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The Eden Myth And How Demagogues, Hucksters And Con Artists Use It To Deceive Us

2023 January 22
by Greg Satell

The story of the Garden of Eden is one of the oldest in recorded history, belonging not only to the world’s three major Abrahamic faiths of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, but also having roots in Greek and Sumerian mythology. It’s the ultimate origin archetype: We were once pure, innocent and good, but then were corrupted in some way and cast out.

As Timothy Snyder points out in his excellent course on The Making of Modern Ukraine, this template of innocence, corruption and expulsion often leads us to a bad place, because it implies that anything we do to remove that corrupting influence would be good and just. When you’re fighting a holy war, the ends justify the means.

The Eden myth is a favorite of demagogues, hucksters and con artists because it is so powerful. We’re constantly inundated with scapegoats— the government, big business, tech giants, the “billionaire” class, immigrants, “woke” society—to blame for our fall from grace. We need to learn to recognize the telltale signs that someone is trying to manipulate us.

The Assertion Of Victimhood

In 1987, a rather drab and dull Yugoslavian apparatchik named Slobodan Milošević was visiting Kosovo field, the site of the Serbs humiliating defeat at the hands of the Ottoman empire in 1389. While meeting with local leaders, he heard a commotion outside and found police beating back a huge crowd of Serbs and Montenegrins.

“No one should dare to beat you again!” Milošević is reported to have said and, in that moment, that drab apparatchik was transformed into a political juggernaut who left death and destruction in his path. For the first time since World War II, a genocide was perpetrated in Europe and the term ethnic cleansing entered the lexicon.

In Snyder’s book, Bloodlands, which chronicled the twin horrors of Hitler and Stalin, he points out that if we are to understand how humans can do such atrocious things to other humans, we first need to understand that they saw themselves as the true victims. When people believe that their survival is at stake, there is very little they won’t assent to.

The assertion of victimhood doesn’t need to involve life and death. Consider the recent Twitter Files “scandal,” in which the social media giant’s new owner leaked internal discussions about content moderation. The journalists who were given access asserted that those discussions amounted to an FBI-Big Tech conspiracy to censor important information. They paint sinister pictures of dark forces working to undermine our access to information.

When you read the actual discussions, however, what you see is a nuanced discussion about how to balance a number of competing values. How do we balance national security and public safety with liberty and free speech? At what point does speech become inciteful and problematic? Where should lines be drawn?

The Dehumanization Of An Out-group

Demagogues, hucksters and con men abhor nuance because victimhood requires absolutes. The victim must be completely innocent and the perpetrator must be purely evil for the Eden myth sleight of hand to work. There are no innocent mistakes, only cruelty and greed will serve to build the narrative.

Two years after Milošević political transformation at Kosooe field he returned there to commemorate the 600 anniversary of the Battle of Kosovo, where he claimed that “​​the Serbs have never in the whole of their history conquered and exploited others.” Having established that predicate, the stage was set for the war in Bosnia and the atrocities that came with it.

Once you establish complete innocence, the next step is to dehumanize the out-group. The media aren’t professionals who make mistakes, they are “scum who spread lies.” Tech giants aren’t flawed organizations, but ones who deliberately harm the public. Public servants like Anthony Fauci and philanthropists like Bill Gates are purported to engage in nefarious conspiracies that undermine the public well-being.

The truth is, of course, that nothing is monolithic. People have multiple motivations, some noble, others less so. Government agencies tend to attract mission-driven public servants, but can also be prone to overreach and abuse of power. Entrepreneurs like Elon Musk can have both benevolent aspirations to serve mankind and problematic character flaws.

It is no accident that the states in the US with the fewest immigrants tend to have the most anti-immigrant sentiment. The world is a messy place, which is why real-world experience undermines the Manichean worldview that demagogues, hucksters and con artists need to prepare the ground for what comes next.

The Vow For Retribution

It is now a matter of historical record what came of Milošević. After the horrors of the genocides his government perpetrated, his regime was brought down in the Bulldozer Revolution, the first of a string of Color Revolutions that spread across Eastern Europe. He was then sent to The Hague to stand trial, where would die in his prison cell.

Milošević made a common mistake (and one Vladimir Putin is repeating today). Successful demagogues, hucksters and con artists know to never make good on their vows for retribution. In order to serve its purpose, the return to Eden must remain aspirational, a fabulous yonder that will never be truly attained. Once you actually try to get there, it will be exposed as a mirage.

Yet politicians who vow to bring down evil corporations can depend on a steady stream of campaign contributions. In much the same way, entrepreneurs and entrepreneurs who rail against government bureaucrats can be enthusiastically invited to speak to the media and at investor conferences.

It is a ploy that has continued to be effective from antiquity to the present-day because it strikes at our primordial tendencies toward tribalism and justice, which is why we can expect it to continue. It’s a pattern that recurs with such metronomic regularity precisely because we are so vulnerable to it.

Being Aware Is Half The Battle

In my friend Bob Burg’s wonderful book, Adversaries into Allies, he makes the distinction between persuasion and manipulation. Bob says that persuasion involves helping someone to make a decision by explaining the benefits of a particular course of action, while manipulation takes advantage of negative emotions, such as anger, fear and greed.

So it shouldn’t be surprising that those who want to manipulate us tell origin stories in which we were once innocent and good until a corrupting force diminished us. It is that narrative that allows them to assert victimhood, dehumanize an out-group and promise, if given the means, that they will deliver retribution and a return to our rightful place.

These are the tell-tale signs that reveal demagogues, hucksters and con artists. It doesn’t matter if they are seeking backing for a new technology, belief in a new business model or public office, there will always be an “us” and a “them” and there can never be a “we together,” because “they,” are trying to deceive us, take what is rightfully ours and rob us of our dignity.

Yet once we begin to recognize those signs, we can use those emotional pangs as markers that alert us to the need to scrutinize claims more closely, seek out a greater diversity of perspectives and examine alternative narratives. We can’t just believe everything we think. It is the people who are telling us things that we want to be true that are best able to deceive us.

Those who pursue evil and greed always claim that they are on the side of everything righteous and pure. That’s what we need to watch out for most.

Greg Satell is a transformation & change expert, international keynote speaker, and bestselling author of Cascades: How to Create a Movement that Drives Transformational Change. His previous effort, Mapping Innovation, was selected as one of the best business books of 2017. You can learn more about Greg on his website, and follow him on Twitter @DigitalTonto

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Image: Wikimedia Commons

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