Thursday, May 1, 2014

It Takes A Culture To Raise A Compulsive Liar

Big Tommy
There are several definitions of the word "culture," but for today's post I am working from the definition: "culture - n 1. the total of the inherited ideas, beliefs, values, and knowledge, which constitute the shared bases of social action."

Interestingly, the definition evolved from: culture: mid-15c., "the tilling of land," from L. cultura, from pp. stem of colere "tend, guard, cultivate, till" (see cult). The figurative sense of "cultivation through education" is first attested c.1500. Meaning "the intellectual side of civilization" is from 1805; that of "collective customs and achievements of a people" is from 1867. (Online Dictionary, World English Dictionary).

We grow from infants into adults within our culture in the sense of "it takes a village to raise a child."

Our cognitive nourishment as well as our physical nourishment come though our roots in the soil of the many ideological gardens that comprise our culture.

Another word related to culture is "environment," so we can also say that we grow from infants into adults within our environment in the sense of "it takes a village to raise a child."

"Environment" is sometimes a better word to use than "culture" because it can also encompass the discoveries taking place in microbiology and genetics.

Discoveries which inform us that our concept of our human condition has been radically limited in the past.

Limited to the point of damaging our culture/environment to the degree that our culture/environment will become extinct, in whole or in part, if we do not grow in our understanding (see e.g. The Human Microbiome Congress, On The New Meaning of "Human" - 2, The "It's In Your Genes" Myth - 2, On The Origin and Future of Nomads).

But, I want today's post to focus on the national culture, its many subcultures, and what they cultivate within us in their role as "our village" which raises us from childhood into adulthood.

More specifically, let's focus on how unaware we tend to be that our culture teaches us to be dishonest in one degree or another, because it is dishonest in one degree or another.

Not long ago the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a Ninth Circuit decision that, among other things, said:
Saints may always tell the truth, but for mortals living means lying. We lie to protect our privacy (“No, I don’t live around here”); to avoid hurt feelings (“Friday is my study night”); to make others feel better (“Gee you’ve gotten skinny”); to avoid recriminations (“I only lost $10 at poker”); to prevent grief (“The doc says you’re getting better”); to maintain domestic tranquility (“She’s just a friend”); to avoid social stigma (“I just haven’t met the right woman”); for career advancement (“I’m sooo lucky to have a smart boss like you”); to avoid being lonely (“I love opera”); to eliminate a rival (“He has a boyfriend”); to achieve an objective (“But I love you so much”); to defeat an objective (“I’m allergic to latex”); to make an exit (“It’s not you, it’s me”); to delay the inevitable (“The check is in the mail”); to communicate displeasure (“There’s nothing wrong”); to get someone off your back (“I’ll call you about lunch”); to escape a nudnik (“My mother’s on the other line”); to namedrop (“We go way back”); to set up a surprise party (“I need help moving the piano”); to buy time (“I’m on my way”); to keep up appearances (“We’re not talking divorce”); to avoid taking out the trash (“My back hurts”); to duck an obligation (“I’ve got a headache”); to maintain a public image (“I go to church every Sunday”); to make a point (“Ich bin ein Berliner”); to save face (“I had too much to drink”); to humor (“Correct as usual, King Friday”); to avoid embarrassment (“That wasn’t me”); to curry favor (“I’ve read all your books”); to get a clerkship (“You’re the greatest living jurist”); to save a dollar (“I gave at the office”); or to maintain innocence (“There are eight tiny reindeer on the rooftop”).

And we don’t just talk the talk, we walk the walk, as reflected by the popularity of plastic surgery, elevator shoes, wood veneer paneling, cubic zirconia, toupees, artificial turf and cross-dressing. Last year, Americans spent $40 billion on cosmetics — an industry devoted almost entirely to helping people deceive each other about their appearance. It doesn’t matter whether we think that such lies are despicable or cause more harm than good. An important aspect of personal autonomy is the right to shape one’s public and private persona by choosing when to tell the truth about oneself, when to conceal and when to deceive. Of course, lies are often disbelieved or discovered, and that too is part of the pull and tug of social intercourse. But it’s critical to leave such interactions in private hands, so that we can make choices about who we are. How can you develop a reputation as a straight shooter if lying is not an option?
(The Dredd Philosophy Is The Dread Truth, quoting from US v Alvarez). Where does this come from, when some of our cultural proverbs tell us how honest George Washington was ("I cannot tell a lie" - which is an untruth too)?

Our "Father of Public Relations" tells us it comes from a few powerful people down through our cultural history who have a philosophy we tend to be unaware of:
THE conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country. We are governed, our minds are molded, our tastes formed, our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of. This is a logical result of the way in which our democratic society is organized. Vast numbers of human beings must cooperate in this manner if they are to live together as a smoothly functioning society.
Edward L. Bernays

Our invisible governors are, in many cases, unaware of the identity of their fellow members in the inner cabinet.

They govern us by their qualities of natural leadership, their ability to supply needed ideas and by their key position in the social structure. Whatever attitude one chooses to take toward this condition, it remains a fact that in almost every act of our daily lives, whether in the sphere of politics or business, in our social conduct or our ethical thinking, we are dominated by the relatively small number of persons — a trifling fraction of our hundred and twenty [now 320] million — who understand the mental processes and social patterns of the masses. It is they who pull the wires which control the public mind, who harness old social forces and contrive new ways to bind and guide the world.
It is the purpose of this book to explain the structure of the mechanism which controls the public mind, and to tell how it is manipulated by the special pleader who seeks to create public acceptance for a particular idea or commodity. It will attempt at the same time to find the due place in the modern democratic scheme for this new propaganda and to suggest its gradually evolving code of ethics and practice.
(A Closer Look At MOMCOM's DNA - 4, quoting from Propaganda). That is the big picture in general, but the business subculture surrogates carry out much of that work:
One of the most important comments on deceit, I think, was made by Adam Smith. He pointed out that a major goal of business is to deceive and oppress the public.

And one of the striking features of the modern period is the institutionalization of that process, so that we now have huge industries deceiving the public — and they're very conscious about it, the public relations industry. Interestingly, this developed in the freest countries—in Britain and the US — roughly around time of WWI, when it was recognized that enough freedom had been won that people could no longer be controlled by force. So modes of deception and manipulation had to be developed in order to keep them under control
(The Deceit Business, quoting Chomsky/Adam Smith). Other surrogates educate us through manipulation of the speech of culture:
Most propaganda tends to be more subtle than this. In fact, it sounds indistinguishable from "respectable" political speech. Probably the only difference is that propaganda (according to our definition) is designed, whereas most political speech contains CSD due to an institutionalised habit (going back centuries) of minimising content likely to alienate voters or offend power interests. (This results in extremely banal communication, which nevertheless has propagandistic and hypnotic qualities.) The higher the level of political speech, the more likely that the speech-writers design the speech to have a propagandistic effect.
(Anxiety Culture - Propaganda, emphasis added). One of the works of propaganda is to educate us to not realize that what we believe is a product of propaganda, so "public relations" (PR) is the current term of art for that dynamic, but PR has the same purpose and function that hardcore propaganda does.

It would take several books to completely cover the issue, so Dredd Blog readers can click on the Series Posts tab at the top of this, or any other post, and find many more posts with more details on the subject.

That goes for the psychological problems of our culture too (The Cultural Amygdala, Etiology of Social Dementia - 10).

The next post in this series is here.

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