Society Is An Advert For Itself

What we have succeeded in doing (without necessarily meaning to) is creating a completely ‘dishonest’ environment for ourselves to live in. We all heard about ‘fake news’ but what this amounts to is a fake world. We can make a very obvious statement at this point and that is to say that ‘living in a fundamentally dishonest environment is without any doubt going to be psychologically harmful for us’! This might seem like too obvious a point to make but we need to make it all the same because it’s such a vitally important one – it’s a vitally important point that we never actually pay any attention to! We might spend money in a health food store or go to the gym twice a week or practice yoga or meditation but we never seem to give any thought to the fact that our actual environment is fundamentally dishonest, and therefore toxic


I’m not making a metaphysical point here about the illusoriness of the world or anything like that – what I’m talking about is the fundamentally deceptive nature of the communications we surround ourselves with. Just to give one example – it is abundantly obvious that we are living in a world that is completely dominated by advertisements of one sort or another. Everything is an advert for something! This is therefore just another way of saying that the reality we are presented with on all sides is dishonest – it’s not what it seems to be. Everything we see or read is propaganda for the system that is being daily foisted upon us!


Adverts are ‘dishonest’ because they always claim to be about something else than what they’re actually about – the day has long since passed when adverts were purely and simply about providing information about a product. We have moved on a long way since that day. The science of advertising relies on the fact that we are very easily manipulated by ‘unconscious associations’, implications which are there, but which don’t need to be spelt out. These associations work on us without us knowing that we are being worked on. This is just the same as saying that ‘adverts work by manipulation’, which is very obviously true – no one is going to be foolish enough to try to deny this!


We might agree that this is true but say that it’s not really a big deal either – we all know that ads are about manipulation, but so what? We have got used it to this stage and presumably we all feel that we’re immune to it. Where advertising surely does become a problem however is when the whole world becomes one giant advert, one giant ‘publicity exercise for itself,’ as John Berger implies here –

Publicity has another important social function. The fact that this function has not been planned as a purpose by those who make and use publicity in no way lessens its significance. Publicity turns consumption into a substitute for democracy. The choice of what one eats (or wears or drives) takes the place of significant political choice. Publicity helps to mask and compensate for all that is undemocratic within society. And it also masks what is happening in the rest of the world. Publicity adds up to a kind of philosophical system. It explains everything in its own terms. It interprets the world.

The entire world becomes a setting for the fulfillment of publicity’s promise of the good life. The world smiles at us. It offers itself to us. And because everywhere is imagined as offering itself to us, everywhere is more or less the same. …

Adverts aren’t just trying to promote the product that they happen to be showcasing, John Berger says elsewhere – they are, much more importantly, promoting our whole way of life, the particular way of life within which that product has a place. So how could we say that it’s not a ‘big deal’ when our whole environment is designed to manipulate or control us and there’s nothing left in it that’s at all honest? Surely we must realise that there are bound to be seriously adverse psychological consequences to living in a world that is totally biased, a world that is nothing more than ‘an advert for itself!


If we were unlucky enough to grow up surrounded by people who always had an ulterior motive, who were always duplicitous, who never did or said anything without a hidden agenda, then our mental health would of course suffer grievously as a result – we’d be in need of an awful lot of therapy if this were the case. The same is true therefore when we live in an environment is always comes with an ulterior motive, an environment that is designed to control us, an environment which always carries some kind of ‘disguised coercive element’. The usual way is for us to be more or less oblivious to the coercive (or controlling) aspect of our environment, and unaware of the all pervading dishonesty of the type of communications that make up the world we have to live in, and so this means that we are ‘unfree without knowing that we are’. Apparently – however – this very peculiar set-up seems to work; apparently – we can get by perfectly well this way!


There is a problem here though even if we can’t see it – there’s a problem especially if we can’t see it! In order to accommodate ourselves to this invisibly coercive and deceptive world we have to live on a very superficial level, and this is fundamentally unnatural and therefore unhealthy for us. It has harmful consequences. Human beings are not naturally superficial; we not naturally lacking in curiosity about the world we live in. All we need to do in order to appreciate this is to look at children – children are (of course) full of curiosity, full of questions. Adults  – on the other hand – aren’t! As adults (oddly enough) we seem to swallow whatever line in nonsense it is that is being fed to us at the time. We’ll go along with anything. The alternative seems to be just too frightening for us!


So the ‘problem’ that we are looking at here is the problem – we might say – of compulsory superficiality. We are given no choice in this matter – were pushed into this extraordinary limited state of being from a very early age. We don’t know that this fate has befallen us (we have no way of knowing it) but the quality of our lives has been degraded all the same. Another crucial aspect of this ‘compulsive superficiality’ that were talking about here is that we don’t have any genuine volition. If we are being swayed by superficial appearances the whole time then how can we possibly be said to have any genuine volition of our own? This is clearly an impossibility.


We can put all of this together – therefore – by saying that we have created the world for ourselves which, rather than being based on the Principle of Truth, is based purely upon the Principle of Deception. We so used to this that we think nothing of it – our eyes are accustomed to the systematic insincerity and so we pay it no heed. As Matthieu Ricard says,

We are very much like birds that have lived too long in a cage to which we return even when we get the chance to fly away. We have grown so accustomed to our faults that we can barely imagine what life would be like without them. The prospect of change makes us dizzy.

In this world it’s not about ‘what’s true’, it’s about what seems to be true. It’s about ‘image rather than content’. We all know this very well – who’s actually going to deny it?  The question we’re asking here is ‘What effect is it actually going to have on us to be living in such a world?’  One answer is to say that the consequences of this state of affairs is that we become completely gullible, i.e. ‘100% manipulable by external controlling factors’. We do what we told to do and we believe what we’re told to believe, and what this comes down to is a complete lack of autonomy. We have ‘lost ourselves,’ in other words. We’ve lost ourselves completely. It is one thing to have autonomy and find yourself in a world that is trying to manipulate you (or amongst people who are trying to manipulate you) and quite another to have never had that  in the first place and to live in a world whose very basis is manipulation and coercion!


This is such an extraordinary thing to contemplate – we have created a world that denies us, a world that is ‘against us’! It isn’t the case either – I would argue – that this world is ‘bad for most of us but is good for a small minority’, which is very much what it looks like on the surface, admittedly. What we’re looking at here is a fundamentally unfair system, it is true, but even the so-called ‘winners’ in this game aren’t winning anything worth having! By denying others we deny ourselves, after all. By controlling each other we are just as bound as our victims by our own need to control. It’s actually the business of ‘playing the game’ that denies us, not whether we win or lose, which is of course what we are brought up to believe. ‘Playing the game’ denies us because by always striving for personal advantage (which is what we have been brought up to do) we turn our backs on our true compassionate nature, and if this isn’t a recipe for misery and frustration then nothing is!


We can only truly be ourselves by being compassionate  – as all the great Wisdom Traditions tell us; to try to find meaning in life by being selfish and manipulative and competitive  (which is what our society demands of us, whether we see it or not) is a road to nowhere! Meaning in life doesn’t come from being good at controlling, or from being a ‘winner in the game’, but from nourishing the imagination, nourishing the creative and compassionate side of ourselves. Our true nature is incomparably greater than we have been led to believe that it is, but we are afraid to find that out, and this unacknowledged fear drives all sorts of toxicity…







The Great Deception

We start off in life with what looks like a wide, wide road ahead of us – a road that branches off in all directions, a road that could potentially lead us anywhere at all. As we make our way down this road however it closes in on us more and more until before very long all we’re left with is the one very narrow track that has been allotted to us, a track that only takes us in the one direction, whether we happen to like it or not. This process is called ‘becoming an adult’.


In one way it is true that a huge field of possibilities lies ahead of us when we start off in life. Of course this is true – life itself lies ahead of us!  The road we’re on is as wide as life itself and there’s no telling where it will lead us. Something happens to narrow the possibilities that are available to us however, without us ever realizing that any ‘narrowing of possibilities’ is happening to us. This is what we might call ‘the imperceptible erosion of life’. We all know that this process happens, even if – naturally enough – we may not want to focus on it too much. We instinctively know that life shouldn’t be like this – that it shouldn’t be a ‘narrowing down of possibilities’ – and yet somehow it is. Entropy sets in, and makes the pattern of our life ever more predictable.


In one way this is a perfectly natural process – entropy isn’t something that human beings invented, after all. This ‘narrowing down’ occurs as a result of us getting trapped in our own habits, our own opinions, our own beliefs about ourselves and the world. We cherish these opinions and beliefs of ours, and yet at the same time they strangle us slowly but surely. The sense of security they engender blinds us to the fact that we are fashioning our own prison, brick by brick. We can call this a ‘natural process’ because it happens as a result of our own doing therefore – no one forces us to build a prison cell of belief for ourselves. We are our own very willing jailers. We get trapped in our own mental habits, which solidify around us and block out the wider view. In The Dawn of Tantra (1975) Guenther and Trungpa speak of this process as ‘going astray’ or ‘falling into error’ –

The process of transformation which we have described is one of growing narrowness and frozenness.  We are somehow tied down to our senses, to the ordinary mode of perception.  We dimly feel that something else might have been possible.  If we try to express this situation in traditional religious terms, we might say that man is a fallen being.  But here he has not fallen because he has sinned or transgressed some commandment coming from outside him, but by the very fact that he has moved in a certain direction.  This is technically know in Buddhism as bhranti in Sanskrit and ‘Khrul-pa in Tibetan, and is usually translated as “error”.

In another way however we could say that this ‘narrowing down’ (or ‘going astray’) process also has an external component – an aspect to it which is ‘artificial’ or ‘unnatural’ in the sense that it is ‘imposed on us from the outside’. This aspect of the narrowing-down process is enforced upon us by an external agency, independently of what we may want, and this ‘external agency’ is more generally known simply as society. The social world – inevitably – has some kind of an idea regarding ‘who we should be’ and ‘how we should live life’ and it pushes us in this direction. Society doesn’t just have ‘some kind of an idea’, it has a very clear and precise idea!  This is essentially what society is – it is a set of templates, a set of ideas regarding ‘who we should be’ and ‘how we should live life’.  What else would society be, after all?


Even though it is obvious enough in one way that society ‘externally determines us’, in another way it is not so obvious at all. When we start off in our adult life and we are looking at the social world and all that it offers us we have the impression of there being many diverse possibilities being dangled in front of us. The choices we are faced we are too many, if anything! We are if anything bewildered by the sheer range of possibilities and the road ahead of us seems very broad, at this stage. There is a sneaky trick being played on us here though – this is the so-called ‘salesman trick,’ described here by Douglas Flemons (1991) –

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.

We feel so empowered by all the apparent choices that are being offered to us that we completely fail to see that whatever option it is we end up going for, we’re always going to end up with the same old thing. The ‘same old thing’ that we’re talking about here is ‘the socialized life’, which always means going down predetermined tracks, tracks that have been ‘decided in advance’ for us. It doesn’t matter what role we take up, it’s still something that is being imposed upon us from the outside. We’re conforming to the template that’s been provided for us by society no matter what choices we make; we may think that we’re in the driving seat but really it’s the other way around, society is controlling us.


A good way to think about this is in terms of ‘playing a game’ – there can be lots of roles that can be played in the game but it is nevertheless always the same old game. On the level of ‘what roles shall I select’ there can be tremendous choice, but all of these so-called ‘choices’ come down to the same thing – we are choosing to play the game. All the apparent choices (and all the excitement that comes with that apparent freedom) boil down to just the one choice. We are again victims of ‘the salesman trick’. So what’s wrong with this, we might ask? What’s wrong with choosing to play the game, if we want to?


The answer to this question is ‘nothing at all’ – if we actually know that this is what we’re doing, that is. This is where the trick comes in though – we’re never told that there is anything else. We’re never given the option of ‘not playing the game’, in other words, and this is a very big deception. It’s not just ‘a very big deception’ either – it’s the ultimate deception. It’s the archetypal deception. This is the deception that was played upon Truman Burbank in The Truman Show, the deception that is inherent in the concept of the Matrix. In the ancient Gnostic myth, it is the deception that is the Demiurge employs to trap and imprison the soul-sparks of mankind in the False Creation.



It’s fine to choose to play a game if we know that this is what the choice is, in other words, but if we don’t know that it is only a game (if this hasn’t ever been explained to us) then what exactly does this mean for us? If we are being offered a substitute version of reality (a ‘Toontown version’ which is incomparably narrower than the genuine thing) and we don’t know that we have been tricked in this way (‘tricked out of our birthright’, so to speak) then how are we to feel about this? Is there any way that we are actually going to feel OK about being tricked like this, if we knew? Are we really going to feel OK about spending our lives in some two-dimensional sterile Toontown, and missing out thereby on the true reality itself?