Bruno Bettelheim was a dominant figure in Freudian psychoanalyis for almost 40 years. Based in the university of Chicago he worked with emotionally disturbed (autistic) children. Due to his misrepresentation of his credentials and the results of his procedures he has been largely discredited. But one observation he made has caught my attention and I believe it to be true.
He said that it is impossible to tell lies to an insane or very disturbed person or to a child. The reason being that these individuals read body language and take body language seriously. This is more important to them than any words that might be said. With most of us it is the other way round. Often, we are persuaded by words, argument, charm, logic and hardly notice the body language of the person before us. Consequently, we are open to being deceived and conned. Many of us know this from distressing personal experience.
This is similar to the point the French academic and philosopher, Jaques Ellul, makes in his acclaimed book – ‘Propaganda’ (1973). He points out that educated and sophisticated people are more vulnerable to the force of propaganda than the working classes and farming populations. The reason being that educated people are swayed by what they read in books, impressed by detailed reports and what they hear from ‘experts’. The working people rely less on reading and ignore the experts and trust their own judgement of what works and what does not. The advertiser David Oglivy makes similar points about selling to the rich. To sell expensive items (some of which may be lemons) to wealthy people you must include paragraphs of texts (usually in small type) and graphs. They probably will never read the text nor understand the graphs, but they will be impressed by the layout and consequently positive towards the product.
Here is a quote from Elluls’ Propaganda which I find informative and disturbing. Remember this was written in 1973 – long before the world-wide web and cell phones.
"….. it is a fact that excessive data do not enlighten the reader or the listener; they drown him. He cannot remember them all, or coordinate them, or understand them; if he does not want to risk losing his mind, he will merely draw a general picture from them. And the more facts supplied, the more simplistic the image…. Thus the mechanisms of modern information induce a sort of hypnosis in the individual”.
How can we defend ourselves from this mind threatening hypnosis? How will we cope? In my view, giving over our minds, decisions, and values to experts is a dead-end street – a kind of Hotel California – “You can check out anytime you like but you can never leave”.
My handicapped (physically) daughter Michelle was an expert in body language. Much to our embarrassment she would often confront negative messages in a very public way. We had a preacher who was rather pompous and egotistical. Part way through a sermon, after he believed he had made a telling point, he asked a rhetorical question, “Well what do you think of that?” He paused. Thirteen-year-old Michelle, who was sitting in the front row called out, “I think it was a load of rubbish”. So did most of us but we were very embarrassed by her honesty. After the service, I apologised to him for her behaviour. I don’t feel very good about that.
I have been watching an interview with Arthur Rubinstein, ‘Arthur Rubinstein at Ninety’ (the link below). He shares some insights which I find helpful.
He had developed Macular degeneration – the loss of straight ahead vision. His peripheral vision was unaffected. He tells how he found this alteration in his sight quite liberating. When he had full vision, he felt he had to use his time to study and read all kinds of things, some of which were unhelpful. A bonus of the degeneration was that he could now enjoy all the things in his peripheral vision that previously he missed. Unable to read, he now spent more time listening and observing things through his peripheral vision. To me this reminds me of the wisdom of reading body language I refer to above. We are so focused on what is directly in front of us that we miss what is happening at the edges, which often carry the most important messages.
Another segment of the interview of great interest to me is when he talks of ‘soul’ a term he doesn’t particularly like but one he uses because he can’t think of anything else.
He describes the phenomena of the concert. He walks out onto the stage ‘like a fat little undertaker’ and approaches the piano which is some way resembles a coffin. The audience is pre-occupied, the women with comparing dresses, the men with thoughts of business and sport, and he sits down without looking at them and focuses on the piano keyboard.
He starts to play, and then something deep inside him, he calls it soul, takes him over and moves through his body to his fingers. Soon this something has captured his audience. From being disinterested, they are now caught up – captured, At times they hold their corporate breathe waiting for him to strike one key with his little finger. He asserts that in music and in life there is something else, something more that goes beyond explanation or description but its power cannot be denied. It is a force that calls him forward and challenges him to enter life. He was first aware of it as a young man of twenty after he made a failed attempt on his life. When he stumbled outside he was aware there was something around him calling him to enter into life.
Jesus does not just ask his followers to love little children, he asks them to learn from little children. Theologians debate what this means, but at least I would assert that it has to do with acknowledging, affirming and espousing a simple way of thinking. It is a call to see things, everything, in a new light. It is a challenge to be always ready to be surprised. It is a directive to take body language seriously and to treat experts and their pronouncements with a grain of salt.
And as for the force that is around us and within us, I believe that is Jesus who is in all and through all who holds all things together. Just like it says in John 1.1- through him all things were made, and, Colossians 1.17 and other places, he holds all things together – things seen and unseen.
Many Christians know these verses but it is my impression that very few believe them. I do. He is in the atoms in the desk I am typing on, he is in the expanding universe, black holes, dark matter and all. Why do Christians find this idea of Jesus so hard to comprehend? Because they want to capture and contain him. This power, presence that is everywhere just won’t fit in their church and he is too big to be controlled by their ministers, priests and dogmatics.
But he is open to all who approach him in spirit and in truth. He is always ready to be accessed by all who are open to being surprised by love.
There is a kind of body language in the world around us and within us. If we can put aside our preconditions and our dependence on experts it has the power us and draw us into itself.
Is this wisdom or is this madness? Is this any kind of intelligence or is it simply the ignorance of a deluded mind? Whatever it is it makes me feel hopeful and excited.
‘Intelligence’ – Push-Back on my previous musings: March 23 17
The Eullul reference based on his book ‘ Propaganda’ which suggests less educated people are not so likely to be influenced by propaganda seems to fly in the face of the recent election of Donald Trump. Clearly the jingoistic Trump stirred some portion of the masses with his one liners - “Drain the swamp” etc. However, it is worth noting that the educated and informed were equally out of touch. None expected a Trump win.
I think Ellul was not referring to the crowds caught up in mass movements – sporting events – Nazism etc., but to individuals who think for themselves.
Several pf my friends who have incomplete formal education are extremely insightful. They don’t think they are, but I believe this is the truth. They understand what is going on with a clarity that is seldom attained by persons who rely on experts to lead the way.
The second point on which there has been push-back is my mention of ‘Jesus in all and through all’. “How can this be’, they ask? But these same people tell me there is an essence, a presence that permeates everything. They tell me there is a mysterious cohesion that exists throughout the universe. That is what I am talking about. We are on the same wave length. But when I apply the term ‘Jesus’ to this wonderful ‘other’ they think of a Sunday school figure in a dressing gown with a towel around his head. I don’t.