Brainwashed! A street-level view of communications

A single moment captured on camera that may help you reflect on how all media shapes our beliefs and culture.

I really shouldn’t be writing this newsletter. My muscles ache after helping some friends move home — a last-minute SOS on Tuesday night, followed by shifting boxes and furniture from dawn to midnight. I’ve now got a backlog of work I should be doing instead, but cannot resist sharing this little insight.

On Monday I walked from Waterloo station in London to Mayfair for a meeting, passing Piccadilly Circus on the way. The familiar sight of the Jehovah’s Witnesses was there, peddling their doctrines to the unsuspecting. As I’ve mentioned a few times before, my family has an unfortunate multi-generational entanglement with them, so I know their methods and madness intimately from the inside.

The ostensible subject of these newsletters is the Future of Communications, but to see the future clearly is really a matter of fully comprehending the present. The paradoxical theory of change says that we only shift when we fully identify with that which is, not which could be or should be. So I hope this can be a small “learning moment” in how to better interpret the here and now.

Imagine that I showed you the above image, noting the factual small detail that is hard to see (JW “brand” and domain). I then asked you this question: who in this picture has been brainwashed?

Now consider your answer carefully for a few moments.

What I would expect many people to answer is “the lady and gentleman on either side of the JW literature stands”. And at one level, you would be absolutely right. The JWs are a cult, and exploit emotional vulnerability to “hijack” people into directing all their life force into the movement. They de facto use blackmail (through threats of ostracism by all JW family and friends) to keep you there.

But I suggest to you that there is a better answer, namely “everybody!”. The mere existence of these people and their advertising on the street has a legitimising effect that influences every passerby. After all, if they really were dangerous, surely there would be a mandate against them, or some form of public or press warning?

Indeed, you have also been quietly indoctrinated to associate the term “true” with them. The word is there in biggest letters! They sell “The Truth™”, whose lexicographical representation is then confused with semantic or epistemological truth. This all happens at an unconscious level, and you cannot avoid it, and are likely unaware of it.

The JWs are an easy and extreme target, but there is a fairly obvious wider lesson — our communications spaces can become “polluted” with memes that are the enemy of our wellbeing. For that matter, Piccadilly Circus is famous for its bright flashing advertising hoardings, which have recently been renovated.

These adverts normalise the intake of diabetes-inducing soft drinks, and evangelise the wonders of private motoring in dense urban spaces already facing a pollution crisis. Reasonable people might disagree over the costs and benefits, but there’s an unavoidable ethical catch: you don’t really have a choice over whether to expose yourself to this commercial propaganda. The street has a monopoly over your pathway from A to B.

These messages work at the margin to influence real behaviour. Most people don’t stop to engage with the JWs, but having been exposed over time, someone with a spiritual emptiness or life crisis may succumb. When the waiter asks you what you would like to drink with your meal, you cannot truly be aware of why “Coke!” leaps into your mind first. Every SUV you see triggers a mild pang of envy if you’ve been infected with desire.

As Terence McKenna astutely observed, “culture is not your friend”, and the first four letters are c-u-l-t for a reason. If we wish to deliver a better world to those who come after us, one where the ethical is at least the peer of the logical, then we must change. To do so requires us to engage in an often painful reexamination of the present. For again, as McKenna quipped, by rejecting the cultural illusion, “the cost of sanity in this society is a certain level of alienation”.

Still, better to be an unhappy (but free) alienated person than a happy (but enslaved) brainwashed one, no?

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