by Peter Prontzos
Einstein was right (again!) when he wrote:
“…the personality…is largely formed by the environment in which a man happens to find himself during his development, by the structure of the society in which he grows up…The individual…depends so much upon society—in his physical, intellectual, and emotional existence—that it is impossible to think of him, or to understand him, outside the framework of society. It is “society” which provides man with food, clothing, a home, the tools of work, language, the forms of thought, and most of the content of thought.”
Indeed, the power of one’s culture is so profound – and subtle – that it can even reorganize the neural pathways in our brain. As Montreal neuroscientist Michael Meaney explains: “…the development of an individual is an active process of adaptation that occurs within a social and economic context,” e.g. poverty increases maternal distress and poor parenting, which then may lead to lower “cognitive outcomes” for children. And other studies have shown that “lower general intelligence in childhood predicts greater racism in adulthood, and this effect was largely mediated via conservative ideology [emphasis added].
Wilhelm Reich, in The Mass Psychology of Fascism, was among the first to point out that repressed, unfulfilled, and angry people are more disposed to violence and authoritarianism. Eric Fromm, who, like Reich, escaped from Nazi Germany, viewed authoritarian childhoods as likely to create adults who see obedience as the best way to win the approval of father figures in power, who, “…offered the atomized individual a new refuge and security. These systems are the culmination of alienation.”
One doesn’t have to be a Marxist to agree that, overall, “It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but, on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness.” Marx is not saying that ideas do not matter, only that the primary determinants of our worldviews are the concrete conditions of our existence. Our views are different than those of our hunter-gatherer ancestors because the world we live in is so dissimilar. So even though we are the most social and empathic animals, those central emotions are weakened because, neoiberal ideology promotes, free market capitalism is one of the most powerful of empathy-reducing belief systems, especially as manifested in cultures like the United States.
Social psychologists like Stanley Milgram and Philip Zimbardo of the Stanford Prison Experiment pioneered our understanding of just how powerful our social situations can be – even stronger than one’s individual disposition. The corporate media are a major factor in the construction of both the social unconscious and political ideologies. One reason for their influence, as Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman notes, is that “people tend to assess the relative importance of issues by the ease with which they are retrieved from memory – and this is largely determined by the extent of coverage in the media.”
Powerful and wealthy elites tend to control what is taught in schools and, more than ever, in the mass media. The corporate media give us a very biased view of reality. As Einstein noted:
“…private capitalists inevitably control, directly or indirectly, the main sources of information (press, radio, education). It is thus extremely difficult, and indeed in most cases quite impossible, for the individual citizen to come to objective conclusions…”
A dramatic example was provided after the attacks on September 11, when the major U.S. media blindly went along with the obvious lies of the Bush regime as it carried out a vast propaganda campaign to get public support for two illegal wars. A current example of media manipulation is the lie that Iran has not lived up to its treaty obligations regarding nuclear weapons. A related problem is the fact that the corporate media almost never mention the one country in the Middle East that does have nuclear bombs – Israel.
These examples are only a few of the many ways in which our society and culture can determine our thoughts, feelings, and behavior.
In my next post, I’ll provide a conclusion to this essay.