"The most dangerous of all falsehoods is a slightly distorted truth."
G. C. Lichtenberg (1742-1799)
"Nothing is easier than self-deceit.
For what each man wishes, that he also believes to be true."
Demosthenes, c. 384-322 BCE, Third Olynthiac
Humans are not passive machines to be manipulated by life, but are dynamic organisms which can react in intelligent ways to the information presented to them. Our world of today spends an inordinate proportion of its resources on manipulation. This takes the form of misleading advertising, of political spin-doctoring, of selective media information and of outright corporate lies. All these processes work against the fitness of the individual, and by implication against our societies themselves. Truth is a commodity respected in science, but increasingly not today by scientists and their political or commercial masters who, in these days of personal advantage at all cost, misrepresent almost all the information available to the public.
Complete knowledge of any situation is an impossible dream, yet we can take steps to ensure that we understand the techniques of manipulation being used against us by the unscrupulous. Understanding information or facts is a key enabler to achieving what we desire, and conversely the misuse of it enables others to achieve their desires at our expense. But by better understanding we can reduce the effectiveness of their selfishness and thus reclaim our own freedom of direction and quality of life.
Let us start with what is laughingly called democracy in our Western world, the idea that rich and powerful men (rarely women) can brainwash the population by selected propaganda in order to be elected. Once elected of course they have no further responsibility to the electorate, and having a sizeable majority of tame lackeys can renege on any promises made, steal from the electorate or blatantly deceive them in any way whatsoever, without any conscience. Too strong a characterisation ? Hardly strong enough !
A phenomenon of modern politics is the rise of the spin-doctor, an un-elected political hanger-on whose entire function is to lie to the electorate on behalf of their political masters. Elected members of the government who tell the truth are persecuted by these deceit merchants - suppressing unpalatable truths is the be all and end all of this sound-bite world of image-in-place-of-fact politics.
Insincerity, of the second-hand car salesman type, pervades the carefully orchestrated 'performances' of our political leaders and their PR frontmen. The ideal of substance, of genuine ideas, of depth, is subordinated to a reliance on gloss, on superficiality in all things, the cardboard cutout superstar, reflecting their insulting belief that "you can fool all the people, all of the time".
God forbid that in this world any problem should be openly recognised and action taken to deal with it, instead we have the measured deceit, the reiteration of what has already been said (as if new), the smoke screen of weasel words and the demonisation of open discussion as 'politically incorrect'. Ultimately it is the actions of politicians that count and not their words - and increasingly the two are totally disconnected.
Most governments spend vast amounts on data collection, statistics abound in all areas of our expanding bureaucracy. It is strange therefore that relevant data to support government claims is always missing, data that disproves the claims mysteriously has disappeared or nobody thought to collect it. The transparency of this manipulation is obvious, for if what they say is true then we have clear proof of the incompetence of our politicians and bureaucrats as managers !
The tendency to obscure truth by using euphemisms, words like 'ethic cleansing' which means genocide (prejudicial mass murder), is a political favourite. Plain speaking cannot lie, so doublespeak is necessary allowing ambiguous descriptions, words out of context, misleading analogies - all attempts to cast a better gloss on stealthy actions and hidden agendas that clearly wouldn't engender our praise or support.
When buying any service, and government in a democracy is supposed to be such, we have a right to understand the terms of sale, what we are being sold. The Electron Manifesto nominally provides this political end, yet increasingly we have governments that once elected drop or tone down their promises (especially those relating to openness and honesty !), even reversing them in their actions whilst pretending the opposite. Critical legislation is pursued (that must be forced through the legislature without debate) - but which (strangely!) omitted to find its way into the list of planned government priorities...
A sense of priority is essential if we are to successfully run any enterprise, a lesson most politicians fail to demonstrate that they have learned. A concentration on trivial minority issues whilst the major infrastructure collapses reflects the shallowness of today's politicians. Rather than being the 'wise philosophers' of our Platonic myth, we nowadays seem to attract the also-rans, people without integrity or ideas, so incompetant at dealing with real problems that they must hide behind a facade of triviality and plastic image.
Science is about simplification, but a tendency to simplify results and then extrapolate them as if they were the full picture is extensively used to 'support' or mislead the public on major policy issues. Sadly the ignorance of most politicians and the public about science allows this technique to easily hold sway - a little knowledge is a treacherous thing ! Science has no explicit values - deliberately. Thus no current science tells us how to act, that is a value judgement added (without scientific justification) by politicians.
Each constituency nominally elects a politician to represent them - an idea more followed in the breach than in the actuality. On any major issue the party line is king, which in actuality means the dictatorship of the leader. We also see regularly nowadays attempts to rig votes, either by swamping decision bodies with leader appointed lackeys or by altering the rules so that the desired (undemocratic) result is made certain.
It would be thought that people who worked for us and who were paid by us would be honour bound to give us all the information we requested. Such a mentality appeals neither to bureaucrats nor politicians who both conspire to keep as much secret as possible. Information should be voluntarily available to the electorate, not prised bit by reluctant bit from the hands of those paid to serve, but more interested in protecting their backs...
Moving now to the world of the advertising agency we enter a fantasy universe whose excesses put most virtual reality games to shame. Facts are boring things, so why not add a bit of creative thinking ? Our dreams are parts of our world where logic plays no part - but in advertising these have now spilled out into the real world and threaten to completely destroy our sanity.
No, it is not. It is work, it is waste, it is time consuming. An 'always tomorrow' land of discardable things, of continuous destruction, is not utopia, quite the reverse. Happiness today does not depend on consumption tomorrow but on satisfaction today - a state of affairs not encouraged by endless exhortations to consume more !
Why do you wish to be the same as your neighbour ? You do of course, the advertisers say so - 50% of households have product X. Feel left out ? But such thinking neglects to inform you that such a product is quite useless, it is being sold for the sake of selling something . The identikit society is designed to justify the identikit production line, the profit maximising, choice minimising commercial obsession of today's business 'ethic'. Shops should primarily benefit you - not just the manufacturer - the tail wagging the economic dog.
This is a common response to a request for anything different. There is a demand - you just demanded it ! The unwillingness to cater for choice is another result of the big business mentality, big stores need big purchases and big suppliers. The loser is the smaller specialist supplier, but they do exist - so dump your big store (and tell them so) and seek them out - maybe on the internet !
We've all seen it, the three local stores all selling the same expensive item at the exact same price $199-99. Price fixing or what ? Attempts to prevent competition are rife in today's industry, whether by forcing an actual monopoly or by refusing supply to retailers that don't 'toe the line' on artificially inflated prices.
Wow ! This means only that they make over 100% profit normally. Rip-off normal pricing is the only way these offers can be made - you can be sure they don't make a loss even at the 'special' price. Unreasonable profit margins are again endemic in our society, some sectors do this blatantly (e.g. banks) some surreptitiously, but all are out to maximise profit, regardless of consequences.
70% of all cats prefer X. Do they ? Who says so ? How was the test run ? Was there bias ? Glib statements of supposed 'fact' litter the advertising world, yet in none of these ads will you find adequate answers to those questions. You are meant to take the statement as 'true' and act on it - a mindless, groundless manipulative technique that acts to bias your judgement by suggestion and not valid information.
Dressing up in a white coat does not make you a scientist. Neither do pseudo-technical terms make a scientifically valid product. The blind-them-with-science factor acts on your ignorance and trust of 'experts', yet there are none involved here. These actors promoting 'cyclophenol enriched' product Y are promoting hot air, an illusory addition to an unnecessary product.
In any genuine scientific analysis, we need to take account of all the factors, not to leave out those that don't sell the product. This is one of the more pervasive aspects of the advertising industry, and one of the hardest to counter unless you are familiar with the field. If you don't ask they will keep quiet - but it isn't actually 'lying' they say !
Also dearer, poorer ingredients, more packaging, less value. Changing what works well is only justified if it improves one thing, and that of course is profit. Despite much hype, companies are not in business for the benefit of the customer but for themselves. Be suspicious and compare the small print...
We see what we want to see, and advertising agencies know this full well. Our tendency to read between the lines, to add what we would like to believe, allows them to imply their product is something that it is not, without actually being legally guilty of lying ! If a fact isn't written down explicitly it's safe to say that it doesn't exist, so don't assume it !
Remember that purpose should be yours and not the advertisers ! Gimmicks, gizmos and so on are only of use if you want them, 'free gifts', of whatever type, are nothing of the sort. They are useless junk or already included in the price you pay. Look to substance in the product which you really, really need (compared to cost) and not the glossy merchandising and flashy paint jobs.
Your time is money, so any time you have to suffer advertising it is costing you. This forced invasion of your life is perhaps most noticeable in today's habit of 'cold calling', of companies deliberately phoning you up, disturbing what you are doing, just to try to sell you unwanted goods. Tell them where to go. The same applies to doorstep salesmen and forced advertising on TV/Radio and Internet - all is spam.
It would be nice to think that those areas of our society dedicated to providing information (newspapers and TV) would help us to counter the misinformation endemic in current society. Far from it. Despite a great deal of posturing about 'freedom of speech' and service to the community we have here once more the selective misrepresentation so invasive in our deceitful world...
Attention getting they may be, but most headlines cater for the instant gratification and selling value of the shock, horror - is that really true ? It is rare that the following article is anything more than economical with the truth. Leaving out balancing facts may counter balance the political bias (that leaves out the other half !) but it does not make for sensible decision making.
This means joining together two ideas that are not really connected so that the reader will assume the truth of both, given evidence of just one. This makes use of our normal mental associations and can be illustrated in the constant conjunction of 'sex and violence' in the press - they are not the same (and could be said to be opposites), one does not imply the other. This technique is often used to reinforce prejudices (e.g. 'dirty' blacks).
Group hysteria is a powerful force, mobs are hard to resist. Stirring up hatred, in whatever form, is something dear to the heart of media manipulators. The half-truth, the exaggeration ("all French are selfish..." - so ban their products) so easily lead the gullible. Our media is full of these one-dimensional characterisations, these artificial divides or dualities. None are real - 'all X are Y' is a philosophical myth best suited to imaginary worlds.
Change upsets the apple cart, the more power you have then the more there is to lose. Protecting their power base is a another form of deceit widely employed. It takes the form of 'we are one of you', your representative, we fight your case - a selectively chosen case which is conveniently dropped as soon as it is no longer newsworthy. What is reported and what is not is highly significant, self-criticism, criticisms of their own biases are always repressed by these 'holier than thou' approaches. What is presented is carefully chosen to promote the interests of proprietors and directors and to protect their cosy world - even by harming opponents and competitors if this proves possible.
The follow-my-leader mentality adopted by the unimaginative leads to media products that all follow the same few limited themes. TV programs based on soap opera, medicine, police and violence litter every schedule. This closes down our perceived world into narrow manipulatable categories, reinforcing stereotypes and preventing discussion of the wider elements of our culture - scan a small encyclopaedia to realise just how many subjects just never appear in our media coverage.
It should be possible either to pay a subscription for services or to get them free with advertising. For some modern companies this is far too much of an incentive to greed - why not sell satellite TV and charge both a subscription and put on double advertising ? Take it a step further and then charge for the programs also ! One monopoly obsessed supplier does...
One of the forms of communication deceit that has become more widespread these days is the use of Premium Rate phone lines. These innocuous looking numbers charge the caller such vast sums as to be able to give millionaire type prize incentives (from the proceeds from the many callers !). They are highly lucrative to both phone company and media organization, but not of course to the consumer. A similar scam relates to mobile phone lines, where callers from fixed phones are (without warning) charged exorbitant call rates.
These salves to conscience come in many forms, a blatant attempt to sell more (often to kids - e.g. in football strips), a smokescreen to divert attention from more unsavoury company activities, indulgence of a directors pet interest (at consumers expense) or a bid to indulge in a form of personal ego trip (reputation massaging). Although the recipients may benefit, the conditions often impose exorbitant exploitation and control - in other words a sell out.
Our final category concerns us rather than them, in our ability to confuse ourselves and act out a fantasy rather than a real life.
Despite behavioural conditioning from birth to grave, the idea that we are passive mechanisms that can only react to environmental pressures is false. We are autonomous organisms and need not acquiesce in anything we are told or shown. If under stress then we should change the manipulative environment that causes it, as animals do, not 'fix' the mechanism that is supposedly us - it was never broken !
Society is a fickle thing. If we act in an intuitive/unconscious way and then are called to account, most of us will invent a story to socially justify our action. It rarely has any relation to the truth. We often in fact don't know why we act as we do, but in today's social environment think that all our actions should be 'rational' - so we make them so in retrospect ! These self-protecting fantasies then become embedded in our memory and shape our future actions, our social mythologies.
We all like to get our way so have an inherent bias to be 'economical' with the truth. We reduce issues to simple yes/no decisions, ignoring valid implications (if they contradict what we wish to do). This is the region of prejudice, the bias that sees only black and white in a grey world. No meaningful decisions are that clear, there are always compromises that need to be made, different issues that need to be balanced.
The real world exists and we have made it nasty. Hiding behind a shallow gloss (whether fame, isolation, small town parochialism or psychiatrists) will not make it go away. Pretending that all is right with the world merely allows the manipulators of truth to continue their work - building a world for their benefit but against ours.
By assuming that we can act in isolation as individuals we are never expecting our selfish actions to have any comeback - but they do. We act in a coevolutionary world, and every negative act we execute affects other people, who remember it. They may not obviously retaliate, but they will, in their own way, in their own time - your fitness will be reduced in myriads of small ways.
One of the most pervasive ideas in our society is that competition increases benefits - it does not, at least not in the negative forms that we often employ. Competition in our world is about gaining at someone else's expense, so is destructive. Destruction is loved in our world, we worship violence in all forms, not least in the conduct of our competitive activities. Yet this form of business selfishness is even more negative in effect than is personal behaviour - it affects large groups of retaliators at once !
We try to avoid thought. In a complex world considering issues is hard work. The glib 'instant solution' is embraced eagerly - a godsend for the manipulator. The purveying of instant fixes is a major industry yet is always a shallow one. There are few instant solutions to life's difficulties, even money cannot purchase a solution to the inherent social ills of our misplaced beliefs about life.
Sometimes we blame our situation on natural causes - we cannot have avoided whatever happened. But usually we can, we make our world by our beliefs, we even nowadays make our natural world in the same way. Where trees are planted, where buildings replace forest, where mountains are removed (quarries) or lakes are formed (dams) is human motivated. If we don't like it we have only our collective selves to blame.
"This barrage of 3000 messages a day is not to sell us any thing we need. We donít need advertising to urge us to meet our human needs... The purpose of advertising is to make money, not to create life support... Advertising injures humanity - even, if we were somehow wise enough to ignore advertising and never purchased a single unneeded product or service, advertising would still be very damaging to the quality of our lives. It intrudes into every facet of modern life, wastes so much of our precious time, and disrupts the very fabric of our lives.
Imagine a world without advertising - Magazines, Newspapers, Radio, Television, Movies all without advertising. Take a few minutes to really imagine it. It would be wonderful."
Timothy Wilken, Uncommon Sense, Crisis, 2001
Here we have highlighted some (but not all) of the issues concerning fitness-reducing manipulation in our world, the constraining of our choices. We can only make valid decisions if we are free to do so and have the information. Attempts to manipulate that freedom are always addressed to an unconscious level of our minds, but if we are aware we can counter them. Seeing through these social pressures requires experience, honesty and independence, the ability to see that we are important in ourselves and not just in relation to a fabricated social image, whether imposed by politicians, advertising agencies or media manipulators.
Truth is the most important aspect of making fit choices in our lives, yet it is the aspect of our society that has suffered most in recent years. Quantity of information does not however equal quality. We must sift away the dross and ask questions, gaining 'media literacy', about what has been suppressed and distorted if we are to have a chance to be free. But most of all we must clearly and unequivocally reject the culture of deceit, manipulation and bullying that threatens to engulf us - and those politicians and other people that promote it who try to claim legitimacy by stealth.