Reclaiming Ownership

It is one of the greatest risks of living in a capitalistic society: where money is the presumed basis for happiness, each person grows up implanted with a susceptibility to marketing.

Humans have been trying to sell each other on their ideas since the beginning of time, and we have made an art form of the process in Western civilization. Children’s books ensure that we equate Cheerios with happy moments in Dad’s lap, and coloring books ensure we have an up close and personal experience with the crucifixion of Jesus. Formal political indoctrination may wait until we are older, yet most learn early on what our elders consider to be in line with their other moral marketing, and this is reinforced by the political dogma espoused in such “neutral” zones as church and school.

It’s a standard marketing technique: figure out an identifying characteristic in a certain segment of the population (your demographic), and use what you know about this group’s beliefs to entice them to add another belief. If done well, the belief added becomes indistinguishable from the original set. If done exceptionally well, the altered set of beliefs has compositional holes where later beliefs can be added as needed. In this manner it is possible to gain control of a belief system and significantly alter the demographic. It’s what’s popularly known as “brand loyalty”.

For example, let us consider the case of a fictional company which needs to market some razors. The marketing representatives would first define the demographic to which they wish to appeal. Perhaps they choose a “GenX”, male, upwardly-mobile target. The next step is to define the preexisting beliefs of that demographic.

GenX is notoriously hard to characterize for marketing purposes, but the inside scoop is that they are defined by a desire to be different and a certain disillusionment and apathy. A large percentage of them hold quasi-libertarian beliefs. Now that many of them are about done paying off their college debt, they are stepping into full-blown consumerism, wherein they can define themselves through their purchases (“Hey…at least you know your iPod will be there the next day. S’more than you can say for anything else,”). They typically dislike authoritarian structures, distrust government, and have never quite recovered from the conviction that they weren’t going to live to see tomorrow, because they were going to die in a nuclear war later on today.

Next, the marketers will identify the belief system the marketing agency wants to implant. In this case, they wish to convey that buying their razors is a necessary expenditure, but they need an angle which can be neatly slipped into the target’s preexisting belief structure. They decide to couch “necessary expenditure” in terms of “aid to survival”, aimed at the “trust no one” and “be independent” areas of the target’s firmament. A self-mocking, humorous approach is considered most likely to bypass the target’s defenses.

The marketing agency launches an ad campaign wherein a strapping, handsome GenXer confronts an army of zombies (including zombie government officials, school teachers, and bill collectors), averting their clawing grasps by merit of his smoothly shaven face. It doesn’t really matter what story they use for the marketing, as long as it is appealing to the demographic and accomplishes its primary mission–that of implanting the belief. This is how effective marketing works.

It is also the core of what has gone wrong in the United States.

There is no one party, company, or religion at the root of this. Everyone does it. From the time we are born we are surrounded by advertising campaigns, and by people who have either consciously or unconsciously become lower-level marketers for them. Our concepts of “good” and “evil” typically are developed in an amalgamation of religious themes, political slogans, and product placement. As we mature, we take the foundation we have been given, and incorporate whatever other marketing campaigns seem to be in line with the initial programming. From birth to death we dwell in a bewildering purgatory, while those with “our best interests at heart” battle over our brainspace.

No one has your best interests at heart.

Remember when you were a kid and your parents told you to eat your spinach/study harder/comb your hair/speak respectfully? As your parents were not actually you, I can guarantee they were wrong at least once. Maybe you were allergic to spinach, or perhaps your hair looked cooler that way. Your parents love you, but they cannot understand the world as you do from your internal experience. The most they can do is offer you a sampling of what they have learned to be true for them, in the hopes that it will somehow be useful to you in your experience. They want to have your best interests at heart, but they cannot actually know what is best for you. Extrapolate from there to people who have never even met you and tell me…is it even remotely possible that these people have any idea what is best for you?

The United States has become a civilization with various subcultures which define themselves through their perceived differences from each other. We accept that Catholics are completely different from Muslims. Liberals are fundamentally different from Conservatives. The hippies are a world away from the corporate suits which drive around in their company-bought BMW’s. We aggressively defend our ideological territories. In compensation for cutting ourselves off from most of humanity, we gain the warm, fuzzy feeling of being a part of an “elite” group which holds the “truth” about the present, past, and future. We also gain the benefit of being able to easily summarize anyone else by having access to only one or two of their beliefs. If a person is “a Christian”, and we are “an atheist”, we feel justified in assuming that “the other” is a mindless dupe who rejects evolution and wants abortion made illegal. If I am “a Conservative” and you are “a Liberal”, you may well leap to the conclusion that I support the war in Iraq. Perhaps the idea of being a part of the enormous group which is humanity is just a little too much for most of us to visualize, or perhaps we are just fundamentally mentally lazy, and cannot be bothered with the gazillion variables which make up the belief system of the average individual.

There is a secret hiding in every, single person.

That secret, at its core, is that no one completely agrees with any external belief system. We may give lip service to it, we may even feel vaguely guilty about the betrayal in our hearts. But every thinking person on this planet (and despite what you have been taught to believe, that includes all of them) diverges somewhere from the party line, the religious dogma, and the corporate slogans by which they live their lives all the rest of the time.

There are Conservatives who despise the war, just as there are Christians who, after years in the scientific field, decided that scientific advancement was not irreconcilable with faith. There are atheists who carry rabbit’s feet for luck and vegans who will wear second hand leather. There are liberals who oppose abortion on moral grounds and people who always buy Nike everything except for their shoes, because they have had bad experiences with the shoes. I have met all of these. I have met thousands of people, and discovered that no one of them is a mindless drone, despite the concerted efforts of all the various marketing agendas which have tried to lay claim to them.

Unfortunately, we tend to question the obvious, while absorbing the comfortable.

When challenging the paradigm with which we have been raised, all too often we may come to find fault with some tenets while accepting without question the marketing of “the Others”. We can privately disagree with our church or our political party with regards to their view on abortion, and yet we often blindly accept their evaluation of those outside our group (i.e. Muslims or Republicans are bloodthirsty fanatics). In willingly allowing ourselves to be defined as a member of a group, we also accept a division between ourselves and most of the rest of the world. We stop listening, shut down, and rest assured that if our group were not superior, we never would have joined in the first place.

The resultant mess is a culture where we cannot even talk about the issues in order to reach solutions to our problems, because we carry so many assumptions with us into the conversation. Like a cat in a room full of rocking chairs, we are constantly watching our tails, reaching higher and higher levels of paranoia until we run screeching for the door…even if we have not been attacked in any way. If our goal is to create a future in which we want to live, we must get past our cliquish notions and tribal defenses. We are not any of us truly owned by the various interests after our mental space. It is an intelligent choice to examine the beliefs which form the foundation of our decisions. We can all question, we can all change our minds, if only we can accept that in doing so we do not consign ourselves to an eternity of loneliness. Each of us, as individuals, has a unique perspective and the ability to contribute something meaningful to the discourse.

In encountering a problem with many answers, we would do well to consider the phrasing of the question. In thinking about the assumptions inherent, and stepping outside the parameters established by interests other than our own, we may remember that no one group has a monopoly on truth. That there is no enemy anywhere. In recognizing our unique individuality and that of everyone else, we may eventually find the freedom to act in our own best interests.