Manipulators

But when work is done with selfish desire, or feeling it is an effort, or thinking it is a sacrifice, then the work is impure.

And that work which is done with a confused mind, without considering what may follow, or one’s own powers, or the harm done to others, or one’s own loss, is a work of darkness.

Bhagavad Gita

The other day I talked about the purpose of good art being the creation of emotional pull towards rational purpose, becoming the bridge between reason, that part of us that provides us with options, and instinct, that part of us that decides which options to pursue. In this way, art can become the tool to reconcile emotion with reason by aligning both forces in the same direction.

This may seem like a Romantic notion, but consider for a moment what we have in place of such art today. What we have today is a world filled with powerful, expertly designed emotion manipulation devices that work to generate and align emotions towards certain objects or activities. These emotion manipulation devices are ads, and they fill every public space around us, from the building façades and billboards on our streets, to the digital screens of our our computers and mobile devices.

At best, advertising helps people find useful products and services, grows successful businesses and moves the wheels of industry. At worst, advertising fills our street and screens with noise and distractions, persuading people to buy things they don’t need, or even things that may be unhealthy for them. Advertising is an inseparable part of national and global commerce, but it is also a tool that many use to encourage people to pursue their base impulses, exploiting the force of emotion for the sake of a paycheck.

Another ever present force in our daily lives is the mass media, in all of its manifestations, from TV and newspaper to the website and the microblog. In pursuit of profit, mass media tends to chase after ratings, which in turn means that they once again tap into the base nature in man. Sensational and shocking stories are brought forward, spreading on such emotions like fear and anger, while thought provoking articles with any potential to improve the reader in even a small way are left abandoned.

The above devices are made by us, are made by talented marketers and writers who are able to exploit human emotion to its fullest, and they reshape the world right under our feet. People take out credit they can’t afford in order to buy things they don’t need, all the while stuffing themselves with food and activities that make them obese, unhealthy and depressed. Trying to escape this state of affairs they are led ever further into the trap.

Our media feeds us stories that make us fearful and angry, poisoning public discourse and destroying any possibility for rational political thought. Instead of directing our emotions towards rational and noble work, they are hijacked and driven down into the base and the primitive, all so that the marketer or the writer can keep his job selling stuff he doesn’t believe in or writing stories he does not care for.

One does not need to be a Romantic to see the power of emotional manipulation. It is all around us, and it works. The question is whether we are happy with how our creative energies are used, and if not, in which way they should be directed.

Advertising and the media are both tools. How people use these tools depends on a person’s philosophy, or lack of it. Most people in Western society live without a philosophy, which they assume to be something that’s best left for the academia. Without a philosophy they are left flying on their autopilot of instinct, which, having no conception of purpose, reverts to a very short-sighted, animalistic mode of operation.

In this mode of operation people pursue their work for their paycheck only, not thinking about the wider impact or purpose of their work. Marketers and advertisers work to sell product, not caring about what it is they are selling. Writers work to keep their job, which means pumping out sensational articles to meet their quota of page-views. Without a conception of the good, without a conception of excellence, people work merely for what can provide them with temporary pleasure – i.e. money – rather than what can give them long-term happiness – i.e. the fulfillment of their creative potential, or eudaimonia.

The path away from the weapons of mass addiction and distraction, away from the trumpets of fear and hate, towards a world of art, beauty and reason begins with philosophy, a conception of values and principles, a creation of a purpose and an ideal. Once man begins to grasp, however weakly, the idea of the good life, he will obtain a direction, a purpose, and he will begin to judge his work and his actions in light of it, whether they conform to his conception of the good or whether they go against it.

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“For even falsehood, uttered by the tongue of man, seemed like truth and light before this hopelessly-deaf and unresponsive silence.”

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Further Reading

Proust wrote that the true voyage of discovery is not to visit strange lands, but to possess other eyes, to behold a hundred universes that each of them beholds. Thus, in the words of Ruskin, what good books give us is not mere knowledge, but sight.

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