Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Hidden in Plain Sight: another excerpt

This part focuses on other subtle (and not-so-subtle) techniques used to manipulate our perceptions in the media, and touches on some interesting theories as to why our current cultural climate is what it is.


A common trick used in media to distort our feelings about certain subjects is sarcasm.

In the wrong hands, and in the right context, sarcasm can be used to undermine concepts by associating them with negative feelings and imagery.

Sarcasm is considered to be the lowest form of expression. When you say something sarcastically, it means you are saying it in jest - like being funny, but without humour. It is a joyless joke, where you subvert your own words with an intentional disclaimer of falsehood.

Over the past decade or so, sarcasm and misplaced irony have come to be regarded as sophisticated by mainstream media, and no longer carry the social stigma they once did.

As a result we are particularly susceptible to the use of these tools, in that we associate sarcasm with intelligence.

So if a character we like on a TV show says something sarcastically, we are somewhat conditioned to 'laugh with them', to subconsciously side with their clever assertion.

A good example is the Progressive Insurance commercial with the woman in white, aired heavily in 2009. In it, she is helping a customer - a late 20's white guy - to pick out his insurance plan. She explains that he can 'build his own plan', customize insurance according to his budget. He, characterized as fumbling and boyish, remarks that he 'feels so empowered', and this is expressed as a half-joke, very close to sarcasm (as in, how could you really feel empowered by something as trivial as this). She then says "Power to the people!" in a way that is painfully insincere and characterized by a sort of forced-stupidity, making sure that we the audience are well aware that she is being ironic / sarcastic / sophisticated when she says this.

This cheapening of language is designed to reinforce the perception that social activism is literally a joke - something our drugged-up parents did when they had long hair and played guitar.

By saying the key words - power to the people - in such a way that conceptually undermines their meaning, the words themselves are corrupted by the associations to irony and insincerity.

Another key association being reinforced in this and many other recent commercials is the image of the young adult male as boyish - mentally, emotionally and physically underdeveloped as he approaches his thirties.

Television especially is an extremely suggestive medium, meaning that it's whole purpose is to communicate suggestions to the audience. Once your critical thinking skills are sharp, you become equipped to pick out these suggestions - manipulations - and examine them.

From his first appearance onscreen, it is clear that the young man in the Progressive commercial lacks physical and intellectual confidence. He has an air of uncertainty and implicit fragility. He is unsure of how to begin choosing the product, and is shocked when he is told that he can choose his own terms.

Notice how the mentally and physically weak male (ironically, representing the period of life when a man is naturally at his strongest - late twenties to early thirties) allows himself to be "empowered" by Progressive - to go along with the insinuation that the corporation has generously allowed him to make his own decisions.

For stark contrast to this subtle manipulation, simply look back to the origins of consumer society.

Remember "The customer is always right", "Money Back Guarantee", "Highest Quality", "Best Value for your Money"?

These slogans represented the birth of advertising - whereby a product or service was sold under it's own merits, with little emotional manipulation. The relationship was clear: the companies trying to sell products, pandering to their potential customers, were held to account by the wit and currency of the buyer. In this sense, the consumer controlled the situation.

And since consumers were naturally grouped into families at the birth of the advertising age, the vast majority of advertising was directed at the person who made the purchasing decisions in the household: the working male.

There exists a school of thought that believes corporate and governing interests have colluded to gradually deconstruct the fundamental structure of our society - the family unit.

For motive, they point to a desire on the behalf of political structures to determine a way to increase tax revenues.

Not so long ago, it was common for only one parent of a family to work, while the other stayed home to mind the house and children. For the vast majority of families, the male parent worked, while the mother stayed home.

The theory suggests that in order to massively increase tax receipts from the prosperous middle class, it was decided at the highest levels of societal architecture that the most effective course of action to this end would be to somehow induce women to join the workforce - allowing their labour to be taxed, just like men.

Further, this theory contends that corporate interests also saw the potential benefits of such a paradigm shift - women would then have disposable income, ready to be spent on all manner of products, whether they were essential to the functioning of the home or not.

Here, should we choose to agree with the theory, we witness once again the tragic logic of economics.

This is where a glance back at the Disney Income Tax propaganda from WWII is timely, because it coincides well with other propaganda used domestically at the time - the campaign Women for Victory.

It is in these controversial theories that we find the seeds of concepts ubiquitous in society today - female economic empowerment, the acceptance and institutionalized encouragement of gay and lesbian relationships, male 'guilt', the economic necessity of having two working parents. These concepts didn't simply appear as the result of social activism; rather, they were nurtured and legitimized through capital flows that funded pressure groups, policy advocates, academic curricula, and other sources of intellectual influence.

It goes further as well. The mainstream promotion of previously taboo concepts - violent pornography, incessant drug use, cultural nihilism - are not necessarily reflections of a newly enlightened, post-liberal society; they can also be interpreted as a calculated effort to debase traditional values and subvert the paradigm that our society was built on - the family.

The media currently sells us a world where 35-year old men play videogames all day and obsess over pornography; men who avoid responsibility and cannot interact with strong women; men who are typified as effete, emasculated, juvenile, sex-crazed, or petty. All of these enforced media prototypes work to normalize the concept of men as grown boys in our society. Certainly, there are deviations from these prototypes in the media - remember that new concepts must be introduced to the public mind slowly, gradually tipping the scales of what is deemed 'normal' or acceptable; this is the philosophy and practice of incrementalism - the same process used to dismantle social architecture over time, the same process used to deteriorate our personal rights and freedoms as citizens - one little step at a time.

The media also sells us a world where a woman must choose between 'empowering herself' with a career out of spite for millennia of male dominance, or taking a step 'backwards' - becoming just another vessel for children, expected to stay at home and serve the husband.

In this context it is easy for us to forget that the family design is natural - it came about as the result of thousands of years of evolution. Simply look at the natural world for insight on the true, natural order of family - one that has been re-packaged and sold to us over the last fifty years as archaic and unsophisticated.

This isn't to say that feminism is an entirely corrupt concept. Of course women should get equal pay for equal work, and it goes without saying that both women and men should be free to live their lives however they choose. The feminist movement has achieved great triumphs in the struggle to right the glaring wrongs that exist in our patriarchal society.

However, like most good causes, its' integrity is not immune to subversion by interests with unscrupulous intentions.

The overt re-defining of gender roles and traits in the mass media applies to young women as well. The re-casting of females as power-hungry, sexually dominant, promiscuous (the flagships of this engineering being media-created institutions like Sex and the City, Pussycat Dolls, and the endless homegrown-prostitute imagery associated with mainstream female entertainers like Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, Paris Hilton, Nelly Furtado, etc.) seems relentless. The latest incarnations of these concepts are reflected in the vapid lyrics and grotesque imagery of acts like Lady Gaga and Rhianna, where it seems that all the cues embedded in their music and videos reference mindless promiscuous sex, themes of bondage and S&M, violence and depression.

Again, this isn't about being prudish - it's about opening your mind to the idea that maybe this isn't a simple cultural reflection of contemporary values that we are seeing - that in fact, it may well be part of a long-term, concerted effort to redefine how we see ourselves.

This is happening in tandem with the publicizing and promotion of sadistic, barbarous violence in cinema.

For example, look at Hollywood hits like the Saw series, 28 Weeks Later, or Inglorious Basterds. These movies not only portray extreme, sickening violence - but they actively promote the sensation of participation in and condoning of the killing. In 28 Weeks Later, there is a scene where a man brutally kills his own wife with his bare hands - gouging out her eyes, grunting like an animal as he batters his wife's face with his bloody hands - all shot up-close and personal, with blood spattering on the camera. The only words I can find to describe the effect are "meat-porn".

This is no fringe movie, nor did it receive any criticism for this and other portrayals. Free speech and expression have always allowed for the flourishing of pornography like this - however never in our short history has such base vulgarity been actively promoted as "normal".

This trend started years ago. I remember the movie The General's Daughter (1999), where the entire movie is based around the gang-raping of a female military cadet. Again, it's the sheer vulgarity of how the subject matter is treated within the film that makes it's intent questionable (actual quote: "They raped her and raped her…They just about raped her to death.") Or Monster's Ball, for which Halle Berry won an Oscar - for her outstanding performance in a rape scene. Even hilarious, lighthearted movies like Harold and Kumar go to Guantanamo feature vulgarity that never would have been allowed pre-2000: facial cum shots, prison rape, forced gay sex.

As someone who remembers the controversy over musical acts like N.W.A. and 2 Live Crew, this kind of stuff appals the senses. Even UFC events were illegal ten years ago - they had to be held on Native reserves, since they were prohibited in Canada and the U.S.

In the end, an insurance commercial or a UFC fight may not seem like a fundamental threat to our objective thinking, but these are just a few examples.

Imagine the cumulative effect of thousands upon thousands of similar, subtle messages, coming at us every minute that we are engaged in media, each one designed to shift our perception one way or another.

From my observations, these types of projections are part of a long-term, top-down campaign to redefine both the young person's role in society and, more importantly, how young people see themselves. The goal seems to be to introduce us to the 'new normal' - to desensitize us to concepts once considered unthinkable, now seemingly a permanent part of our cultural landscape.

Once we examine the capital flows, political affiliations, and distribution structure of specific media entities, we begin to get a clear picture of how certain ideas and concepts are supported and allowed to flourish, while others are left to die on the vine, bereft of funding and industry support. Awards and publicity are directed to adherents to the currently supported 'cause', overtly or otherwise - think the Oscar for Al Gore's factually inept film An Inconvenient Truth, or the Nobel Peace Prize awarded to Barack Obama - whom had to be nominated for the honour a mere 12 days into his term as President, according to the official timeline.

Could it be that these accolades are simple advertisements - the symbols of once-vaunted institutions that now serve the interests of whomever is paying the bills?