Saturday, January 12, 2013

100% Cotton

In the late 1940's, a man named Edward Bernays came to prominence in many well-to-do (read: political and business) circles in America. Mr. Bernays was the nephew of the "father" of psychology, Dr. Sigmund Freud. Now, WWII had just come to an end, and was left of Europe/America/Asia was trying to pick up the pieces and learn from the atrocities of the war.

I know this is starting to sound like a history lesson, but bear with me.

Now, Mr. Bernays, influenced by his own work as an Allied Propagandist, the horrors of the war, and the ideas of his Uncle Freud, decided that situations such as the rise of the Nazis and Hitler, were inevitable, due to the innate and unconscious desires driving the human mind...
That is, UNLESS these primal desires, such as lust, greed, and fear, along with other drives in the "Id" were kept in check. This is, of course, easy to carry out in a totalitarian government, but the downfalls of this were readily apparent in the rubble of the WWII.

The solution, then?
An admittedly elegant one.

Bernays invented "Public Relations", through which he designed and espoused new methods of advertising products. Specifically, he strove to link these products to the "unconscious urges" of the American public. This would both keep the population controlled, avoiding groupthink and the exploitation of the masses, and make a number of people, Bernays included, very very rich.
To elucidate, prior to the rise of the ideas of Mr. Bernays, nearly all advertising was carried out based on the merits of the product in question:
"This shoe is well-built, moderately cheap, and will last you for years to come!"
After Bernays, the focus shifted dramatically:
"Look at these happy and attractive people. They drive nice cars, do fun things, and have better lives than you. Look how happy they are. They also wear Levi's."
Sexual desires, desires to be happy or successful, desires to be liked, etc, these all became the main point of advertising a product.

Moving right along to point number two:

To survive and be effective, a Capitalist economy must continue to grow. The economic slump we are arguably in or not in is a result of a Recession. That is to say, the economy is still growing, it is just doing it more slowly than we'd like. The severity of our Recession (and the Great Depression) shows that if a free-market economy such as ours begins to shrink, the effects are absolutely devastating.

Do you see the conflict here yet? I'll continue.

When Mr. Bernays began to appeal to our desires in marketing, that is, desires to be young, sexy, and liked, not our desires for the product in question, he opened up Pandora's box. The deep-down and scary bits of humanity are now the focus of our consumption. We don't buy things that we want, we buy things that have been associated with things we want, like being young or sexy or rich. To keep our economy moving, then, we have to continually buy things we don't actually want. If you don't buy more and more of the things you don't actually want, the economy crashes and very bad things happen to everyone.

Things don't make us happy, really, but now that it is commonly accepted practice to market them as if they would, we must respond in turn and purchase them as if they would, to keep the economy healthy. Now, of course, we have to buy the things we don't want. How do we pay for them? We work for people we don't like. We spend 40 hours a week with people that we don't value nearly as much as our friends or family. We sacrifice meaningful human interaction for a paycheck. Shall I summarize?
The great majority of us work too hard to pay too much for things we don't actually want and that won't make us happy and, in doing so, we often are too busy to really open up to people and have meaningful and genuine interaction with them. It's no small wonder that it takes most people having a "Midlife Crisis" to realize that we are doing nothing of any value with our lives.

But here's where it gets even better:
Personally, I try to be very deliberate and limited in my consumption; I don't buy things that I don't want, nor do I buy things based on their advertisements; I don't watch TV; I enjoy buying used things when I have the opportunity to. I do all of these things because I don't want to participate in a system that I feel bullies myself and others into buying useless things.
Naturally, the word for a person such as myself is "Hipster"; I'm just "too cool" for that "mainstream" bullshit. We have bought into this system so much that we, not entirely unseriously, ridicule people who object to it. Why?

We all want to be happy.
We have been raised being completely surrounded by ads that show us that happiness is attached at the hip to products, we see happy people driving BMW's, drinking Coca-Cola, wearing Nike's, and so on and so forth.
We have been inundated with this mindset since we are children. It isn't true; but we want it to be. We get jobs and start to buy things, but we don't feel any happier, so we work harder, buy more things, and still don't feel any different. Then we see some damned dirty hipster who doesn't value the things that we do, and we get upset. Why should they be happy? I worked hard for these things, I've earned it. They haven't worked a day in their life, what gives them the right, they haven't earned their happiness!

I'm not going to pretend that I have "it all" figured out; not by a long shot. But consider this:
Most things will not make you happy. There are always exceptions, things we personally value very much, our passions, that can help us be happy. But the things that we see advertised often are not our passions. We don't want them, we just want to be happy and don't know how else to do it. Most of our generation will agree on the statement "Most things won't make you happy", but many of us are still unhappy. Because our entire lives we have seen our desires associated with products, with things to buy, we have been habitually manipulated through advertisements to the point that we are no longer entirely sure how to realize these desires through people, not products.

Everyone wants to be happy. Everyone wants genuine and meaningful human interaction. So fucking do it already. Don't make small talk while checking your facebook on your iPhone; look someone in the eye and talk about something beautiful. Don't go to the movies or the mall; go to the park with your friends. Stop wanting things and start wanting people. Sad? Don't eat a pint of ice cream or go "therapy shopping" or go onto xbox live; open up to a human being, be weak, share your vulnerability and fear, because everyone is just as vulnerable and afraid as you are, we're just forgetting how to tell each other. Turn off your television, you're not going to "miss" anything. You are a human being. You don't need iPhones or Xboxes or Tom's shoes or yoga pants or clothes; you need other human beings. Need them to be honest and imperfect and vulnerable, need them to be human, need to be human together, with them. Don't buy a new outfit, make a new friend and keep them forever.

Just, please, think about this. I'm not asking you to be Thoreau and move to the woods, only that you stop wasting so much time on objects that will never make you a happier or better person. If you have the courage to express your desires through people, to be genuine and honest and imperfect, people will value you and respect you. If you are not afraid to be weak, or be emotional, or be honest, others will stop being afraid to do the same to you. If you stop watching TV, you'll start watching people, and you may like what you see.
We all want to be happy, we just need to show each other how again.

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