We underestimate the power of suggestion. If you’ve ever been to a performance by a hypnotist, it is obvious just how much power suggestions can have over our experience of reality. People can be convinced they have snakes crawling over them, are in danger, take on very different personas, and do things that they would otherwise not choose to do. It can be a bit creepy.
Yet you do not need to be in an hypnotic trance for suggestions to be powerful. Advertisers know this. That is why McDonalds spends less time talking about its food than creating a mood. “You deserve a break today.” Cute scenes of kids, friends, people laughing, “lovin’ it”! These are meant to place suggestions in your mind about how to feel when you see a McDonalds, making you more likely to think, “gee, let’s go eat at McDonalds.” You haven’t really compared dining possibilities, you just feel like having McDonalds. You feel loyalty to a particular brand. Mountain Dew seems to be a more exciting soft drink than Sierra Mist. It used to be that advertisers would place subliminal messages in ads, brief bits with words or suggestions that went by too fast to be consciously perceived, but expected to have a subconscious impact. Suggestions.
In life we are constantly bombarded by suggestions. Politicians making statements, cultural biases and fads, claims on the news, in the media, within a sub culture. What has value? What is common sense? What will make me happy? For example, for a long time our culture was convinced that blacks should be treated differently than whites, and the races should not mix in marriage. That’s the way the world was, that’s what people grew up with. All customs, beliefs, political justifications and the like reinforced the suggestion that this is how the world should be.
Those with the power (usually whites) had little reason to resist these suggestions. This made it seem like there was something better about their race, rationalized unequal treatment, and gave a nice narrative to why conditions in the US were as they were. Even progressives found it hard to break through the programing. Blacks more easily rejected the suggestions because they were the ones hurt by the social structure, and its injustices were felt more keenly by blacks. Even then, the power of these suggestions made it hard to mount a serious challenge to the existing social structure.
Martin Luther King’s “Letter to a Birmingham Prison,” wherein he expressed disappointment that white clergy and liberals were saying “slow down” or “don’t demand too much,” was really a shout to “wake up!” You’ve been hypnotized into accepting as normal a state of affairs that should enrage you. In fact, if we look back at history we see slavery, sexism, and an atrocious state of human rights as normal throughout most of human history. If we could go back to Savannah, Georgia in 1824 and yell “wake up, slavery is evil,” we’d be marginalized as radical abolitionists — dangerous and misguided.
Political struggles are often efforts to yell “wake up” loud enough to shake people into questioning the suggestions being fed them, and get them to see things from a different perspective. Yet it is always easier to stick with the world we’ve become accustomed to. The suggestions that define how we interpret reality are comfortable, we’re used to them, and as we get older it becomes ever more difficult to truly question the world view we hold, especially if it has been rather stable. Alternative suggestions sound weird, radical, dangerous or contrary to all we hold true. That is one reason why change tends to be generational — a new generation may be open to new suggestions in a way older folk are not.
How do we break this hypnosis? I think first and foremost is to recognize it exists — to recognize that every political, religious, social and cultural perspective we hold is in part shaped by the world around us. Once we recognize that, then we can start reflecting on those beliefs and perspectives. Second is to acknowledge the capacity of those with power and money to make and reinforce suggestions about how to think. Whether political propaganda, advertising, or media messages that stick within narrow narratives (even if you can have the diversity between, say, Fox and MSNBC) all have enormous power to shape how people understand their world. It creates a pervasive discourse, a set of ‘normal’ meanings and understandings through which reality is interpreted.
All of this means we have to don some humility. Each of us may think ourselves clever, smart, critical and independent, but we are all to some extent products of our culture. If we were born in Cairo or Tehran we’d think differently about the world than we do now; if we lived in the 1700’s our world view would be fundamentally changed. Much of who we are depends on where and when we are. Yet, I do think we can wake up.
Once we recognize that we’ve been subjected to massive suggestions about the world from our culture, friends, family and media, we can start the reflective process which gives humans the capacity to be ourselves and claim our own identity. It’s not that we can completely come up with a totally autonomous worldview — the impact of culture and the suggestions that we “listen to” every day is always there, and always a part of us. But we can resist their ability to shape us, and learn to question those suggestions being thrown our way.
In advertising: as we pull into McDonalds we can say, “do I really want this, why do I feel I want this, is it due to advertising, is this what I want,” and start thinking of alternatives. At least make the decision consciously. It can also be useful in thinking of politics. In recent debates on this site about taxes and the role of government, I think it’s important for all sides to think seriously about the other’s perspective. By that I don’t just mean entertain the arguments, but really listen and try to comprehend how a perspective can be different than ones’ own. The more we do that in all issues, the more likely we are to have a clearer view of the world, and how suggestions may be leading us to embrace things we actually don’t believe in.
This also explains the importance of both art and satire. Art can reflect creativity, the ability to explore aspects of life beyond conventional thought and the status quo. It can be an impetus for “waking up” from a series of comfortable suggestions. Since the Roman Empire and satirists like Juvenal, satire has had as its core method a refusal to accept conventional norms and rules of the discourse, and play with strange takes and perspectives on things. Sometimes that allows the satirist to see reality more clearly than the serious pundit.
It may be comfortable to live hypnotized by the world around us, being programmed to want certain things, define success a certain way, and go with the flow. But when we do that, we give up living an autonomous life, and soon feel alienated from life. That emptiness can come out as depression, anxiety, hopelessness, or a desire for thrill, something to make us feel alive. And, though we can never be completely outside our culture and the suggestions it provides, I do think it’s possible to resist and reflect. Learning to view things from diverse perspectives, taking seriously the world views of those who think differently, and never being too settled in ones’ own beliefs and ideas about the world is one way to do that. Living “awake” may be the key to a really satisfying life.