Monday, October 20, 2014

Manufacturing a rant

One of my pet hates is Noam Chomsky. It is pointless picking up a book by him as you know exactly what he will say without having the chore of reading his deathly prose. In Manufacturing Consent he paints a doleful picture of people being deliberately manipulated by systematic mass indoctrination. He knows, is absolutely certain, that if only people stopped watching football they would agree with him. It is the standard delusion of political certainty.

And it is everywhere. After the Scottish referendum, ludicrous conspiracy theories saying that the vote had been rigged emanated from the 'yes' camp, alongside assertions that voters had been scared by the dishonest propaganda of 'no' campaigners and influenced by the 'bias' of the BBC. How about admitting that there were real, rational reasons for voting no, that it was a conscious choice, and not falling back on the line that people were fooled?

There are so many elements to this way of thinking - holding an orthodoxy that admits no doubt, wishful thinking, even sheer paranoia. Chomsky's fan club is prone to claiming that his views are being deliberately silenced and marginalised despite his many books, newspaper articles, respectful TV interviews, documentary films, magazine front covers and, of course, his prestigious academic post. And this is just one example of many.

I find this disrespectful to ordinary people who aren't as simple-minded and gullible as assumed, but more importantly, this way of thinking lacks any form of self-criticism and is sealed off from reality. Sometimes the failings are yours, not others' - it is entirely possible for you to be wrong. I wonder just who it is that is being brainwashed.

It is quite true that sometimes a minority view is right, is morally justified, yet is also marginalised and berated. But is this solely the product of deliberate indoctrination? There is a clear bias towards inertia in relatively peaceful and prosperous societies, mass dissent is the product of crisis. Propaganda will only work when it tallies with the real, material experience of the uncommitted and with their pre-existing prejudices. Otherwise they will just get on with enjoying their lives.

There is an element of truth in that we are all influenced by the media, especially when we lack detailed knowledge. And mainstream media will always tend towards an acceptance of the status quo, but this doesn't tell the whole story. This isn't some monolithic system of mass manipulation, it has competitors in the influence business and they are doing quite nicely. So let's forget the manufacture of consent and talk about the manufacture of distrust instead. This poses as anti-establishment and portrays itself as 'talking truth to power'. Much of it isn't. It is often the powerful and the powerless allied in talking bollocks. Instead of reason, we have a world-weary cynicism that absolves us of the need for evidence or thought. Here are three examples.

Complementary medicine may have no proven clinical worth, but it is a multi-billion pound industry. Given that it doesn't have to support costly clinical trials or use expensive ingredients, the profit margins must be huge. Instead of evidence, the pedlars of woo have only to assert some magical, sciencey sounding claims and throw in a bit of unsubstantiated anecdotal evidence to get people to part with their dosh. The most potent weapon in their armoury is the denigration of 'big pharma'. They do this deliberately, using carefully constructed techniques that they know will not work on sceptics like me. Those videos and articles with long rambling preambles before they get to the crunch are designed to turn away sceptics but reel in the true believers who are likely to make a purchase at the end. And it is not just the ordinary punter that they go for, people like the Tory MP, David Tredinnick wants to hand over wads of public money to herbalists, homeopaths and astrologers.

Secondly, I saw one of these on-line petitions circulated about fur farming. It had the standard gruesome picture of animal suffering and called for signatures on a petition to a well-known clothing store to end the use of fur in its products. I looked at some of the on-line discussions. One commenter made a factual observation. The firm that was being petitioned doesn't use any fur and never has. Everything they sell is faux fur. It is already their policy. This wasn't enough for another who wrote that the company was lying. The reason was that this individual once had a coat of theirs, singed its faux-fur collar and it 'smelt like hair'. Cognitive dissonance or what?

Finally, and this is most important, there is the blanket distrust of politicians. This is reinforced daily. 'They are all the same', 'they are only in it for themselves', etc, etc. This is manifestly untrue of all, but certainly true of some - as could be said of all professions (the reason I taught is because they paid me, even if I was dedicated to adult education. Being paid for writing is proving more elusive). But it is this mood that the likes of UKIP feed off. They play at being the plucky outsider taking on the establishment - even if they look remarkably like the establishment to me. Cynicism is the playground of the demagogue.

And so we need to once again fall back on sceptical, critical thinking. We should be shouting to all who will hear that complementary medicine is nothing if not capitalism at its most exploitative, that firms do not use more expensive materials secretly so that they can satisfy their cruelty, and that UKIP is a right-wing, populist movement as cynical as the cynicism it feeds off.

Excessive distrust of institutions is as corrosive as slavish adherence to the powerful. Both are human traits, reinforced by the marketing industry, but neither are wholly successful. You may be able to fool sufficient of the people sufficient of the time to make a few bob, there are others out there who can spot a charlatan a mile off. Liberal democracies are not populated by automatons waiting to be enlightened, but by human beings with all their cognitive weaknesses mixed in with intellectual strengths. Oddly, it is those like the Chomsky devotees who turn out to be most unthinking disciples of all. Maybe all they are doing is talking about themselves.


KBPlayer said...

How the distrust and skepticism can swing as well. The Yes voters who expressed the usual total distrust of politicians now have fallen at the feet of Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon. Of all the distrustable politicians Alex Salmond is one of the worst, batting aside reasonable concerns about an independent Scotland's finances as "scare mongering" and that the EU and an rUK would bend to the wishes of Scotland. He swung from this was the last hope for independence in a generation to suggesting that independence could be unilaterally declared. But the Yessers treated his departure as if he was Mandela.

Anonymous said...

I believe it is debatable as to how much of Manufacturing Consent Chomsky actually wrote