The Century of the Self: We the Sheeple

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This is article was first published five years ago but is even more relevant given America’s current social and political environment.

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.


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1 thought on “The Century of the Self: We the Sheeple”

  1. Pingback: VVEDNESDAY LATE EDITION – Big Pulpit

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