Hypnosis is generally defined as a “mental state of highly focused concentration, diminished peripheral awareness, and heightened suggestibility.”
It goes without saying that someone in a hypnotic state is not capable of “thinking clearly.” This is not in itself a criticism: there is a time and a place for clear thinking. If you want to kick smoking, maybe evaluating pros and cons and trying to reason your way out of a deeply ingrained habit just isn’t a good strategy for you. But when it comes to matters where clear and holistic thinking is important, you want to be sure you are not in a state of hyper-focus, diminished awareness, and susceptibility to suggestion.
Over the past few weeks, I have heard reasonably intelligent people contort their worldview into the most extraordinary acrobatic knots with cult-like conviction. No doubt you have too. It’s easy to see the idiots all around.
But here’s the tricky part. Think of a hypnotized, gullible idiot you know; maybe a friend or family member; maybe a pundit, maybe a social media acquaintance, someone who just gobbles down and regurgitates whatever they’re fed. To you, their enslavement to their media “feed” is obvious. They aren’t thinking for themselves. But you — being an observant person — no doubt noticed that they are completely oblivious to their own hypnosis; their obsessive focus, their diminished awareness, and their willingness to accept anything that someone on their own side suggests. They probably have the audacity to think that they are “woke,” and that you are the “sheeple.”
Given their own obliviousness to their own hypnotized state, how would you know if you yourself were hypnotized?
Everyone likes to imagine that they are “mentally tough,” are immune to the tricks and traps that open up our minds to other’s control. But these techniques are designed based on human nature. There is always some variability in effectiveness from person to person, but if you are a human, these techniques will work on you…
Tristan Harris, an activist who specializes in the ethics of persuasion online, described a personal experience attending a conference for maximizing user engagement in phone apps. Everyone at this conference was a psychological engineer of human attention; they knew all the tricks and the techniques to keep people’s eyes on their screens. With all of this knowledge, the average person might suspect that these programmers might have some immunity from the tricks which they themselves had designed. Not only could they “see through” the proverbial Matrix; they literally built it. But the funny thing was, they weren’t immune. According to Harris, they were just as addicted as everyone else, and paradoxically, just as dissatisfied with their addiction.
When it comes to social media, I think there is a strong link between addiction and the hypnosis we are seeing in the political world. After all, repetition is one of the key tools for achieving a hypnotic state (a tool that can also be used with tremendous effect in music and poetry). With the proliferation of political radio, television news, and now all of the tools of the internet (YouTube, podcasts, Twitter, Facebook, 4chan, Reddit, etc), people can spend hours upon hours strengthening very specific neurological connections, programming themselves with a particular worldview and at the same time, normalizing that worldview, such that everyone outside appears to them to be ignorant in general because they are ignorant of the particular set of facts that you have immersed yourself in.
This means that the best way to tell whether or not you might be among the hypnotized is actually by looking at what you do: how much time do you spend watching the same media source?
If you are spending two or more hours a day following a single interactive current-events site, there is a good chance that one of those “gullible idiots”… is you.
If we’re being honest, we’ve all been there.
Heraclitus said that the soul is dyed the color of the thoughts. As an outside observer, it’s pretty easy to see drab, monochrome minds in others… but perhaps that is itself a symptom of hypnotized hyper-focus, gauging the admirability of others by a single, obsessive metric.
If the goal of engaging in politics is to pursue life, liberty, and happiness, then how can we hope for success if we allow ourselves to be hypnotized? How can we hope to live as free people if we let others hold the reigns of our attention and emotion?
In such a state, would participating in politics not become self-defeating? Would the very concept of “democracy” not become a mockery?
In this hyper-sensitive, hyper-communicative, thoroughly manipulative political landscape, perhaps the most powerful thing one can do — as a political actor — is to withdraw. Perhaps the only thing one can do to retain integrity as a thinking agent is to block out the siren songs of outrage and disaster; the persistent cries of “wolf” from all sides.
It’s all tacit flattery: “only you — voter — can prevent forest fires.” You are the ‘hero.’ If you do what they say, you are ‘courageous.’ You are fighting against ‘evil.’
There is a thin line to be walked between becoming ignorant of one’s surroundings and being caught in the very webs of ones surroundings which awareness might prompt you to avoid. They say if you look too persistently at an object off the road while driving, it can cause you to actually hit that object. But one would never want to drive blind either. Putting on blinders isn’t a good solution.
I think there’s a better remedy, the classical solution to the manipulation of flatterers: humility.
Remember that you don’t know everything, that you can’t know all of the relevant facts to make these immense decisions with certainty. We all have to act, but the outrage that is being peddled hinges upon a kind of certainty which is conveyed more with emotion than with reason. Usually, it is implied that a certain opinion is obvious, or that the one and only conceivable contrary opinion (don’t get distracted by third options!) is obviously wrong. This probable straw-man flatters the intelligence of the viewer, making them imagine that they are now “informed.” So informed, in fact, that they are perfectly justified in overruling the opinions of others with force if necessary, supposed democracy be damned.
Maybe anyone who cannot see the obvious correct answer here simply isn’t qualified to have an opinion on the subject…
One can easily see the addictive potential of the feeling which accompanies this process: superiority, self-righteousness, contempt, maybe hatred, all mixed with certainty and perhaps amusement. Who doesn’t like to feel that way? I know I do.
But it is equally easy to see the dangers here: not merely to individual liberty, but to our very ability to think independently and converse meaningfully with other people. Because ultimately, the great danger imposed by political hypnosis is not to our political structure. We probably had little to no control over that anyways. Rather, it’s to our relationships. Speaking in remembered talking points is neither thinking nor communicating; it is executing a program written by somebody else, probably towards some ulterior end you are not even aware of. Talking points cannot rebut or account for differing opinions. And if something unexpected is said, then the system just crashes and reboots, as if nothing of substance was heard.
In a very real sense, a hypnotized person kind of isn’t a real person; they are not an individual, with whom you might be able to build a deeper relationship with.
But don’t worry; it’s everyone else who is periodically hypnotized by our politicized culture.
You and I are probably just fine.