Don’t Blame Nature for Your Inability, Blame Your Inability for “Nature”
The message of this commercial is “we know you would never do this, but if you wanted to, you could.” However, the thing Microsoft is saying you could do is something pretty serious. The functionality or dysfunctionality of a person’s family is a deeply personal issue. When it is felt acutely – as during the taking of a family photo – the pleasure (if the family is functional) or pain (if it is dysfunctional) one feels can be overwhelming. It may be joked about routinely, but if one has always hoped that underneath it all her family is functional and it turns out that they’re actually not, that is understandably a very disappointing and painful experience.
Why would Microsoft risk resurrecting that pain in the consumer, and thereby have her associate their product with it? Put simply, it is because Microsoft knows that most consumers in this day and age, if pressed, actually would do what they showed being done in this commercial. The company recognizes that, morally, there is no principle stopping ordinary people from reaching these depths of dishonesty. The commercial’s appeal is that it gives the consumer a subtle permission to do so. It says to her “We know how you operate, but don’t be afraid, we’re not going to stop you. In fact, if you ever need to, we will help you take it to an even more fundamental level.”
Circumstances have not pushed ordinary people to the point where their attempts at manipulation would be so crude, or reach down so far into their souls as to touch something as personal as their family dynamics. It is true that most people still present family dynamics as they actually are, but this is not the result of some principled committment to truth. It is because they are overwhelmed by how, to them, inexplicably dysfunctional their families are and simply have no means of covering it up. What they count upon, instead, is the moral cowardice (ie: “politeness”) of others to spare them. Because they know that just as they have ulterior motives for going through the ritual of sharing the picture, the receiver has his own for going through the ritual of looking at it. So long as they do the “polite” (ie: fashionable, expected) thing and share the photo, the receiver is willing to play his part, and so the truth or untruth which is depicted in the photo is of little or no consequence. The consequences of such an arrangement need not even be practical (although they frequently are in an economy where so much is made of “personal relationships” and “friendship” instead of competence or convenience). Often, people simply perform these rituals as practice; as a means of being okay with compulsively doing what’s “in” (eg: being on Facebook), or psychologically conditioning themselves to be able to perform in the same dishonest manner (and to ensure that they don’t accidentally perform in the opposite manner) in other, more important situations.
What are these other, more important situations? Virtually no one in today’s culture refrains from some degree of manipulation in order to gain or keep values. Usually it is in the workplace – whether that be sucking up to a boss or placating irrational coworkers and customers, or even just working in an industry that you know wouldn’t exist in the form it does now (the form that makes it possible for you to work in it) without some kind of market-distorting tax or regulation. Then, of course, there is the growing phenomenon – well chronicled on this blog – of the willingness of private organizations to do anything, say anything, and brand themselves as anything (no matter how much it contradicts last year’s branding) in order to meet short-term financial goals. This used to be the hallmark of politicians – who were justifiably scorned for it – but because of the short-term pressures and long-term uncertainties of the modern era’s regulatory and macro-economic environment, and because these pressures and uncertainties have been beating down on the culture for so long, people have come to admire politicians for it. It is no coincidence that there is no serious, popular opposition to such politicians. Ordinary people allow them the power they have because in the privacy of their own minds they believe as the politicians do: that this is just how things are done. It is a kind of vast, culture-wide “Stockholm Syndrome.”
Is it any wonder then that the average person watching Microsoft’s commercial would not feel insulted by it? That he would not regard it as an inappropriate intrusion into a personal problem, or a wreckless, inaccurate assumption? That he would actually feel reassured when he sees it? The phenomenon of such a non-objective, people-preoccupied mode of normative mental functioning as being confined to one’s “professional life” falling, and it begining to encompass one’s “personal life” as well is inevitable. As was mentioned, there is no fundamental moral principle to appeal to in order to stop it. If a person lacks the conviction that to be moral (eg: to be honest) and to be practical (eg: to be productive) need not be mutually-exclusive, and if virtually everything in the macro-economic environment ensures that for a given individual they are, then he will feel he must choose – and he will invariably choose “practicality.” But that will not solve his problems.
People still want to be moral (as they understand the subject). What caused this commercial to be produced and aired was Microsoft’s conclusion that ordinary people would find it appealing. What will cause ordinary people to find it appealing is that it gives them a reprieve from their sense that because they are “practical”, they are immoral. It appears to provide a solution to the dilemma by uniting the two. It gives them two rationalizations, either of which they can rely upon to regain their confidence whenver they need to (and can turn to the other when the first one wears thin), but which amount to the same thing and lead to the same destination. The first – which is becoming the standard in advertising today – is “you may be bad, but at least you’re not this bad”, and the other – which has already been mentioned – is “We know what you’re doing, but don’t be afraid, we all do it. It’s just how it is.” Both ad up to the conclusion “I am bad, but I couldn’t help it! I had to be practical!”
The irony is that as ordinary people understand morality, that conclusion is true. If a person regards morality as either incomprehensible dictates from a supernatural authority, or as the ever-shifting consensus of the culture he finds himself in, he actually, literally is helpless to act morally in the face of alternatives. He has nothing real to serve as his reference and standard. His decision to do one thing and not the other is not grounded in facts – universal, immutable facts about nature and man. All he has is the “impractical” ideals of religion or tradition – which he pays lip service to (eg: through the production and distribution of “happy” family photos) – and the “practical” mores of the canibalistic society he finds himself in. If his allegiances lie with the “impractical” he will do what he must (eg: he will be “practical”) in order to live up to them, and if he the type which is “practical” he will be appear “impractical” from time to time – which, after all, is the “practical” thing to do in order to remain where he is. The fact that ultimately both policies lead to the same soul and wealth-destroying end is too vast of a concept for him to grasp. That he finds himself laughing at the thought of lying about the people he allegedly loves, or that he is seriously considering spending what little is left of his meager after-tax income on software to more effectively do so, never enters his mind as the full and final proof of the fact that the moral and the practical are not, and cannot be, opposites.