The Immaculate Perception

Show of hands. Who came here for the designer-writer-guy’s ramblings on subjects outside his areas of expertise? (Looks like it’s just you and me, self.) Okay, I’ll make this brief. But in my defense (and because I’ve been looking for an excuse to quote latin):

“Ogni parte ad ogni parte splende.”
— Dante

That means, I’m told, each part shines on all the others. We began with small expositions on branding, moved to a brief commentary on perception and reality, and landed here. Which is? Perception run amuck, idealized to perfection and leveraged to manipulate, all the while detached from reality and devoid of morality. Basically, when Perception goes bad. This part, I’m afraid, shines on all the others.

Culture

Susan Cain writes about a societal shift from a Culture of Character to a Culture of Personality that occurred sometime around the turn of the twentieth century. (Check this out: “The word personality didn’t exist in English until the eighteenth century.”) The history goes something like this: as people moved from their farms to the cities, and from agriculture to industry, no longer could they be really known. Factories and cities are highly anonymous compared to a, say, a family farm. In the latter, people valued others for inner qualities and even — gasp! — their moral rectitude. But in the industrialized, then commercialized, world people needed a way to stand out in a crowd. Enter Personality. Charisma. Magnetism. Presence. Other words that mean “I’m great, you’re going to love me!” Popular culture reflected this shift.

The Logical Conclusion

So charisma superseded character and the ultimate c-word was bestowed on those with the most or biggest Personality: celebrity. For a time, the machine selected the chosen few. In the digital age, the process has gone open source. The democratization of celebrity. Every random Joe has the motive and tools to grab his own tiny corner of the look-at-me market. What about attributes less visible than charisma, you ask, like intuition, honor, discipline, insight? How very “Culture of Character” of you. The warrior kings have killed off the priestly advisors. Introverts need not apply.

Cult(ure)

While society wide we share in the Culture of Personality, subcultures spring up all the time, rallied around an individual who leverages media of various kinds and positions of power to create and propagate an idealized, worshipful image. The immaculate perception. Followers flock, drawn to fame’s sparkle like Gollum to the Ring. Everybody wants a piece. The American Dream, right? Aspire to something better? And when the best thing is to be publicly adored, it’s an elbow-swinging race to be the biggest, loudest, everything-iest. How many “likes” do you have? How about “followers?” When does culture just become cult?

But in how many easy steps??

Repercussions

This all might come off like fundamentalist, good-ol’-days, hey-you-kids-get-off-my-lawn curmudgeonliness. Get with the program, Jay. I know, and, well, I am. But we could do worse than a little self-awareness, personal and collective. I know that kind of internal work has taken an ironically counter-culture scent, given the above, but the truth is that as fun as the competition to be first/biggest/best can be, there usually is only one king of the hill. And a lot of townspeople trampled under the dogpile. In some walks of life, sadly, the conditions are practically designed to create a false perception — or idealized persona — and then conceal the motivation along with the truth. The PSA: while we embrace our present culture and lean into the next, let’s tread lightly, lest ambition and personality give way to pride, egotism, abuse and exploitation. Beneath the veneer, they lurk, as dangerous as ever.

Good words:

“And the distinction between pretending you are better than you are and beginning to be better in reality is finer than moral sleuth hounds conceive.”
— C.S. Lewis
“Early humans, pre-fire, may well have been Paleolithic Wizards of Oz — masters of illusion and psyops who eventually, amazingly, willed their “impersonations” of superiority into fact.”
— John Vaillant
“… our own age is also a ‘period,’ and certainly has, like all periods, its own characteristic illusions. They are likeliest to lurk in those widespread assumptions which are so ingrained in the age that no one dares to attach or feels it necessary to defend them.”
— C.S. Lewis

Originally published at www.jaybryantjones.com on June 17, 2015.

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