Monday, July 15, 2013

Nibley on Public Relations

In reviewing what Nibley wrote about rhetoric, it is interesting to note that he considers the modern equivalent of rhetoric to be public relations:
In its vagueness and all-pervasiveness the term rhetoric came very close to our own "business," or better, "public relations." (CWHN 10: 255.)
Anciently, societies used rhetoric "to justify, condone, and confirm its vices." (CWHN 10:260.) They had nothing but praise for "a cynical admiration for the clever ruse, the lie that was not a lie." (CWHN 10:257.) After all, "a rhetor will not hesitate to speak the truth when it serves his purpose" (CWHN 10: 252). Above all ancient public relations people demonstrated a "refusal to accept responsibility" (CWHN 10:257), all the while "they confounded issues and destroyed philosophy." (CWHN 10:265.). It was filled with people of low character and morals: "the worst people took to rhetoric like ducks to water" (CWHN 10:253). These low people played "a hard and sordid game of exploitation and survival played without scruples and without loyalties." (CWHN 10:250.) They had turned "from the honest search for truth to the business of cultivating appearances. (CWHN 10:245-46).

This is a pretty harsh critique and was published in 1956, reflecting Nibley's views earlier in his career. Did time mellow his views at all?

A quarter of a century later, in 1981, Nibley began the penultimate book he wrote with the following observation:
To discredit Joseph Smith, or anyone else, in the eyes of an uninformed public is only too easy, requiring but the observance of a few established routines in the art of public relations. That gets us nowhere honestly. (CWHN 14:1.)
Nibley here equates public relations with dishonesty and notes that it is used to discredit the prophets.

The next year, Nibley was using the same image of dishonest public relations:
John, like the early Hebrew prophets, liked the particular emphasis on the fact that Babylon has built up great power by deception. The word that Brigham Young likes to use is decoy: These things “decoy … [our] minds” away from the real values of things. They are irresistible. The merchants do research: they know what we'll take and what we'll not. They know what will sell, and they know the line that nobody can resist. This is the very real thing we are being tempted by. By these deceptions—through public relations, the skill of advertising, and people who devote their lives to nothing else than trying to entice—the devil tries to entice and tempt us, “by sorceries and witchcraft that deceive the nations” (cf. Revelation 18:23). (CWHN 9:330-331.)

For Nibley, public relations was in league with the devil.

Almost a decade later, in 1989, Nibley used the same trope:
The theme of Shakespeare's tragedy [Macbeth] is fraud and deception as a means of obtaining power and control; in the closing lines Macbeth admits that he has been taken in: “I … begin to doubt the equivocation of the fiend that lies like truth,” i.e., the double-talk of the promoter that put him on top, the rhetoric of Madison Avenue: “And be these juggling fiends no more believed that palter with us in a double sense; that keep the word of promise to our ear, and break it to our hope!” The worst thing about the “filthy air” is that it turns out to be a smoke-screen; Macbeth is led on and put off from day to day until he is done in. It is a smooth, white-collar scam such as Macbeth half suspected from the beginning: “But 'tis strange; And oftentimes, to win us to our harm, The instruments of darkness tell us truths, Win us with honest trifles, to betray 's In deepest consequence.” What kind of honest trifles? Such pleasant bits as those pacifying public relations assurances, “We are not monsters or ogres, we are people just like you. We love our families just like you, we go to church too!” Or to quote the scriptures, “I am no devil” (2 Nephi 28:22). (CWHN 13:61-62)
In 1991 when Nibley addressed the Church Communications Department, he did not water down his opinion:
Ancient rhetoric . . . destroyed ancient society. Defined as “the art of pleasing the many,” it followed public taste and therefore always pushed downhill—rhetoric cannot lose: It is the ever victoriosa loquacitas, but the civilization that accommodates and adapts itself like a chameleon cannot win. Rhetoric is not to be cured of its vices by any technical or electronic refinements, for those vices are its very nature—the healthy cancer cells are the ones that kill, and rhetoric is a cancer. An example of this skillfully adaptive parasite is the manner in which commercials follow styles. Many of the big ones now have strong religious undertones. Recent commentators have noted the strong leaning toward spirits, ghosts, revenants, postdeath experiences, and the like in popular movies. In advertising the trend has been to sensitivity—a lengthy illustrating of heroic and climatic moments in the life of Winston Churchill culminating in celebrating those same sterling qualities of character animating the Southern Bell Telephone Company. We are now told that life simply cannot get better than following up some minor achievement, such as making a sale or winning a game or contemplating the future of one's children as successful doctors with a visit to McDonalds. And the point is that they really think that is the best that life has to offer. Babies are exploited shamelessly, with a crooning, husky, cracked, affectionate, slightly choked-up voice of an elderly gent to sell the product, which can be a truck, or a tire, or a power mower—somehow the baby shames you into buying it. The key word is message. What all these pitch-men have for the world is a message. It necessarily works by the principle of perverted values, Aristotle's doctrine of the mountain reflected in the lake; the less necessary an object is, the more it must be praised to sell it so that those who watch thousands of ads end up with a complete reversion of values, the most important things in life being deodorants, manageable hair, a sexy car, things to eat and drink, and, above all, the achievement of an absolutely perfect body without which the individual can never cease to be a reliable customer. This is what the Book of Mormon calls being carnally minded, the mainstay of all public relations. If you are perfect, then carefree is the operative word. To be youthful, beautiful, and at the beach where nobody does anything and nobody wears anything has become the common denominator. It is also the perfect Freudian escape to be free from the anxiety of age and death. What we want is a Paradise, and that is what Madison Avenue is out to give us. (CWHN 13:391-92)

So here public relations is a cancer that leads to being carnally minded.

He had used stronger words in 1976:
Let us recall that “making things appear what they really are not” is Plato's definition of Rhetoric: making false appear true and true appear false by the skillful use of words. With the recognition of the profession of Rhetoric of Public Relations as a legitimate activity, any civilization proclaims its moral bankruptcy. (CWHN 13:360-61.)
So for Nibley, adopting public relations was a proclamation of moral bankruptcy. The gospel did not need public relations.

So for Nibley's whole career, he warned against public relations. He did not think they were necessary and depicted them as evil. The organization that adopted them was inviting a cancer into the body and proclaiming its moral bankruptcy. This was even more apparent in transcripts of his classes.

Such were Nibley's considered opinions based on conscientious observations of over half a century and reading thousands of pages of ancient documents.

Nibley, however, was an academic and an outsider to the profession. There are other ways of looking at the profession.

[To be continued]