Is That Really What You Want? How Do You Know? Thoughts from The Century of Self.

For with much wisdom comes much sorrow; the more knowledge, the more grief. — Ecclesiastes 1:18

A while back I saw a question on Quora that intrigued me. Someone asked, “What is the hardest truth?” Several thoughts came to mind, one of them being the awareness of how chained we are by habit, genetic disposition, the formative influence of our upbringing, our tastes, our temperaments… and that to change our selves is exceedingly hard and far more difficult than we imagine. The irony is that we believe we’re free agents. It certainly feels like we’re free. I can order anything on this menu that I want, right? I can watch any movie I want. Or read any book I want.

In 2002 the BBC broadcast a four-part documentary called The Century of Self. It’s an eye-opening look at recent history from a new angle, from “behind the curtain” as it were.

When we think of influential people in our lives, I doubt that very many of us think of Sigmund Freud. Most people (I have no evidence and am only guessing here) associate Freud with the idea of a patient lying on a couch talking to a psychologist taking notes, or with what seem like strange notions of repressed sexuality, Oedipal complexes and the like. The Century of Self addresses another way in which Freud influenced us, through techniques of mass manipulation developed and implemented by his nephew Edward Bernays, the founder of modern Public Relations (a term which itself is a euphemism for propaganda.)

“By satisfying the masses’ inner selfish desires one made them happy, and thus docile.” Bernays, this program claims, was central in the development of “the all-consuming self which has come to dominate our world today.” Why are there so many hoarders among us these days? How is it that there are so many storage facilities in existence today, a whole industry that sprang up to store excess stuff, stuff that people don’t use or need or know what to do with because they have so much other stuff?

The series has four parts. They were:

“Happiness Machines”
“The Engineering of Consent”
“There is a Policeman Inside All Our Heads; He Must Be Destroyed”
“Eight People Sipping Wine in Kettering”

A description of Part 1 includes this paragraph:

“Bernays was one of the main architects of the modern techniques of mass-consumer persuasion, using every trick in the book, from celebrity endorsement and outrageous PR stunts, to eroticizing the motorcar. His most notorious coup was breaking the taboo on women smoking by persuading them that cigarettes were a symbol of independence and freedom. But Bernays was convinced that this was more than just a way of selling consumer goods. It was a new political idea of how to control the masses. By satisfying the inner irrational desires that his uncle had identified, people could be made happy and thus docile.”

The BBC PR for this documentary describes the program this way:

“To many in politics and business, the triumph of the self is the ultimate expression of democracy, where power has finally moved to the people. Certainly, the people may feel they are in charge, but are they really? The Century of the Self tells the untold and sometimes controversial story of the growth of the mass-consumer society. How was the all-consuming self created, by whom, and in whose interests?”

* * * *

There’s much more that can be said here. If you have time, the programs are enlightening. You can also read a synopsis here on Wikipedia.

Meantime, life outside goes on all around you. Think about it.

Originally published at
Related Link: “
What is the Hardest Truth?

An avid reader who writes about arts, culture, literature & other life obsessions. @ennyman3 Look for my books on Amazon

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