Diabetes and No-Self

by Dan Jordan

An article from The Week caught my eye today. As it turns out, we Americans are now drinking “58 gallons of water a year, a 38 percent increase from 1998’s average of 42 gallons. Back then, the numbers were reversed: Americans quaffed 54 gallons of soda a year, 23 percent more than the 44 gallons we drink now.”

I don’t know about you (actually, according to the statistics, I might) but even 44 gallons of soda a year seems insane. I’m assuming these numbers are skewed by the “heavy users” of soda, but they are still staggering. Everyone knows that soda, though delicious, is bad for them, and yet we continue to indulge. Why might this be?

Keith Wagstaff at The Week attributes our high levels of soda consumption to the Cola Wars of the 1980s, during which Pepsi and Coke tried to out-advertise one another to increase market share. This effort to give our kids diabetes will soon look as vile as selling cigarettes to kids.

Fortunately, there is an upside to these two historically diabetes-based corporate titans slugging it out: “Following a concerted push by beverage companies to convince consumers to buy water in a bottle, as opposed to turning on the old tap, the consumption of bottled water has skyrocketed to 21 gallons a year per capita.”

What does it mean to be a human being in an age where advertising causes behavior change? One can argue for the importance of free will all you want (and I do) but facts don’t lie. Corporations (and politicians) spend money on advertising because they know it causes people to change their behavior and even their opinions.

The argument can always be made that companies (and politicians) are only giving people what they want. But when “what people want” can be changed through advertising, this becomes a tautological absurdity.

My personal solution is to watch less television, mute the commercials when I do, run Adblock when online, and whenever I am confronted with an ad, figure out who the demographic is, why they are being targeted, what cues are being used in the ad to get their attention, which human psychological traits are being preyed on, etc.  Basically to distill it down to its core, which is always to convince people to spend their money or votes on a particular product.

This is exhausting, and in all probability ineffective. If more people began to do the same thing, advertising executives would follow the trend and develop advertising that caters to it. Call it anti-advertising.

On the one hand, this is unsurprising. The Buddhist notion of no-self fits quite nicely with the idea that who we are as human beings is determined largely by factors outside our control, and that a completely autonomous human being is impossible. It’s either nature or nurture, but in either case it’s external to you.

That said, it is possible to change who you are, to exercise free will, especially by changing the things that shape you. If you exercise, you get in shape. If you associate  with poets and read poetry, you can become more empathetic. If you associate with scientists and read science journals, you can become more knowledgeable and discerning.

But change of this sort takes a concerted effort over time. And those of us who do not liked being shaped by excessive consumerism, fight a difficult battle, because people who want to sell us things are making a concerted effort over time to get us to give them our time and money.

So enjoy your soda, everyone. You have been convinced that consuming a can of soda a day is perfectly normal by companies that do not give a damn if you get diabetes or heart disease. In an age of plenty, the people with the strongest willpower, the best developed ability to say “no” to passing pleasures, to ignore the persuasive power of mass media, will thrive. Good luck.