Freud, Manipulating PR & The Justin Bieber Rule
Did you know Edward Louis Bernays, Sigmund Freud’s nephew (Freud’s wife’s brother’s son) was called “the father of public relations” in his New York Times obituary? He was also named one of the 100 most influential Americans of the 20th century by Life magazine. And why, do you ask, should you care?
This is not a name that goes mentioned very often but by literary types who like to impress each other with their depth of research and historical context, such as I am doing now for you. Yet Bernays being what he was, when he was being it, is worth getting to know since he had a tremendous influence on today’s pop culture and our dependence on entertainment and media to tell us what to think. Bernays, influenced greatly by his famous uncle’s psychoanalytical theories of the unconscious self’s control over our behavior, really was a great architect of our voracious addiction to other people’s opinions.
By studying his uncle’s theories (and others on group think) he began to understand that people in their primarily unconscious state could be manipulated fairly easily. And when you think about it, those who stand to benefit most from our unconsciousness is anyone who stands to lose from our consciousness. There’s a reason why the 1% want to control the rules. The more we know….
It’s interesting to consider that it was Bernays who thought to use the story that America’s war efforts were mostly fueled to spread Democracy to Europe in the ramp up to World War I in order to gain popular support, though what we stood to gain mostly was a ginormous boost to our national economy. War may be Hell, but it’s also good for business.
This is relevant if we consider how dogma or any overt slice of popular culture saturates people’s consciousness and how that drives our society. Has this happened to such a degree that in the 21st century it has made it increasingly difficult for many people to quiet the voice of any ‘other’ in order to hear their own?
How often do people unconsciously go along with the majority rule because that is what has always been done, because it is simpler, defined, comfortable and non-threatening?
Notice lately though, how more and more of us seem to be able to drown out those voices and take the inner plunge?
Freud wanted us to accept our unconscious state as being unchangeable, and in his century we did. Bernays wanted to manipulate that reality, and he did. Many of his followers followed, giving birth to an entire culture of story crafting to sell people, ideas, and products, and trillion dollar industries in the process. Think tobacco.
Yet contemporary existence tells us in order to thrive past the chaos we live in, we must set our Egos aside, and we must check out Ids at the door. We need to strip away all that subterfuge in search of the one thing that cannot truly be manipulated—ourselves, nakedly untethered to anything other than our own self-aware being.
We have come a long way, baby. And here’s why.
Bernays, who died in 1995, was born in the Victorian age, where ornamentation on the facades of grand mansions lining streets bustling with the promise of Industrialist-fueled largesse seemed to also portend a time when our houses might come tumbling down, to expose the hard truth that not much work had been done on our individual foundations. As a nation we careened from generational movement to generational movement, most recently this current one we find ourselves side-stepping on Main Street (or sometimes joining in), the Occupiers, the 99%.
Some say this 21st century movement is tied to the have and have-nots finally duking it out, but I say more likely it is a reflection of the ultimate break-up between those who cling to a Victorian ideal that high society and it’s chosen few should rule the best interests of this nation and its people in order to preserve their monopolized interests, and most of the rest of us, who not only don’t cling to Victorian ideals, but are actually and finally clinging to our inner voices telling us something just isn’t right. We somehow are beginning to look past the propaganda of our times, break past our unconscious operating systems, and see things differently.
How often has societal rule screwed the pooch, following its imperialistic nose into the abyss of war, terrorism, genocide, profiteering? This is a far cry from democracy, from consensus that feeds the “we” and respects the “I,” or from socially minded enterprise that has proven that what can be done well when one also does good.
But what I speak of is something not political, or truly even cultural, although the waking up of humanity certainly will have a significant cultural impact; what I speak of is something that Freud, Bernays, and the Victorians were most afraid of, that individuality and command and control over self would one day win over everything else, that this is the real freedom.
It is useful to remember the Victorian age was a time when ornament replaced the insufferable blandness of the self, present from the yielding of one’s own voice and intellect to control by societal voice and rule. I like to think about the metaphysics of this time, where for the most part before World War I, Americans lived by societal convention. To consider how one felt about marrying one’s never-met betrothed was unspeakable; how one felt about anything was of no consequence, dangerous even. Society knew what was best.
After World War I, it seems our love affair with societal rule over intellectual freedom was lost in the blood of our sons and daughters, lost chasing a ghost of communism trumped up to ignite our lust to save our industrial might, when what we found was an utterly devastating truth: we fought not against the spread of communism but for profit, and money, we discovered, was not worth dying for.
Freedom, now that’s the thing, freedom of expression and the individual rights without tyranny our forefathers intended, freedom to choose who to marry or not, to indulge in understanding, and it opened up all manner of individuality and intellectual opinions and research, breaking in many ways with conventionalists such as Freud.
This new 20th century intellectual freedom paved the road for cognitive psychologists and ultimately philosophers who led the way into the 21st century, where metaphysical experts and social psychologists now wander into the inner realm of human consciousness, the exact opposite of what Freud believed controlled us. It is ironically a bulletproof jacket to the public relation-driven pop culturized world we live in today. Nothing makes good PR worthless more than a human being who is awake at the wheel, who knows who they are and what they want, or don’t want more importantly. The best new PR is unabashedly authentic and raw. I wonder why?
To end this week’s column with the aha I know you’re looking for, consider that Bernays who wrote often to Freud, wrote one reference in particular, a letter in which he tried to suggest his uncle pen an autobiography. Bernays it seemed was always the public relationist. But about that prospect, Sigmund Freud wrote:
“A psychologically complete and honest confession of life…would require so much indiscretion (on my part as well as on that of others) about family, friends, and enemies, most of them still alive, that it is simply out of the question. What makes all autobiographies worthless is, after all, their mendacity.”
Freud knew people would always have a hard time being honest about them selves (mendacity), but more importantly, he believed people see their truth differently than the world, and so even in their self-report, that perspective will be received through the lens of another’s bias. Bernays believed it didn’t matter, that people’s minds could be manipulated into believing anything was the truth, so the notion that a person can know one’s self and be honest about what they find was irrelevant; so what, said Bernays, what is relevant is what I can get you to believe.
In his article entitled “Enough About Me” (New Yorker, January 25, 2010), Daniel Mendelsohn astutely describes a “troubling association between creativity and narcissism”, that reference leaning into the “truth” that to start with, a good writer begins with a strong, confident pen, unafraid to be candid and truthful, while narcissism somehow bends that pen from working for the reader’s best interests to working for the writer’s. And all this got me thinking…
In posting our intentions, opinions, thoughts, and actions on social media sites for the whole world to see, are we narcissistic, are we fooling ourselves and the world, or are we actually showing up more present and authentically because we have less filter or censor to get in the way? We certainly get to practice being us more than we ever did before.
Yet like I always asked my writing students, what is your intention? And if the person and the world is benefitting, truly, from the exchange, a thing that only the memoirist or writer/blogger/poster and the follower, fan, or reader can attest to, then I believe we arrive at this week’s big ideas:
1) Learn how to write to the reader’s ear, heart and mind, thus upping the quality of our personal narrative to something closer to what Freud, who seemed to know our unconscious selves pretty well would argue, could be a noble pursuit, and
2) Remember what Bernays, the father of public relations knew all too well: words can manipulate unconscious minds and bodies into doing all sorts of things, or talking you out of or into believing all sorts of things. The more conscious you are, the less likely you are to end up on the cover of the New York Times, doing something you had no earthly desire or reason to do in the first place.
In other words, if you’re Justin Bieber, or just you, if you don’t want to risk what you have by having sex with people you don’t know, or the metaphorical equivalent, then don’t. To not is to know your self. To not is being awake. Not is telling Freud you appreciate his perspective, but you can think for yourself, and your “self” is very much paying attention and in control.
Though bordering on cliché, allow me to wax Shakespearean…though he wrote in in the 15th and 16th centuries, and was most revered by the Romantics of the 18th century – who ironically celebrated the aesthetics of emotions in art, literature, and history unlike their Victorian children who had to let go of their romantic ideals in favor of social order to protect their money—Shakespeare had it right all along.
In Hamlet, in Polonius’ voice, Shakespeare wrote:
This above all: to thine own self be true. And it must follow, as night the day, Thou canst not then be false to any man. Farewell, my blessing season this is thee!
This is thee, indeed. Share your story of waking up….