Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Clean hands and bad apples--Propaganda 101

We're in the midst of a huge, expensive campaign aimed at shaping and directing public opinion and votes. Seems opportune to look behind the curtain for a minute and see just how this is done.

What I'll say here could be used by any political party, any time--it has little to do with any party's platform. This is about process--the process of getting voters to vote your way without thinking.

Now--suppose you're a political consultant. Suppose you're a technical person who solves problems without regard to words like "moral" or "immoral." Now suppose a political party's leaders ask you to craft a strategy to marshal the half of the country without much education or smarts--while at the same time holding onto the allegiance of its smarter, more educated members.

This is pretty tricky, really. What marshals the mob is demagoguery. But demagoguery tends to offend educated people. So you need a way to do the demagoguery with a firewall between the two zones, so the party's leaders can appear to have clean hands. At the same time you can train your more educated cohort to accept more demagogic appeals by triggering people's tribalism.

In America today, even educated people usually believe you have to go to some backward country to see tribalism. Just try this thought experiment. I say "tribesman." What do you see in your mind? You see some nonwhite dude in a loincloth with a bone through his nose, don't you? I'm not saying you're racist. I'm saying we've been led to think that people in the rich countries aren't tribal.

But it's in our DNA. It's not just the way our ancestors lived. It's the way our part of the evolutionary tree has lived for at least five million years--right from the time we dropped out of the trees and started living on the ground. In the trees everyone could flee if trouble showed up. On the ground--if you don't have a tribal organization, you're toast.

That didn't go poof! when we figured out how to modify our environment instead ourselves, maybe 10,000 years ago. We've got civilization, but all those tribal instincts are there inside us, 100% intact...ready to be triggered. Some triggers are benign--love thy neighbor, expressed in a beautiful song, scenes of self-sacrifice for the common good.

But the most reliable--the most effective at shutting off our ability to reason--well, that would be fear/anger/paranoia, because when the tribe is threatened you circle the wagons.

And when people kick into tribal mode they will readily vote against their own self-interest--even educated people will. It's that strong.

A lot of what people think of as racism is really tribalism. It's simplest when everyone in your tribe looks like you, of course, but our human minds can often work around that. And of course it's just as possible to see someone who looks just like you as being in the enemy tribe.

Now to recent events.

In a recent op-ed piece, liberal NY Times columnist Bob Herbert indicted the Republican Party for its "absence of class," saying that it's "tolerating, shielding and encouraging foul, mean-spirited and bigoted behavior,"and that "It’s long past time to acknowledge that a party that promotes ignorance and provides a safe house for bigotry cannot serve the best interests of our country."

Many comments on the comment thread rejected this accusation, of course.

For example, one commentor called Herbert a liar, saying that the behavior Herbert referred to was just that of a few bad apples--or, especially in the case of racist behavior, that Democrats just make up the incident...that it's race-baiting equivalent to soccer players who fake injuries on the field in order to game the officiating.

This commentor said "Kindly tell us oh honest Bob, just who are those in the Republican Party are who are tolerating, shielding and encouraging foul, mean-spirited and bigoted behavior."

He said a lot more, mostly about how evil and treasonous the Democrats are, but you get the picture.

This is the clean hands gambit at work. Muster your troops at the grassroots level, but have it done by proxies. Iran has Hezbollah. The GOP has the Tea Party movement. These aren't sock puppets--they'll often go off-script, and sometimes drag their masters, leash and all, into the weeds. But proxy wars are worth it to our hypothetical consultant, because even if they do go off-script you can disavow them, all the while capitalizing on all the stuff they do that advances your party.


Marcel Kincaid said...

"demagoguery tends to offend educated people"

Then why does it work so well on people like your wife and that guy who wrote that comment?

It's odd that, being so close to her, you are blind to your wife's mental dysfunction. But there's a mental dysfunction operating among most "centrists", a blindness to imbalanced distributions within the political spectrum.

Anonymous said...

This commentor said "Kindly tell us oh honest Bob, just who are those in the Republican Party are who are tolerating, shielding and encouraging foul, mean-spirited and bigoted behavior."

One must be truly clueless -- perhaps a Fox News consumer -- to ask this after all the video of Republican Congressmen urging teabaggers to disrupt proceedings and applauding them for doing so.

Ehkzu said...

That's why I said "tends."

And as I said, it's not mental dysfunction--it's the human race's deepseated tribalism.

Our society is heavily psychologized, attributing many things to mental disorders which are either sociopathies rather than psychopathies, or which are things perfectly normal people do in certain circumstances.

For example, Islamist suicide bombers are mostly psychologically normal. They've just been raised in a society that trains them from birth to see murdering civilians of the despised group as the highest calling one could aspire to.

The Stanford jail experiments some decades ago showed that you could convert pretty much anybody into a sadistic jailer within 24 hours, given the right situation.

We are way more influenced by our social environment than most of us can admit. But we only gain free will by becoming aware of our chains.

So we're all influenced by demagoguery when it's from people we perceive as being in our tribe, and left unmoved by the demagogues of the other tribe.

I have to consciously "lean against the wind" of demagoguery that suits me. Thus when President Obama talks I want to believe him, because I perceive him as being in my tribe, as both a Democrat and a pragmatic centrist one at that.

Yet I've seen him say things that factcheck.org later showed to be exaggeration/spin. I've seen him use the false choice fallacy in discussing illegal immigration. And I have to fight my desire to believe everything he says when he says that.

And if you believe your tribe is under an existential threat--as the Republican Party has done about this mild healthcare reform bill--that's when you get nice middle class educated people "listening" to demagoguery the most.

Sean said...

Not to be snarky, but trying to explain why/how humans are tribal reminds me of other mind-numbingly obvious headlines I've seen (News flash: People who exercise less are more likely to be fat). On the other hand, I'm always happy to see current events analyzed through the lens of human nature. Demagoguery is a potent and dangerous political weapon when wielded with bad intentions, especially when the target audience refuses to seek out information outside of talk-radio and Fox News. That being said, many who criticize the above mentioned media outlets as being virulent hubs of information often fail to see that their own media 'tribe' picks and chooses information and opinion that they feed on.

Marcel, biting sarcasm is not an effective form of discussion. Moreover, it's even less effective when used to accuse someone of being influenced of demagoguery due to mental dysfunction. Arguments such as those are only outdone by demagoguery when it comes to being offensive.

However, for all the ongoing agony in our government system, the obvious lack of an absolute correct method from which to compare political policies against should be quite obvious. For every educated Democrat out there toting logical arguments for fair insurance practices, there another equally educated (gasp) Republican out there agonizing over yet another poverty-enabling government handout. If anything, it's the lack of discussion on an important topic that is the great tragedy. For every pissed-off redneck out there armed with a brick (aimed for someone's window), there's a self-righteous 'progressive' know-it-all harping on about the idiot tea-baggers ruining our country. If there's anything to be gained from this political climate, I believe it's this: recognize partisan bickering for what it is.

Ehkzu said...

Sean--not to be snarky about not being snarky, but that's like someone saying "I don't want to hurt your feelings, but..." You know your feelings are about to be hurt.

As for tribality being obvious...well, it is to me, but I haven't seen it mentioned by many others. Mainly they talk about racism or psychologize the issue--laying responsibility at the feet of an individual's personal psychology instead of looking at the structural situation.

For example, we put the soldiers directly involved in the Abu Ghraib scandal in prison. Yet it seemed obvious to me that when you put untrained grunts in a very difficult situation without adequate supervision and with conflicting orders coming from civilian contractors, you'll get what we got, and punishing those at the tip of the spear just lets the ones holding the spear off the hook. I know the general in charge was run out of the Army, but she had just been dealing with the hand she was dealt by Rumsfeld et al.

Likewise I don't see people showing a lot of awareness of how a political party can incite criminal conduct by its shock troops while acting shocked! shocked! when it inevitably happens--that none of this is coincidental, but rather is part of an intelligently crafted policy.

I do agree that Democrats aren't angels, as my spouse readily points out. The nearly routine suppression of right wing speakers on campuses nationwide by howling leftist mobs shows that fascism isn't a left- or right-wing thing any more than terrorism is. It springs from the amygdala buried in all our brains.

However, I concur with factcheck.org and politifact.com and others in finding the Republicans generally sinking lower than the Democrats. A lot lower. That said, my spouse finds exactly the opposite (but without the constant recourse to nonpartisan fact checkers that I do).

Sean said...

Ehkzu, good call. The beginning of my previous comment was indeed a bit skew. There's a distinct lack of conversation on political fights being fought based on group identity loyalties (tribalism), so I enjoy seeing others' perspectives when it comes to this subject. On human nature, this time without snarkiness, I was simply trying to point out that human nature is there regardless of it's ill effects or origins. To justify its existence may seem like an excuse for ill behavior to some, and to ignore it is to deny true motives. So, I agree that the tendency to be tribal is too often ignored, however, my opinion remains that simply identifying its role in human nature might suffice.

Otherwise, thanks for keeping up the blog - it's nice reading opinion commentary that doesn't assume infallibility in any particular political doctrine. Too many other discussions come across as simply preaching infallible political scripture.