Sunday, 1 April 2018

Very Stable Idiot Week 13: March 26 - April 1 2018


“I never saw a body with bullet holes that was more devastating than taking the right to arm ourselves away.” - 2016 US Presidential Candidate, and current US Secretary of Housing and Urban Development,  Ben Carson.

‘Murica …


This week, - on Brett Bartholomew’s recommendation - I read Edward Bernays’ Crystallization of Public Opinion.  

I thought this was going to be a good primer on what was then the new profession of public relations (written in 1923 by a guy often referred to as the ‘father of public relations’), but it turned out to be much more, offering insight into the early days of PR, advertising, the media, what is and isn’t ‘news’, herd mentalities, propaganda, and tribalism.  

I actually hadn’t heard of Bernays before, so before digging into the book, I read a couple of his essays - including the excellent The Engineering of Consent from 1947, and skimmed through Propaganda - his longer book from 1928.

“We are governed, our minds are molded, our tastes formed, our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of.” - Bernays

Bernays points out that as citizens we have “voluntarily agreed to let an invisible government sift the data and high‑spot the outstanding issues so that our field of choice shall be narrowed to practical proportions.”  Because it is next to impossible for us to have a thorough understand of all things necessary to navigate our worlds, we tend to respond instinctively, trusting the leaders of our chosen groups to think for us.  

“ … the group mind does not think in the strict sense of the word. In place of thoughts it has impulses, habits and emotions. In making up its mind its first impulse is usually to follow the example of a trusted leader. This is one of the most firmly established principles of mass psychology … when the example of the leader is not at hand and the herd must think for itself, it does so by means of cliches, pat words or images which stand for a whole group of ideas or experiences.”

While we now have access to all the information in human history in our pockets, this has served only to give us a false sense of our own importance and intelligence.  It hasn’t actually changed how we respond to the world around us; it hasn’t actually made us more reasonable, or more reasoned.  

In most cases, we still simply just react.  And parrot.

As Bernays’ contemporary Walter Lippmann wrote in his book Public Opinion

we do not first see, and then define, we define first and then see.  In the great blooming, buzzing confusion of the outer world we pick out what our culture has already defined for us, and we tend to perceive that which we have picked out in the form stereotyped for us by our culture … we imagine most things before we experience them. And those preconceptions, unless education has made us acutely aware, govern deeply the whole process of perception.”

We may know next to nothing about a subject, but tightly cling to a belief that has been spoon-fed to us by the group, or group-leader, we belong to. 

Despite our ignorance, we still “form definite and positive judgments upon that subject.” (Bernays)

William Trotter - another Bernays contemporary - writes:

"If we examine the mental furniture of the average man, we shall find it made up of a vast number of judgments of a very precise kind upon subjects of very great variety, complexity, and difficulty. He will have fairly settled views upon the origin and nature of the universe, and upon what he will probably call its meaning; he will have conclusions as to what is to happen to him at death and after, as to what is and what should be the basis of conduct. He will know how the country should be governed, and why it is going to the dogs, why this piece of legislation is good and that bad. He will have strong views upon military and naval strategy, the principles of taxation, the use of alcohol and vaccination, the treatment of influenza, the prevention of hydrophobia, upon municipal trading, the teaching of Greek, upon what is permissible in art, satisfactory in literature, and hopeful in science.

"The bulk of such opinions must necessarily be without rational basis, since many of them are concerned with problems admitted by the expert to be still unsolved, while as to the rest it is clear that the training and experience of no average man can qualify him to have any opinion upon them at all. The rational method adequately used would have told him that on the great majority of these questions there could be for him but one attitude-that of suspended judgment."

Not only do we form opinions on complex issues despite not having adequate understanding, we will defend these opinions  - often violently - when they are contradicted.  “It is axiomatic that men who know little are often intolerant of a point of view that is contrary to their own”, and this intolerance “is almost inevitably accompanied by a natural and true inability to comprehend or make allowance for opposite points of view.” (Bernays)

Somehow - even though our opinions are based not on knowledge, but on a stereotype that has been pre-fed to us - we are unwilling to make any attempt to understand a contrary view to our own.  Especially significant is the tendency of races to maintain religious beliefs and customs long after these have lost their meaning”.  Perhaps the most prescient example of this being the current ‘debate’ on gun control.  The Second Amendment to the Constitution states: “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” 

The right of the people of each state to maintain a well-regulated militia.

A statement that is long past its due date, and that has been co-opted through decades of political lobbying, is somehow now the crux of an argument put forth by millions of Americans - despite the continued shootings, and mass shootings, and despite the relative lack of this in the rest of the ‘free world’.  


The fact remains that many Americans cannot take a reasoned position on this. 

The fact remains that even the knowledgeable are divided in this debate. 

The fact remains that we form our opinions based not on ideology - but on tribalism.  

“What has been so painstakingly built up is not to be lightly destroyed. Each group, therefore, within itself, considers its own standards ultimate and indisputable, and tends to dismiss all contrary or different standards as indefensible.” - Everett Dean Martin, The Behavior of Crowds

The modern hyper-polarization - whether regarding guns, or otherwise - is characterized far more by tribal division than it is ideological reasoning. Its more about us versus them - and it’s this competition that really gets us going.  Everett Dean Martin, in The Behavior of Crowds (1920), points out

"Nothing so easily catches general attention and grips a crowd as a contest of any kind … the crowd unconsciously identifies its members with one or the other competitor.  Success enables the winning crowd to ‘crow over’ the losers. Such an action becomes symbolical, and is utilized by the ego to enhance its feeling of importance. In society this egoism tends to take the form of the desire for dominance." 

According to Mr. Martin, the main satisfaction, which the individual derives from his group association, is the satisfaction of his vanity through the creation of an enlarged self-importance. 

“America is now not one country. It is two tribes. Warring in a zero-sum game, in which one party seeks to undo everything of the last administration.” - Andrew Stephens

This hyperpolarization is a powerful disincentive to compromise.  As we have seen in the McConnell era, to even begin negotiations is seen as to surrender.  

What has been so painstakingly built up is not to be lightly destroyed. Each group, therefore, within itself, considers its own standards ultimate and indisputable, and tends to dismiss all contrary or different standards as indefensible.” (Martin)

The Power of PR:

An interesting story from Bernays’ The Crystallization of Public Opinion

“ … a man set out to prove to another that it was not so much what a man did as the way it was heralded which ensures  his place in history. He cited Barbara Frietchie, Evangeline, John Smith and a half dozen others as instances to prove that they are remembered not for what they did, but because they had excellent counsel on their public relations.  'Very good,' agreed the friend. 'But show me a case where a person who has really done a big thing has been overlooked; 'You know Paul Revere, of course,' he said. 'But tell me the names of the two other fellows who rode that night to rouse the countryside with the news that the British were coming, ‘Never heard of them,' was the answer. There were three waiting to see the signal hung in the tower of the Old North Church, he said. 'Every one of them was mounted and spurred, just as Mr. Longfellow described Paul Revere. They all got the signal. They all rode and waked the farmers, spreading the warning. Afterward one of them was an officer in Washington's army, another became governor of one of the States. Not one in twenty thousand Americans ever heard the names of the other two, and there is hardly a person in America who does not know all about Revere."' 

'Did Revere make history or did Longfellow?'" 

Who knew?!?

I love reading older books like these.  It’s fun to find the splashes of originality that we recognize in the ripples of today.  And it’s interesting that the best of the old books - even when much of what is written within them is seemingly topical like Bernays’ is here, is still relevant today.  

Drop a pebble in the water: just a splash, and it is gone; But there's half-a-hundred ripples circling on and on and on, Spreading, spreading from the center, flowing on out to the sea. And there is no way of telling where the end is going to be. James W. Foley


“Cynicism is easy. Mimicry is easy. Optimistic contrarians are the rarest breed.” - Naval Ravikant

So on-point about the state of our industry right now, in my opinion.  
Many mimics.  Many cynics.  
Few original thinkers.
And not a lot of reasoned critics. 

Be better. 

I have heard a few times now from different folks that they don’t like the word ‘industry’.  They prefer ‘profession’.

Understand this - the field that coaches, therapists, sport scientists, nutritionists, etc. all work in - that is called an industry.  

The specific job that we do within that industry - that is called a profession.  

It’s not one or the other - both are appropriate. 

“Politics is sports writ large — pick a side, rally the tribe, exchange stories confirming bias, hurl insults and threats at the other side.” - Naval

Four Reasons Americans Are in the Dark About Basic Realities
Umair Haque, Mar 27

Why are so many Americans so in the dark? For example, if I was to ask the average person: “do you know that most Europeans have rights to healthcare, income, and retirement? As in constitutional, inalienable rights, like the Second Amendment, only not for guns— rights that you don’t have, and might never have?”, they’d be surprised, perhaps shocked — and maybe even a little enlightened as to why life in America is so dismal, gruesome, and tough.

There’s only really one way a society can be that deep in the dark. It’s media must have failed. On some level, American media is one of many institutions that’s failed — and it’s failed pretty dismally. At what? These four things.

  • Civilizing
  • Informing
  • Reality-checking
  • Opening minds

I’m not so sure that ‘life in America is dismal, gruesome, and tough’ (at least not for most) - and not sure that the author here has ever actually lived in Europe - as his Utopian description  falls short in most instances, - but I agree with the basic thesis that the media has responsibilities in a free society, and that it is failing with most of them right now.   

The truth is that we are all still trying to find our way in the new reality that is the 24/7 availability of everything - to everyone.  

While most people respond to their world instinctively, there exists an intelligent few who are charged with the responsibility of contemplating and influencing the tide of history 


"The individual has always had to struggle to keep from being overwhelmed by the tribe. If you try it, you will be lonely often, and sometimes frightened. But no price is too high to pay for the privilege of owning yourself."Friedrich Nietzsche


  1. Thanks for sharing Stuart. Who were the other two messengers?

    1. Thanks James,

      Bernays' referenced two others.

      This website references five:

      This references '2 or 3':

      - Stu

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