Bonus: The Nature of Advertising and surviving poison [Trenchant Edges]
Content Warning: This post is about consuming emotionally harmful content. Be advised, though I don’t use examples, I will mention nazi propaganda a lot. Might set this aside if you’re not up for that kind of discussion.
A few days ago, Twitter did something weird: It gave me a notification I actually wanted to receive.
See, @Prism_Metanews, who runs a substack on misinformation, pulled together a few disinformation researchers into one of those knock-off Clubhouse Twitter chats. And on seeing the number of Antifascists involved, I popped on.
I was initially skeptical since lots of people talking about other people’s disinformation are actually spreading it. It’s… really great. Not problematic at all.
Oh, and this is the Trenchant Edges. A Weeklyish newsletter about fringe ideas and the cultures they build. Trenchant as in insightful analysis, edges as in cutting, and as in maps. I’m your host, Stephen.
The conversation was interesting and *highly* relatable.
I almost even got to speak, but the conversation moved past me, and here we are.
See, we were discussing how to, uh, endure reading a lot of vile shit. Especially if it’s directed to people like yourself or even you personally.
The consensus was… pretty good. More or less: Don’t make it your whole life. Don’t doomscroll nazi shit. Compartmentalize, using a different device if you can for the work. Have people in your life who get the work, but also have people in your life who super don’t. Spend time with each. Build a team so it’s not on you.
Let’s add a quick working definition: When I say “nazi shit” or “nazi propaganda” I mean, “Any of the media produced by the far-right to crystalize their base, win over converts, or bully their enemies.” Yes, the far right is actually a large ecosystem and nazi isn’t fully accurate for all of them, but I don’t give a shit today. We’re not talking about distinctions in their worldview, just mediating the experience of consuming it when you very much don’t agree with them.
And if you’ve ever spent much time in those spaces you already know that if you’re not on their team (including people willing to do nothing), they want you isolated or dead.
So if you’re determined to observe them anyway, what you’re looking to avoid is to become consumed by the rot and garbage you’re trying to learn about without being changed by.
A somewhat quixotic goal since Garbage In, Garbage Out applies as much to people as it does to computers. The whole point of propaganda is to change a person in a specific direction. Nazi shit makes more nazis, or at least people comfortable with nazi shit nearby. And so on with different groups.
The most basic defense against propaganda is learning to recognize and hate it.
It’s a clumsy defense, but it can at least keep you moving emotionally away from the direction the people who made the propaganda intended.
But it’s crude and highly unpleasant.
Let me tell you a story:
In my early gnostic weirdo years, I was learning to recognize and manipulate the way advertising and the like impacts me. Never mind exactly how, but it included learning to *hate* advertising. Cool, as long as I was avoiding places with ads but you can’t really do that forever. So…
One day I went into Seattle’s Northgate Mall after having lowered all my filters.
See, the mind protects itself. The fugue people go into when watching advertising or the way they look in an advertising heavy environment like a mall are designed to fend off advertising. To disarm the way it violently tries to grab your attention towards something you don’t care about.
I didn’t realize how defensive it was at the time. I figured, as many critics of TV do, that it was a passive/receptive state. But it’s more complicated than that. The kinds of hardening against advertising people develop once they realize the conflict between their interests and advertisers disrupt memory formation by rendering the messages emotionally meaningless.
And since mass media advertising is about brute-forcing associations at an industrial scale, no memory formation means no associations. Which means an ineffective ad.
The last 50 years of advertising have been an arms race between clever attempts to hack minds and various people trying to cope with that in different ways.
But I digress.
I went into the mall, a kind of place I’d avoided for a few years, with my filters as far down as I could.
It was a fucking nightmare.
Advertising, Wayfinding, and Merchandising have all escalated to being hugely manipulative in public commercial spaces because people have gotten really good at ignoring them.
Once you learn some of the tricks, it becomes clear how mediated those spaces are. How intentional. A positive example is weird public art in airports.
Why is it so common?
Because it gives people large natural landmarks to find each other within otherwise noisy environments.
Every square foot of such places is usually shaped towards the desired effect of making people feel comfortable enough to spend money.
And if you go into one without the appropriate psychic armor, you take all of that in. Every line of sight to an ad screaming for your attention. Every sign warning you that you’ll be missing out if you don’t SHOP NOW. Every bright color and light and scent put in your way to see if you’re vulnerable to different sales messages. Everywhere you look there’s another one.
A riot of demands on your attention.
The real-world version of pop-up spam from the early Internet.
I had an actual panic attack. One of the only panic attacks I’ve had as an adult.
While using every trick I knew from meditation and other spiritual work to stay balanced.
But that’s the thing, letting all this stuff under your skin in the first place is the problem. That’s why I’m telling the story.
So I found a bench in a less noisy part of the mall and stared out a skylight on the ceiling, one of the only places I could find where there wasn’t advertising everywhere. I called a friend. And I finally got my breathing under control.
And after ten minutes I was able to bring up enough of the filters I’d reduced to walk out without freaking out. This is the kind of thing that happens a lot to someone who gets serious about mucking with their mind’s backend machinery outside a qualified tradition, like Zen Buddhism.
You’ll note I do not advocate others try that shit. It’s a bad idea, even if you have a generous tolerance for risk and a comfortable place to recover when things go wrong.
Even when they’re inconvenient, minds work the way they do for good reasons and you’re more likely to make things worse than better even if you figure out how to get at the actual mechanisms rather than mere surface thoughts.
Yes, this sucks if you’re mentally ill. But I’m speaking from a *lot* of experience here and despite hundreds of similar trials over the years I’m still depressed and still have ADHD. So, *shrug*
So, what was the point of this digression?
Two things: First, I want to establish that I’m willing to go hella far in exploring how my mind works. Second, while advertising and nazi propaganda aren’t exactly the same, they do share some basic features that make mere revulsion at them a suboptimal strategy for avoiding their toxic effects.
See, revulsion and other negative emotions might get you to reject the message. But they come at an emotional cost that quickly becomes exhausting even if you’re not trying to rewire your mind in real-time.
More than panic attacks the likely outcome is burnout.
Which isn’t any better for your long-term mental health.
You can try total detachment, but outside of some narrow conditions that aren’t really applicable (like, uh, maybe you’re becoming a buddha or something like), detaching from the emotional impact of the consequences of nazi shit actually sounds a lot like radicalizing in that direction.
Especially for today’s all-too-online nazis.
So there’s a bind: To research the far right you need to expose yourself to a lot of their bullshit, without becoming desensitized to it. Because that desensitization is part of what it’s supposed to do.
There’s no sugar coating this: It sucks.
What can you even do?
What you can do.
Let’s take a look at our list from earlier.
Don’t make it your whole life.
Don’t doomscroll nazi shit.
Compartmentalize, using a different device if you can for the work.
Spend time with people who also do the work and with people who have nothing to do with it.
Build a team so it’s not on you.
I think these are generally good advice.
Especialy the support network.
But I think these are fairly limited as acute tools to manage stress from putting yourself through discomfort.
I want focus on two things that help me
1. Avoid Real Time Monitoring
So, this one doesn’t apply to people doing infiltration so much as people just trying to follow the conversation on the far right.
If you look at the above list you’ll see that one of the big tricks for this work is to avoid it taking over your entire life. I think one of the more dangerous things to try to do in our algorithmic world is to stay absolutely cutting edge.
Chasing the dragon of being completely with it puts you on an endless treadmill you can’t win against or even meaningfully keep up with long term.
The alternative is finding ways to archive & maintain info. For this, I’ve come to love the Telegram and Discord desktop apps, which let you lurk (with appropriate digital security) in right wing spaces & then catch up on your own terms.
Because 95+% of everything is noise, it’s not even really helpful to trall that closely.
Of course, many platforms resist this kind of thing and it isn’t always possible not to keep an eye on things.
But when you can move things on your own terms, to act out of intent rather than compulsion, you can manage things better.
Which brings us at last to the idea I wanted to talk about initially.
2. Ritual Containers
And here we have an almost perfect union of some of my favorite themes: A little occult, a little neuroscience, a little business.
When it comes to “productivity” I’m a fan of the “Pomodoro Technique”. Which is a fancy way of saying, “Use a timer to create uninterrupted work-periods”. The classic version involves 25 minute sprints with 5 minute breaks.
This basic structure can also be used to create specific contextual spaces isolated from the rest of your life. Ever notice how easy it is to behave differently when you’re at work or home? Depending on the people involved you can become an entirely different person.
Or how easy it is to forget what you were going into the kitchen for. The brain works in contexts, and it doesn’t take much to create a new context. Just a little intent and something to break up each.
We can leverage this to create a container where you’re focused on reading awful garbage that stresses you out, then check out of that mental space. Most of the emotional residue will stay in the container when you leave it.
It requires a bit of discipline, but it can be very helpful is getting in and out of the right headspace to deal with shit.
Oh, and of course, you can do this for *anything*. It’s a flexible tool. Afterall, containers can be as big or small or whatever shape is needed.
Like the classical magical circle containing a demon.
The structure works like this:
Decide on what you want to do and for how long.
Decide how you want to enter & exit it.
Do your entrance from #2 and set a timer.
Do what you planned until the timer runs out.
Do your exit ritual.
The neat thing about this is you can make any of this as simple or as complicated as you like.
It can be as simple as drawing a little doodle and lighting a scented candle or as complicated as the lesser banishing ritual of the pentagram or any other bit of high ritual magic.
I’ve played with dozens of variations of this over the years, trending towards shorter, multisensory, and more embodied rituals.
Here are some ideas:
Do something simple and creative.
Short poetry like couplets or haiku
Doodles or sketches
Deep breathing exercises (breathe in 10 count, hold 5 count, exhale 10 count, repeat 3-5x)
Tie-in with the senses:
Sight: Look at some cool art or do some bird watching
Hearing: Listening to a song to get the right vibe
Taste: Drink something (Ideally, w/o caffeine or sugar)
Touch: Find some nice texture you like feeling.
Smell: Gonna just say scented candles again. or Tea.
I tend to like mixing in a little elemental symbolism. Coffee or Tea for earth & water, a candle for fire & air.
Adding the symbolism makes it a little easier to step out of normal cognition and into a more focused and elevated perspective. One that smoothes out some of the rough edges from toxic content.
Don’t get me wrong, this won’t make you immune to hearing about horrible things. But it can definitely make it a lot easier to step out of it.
I’ve never been the target of any kind of lasting harassment mob or any of the like so I can’t really speculate if it would assist there.
Pretty much any piece of this structure can be played with. Different lengths of time, different entries and exits. You’ll probably not find my preferences really work for you, but there’s almost definitely something that will.
Alongside larger digital hygine habits this can really help you avoid a lot of the worst effects of reading about people spreading hatred.
Alright, we’re on the other side now.
So this was a bit more experimental that our usual fare here. If people like this sort of thing we can do more of it. Practical experiments w/ consciousness are always fun, and there’s a lot of them that aren’t really dangerous.
That’d also open up discussion of people like Robert Anton Wilson and GI Gurdjieff. Who we should probably get to at some point anyway.
Alright, so this took a little longer to finish than I expected. But I think it was fun and interesting.
It’s been quite an uneven year. Which is why I wanted to end it with some bonus content.
Tomorrow afternoon we’ll be doing our last newsletter of the year. About how the Theosophical Society has shaped the American Cultic Milieu since its founding.
Thank you for coming on this long and strange trip ;-)
There’s a lot more to come than this.
See you soon.