Psychologist Abraham Maslow (1908-1970) is most famous for identifying the theory of “Self-Actualization.” In his essay A Theory of Human Motivation, Maslow submitted five distinct human needs. Each of these needs build on one another. The most basic needs are based on survival: food, water, and shelter. Without them, we would die in a matter of hours or days. The next set of needs are security based needs. These needs rely on our sense of general safety from imminent danger. If we are worried about potential danger, we cannot focus on anything else. The next set of needs are based on love and belonging. We need a social environment of friends, lovers, and family in our lives in order to avoid being lonely. Next are self-esteem needs. We need to feel valued and respected. Our sense of our appearance, our belief in our skills, and our confidence are based on fulfilling these needs. Finally, once we have achieved all of these needs, we are free to focus on obtaining what Maslow terms “self-actualization”. Self-actualization describes when a human being has met all of their basic needs and is free to express their true self. Unfortunately, we are compelled to meet the first four needs in the hierarchy (survival, security, social and self-esteem) before we can attempt to live such a life. If we do not have these needs met, we must devote all of our energy towards meeting them, at the expense of anything else that we wish to accomplish.
Regarding middle class American society, survival needs are, for the most part, well met. For example, the U.S. Federal, State, and local governments ensure that clean drinking water is available to the general public at an affordable cost. Food is plentiful, and government programs like food stamps and free lunch in public schools attempt to help those who cannot afford food. However, it is important to consider that this is not the case for the majority of the world. The documentary Blue Gold: World Water Wars explores the tragic consequences that occur when people’s very survival is threatened by corporate or Government interests. In rural South Africa, a system is in place where people must pay for a key to unlock a water counter before they can have access to fresh water. The water counter charges by the volume of water consumed and many people can only afford about two “toilet flushes”, or approximately 10 gallons of water per month. So they are forced to consume water from the polluted streams carrying malaria and other diseases. The system in place there is literally threatening their very survival, forcing them to work an inhumane amount just to have access to water which won’t kill them. Thankfully, the American middle class is unlikely to experience such deprivation. However, this may not be due to the benevolence of those who control our system. The reason that our survival needs are so well met may be determined by economic factors rather than egalitarian ones.
Although survival needs seem to be well met for most of the American middle class, meeting security needs is a different story. Contrary to popular opinion, many experts believe that the media’s role in society is not to inform the public but rather to convince the public that actions that the powerful elite have decided to pursue are justified and in the common interest. Barry Glassner, sociology professor and president of Lewis and Clark College, tackled this subject in a research paper entitled Narrative Techniques of Fear Mongering. The paper describes how the media uses specific fear mongering techniques in order to provide justification or distract attention from actions taken by powerful institutions within our society. These actions would be unacceptable to the public except for the fact that we are fooled to believe that our security needs are being threatened, which supersedes all other needs except for survival itself. Of course, in reality our security needs are being met quite well. Since the beginning of the 20th century, the American middle class has enjoyed the most peaceful existence of any group of people in the history of mankind. But it doesn’t matter if our needs are actually threatened, it only matters if we perceive that our needs are threatened. If the media is able to convince us that our safety needs are not being met, then it can count on our consent to do “whatever it takes” in order to meet those needs. More often than not, “whatever it takes” happens to be an action which is profitable for the elites that control society but is exploitative towards the rest of society.
Those skeptical of how a conspiracy of such magnitude is possible need look no further than the ownership of the media itself to discern how an organized fear mongering campaign could occur. Noam Chomsky wrote Necessary Illusions in 1989 about the role the media plays in shaping public opinion. He writes,
Concentration of ownership in the media is high and increasing. Furthermore, those who occupy managerial positions in the media, or gain status within them as commentators, belong to the same privileged elites, and might be expected to share the perceptions, aspirations and attitudes of their associates, reflecting their own class interests as well. Journalists entering the system are unlikely to make their way unless they conform to these ideological pressures, generally by internalizing these values; it is not easy to say one thing and believe another, and those who fail to conform will tend to be weeded out by familiar mechanisms. (8)
Regrettably, media ownership has continued to centralize since 1989 (“Who Owns the Media?” 2013).
Believe it or not, manipulating security needs is not the only tool that the powerful use to control our behavior. Our need for love and belonging is manipulated by those in power as well. Marketing has incredible power over almost every decision we make as a consumer. In Losing Consciousness: Automatic Influences on Consumer Judgment, Behavior and Motivation, Yale University social psychologist John A. Bargh illustrates through extensive research that marketing can affect our decision making process. In fact, it can literally make us do things that we otherwise would not do had we not been exposed to the marketing. Using a technique called subliminal influence, marketers can frame the context of an action within a known need of a consumer. For example, a male who is struggling to meet their love and belonging needs could be easily manipulated into buying “Axe” body spray if the advertisement put the use of the fragrance in the context of being loved and accepted by friends and lovers. Unfortunately for the consumer, purchasing the fragrance probably does not have the same effect in reality as it did in the advertisement. So that leaves him vulnerable for the next round of ads which target his social neediness.
Unfortunately for many consumers, more and more people are having a difficult time meeting their social needs. This leaves them exposed to being preyed upon by marketers who use subliminal influences in advertisements. In the book The Demise of Guys, famed psychologist Philip Zimbardo and Nikita Duncan lay out new research which links the heavy use of video games and pornography to impaired social functioning and decreased self-esteem. Also, the research indicates that both video games and porn compare to extremely addictive drugs like cocaine in terms of how they affect the brain neurologically. Considering that one in three young men are heavy porn users, and almost forty percent of adolescents are heavy video game users, this research is truly disturbing both in terms of the lives of the young people and their susceptibility to behavior modification that benefits the agenda of the powerful through subliminal influence techniques.
People lucky enough to avoid being exploited due to their inability to meet security or safety needs are once again faced with challenges when attempting to meet their self-esteem needs. In the study Effects of Scarcely Dressed Models in Advertisements on Body Esteem, Swedish researchers Nathalie Dens, Patrick Pelsmacker, and Wim Janssens show that people experience a significant drop in self-esteem when they are exposed to advertisements which center around a semi-nude model. The effect occurs regardless of the gender of either the model or the viewer. Of course, everyone who lives in the western world knows that it is virtually impossible to go even a single day without seeing advertisements with half naked models. This is unsettling because it completes a circle of consumption controlled by marketers and disconnected from consumer’s rational thought process. Like puppeteers manipulating the actions of string puppets, marketers can simultaneously decrease our self-esteem needs while using subliminal influencing techniques to frame behavior within the context of meeting our self-esteem needs, thus effectively controlling consumer behavior.
This cycle of consumption forces people to devote themselves to gaining enough monetary resources in order to meet their self-esteem needs (assuming that they are fortunate enough to have all of their other needs met). This is critical because most of the American middle class depend on the salary provided to them based on their labor. Famous business mogul and notorious elitist John D. Rockefeller is attributed to saying, “I don’t want a nation of thinkers, I want a nation of workers” (Marrs 2010, 204). Rockefeller and his family have contributed heavily to many of the institutions, such as the Council on Foreign Relations, which greatly affect social discourse and decision making within the Government. This quote illustrates a dangerous mindset that could explain the constraints placed upon the middle class. If the goal of the powerful is to enrich themselves by profiting off of the labor of the middle class, then the mechanisms described above are surely a clear means to that end.
Unlike almost any other society in history, the American middle class is uniquely free to act as we wish. Unfortunately, the constraints discussed above create mental boundaries, keeping us from achieving true freedom by imprisoning us within our own minds. But we are also very lucky, because unlike societies of the past, there are few physical barriers to achieving self-actualization. There is no caste system in which we are born into serfdom, there is no institutionalized slavery, there is no forced conscription, no laws banning certain types of speech, and no overt political oppression. The keys to our freedom are present in our minds, waiting to be used. We can increase our own power to become self actualized by changing our environment. Research from Losing Consciousness: Automatic Influences on Consumer Judgment, Behavior and Motivation shows that merely being aware of the subliminal influences present in advertisements reduces our suggestiveness to them. Better yet, we often forget that we have the power to limit our exposure by turning off the TV and instead seek out activities where we interact with other people. Our interactions with others is the key to empowering ourselves and setting up a community in which we can rely on each other to meet our basic needs and enable us to reach self-actualization. These self-reliant communities can wield immense power which can rival the external forces that seek to exploit us. If, as a community, we can control the production of the food we eat instead of allowing massive international corporations to control the means of production then we gain power. If we can control the way we raise and educate our children instead of allowing a huge federal bureaucracy founded and controlled by corporations called the Department of Education to raise them, we gain power. If we realize that the apathy we feel towards politics is manufactured through subliminal messaging techniques delivered to us by the media, and looked at our elected representatives at all levels of government the same way we scrutinize our favorite football players, we gain power. All we have to do is ignore the shadows on the cave wall, unlock our shackles, and be brave enough to walk out of the cave into the light of the real world.
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