The age of manipulation

In our therapeutic times, nothing stands in the way of self-gratification.

Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn

Topics Politics

All around us are signs of our rejection of authority.

Retro styles and music mimic the countercultural style of the 1960s and early 70s, as people pay huge amounts of money to purchase ‘distressed’ blue jeans and flower-power paraphernalia. Our hostile driving habits reveal our self-definition as individuals uninhibited by archaic constraints like civility or safety.

In the debate over possible war with Iraq, we ignore the inconvenient reality that we are already at war – with one another. And those who proffer remedies – diversity trainers, multicultural consultants, business etiquette advisers, personnel managers and the like – only make matters worse, by furthering the therapeutic ethos that raises individual self-gratification and self-expression above all other pursuits.

Unnoticed in our supposedly liberated age, the authority wielded by these self-professed experts is tremendous, as is the authority wielded by advertisers and marketers who reinforce the ‘I, me, mine’ spirit of the age.

Sociologist Philip Rieff’s path-breaking book, The Triumph of the Therapeutic, attributed the rise of the twentieth-century cult of personal liberation to a long-term shift from a religious to a therapeutic worldview – the former based on faith and revelation and the latter on boundless self-gratification.

He wrote that the constraints of community membership that once steered individual instinct and impulse into limited channels have yielded to a lack of constraint and a persistent search for a ‘manipulatable sense of wellbeing’. He seems to vacillate between suggesting that society in the West witnessed by the 1960s an absence of culture – and a lack of ‘permissions and restraints’ intrinsic to any culture – and positing the rise of a new culture, with its own set of allowances and interdictions that supported the therapeutic outlook.

While at times our social world appears to be one on the brink of barbarism, there are also signs that the trends afoot are evidence of an emergent culture in its own right. While we profess to stand at the apogee of personal liberation, when it comes to real freedom of the sorts for which previous generations fought and died – freedom of thought and expression, freedom to exercise one’s political being, freedom to raise children to be creative and productive citizens, freedom to find fulfillment in work – we are subject to more limitations, or at least pressures, than we admit.

It must be said that societies in the West have made huge gains in the struggle for free speech and political rights. These movements to enhance democracy, however, have been accompanied by other developments that work directly against meaningful self-government.

Philosopher Alisdair McIntyre suggests in his book After Virtue that the social chaos we see around us resulted from the shattering in the eighteenth century of the coherent system of moral understanding that originated with Aristotle. What was torpedoed in modern notions of the self, McIntyre thinks, was the notion of a ‘telos’, the idea that the point of individual existence was a well-lived life – a life devoted to a transcendent good.

Faith in such a transcendent good, because it cannot be justified by reason alone, appears to modern thinkers as relativistic, so we believe instead in an ‘emotivist’ worldview in which all claims of truth are based on what an individual feels at any given time. The dominant sensibility – that touted by those who believe in tolerance and diversity as ends in themselves – teaches that everything is relative and subjective, and rules out shared standards of judgment in conduct, morals, aesthetics or achievement.

It might seem that this is a recipe for social harmony and justice. But in fact, McIntyre shows that the absence of a coherent set of moral standards that transcends any one individual’s emotional claims obscures the fundamental difference between ‘manipulative and non-manipulative social relations’. If uninhibited emotional expression and subjectively defined wants are all that legitimately guide us, we begin to see others as instruments in our quest or obstacles to be pushed aside.

The New Age slogan ‘personal well-being’ not only pits us predictably against one another but also fails to deliver the personal fulfilment that it promises. Rieff’s phrase is telling: ‘manipulatable sense of well-being.’ Advertisers and marketers sit astride mountainous fortunes made by appealing to our willingness to be manipulated in our search for well-being.

Perhaps this would be understandable if people did end up happy, fulfilled, tolerant and peaceful. But when the pursuit so clearly backfires, and citizens report unprecedented levels of depression, loneliness, and frustration, it might be time to consider whether the promise of liberation has really brought the reality. A social world based on manipulation is one with new sources of authority, even authority that comes in the guise of choice and freedom.

There is more method to our madness than it seems: the therapeutic and market mentalities that are so strong today both urge total revelation and pursuit of our needs and desires, reducing others to mere objects in our paths to be manipulated to our ends. The problem with a culture based on manipulation is that when it does not yield direct results, we have no reason not to turn to antisocial behaviour and even brute force to get our way.

Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn is professor of history at Syracuse University in New York and author of Race Experts: How Racial Etiquette, Sensitivity Training and New Age Therapy Hijacked the Civil Rights Revolution, published by WW Norton (buy this from Amazon UK or Amazon USA).

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Topics Politics


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