A Reflection on Persuasion

Persuasion infiltrates nearly every facet of our lives. We see it in the grand social arena in terms of public relations, advertising, or propaganda where large groups of people are viewed as publics, potential customers, or the source of political and social power. But it is as important, or even more so, in our day-to-day lives where a first date or job interview could be the equivalent of a PR campaign, a resume becomes our billboard, or petty employees undertake propaganda missions against rivals around the water cooler.

Persuasion is pervasive in communication—and communication is how we create our reality from our most insignificant interactions to the societies we shape with our shared values. As the writers of the Old Testament pointed out: God said let there be light. And there was.

When people or organizations attempt to persuade, it is because they want something. It could stop there. The distinctions between the persuasive tactics employed by the disciplines of public relations, advertising, and propaganda might be considered trivial—they are only a means to an end.

When we consider ethics (or academic definitions), these distinctions might become more important. Advertisers have an economic end. This is much easier to justify ethically then other forms of persuasion. People need things, they want things and advertisers might just be there to let us all know there’s something out there we can buy if we want or need it. Of course, when advertisers set out to manipulate humanity’s dark, deep-seated, animalistic, egoistic subconscious desires, well, that’s a different story isn’t it?

Public relations is tricky. These folks sit on the fence and it is difficult at times to tell if they are selling something or promoting an idea or just simply lying for some organization’s financial or social gain. A public relations campaign to promote a benefit event for child cancer patients is a beautiful thing. One that allows a dubious organization to continue socially or environmentally damaging practices without taking accountability or losing stock value might make a fellow wonder how humanity will survive the next couple of centuries.

Propaganda is a bit more clear-cut. There seem to be no rules (because the ones in power make the rules). Here is where we see the most gruesome violations of justice, decency, integrity and responsibility and the grossest displays of shortsightedness and narcissism. As the film, The Century of the Self, points out, propaganda has brought us everything from the stock market crash of 1929 to the Holocaust in World War II. We could even make the argument that American obesity and our culture of debt are the results of a “successful” propaganda campaign.

Propaganda, more so than PR or advertising (though they do as well), sees autonomous, valuable individuals as mindless tools with which money and power are created. As Edward Bernays said: “[The individual is] a cell organized into the social unit. Touch a nerve at a sensitive spot and you get an automatic response from certain specific members of the organism.” That’s probably not how most people like to be thought of.

Many persuasion tactics in the 20th century and in to the 21st have operated under the assumption that humanity is a swirling mass of frustration, dissatisfaction and guilt, feelings of inadequacy, selfish desires, and violent tendencies. And they’ve worked rather well so there must be something to it.

But humanity is a two-sided coin and the other side is spontaneous cooperation, organized progress, tolerance, reason, love, and a wide array of breathtaking achievements. Take the Enlightenment for example, or the civil rights movement, or the Indian revolution or the fact that societies throughout history have generally operated well and peacefully until someone came along who wanted more power, more influence, more sway, or more money—which are exactly the things these institutions of persuasion are after.

As we move into a new century and perhaps a new phase of our social development, it is crucial that we consider the ethical, long-term implications of our persuasive objectives. We must take responsibility for the powerful, creative force that communication offers us. We wouldn’t want to lie to our spouse? Our children? We wouldn’t steer them toward destruction for our own gain? Why would we do this to our societies, our countries, or the big family that is humanity as a whole?

(This blog is adapted from a paper the author wrote for a class at Boise State University)

Spirituality in the Modern World

I’ve been thinking about spirituality. You see it everywhere from religion to art and music to people’s general sense of wonder.

I feel a sort of resurgence in the search for spirituality. Some people I know express it with tattoos or the clothes they wear. Others go a step further and join movements or read books by gurus and the like. Still more seek out modern expressions of old ideas—like online ashrams or urban Buddhist sanctuaries. Many people find it in nature or feel it as a unity with the entire human race. Spirituality surely casts a wide net.

It’s all great, but where is it coming from? And why now? Aren’t we supposed to be ever-barreling toward a more secular society. Well, I think that’s a tired, over-played record. I recently read about an advertising executive from the 1920s who was convinced that society was becoming more secularized. He added that people will make up for the loss of spirituality by purchasing status symbols—which he would no doubt cleverly market to them. Michael Crichton said western society is replacing religion with environmentalism.

Maybe it was never going anywhere.

My view is that many people feel that they are connected to something greater than themselves. These folks might see the physical world as real, but only one side of the reality coin.

Of course, most people have a healthy respect for science, all it’s done for us, all the mysteries it has cleared up, and atheists/humanists/agnostics like to point to science as proof that spirituality (or religion) is irrational—or worse, just plain silly.

I’m not trying to start a theist/atheist debate here. But I don’t think spirituality is silly or irrational—just the opposite.

The world around us is real—the rocks, the trees, the land and water. But what about everything we created? Human creativity is responsible for relationships, societies, ideas, languages and a host of modifications to the physical world (for good or ill) from the houses we live in to the factories and office buildings we work in that combine to create that difficult concept we call “the economy,” which is also a human creation.

(I’ve not quite worked out the economy—I suspect I never will, but I think there’s some spiritual aspect to it. Think about it: the ebb and flow of all human activity, the sum total of all human creativity, the result of billions of synthesized purposes, desires, needs—all amounting to a sort of spontaneous cooperation. Heavy stuff. But I digress.)

We can do things, we can affect change! We can create a new or different reality for ourselves. These aren’t New Age platitudes, there’s hard evidence in everything you’ve ever done.

There’s something “spiritual” about that, isn’t there? The power that resides in you and all that jazz. Some self-help gurus make quite a living selling nothing more than that idea in a “spiritual” package and I know that, as a result, it’s not a new idea to you. That doesn’t make it any less true and if it’s helpful to consider it spirituality, fantastic!

THEE has been simmering in my mind for almost a year now. And in that time, I’ve struggled with technicalities, operational vocabulary, my previous philosophical and scientific background, and quite frankly, its seemingly infinite scope and the subsequent implications. But it’s starting to become simpler somehow—simple like spirituality should be, not easier to grasp by any means, but more a part of the world I move through.

That’s not to say I consider it spirituality, I just acknowledge its potential to be seen as such. If that’s not your thing, there are plenty of things in there for the budding scientists.

See you there.

Crichton, Science and Turning a New Corner

Ever heard of Michael Crichton? Sure you have. He wrote such books as Jurassic Park and The Andromeda Strain. Well, you’re probably more familiar with the films that were made about his books. Personally, I’ve never read any of them.

What you might not know about Crichton is that, besides being a prolific and talented novelist, he was a scientist—with a degree in biological anthropology and an M.D. from Harvard.

This was all in the 60s, well before Crichton became the world famous author we know today. It was also before the green revolution now sweeping the western world, threatening our sanity and sense of security—much like Y2K or overpopulation or communism did in the past.

At the end of his life, Crichton had something rather intriguing to say about this relatively new phenomenon—and not as a novelist, but as a scientist. He said:

"I studied anthropology in college, and one of the things I learned was that certain human social structures always reappear. They can't be eliminated from society. One of those structures is religion. Today it is said we live in a secular society in which many people---the best people, the most enlightened people---do not believe in any religion. But I think that you cannot eliminate religion from the psyche of mankind. If you suppress it in one form, it merely re-emerges in another form. You cannot believe in God, but you still have to believe in something that gives meaning to your life, and shapes your sense of the world. Such a belief is religious. Today, one of the most powerful religions in the Western World is environmentalism."

While environmentalism in particular as religion is certainly an interesting point—one worth considering, debating even, it’s not what most interests me.

I’m intrigued by the idea that we’re becoming a more secular society and that we’re replacing religiosity with something else. I don’t think it matters much what that replacement is.

Is it that humans are always looking for guidance from an outside source? Do we not trust ourselves to progress properly on our own? Or is it that we need some cause to champion? Perhaps we add meaning to our lives with something that seems infinitely larger than ourselves. More than likely, it’s all of these things to different people.

While religion is deemed irrational, inane, or even just silly, science and its claims appear rational, solid, and sober. Yet, self-help gurus abound. There’s a resurgence of interest in the occult, astrology, superstition, general and bland “spirituality.” We look to people like Oprah or some loud-mouthed pundit for guidance. We bicker and stagnate and we still find ways to discriminate and distrust those who are different, even if we’re all careening toward a secular, enlightened society on the same train. Maybe we realize on some level that science isn’t providing us with all of the answers. Where is this disconnect?

Well, I don’t know—and neither does science.

But I think I can point you to something that can help us all figure it out. And if you’ve read the blog, you probably know where I’m going with this. But I’m going to level with you. I don’t really understand it. I only understand the results (some of them, anyway).

THEE is a science and the focus on precise language reflects that. But it’s a new kind of science that strives to be true to our experience. A lot of its complexity can be ignored as you focus in on whatever currently interests and puzzles you. THEE is designed to help us deal with things that can be tricky: not just who I am but who I am not; how I must fit into society and yet how I can change it; my strengths and my weaknesses.

It can help us become more effective, more confident, more aware, and maybe even happier and healthier. And what’s more, it confirms so much of what you already know. Things like:

  • You are an individual and you are valuable. 
  • Success and happiness comes from things like responsibility and integrity. 
  • You should do and think what feels right to you. Others should do and think and feel what’s right to them. 
  • You have a purpose in life. 
  • Progress requires courage and life isn’t always easy. 
  • You are free to create your own reality, but society and its institutions will constrain you. 
Perhaps you find value in religion or environmentalism, or these respective activities feel right to you. Maybe they are part of your purpose. That’s fine. That’s the point. A secular society isn’t necessarily a better society. But one where we accept and value each other’s differences is.

Maybe that’s what Crichton was driving at all along. His books (or their films) center around some scientific concept and the human frailties that bungle them all up—arrogance, ego, and the drive for power. Maybe it is time to take a good long look at those frailties.

Life is Hard

Life is hard, we all know that. Work can be frustrating, relationships can be difficult, social conventions, organizations, laws, and various other institutions place roadblocks in the way of our goals. We struggle with our own demons in every aspect of our lives. It can be tough.

THEE is a mirror of life, so THEE can be hard. But it can help make it easier in the end.

I’ve been fortunate enough to have a mentor during my journey through the taxonomy. You might not be so lucky. So I’m going to outline probably the greatest challenge I’ve faced in hopes that as you explore THEE, you might be able to avoid my mistakes and realize that there are and will be mistakes.

 It all comes down to me. I am who I am. I’ve spent my entire life forming opinions, coming to conclusions, deciding what is good and bad, helpful and unhelpful, virtuous and not virtuous. In short, I’ve developed quite a network of biases. This is natural, I’m sure.

 For example, when I was deep into the Interacting for Benefit framework a while ago, I had a real problem with the idea of power-centered people. I remember writing in my notes something along the lines of: “I know these people are necessary in society, but I just can’t help thinking that they need to be reformed or something.”

In the Deciding & Achieving framework, it was the structuralists. I didn’t necessarily look down on structuralists, I just could not grasp thinking like that. It’s so, I don’t know, structured.

 My latest challenge is in the Your Better Self framework, where I seem to be viewing the pleasure quest as somehow inferior.

Why is that?

THEE will, in many cases, actually show you why. For example, there’s a page in the Interacting for Benefit framework called Not Seeing Eye to Eye where antagonisms between different mentalities are outlined and explained. For my part, I’m cause-centered, which puts me at odds with power-centered people because I put a high value on freedom and autonomy. Power-centered people want to control others, which is directly antagonistic toward people wanting freedom and autonomy. Makes sense, right?

Ultimately, bias has to be suspended. And if you confront your own bias, ask yourself why this is happening. I might be wrong, but my current theory as to why I’m having issues with the pleasure quest is that I’m on a meaning quest and I see the pursuit of pleasure as lacking meaning.

 THEE simply is not useful as a tool for judgment and its purpose is quite the opposite. We’re looking to help usher in a new era of self-awareness where people have a better understanding of themselves and others. Having this kind of awareness can (refer to the first paragraph) help you understand why your work is frustrating you, where the difficulties in your relationships lie, and how you are constrained in terms of your goals so you can either sidestep those roadblocks or realize that you’re wasting your time and energy.

More often than not, the problems in society don’t revolve around what’s wrong with individuals, but in how they relate to and interact with each other.

As for you, if you get into THEE and you have any questions, concerns, criticisms, if you feel like something doesn’t make sense, or you just want some direction, please contact me. I might not personally have the answers (you and I are on this journey together after all) but I can direct you to someone who does.