Ours is an age that specialises in the industrial production of fully-programmable human beings whilst at the same time generating the very persuasive illusion that it’s all about personal empowerment, personal freedom, personal choice, etc,.
It could be argued that we have always been subject to the invasive conditioning of whatever society we happen to have been born into and this is undeniable. It might also be argued – with some grounds – that personal freedom has increased dramatically over the last few hundred years. The grosser forms of enslavement and disempowerment would now be considered appalling anachronisms that no right-thinking person would tolerate for a second, but this visible progress could easily distract us from a more subtle form of bondage that has become both all-pervasive and extremely difficult to spot. We can explain how this could be by looking at what Douglas Flemons (1991) calls the Salesman’s Trick –
As any good hypnotist, magician, or comedian knows, the offer or availability of freely choosing between alternatives at a given contextual level brings the particularities of choice into the foreground of conscious awareness. This necessarily relegates to the background (i.e. out of awareness and out of the realm of conscious choice) the higher-level context or premise determining the range and meaning of the offered alternatives. The presence of choice (between particularities) at one level masks – and in some sense precludes – choice (between premises) at a more encompassing level.
The way we trick someone in this way, as Flemons says, is by offering them a profusion of trivial choices that capture their attention in such a way that they cannot see beyond them. When we can’t see beyond the domain that is composed of ‘choices that are only trivially different from each other’ then these trivial choices cease to be trivial – they become deeply significant and entirely worthy of our deliberations with regard to what choice we want to go with. The trivial issue becomes a big deal, in other words. Being fully engaged with what we have been provided with means that we are wholly oblivious to the bigger picture, and so what we’re talking about here is simple distraction.
Society empowers us to the extent that it offers us all these trivial choices therefore, but it is a phoney type of empowerment since what’s happening here is that we are being kept unconscious of what’s really going on. We are being granted the freedom not to see that we have lost our freedom, in other words, which is a freedom that feels good at first, since it is easy, but which takes us to a bad place in the long run since we are now lost in a pseudo-world that is made up entirely of issues that don’t really matter one way or the other. Once we look at things in terms of the Salesman’s Trick it becomes much easier to see that this is what contemporary society is all about. It’s not about anything else – only the provision of false and therefore entrapping freedoms. We are provided with false and entrapping freedoms which we compete viciously for (since all of these so-called ‘freedoms’ have to be paid for and only those of us who are successful in the game will be able to afford them).
In the past when society was much cruder in the way that it oppressed its members, it was relatively easy to see the lack of freedom; nowadays we have been so very effectively sucked in by the salesman’s trick that no one is going to see the oppression. We consider ourselves to be educated, sophisticated, cultured, capable of making our own choices in life, and so on and so forth, which makes it all the more difficult for us to understand that we have been made fools of. To see that we’re being taken for fools isn’t of course consistent with our idea of ourselves as being ‘empowered and autonomous individuals’, and so this is another reason for us not to see it (if one were needed).
The way the setup works therefore is that we are kept busy competing for a false type of freedom that we can’t see to be false. It is false because what it comes down to is ‘the freedom to choose between options that are only nominally different’. If the difference was significant then the freedom here would be real but this isn’t the case – all of our so-called choices come down to the same thing – we are choosing to play the game. Actually – however – we aren’t really choosing anything since we don’t know the game to be a game. In order for us to see the game for what it is we would have to be able to see beyond it and this is the one thing we can’t do! This is what the salesman’s trick is all about – distracting us from seeing that we have been cheated. We’ve been given some cheap trinket with one hand whilst being robbed of something which has genuine value with the other. We have been cheated out of the possibility of being genuinely free – because we can’t see the game to be a game we don’t realise that we don’t have to play it. We think it’s simply reality and so we don’t question it.
This isn’t some philosophical or sociological observation that we can amuse ourselves with if we wish, if that happens to be our thing – it is of the most pressing significance to us anything ever could be. What could be more deserving of our attention than the fact that we have been cheated (or have cheated ourselves) of our intrinsic freedom, and have been press-ganged into taking part in a game we can’t see to be a game? We can talk about the advances that we have made in our civilization and point – for example – to technology and medicine, but this is a bit of a decoy. What is all the technology in the world worth if we are ‘unfree without knowing it’? What use is it for us to extend our lifespans (as we have done) if this only means ‘extending the period of our enslavement’? If we are not putting our autonomy first then anything else we work on is merely part of our collective denial, the collective denial of our true situation. If we don’t put the truth first then what good is anything we do?
We would all agree that theft is ‘a bad thing’, and that we ought not to do it, but when it comes to the biggest theft of all – which is the theft of our intrinsic freedom – we don’t say anything about it. This societal game that we have been subsumed within is not life but a poor substitute for it, a sham version of it. Life isn’t a matter of choosing between one trivial choice and another – the act of deciding (as much as we might value it) is a denial of the freedom we have not to waste our time with such nonsense. As Oscar Wilde has said, ‘The fact is that the public have an insatiable curiosity to know everything, accept what is worth knowing’. It turns out – unsurprisingly enough – that it is not possible to rob people of their intrinsic freedom in this way (and replace it with the deceptive extrinsic freedom which is provided by the social game) without introducing a ‘jinx’ that can never be remedied. We can celebrate the realm of trivial choice as much as we like, we can talk it up as much as we like, promote it as much as we like, but nothing can ever cover up its essential hollowness – or at least, not for very long.
Our socially-sanctioned ‘job’ – so to speak – is to try to cover up that hollowness as best we can. That’s the denial – our duty is our denial and our denial our duty. We put a spin on this however and say that we’re ‘chasing our dreams’ or ‘striving to achieve our life goals’, or whatever else, but what we’re really trying to do is fill an existential void (and whatever we chuck into that void is going to disappear without a trace). That is – of course – how it always is with existential voids. Were we not constrained to live out our lives within a superficial game that we mistake for reality then there would be no existential void, and so that in itself would be the cure for our jinxed situation. Instead, however, we go in the opposite direction and engage all the more feverishly in the societal game. ‘More and better doing,’ is seen as the answer to all of our ills; ‘set goals and persevere until you attain them,’ we are told. ‘Gain the confidence that comes with successful purposeful action’ is the message we are given – ‘Keep on striving and don’t ever be discouraged, don’t ever be beaten. Make sure you stay positive no matter what…’
Our goals are just ‘the game’ however. Our striving is the game, our attempts to find validation for our lives within the social framework is the game, and so we’re trying to cure ourselves with the very thing that made us sick in the first place. The problem isn’t that we ‘aren’t trying hard enough’ but rather that the goals which we have been provided with are lures which are being used to trap us. We’ve been tricked on two fronts:  we’ve been tricked into thinking that what we’re doing is what we really want to do (when it’s not), and  we’ve been tricked into believing that these activities will make us happy (when they absolutely won’t). Ours is not an age marked by our valuing of the autonomy of the individual, but the exact reverse of this. The ‘valuing of the individual’ which we hear so much about in the West is a myth – we’re buying our individuality off the shelf, and so what we’re saying isn’t true. We value the appearance of individuality, not the thing itself…