The following post is taken from the Canton Chronicle, Vol 2017 #4.
Edward Bernays may not be a familiar name. Yet his philosophy permeates our lives, our culture. In this way we know him.
Bernays used the viewpoint of his uncle, Sigmund Freud, to spread his philosophy. Freud believed that “human behavior is driven more by irrational forces and instinct than it is by rational intellect.” Also on the mind of Bernays was a statement made by Paul Mazur, a Lehman Brothers banker: “We must shift America from a needs to a desires culture. People must be trained to desire, to want new things, even before the old have been entirely consumed. Man’s desires must overshadow his needs.” Supplied with these tools from his uncle and Mazur, Bernays embarked on a journey of manufacturing discontent among people as a means of selling them things they really didn’t need. If rational minds had prevailed, Bernays’ journey may have ended abruptly. But as his uncle had aptly noted, human behavior is influenced by irrational forces. An instinctual hunger for more, even though irrational, made Bernays’ progress easy. Thus, what Mazur had hoped for became reality as a result of Bernays’ quick thinking.
Bernays employed tactics such as convincing car companies that they could sell cars as symbols of male sexuality. He also staged a rally of wealthy debutantes smoking cigarettes as a means to break the taboo of women smoking. The idea was to push a post-WWI population satisfied with what they already had toward a more consumer-based mentality and experience.
Herbert Hoover bought in to this approach as well. Following the 1928 election, Hoover declared to a group of advertisers, “You have taken over the job of creating desire and have transformed people into constantly moving happiness machines, machines which have become the key to economic progress.”
Bernays’ philosophy and work had taken off. The result is that he was named by Life magazine, sometime later, as one of the most influential Americans of the twentieth century for creating a culture of perpetual dissatisfaction giving rise to constant consumption to satisfy the self. So, yes, we do know Bernays yet today in our consumerist culture that allures us to have the shiniest toys, the latest gadget, the most exclusive memberships, smoother skin, bouncier hair, a nicer car, a bigger house, and we can fill in the blank with a myriad of other products and desires.
Bernays may have provided us with inroads to economic sustainability, but he has done us no favors in developing a broader understanding of justice. Where is justice when consuming for the sake of economic gain forcing the hungry into ever expanding food deserts? Where is justice when consumption of resources puts us in deep conflict with another because lopsided distribution of wealth in favor of those with means cause
those without to act violently to attain what they need? Where is justice when we deplete the environment of its health so we can have what we want as opposed to what we need?
Where is justice when consuming for the sake of economic gain forcing the hungry into ever expanding food deserts? Where is justice when consumption of resources puts us in deep conflict with another because lopsided distribution of wealth in favor of those with means cause those without to act violently to attain what they need? Where is justice when we deplete the environment of its health so we can have what we want as opposed to what we need?
Challenging this culture, Bernays helped to build, as means of moving toward a more equitable and fair society may seem out of reach. But Mary Jo Leddy, Canadian theologian and activist, may have a helpful approach. She writes that the “choice to affirm that there is enough for all is the beginning of social community, peace,
There is enough for all! If this became the cultural norm, then those who have much would value distributing their wealth as they attained more, and those who have little would know that their needs would never go unmet. Seems utopian, yes?
Authors Smith and Pattison in Slow Church offer the way toward, not necessarily arriving at, this utopia. The way? Gratitude.
Gratitude is recognition that what we have is enough, and that who we are is sufficient. Judge for yourself if they are on the right track:
Gratitude can help our faith communities move from dissatisfaction, fear and narcissism to satisfaction, trust and a deeper appreciation of the interconnectedness of all things. It frees us up to live in the present and to accept each moment and every circumstance as a gift. “In gratitude,” writes [Mary Jo] Leddy, “the vicious cycle of dissatisfaction with life is broken and we begin anew in the recognition of what we have rather than in the awareness of who we aren’t.”
Imagine a world ingrained in gratitude, a world in which all of humanity is satisfied with what we have and with who we are. Imagine what would be lost (fear, greed, war, hatred) and what would be won (love, compassion, peace, service).
Why stop at imagining? Let’s do something rational and practice gratitude instead. Let’s experience with all of humanity the resulting goodness.
Source: 1C. Christopher Smith and John Pattison, Slow Church: Cultivating Community in the Patient Way of Jesus (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 2014)