Wednesday, October 1, 2008

The Sacred and the Profane

Heavenly and earthly seductions

From The Statesman
ND Batra

Is militant Islam creating psychological conditions under which a person’s desires and dreams become compelling needs?

According to psychologist Abraham Maslow, there is a hierarchy of five primal needs that drive human beings to action to seek satisfaction. The motivating needs include physiological, safety, social, esteem and self-actualisation. Maslow said that a person would tend to fulfil his physiological needs for food and shelter first before he sought to satisfy other higher order needs. But experience shows that once the basic needs of food and shelter are satisfied, some people would seek to satisfy other needs simultaneously instead of seeking their satisfaction one after the other in a hierarchical order, as Maslow propounded. In fact the need for self-actualisation, realising one’s potential, summed up best in the slogan “We shall meet in Paradise,” may become so paramount in a person due to indoctrination that he may minimise or even forego other needs. For example, extreme skiers and mountain climbers do forego safety for the sake of their highest need, self-actualisation, doing the impossible, climbing Mount Everest.How advertisement, one of the most widely practised forms of indoctrination through seduction, creates and transforms our desires and wants into compelling needs is a fascinating field of study that should not be ignored by counter-terrorism experts. Just as the culture of consumption has been driving the Chinese people from Mao’s Thoughts to KFC and Pizza Hut (the owner Yum Brands is the biggest restaurant chain in China), the culture of eternal life/ Paradise that Islamic militants, Al- Qaida and its decentralised networked franchises, preach to the Muslim youth, has been driving them to jihad suicide. Both cultures promise fulfillment: here or the hereafter; as did Communism. The subliminal seductions of jihad are no different in the final analysis from what Communism had to offer in the bloody days of Leninism and Maoism; but you know what happened to the Soviet Union and Mao’s China.

Communism could not withstand the onslaughts of free society consumer culture and its endless capacity for self-renewal. Communism collapsed as a dream falsified. So would militant Islam if confronted the same way. In other words, those fighting terrorism must understand that they will not be able to win the battle against terrorism without replacing the promise of afterlife with the promise of gratification and fulfillment that liberal culture offers today. Mass media and advertisement have turned the West, as it is happening in India and China, into a culture of choices, although it wasn’t always so. Beginning with the Penny Press in the early part of the nineteenth century and later on through yellow journalism of Randolph Hearst, American news media began to depend increasingly on advertisement revenues.

Business and industry needed advertising to reach the masses in order to increase sales. Thus began the symbiotic relations among the three ~ the media, advertising and industry ~ to create the mythical American consumer whose desires must be measured and valued and be transformed into compelling needs. By turning malls into places of work, leisure and pleasure, marketers and advertisers have been transforming shopping into an enjoyable experience. Shop until you shop again, leaves little time for any thought for the afterlife. In the next few weeks India will be celebrating Diwali, which, like Christmas in the West, is gradually becoming a secular marketing experience and a major driving force for the economy. And Id-ul-Fitr festivities are going the same way, blending the sacred and the secular. Just look at Dubai.

By bringing consumers into a desirable media mix, by segmenting population into demographics and psychographics and by demanding media companies to create cultural programmes that not only support commercial products but also create a cascade of gripping needs, advertisers have created a culture of desire that makes people work harder so that they can buy and consume more. Every year, for example, the auto industry comes up with new models with varied psychological appeals and lucrative incentives for the consumer to get rid of his old car even if it is in a good condition and go for a newer model.

In the United States, advertising industry created “soccer and hockey moms” and told them that they needed a van to chauffer their children from school to the ballpark. Until the oil crunch, admen had made SUVs a vehicle of choice for many Americans. After 9/11, auto-manufacturers saw the consumer need for greater security and SUVs gave a feeling of strength and power like armoured vehicles. So even if everything goes well with Tata’s Nano, how long will the Indian consumer with rising income be satisfied with the four-wheel itsy-bitsy contraption? Advertisement is nothing but using all the available means of persuasion, to paraphrase Aristotle. Advertisers have been using target marketing to reach and persuade their audiences effectively. Similarly, instead of looking at the Muslim population of a country as a monolithic mass, it should be segmented demographically for specific messages. For example, the message for a Muslim woman with her overpowering needs for family and children has to be different from what is aimed at the youth.

No Muslim woman wants her son to be blown to pieces in a suicide mission so that he could go to Paradise.

Ultimately militant Islam like Communism would wither away by the seductions of consumer society with its promise of happiness in a world of here and now rather than the false glory of Paradise that jihad promises through press-button sudden death experience. It is going to be a long hard struggle, but the battle must be fought in the battlefield of ideas, desires, wants and needs. The news media and satellite networks that do not hesitate to broadcast messages from Islamic militants would have no problem, if paid well, for airing captivating commercials that persuade Muslims to reach for their wallets rather than explode remote-controlled bombs.Earthly seductions would ultimately win over the destructive culture of the myth of afterlife.

(ND Batra is professor of communications at Norwich University)

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