ENGAGE (NEW COLUMN)
By Tyler McKenzie
Have you heard of Edward Bernays? He was the nephew of Sigmund Freud and was referred to as “the father of public relations.” Bernays took his uncle’s understanding of psychology and used it to manipulate people. Do a Google search of his accomplishments. Bernays got Calvin Coolidge reelected. He engineered the overthrow of the Guatemalan government. He persuaded women that smoking in public was chic. He made us believe disposable cups were the only sanitary drinking vessels. He convinced us bacon and eggs were breakfast foods. He was good at what he did.
In 1928, in his celebrated book called Propaganda, he wrote,
The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country. . . . We are governed, our minds are molded, our tastes formed, our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of. This is a logical result of the way in which our democratic society is organized. Vast numbers of human beings must cooperate in this manner if they are to live together as a smoothly functioning society. . . . In almost every act of our daily lives, whether in the sphere of politics or business, in our social conduct or our ethical thinking, we are dominated by the relatively small number of persons . . . who understand the mental processes and social patterns of the masses. It is they who pull the wires which control the public mind.
Bernays believed that behind all the brands and political campaigns, there was an “invisible government” shaping our minds and winning our loyalties. I believe he was right then, and that he is still right. Today, almost 100 years later, I find the manipulation capabilities of this “invisible government” chilling and terrifying.
How Much Access Are We Willing to Surrender?
Before the “invisible government”—or IG—begins to form us, they get to know us. Literally, they research us using “surveillance technology” (a term coined by former Harvard professor Shoshana Zuboff). We welcome these technologies into our lives because they make life easier or provide entertainment. We purchase these technologies (they aren’t forced on us), and in a very short time, we can’t live without them! All the while the IG is gathering detailed personal data, building a profile of us, and then analyzing it with sophisticated algorithms to pitch us goods or change our minds.
I recently read a book that challenged me to consider how much access technology has into our lives. Consider a typical day in your life.
- You wake up and turn off the alarm on your phone. (Don’t underestimate the formative power of your phone being the first thing you touch every day.)
- You get on social media. Everything you post, like, read, or click is recorded and analyzed.
- You work out and technology uploads your vitals to the app.
- You check e-mail. Google scans everything you write on Gmail for key words to direct advertising to you.
- You browse sites or blogs. As you read, the cookies you accept (and they ain’t chocolate chip) report information about you.
- As you drive to work, sensors in your car record your driving habits.
- As you travel, apps with location services track you and send geo-targeted ads.
- All the requests you make of Siri? These are recorded and monetized.
- The conversations you have at home? Alexa records and monetizes them.
- When you buy with credit? Recorded and monetized.
- All your smart devices (fridge, TV, security system)? They’re recording and monetizing your life.
With this information, the “invisible government” gets to know us better than we know ourselves. The IG then uses it to manipulate us with just the right ads, in just the right way, at just the right time, on just the right platforms. The seduction and persuasion are maximized, especially when combined with our swelling addiction to screens.
And that is how the IG comes to own us . . . and form us . . . and point our moral compasses, shape our cultural imaginations, and monopolize our attention. The IG decides what issues matter, creates our bogeymen, gives us our talking points, determines our tribes, and defines the “right side of history.” They even reshape Scripture and historic Christian faith. They disciple us.
At a college ministry I was working with recently, the leader spent several minutes complaining about how students don’t read their Bibles anymore. I couldn’t help but think those students are never going to open their Bibles until they find freedom from their phones.
Who Is Discipling Us?
Over the course of the pandemic, I was distraught to watch core people from my church become irate and irrational. Everything was politicized. Every word was analyzed for dog whistles. People assumed the worst. Fuses were short and people left the church over the smallest offenses. I had one person ask for a “refund on my offering.” That was a first. I had another complain our church had become “way too compassionate.” He didn’t mean it as compliment. More than once I was driven to my knees, praying, “How, God, did we lose the discipleship battle so quickly with them?”
This is how. The voices you listen to are the voices that disciple you. The “invisible government” has our attention, knows our personalities, and speaks persuasively. I don’t know how many times this year I’ve heard a pastor lament, “How am I supposed to compete when they give me 30 minutes twice a month, but their news anchor gets an hour every night?” Answer? You can’t. And in a nutshell, that’s the challenge of today.
So, what do we do? How do we create countercultural communities in a world that has the most sophisticated formation technology we’ve ever come up against? How do we win a battle against an enemy our people listen to more than us? How do we outmaneuver an enemy who knows our people better than we know them? I’d love to hear from you on this. Write us or comment below (if you’re reading this online). I believe it will take a plurality of spiritual formation strategies and the incessant drumbeat of preaching that brings awareness and conviction.
Tyler McKenzie serves as lead pastor at Northeast Christian Church in Louisville, Kentucky.