The Century of the Self: We the Sheeple


If you’ve got about four hours to spare — better make it five, for the occasional break — watch all four parts of the 2002 BBC documentary miniseries The Century of the Self. Written and directed by Adam Curtis, The Century of the Self explores the rise of public relations and marketing, as well as the influence of various members of the Freud family, especially Sigmund Freud himself.

Because CoS is a British documentary, the average American might never guess it was pushing an agenda. Instead of screaming “THOSE EVIL BASTARDS ARE MANIPULATING US!”, Curtis calmly, thoughtfully, dispassionately suggests that the corporations, which have used the techniques developed by Edward Bernays, Anna Freud and their successors, have subverted our critical thinking skills. Selfish, instinct-driven creatures, Curtis intones quietly, are “ideal consumers”, and consumerism is “a way of giving people the illusion of control while allowing a responsible elite to continue managing society.”

Although we feel we are free, in reality we … have become the slaves of our own desires. We have forgotten that we can be more than that, that there are other sides to human nature. (Curtis, A. [2002]. Century of the Self, Part 4: Eight People Sipping Wine in Kettering [motion picture])

Although CoS is mild anti-big business agitprop, what it says about the subtly destructive effects of Freudian consumerism bears consideration.

In “How to Quack-Proof Yourself Against Pseudoscience”, Dr. Amy Tuteur tells us that some advertisements will try to win us with false flattery: “… [Quacks] invariably try to flatter potential customers by implying that those customers are uncommonly smart, insightful and wary. They portray non-believers as ‘sheeple’ who are content to accept authority figures rather than think for themselves.” [Bold type mine.—ASL]

Take out the prefix “non-” and you have almost verbatim a phrase that commonly appears in Christian comboxes, left there by the sort of atheist who demonstrates his independence of thought by parroting the usual set of tropes, factoids and straw men — the myth of the “Dark Ages”, Hypatia and Giordano Bruno as martyrs to science, religion as the Number One Cause of Wars, and so forth.

What Dr. Tuteur describes is a variety of “social engineering” which appeals to the target’s intellectual vanity. To abandon God is not to abandon the fallibility of the human condition; atheists and agnostics are prone to cognitive biases and emotional manipulation just as believers are. In the world of New Atheist apologetics, we’re encouraged to abandon God on the rather dangerous ground that we’ll prove ourselves knowing folks who can’t be taken in by fairy tales, and to mock the recalcitrant because believers — unlike us! — are too hard-headed to be reasoned with (and yet still too soft-headed to think for themselves!).

What I’m describing here can be called, in Harold Rosenberg’s apt phrase, the “herd of independent minds” phenomenon. But where Rosenberg was apostrophizing the avant-garde artists who, while creating their own targeted “mass culture”, bemoaned their separation from the masses, the New Atheist celebrates his separation from the herd when, in fact, he has simply joined a different flock in which to conform.


This reduction of discussion to targeted sound bites, tweets and bumper stickers, crippling our ability to engage in complex, nuanced discussions, doesn’t only affect the eternal questions; it’s also poisoned our political dialogue. Said former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich, in an interview with Curtis:

Fundamentally, here, we have two different views of human nature and of democracy. You have the view that people are irrational, that they are bundles of unconscious emotion. That comes directly out of Freud. And businesses are very able to respond to that …. Politics must be more than that. Politics and leadership are about engaging the public in a rational discussion and deliberation about what is best, and treating people with respect in terms of their rational abilities to debate what is best. If it’s not that — if it is Freudian, if it’s basically a matter of appealing to the same basic unconscious feelings that business appeals to — then why not let business do it? (Curtis [2002], ibid.)

The creation of the consumerist society has, as an offshoot, produced an electorate that in great part introduces opinions by saying, “I feel,” rather than “I think” or “I believe”. In the increasingly narcissistic, self-referential culture produced by consumerism, not only are mores only subjectively true, anything can be a “fact” if it serves your argument; contrapositively, any scientific study, no matter how well-designed and –executed, can be dismissed with a simple assertion of some sort of tribal bias. (“Check your privilege!”)

Thus, for example, actor/director Nick Cassavetes can excuse incest between siblings by invoking the sacred emotion of Love: “Love who you want. Isn’t that what we say? Gay marriage — love who you want? If it’s your brother or sister it’s super-weird, but if you look at it, you’re not hurting anybody except every single person who freaks out because you’re in love with one another.” Thus we’re asked to give legal and social approval to a bewildering variety of “genders”, not because they have any scientific validity but because those who don’t or can’t identify with their genotypes feel excluded. Emotional blackmail dominates the public square: we’re begged to approve of different initiatives for the sake of “victims”, and we approve to avoid being labeled “haters”, “bigots”, “misogynists” and so forth.


Of course, appeals to pity, name-calling, and band-wagon arguments have all been part of democracy since Cleon urged the Athenians to slaughter the men and sell the women and children of Mytilene. However, the modern demagogue no longer has to hit the people over the head with a rhetorical hammer, when he can encode his message into movies, television shows, commercials and even popular music. He can count on many researchers to dress up his agenda as “science”, confident that Joe Schmuckatelli knows little to nothing about scientific methodology. No, Joe Schmuckatelli only knows that there is a scientific method, and that it’s produced a lot of technological advances; and so he gives his uncritical assent to the new “knowledge”.


And so we find ourselves in a situation rife with irony: having abandoned notions of moral or spiritual authority, having cut moral education out of the classroom in the name of diversity, we’ve become not “independent thinkers” but rather the “mere hulē, specimens, [or] preparations” that C. S. Lewis warned we must become once we separate ourselves from the notion of objective values. “A dogmatic belief in objective value is necessary to the very idea of a rule which is not tyranny or an obedience which is not slavery.” (The Abolition of Man, p. 48)

To sustain a free and cohesive nation, the people must be not merely “informed” but educated in right reasoning. This means, as Aristotle said in the Nicomachean Ethics, that the people must be raised and taught “so as both to delight in and to be pained by the things that we ought ….” Only when we can subordinate our emotions to reason informed by objective values can we truly aspire to become fully human and fully free.

© 2014. Anthony S. Layne. All rights reserved.

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10 thoughts on “The Century of the Self: We the Sheeple”

  1. Great article. The saddest part is that liberals claim to be open minded while at the same time winning every political argument by shutting down any Socratic debate and accusing the other PERSON of being bigoted, ignorant or selfish.

    People who believe in moral absolutes must develop arguments that can quickly cease the implications of the underlying philosophical tension rather than rely solely on dispassionate reason. For example, politicians who claim to be “personally” pro-life…should be described as “playing moral three card monte.” People who claim the Gospel is only about material well being…”Christianity is not Entitlementism.”

  2. Pingback: Pope Francis on Marriage & Jesus -

  3. Thank you for pointing me in the direction of that documentary, Mr. Layne. It was eye-opening, and grist for my mill.

    the modern demagogue no longer has to hit the people over the head with a
    rhetorical hammer, when he can encode his message into movies,
    television shows, commercials and even popular music.

    One of my favorite Mad Men quote comes to mind: “what you call ‘love’ was invented by guys like me in order to sell nylons.”

  4. ” To sustain a free and cohesive nation, the people must be not merely “informed” but educated in right reasoning. … Only when we can subordinate our emotions to reason informed by objective values can we truly aspire to become fully human and fully free.
    I would like to point out that it was the liberals who pressed into service, laws the CC were totally oblivious to promoting. 1. bullying. Thanks to any one but the CC was this issue raised and elevated to …sin. 2. spanking. thanks to anyone but the CC did this issue rise and become elevated to …sin. I really don’t know how you conservatives paint the secular world with such a dark brush without objectivity lauding the collective conscience of mankind that has been influenced by so many faiths and values. You guys are the ultimate pessimists.

    1. 1) Physical and emotional abuse have always been considered sins requiring confession within the Catholic Church. “Bullying”, on the other hand, has only recently become a hot topic, one not, I fear, motivated solely by concern for the welfare of children. “Bullying”, as it’s now used in the public square, is something that only happens to gay students; that’s not how I remember my own childhood. 2) Perhaps this will shock your enlightened sensibilities, but there are still many corners of the world, including the good old US of A, where spanking isn’t considered a sin; in fact, there are many people who believe “what’s wrong with the world today” is that children who act out and terrorize their parents “don’t get a good a**-whuppin'”.

      Maybe we don’t “objectively laud[] the collective conscience of mankind” because it’s meaningless, a gasbag phrase without any traction in the real world; there are many parts of the world where bullying isn’t recognized as a problem and corporal punishment takes worse forms than a mere slap on the rump. The West could only start to reach these conclusions because it built on a moral framework provided by the Catholic Church.

      As for my supposed pessimism … boy, did YOU dial a wrong number! Look back at the paragraph you copied and pasted: Did I say, “We’re screwed”? Did I make any hint that educating the people in right reasoning or learning to subordinate our desires was impossible or impractical? In a way, we Catholics are incurable optimists: we KNOW how the story ends, and it’s a good ending. It’s only looking at the here-and-now, working through the current chapter, that we can sometimes come off as pessimists.

    2. Yes, the kingdom of heaven (Matt 19;14) is made of these and I’m sure JC would approve of a good ‘whuppin’ Right, there are only a couple of
      states where hitting a child is a …sin, punishable by law. As for all the
      school shooters who took precious lives a good number were motivated
      by somethng you seem to condone as a lesser evil.

      ” In the world of New Atheist apologetics …”

      Say you really don’t believe the drivel that there’s an atheist behind every rock. Your smarter than that Anthony, but your well executed
      and phrased blogs do reek of pessimism.

    3. James, if my writing is too tortuous for you to understand me properly, please say so. I don’t know where you got the idea I think physical/verbal abuse a “lesser evil” (which is a theologically suspect concept, BTW). Or is it “hitting”? Silly me, I thought we were talking about spanking. To the people who don’t think spanking a sin, spanking and hitting are NOT the same thing. You really need to watch this tendency of yours to lump concepts together indiscriminately; it may make for great rhetoric, but it’s bad for analysis.

      Okay, I’ll say it: I don’t believe there’s an atheist behind every rock. There’s not even as many as some people think; some who check off the “None” box would describe themselves as “spiritual but not religious”. 😀

      As I said above, so far as I tend to come off pessimistic, it’s purely short-term (although, in this context, “short-term” means the next twenty-five to fifty years). But as one of my favorite authors, G. K. Chesterton, once said (I paraphrase), hope only begins to be useful when things appear to be hopeless. In any event, I don’t believe problems go away by turning a blind eye to them, or shrugging and indulging in doses of happy talk.

      Does that make me a pessimist? Sue me. But thank you for the compliments! Pax tecum.

    4. Ok, peace too. BTW, its very hard to determine when a spank
      turns into a hit. It’s a very very very fine line.

  5. Very well written introduction to and commentary on the 8th the deadly sin: egocentricism. It is the modern sin hands down.Thank you so much for this post.

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