Tag: Charlie Brooker

Don’t believe everything you think: cognitive dissonance

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“Some things have to be believed to be seen.” – Ralph Hodgson

I’ve often thought that once people identify with a political party, there is often an accompanying tendency to edit the world so that it conforms with their ideology. I suspect that exposure to more information about objective reality and politics quite often doesn’t affect partisan bias because people tend to only assimilate those “facts” that confirm what they already believe. Perhaps this is why many people become defensive, aggressive, incoherent and dogmatic when challenged with evidence that contradicts their fundamental world-view.

President Lyndon Johnson once said: It’s a heck of a lot easier to throw grenades than to catch them.

It’s always a good idea to look at who is lobbing the explosives, too. And to see if they are recycling their bombshells

It’s certainly the same with criticism, especially those which challenge our cherished beliefs. Critical thinking is a difficult and sometimes painful process. It requires facing often challenging and contradictory narratives about the fundamental nature of the world and ourselves, analysing and evaluating them. It also requires work: practice, time and effort. But the more you do it, the easier it becomes.

Critical thinking is the foundation for intelligence, for making sound decisions, and for accommodating dissonant narratives within our own paradigm, and importantly, for understanding them.

“Knowledge” isn’t simply something arising from a closed fact-finding mission to confirm what we already hold as a theory of the world, but rather, it’s about understanding the diverse views of others who are part of our world, after all, and who contribute to its rich, meaningful pluralism.

That doesn’t mean, of course, that each account or theory of the world has equal merit and worth, but without a genuinely critical and open exploration of other views, we cannot know the worth of our own views, let alone anyone elses’. Knowledge isn’t something we have, either, it’s something we have to do. Learning is a process that is ongoing, and knowledge is always subject to challenges, revision and expansion.

Never has there been a greater need for critical thinking, yet it seems there has never been a time when that has been more difficult, because of the constant bombardment from the media of fragmented, discordant, conflicting, non-linear narratives, purposefully misdirecting and whopping lies, dead cat ploys, semantic thrifts, glittering generalities, government PR, Orwellian double-speak and other strategies being deployed to keep us in a state of fearful, confused, manipulable stupification and, to be terribly Marxist about this … in a state of false consciousness. Well, dazed and confused, at the very least.

This Adam Curtis video (below) was originally shown as part of Charlie Brooker’s 2014 Wipe show. It’s about strategies adopted by political leaders, here and abroad, to keep the population confused, uncertain what to believe or what to do – and therefore powerless.

Cognitive dissonance warfare is one weapon of choice. It isn’t just the Tories that use this method. 

We are subjected to an overwhelming barrage of partial accounts, contradictory accounts, screaming headlines, vicious lies, smears and ferocious mudslinging – negative campaigning in the media. It’s like being trapped in a hall of mirrors with Beelzebub, a few of hells’ myrmidons and your best friends, all in fancy dress.

So how do we escape the hall of mirrors?

Well, I’ve already discussed critical thinking. A good approach is to look for integrity, consistency and coherence in narratives, as well as evidence to support and refute the claims being made. And it’s important to examine scope  –  what those narratives accommodate – how comprehensive they are, how much they connect up, how much they make sense. If they involve personal attacks, this is generally a strategy of diversion, and  indicate the group flinging smears has less to offer the public than the person or being viciously attacked. 

It’s also worth understanding a little more about cognitive dissonance.

Leon Festinger: Let’s see what happens when you are stood up by the aliens.

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Leon Festinger is the social psychologist that proposed cognitive dissonance theory, which basically states that a powerful motive to maintain cognitive consistency can give rise to irrational, and often, maladaptive behaviour.

According to Festinger, we hold many cognitions about the world and ourselves; when they clash, an uncomfortable discrepancy is evoked, resulting in a state of tension known as cognitive dissonance. As the experience of dissonance is unpleasant, we are motivated to reduce or eliminate it to achieve consonance (agreement).

How we do so seems to be very much our own business, with avoidance, biased perception and denial commonly used as a defence to eliminate our discomforts – but as I pointed out earlier, the only real and lasting solution is critical thinking.

Leon Festinger once infiltrated a flying saucer doomsday cult in the late 1950s. The members of this cult had given up their entire lives – left everything and everyone behind – because they believed that the world was about to end and that their faith would ensure that they would be the sole survivors of a global flood. Up until the fateful day, the cult shunned publicity and didn’t entertain journalists.

Festinger posed as a member of the group and was present when the foretold space ship failed to show up. He was particularly interested in what would happen next. How would the disappointed cult react to the failure of their prophecy?

In science, when a theory is challenged by evidence that contradicts it, adjustments or ad hoc hypotheses are sometimes formulated to preserve the theory, attempting to explain away anomalies. However, ad hoc hypotheses are often a key characteristic of pseudoscience, as they are used to ensure a theory is never falsified, no matter how much evidence accrues to falsify that theory. Ultimately, it’s a get out clause for failed theories.

In science, whilst we accommodate gaps in our knowledge, the use of many ad hoc hypotheses is frowned upon. (Einstein’s proposition of hidden variables is a good example of this method of accommodating anomaly: he used an ad hoc hypothesis to explain quantum mechanics and maintain the integrity of relativity theory: explaining quantum entanglement without action at a distance).

Ad hoc hypotheses are a widely used strategy in managing cognitive dissonance. So, after the failure of their prophecy and the non-materialisation of the rescue space ship, the cult suddenly wanted publicity. They wanted media attention. This was apparently so the world would know how their faith had helped save the entire planet from flood.

The hypothesis was that aliens had spared planet earth for their sake – and now their new role was to spread the word and make us all listen. This fascinated Festinger. He observed that the real motivation behind the apparently inexplicable response was the need to not face an uncomfortable truth and to re-assert emotional comfort and equilibrium – to smooth over the apparently unacceptable and whopping inconsistencies between prophecy and events.

Theory and reality.

Explanations of events such as the one offered by the doomsday cult are clearly not founded on a rational process: it’s largely an emotional defence mechanism that is rationalised post hoc. Festinger coined the term “cognitive dissonance” to describe the uncomfortable tension we feel when we experience conflicting thoughts or beliefs (cognitions), or engage in behavior that is apparently opposed to our stated beliefs.

What is particularly interesting is the lengths to which people will go to reduce the inner tension without accepting that they might, in fact, be wrong. They will accept almost any form of relief, other than admitting being at fault, or mistaken. If a person believes, for example, that they are not racist, but then they discriminate against someone on the basis of race, they are then faced with the discomfort of acknowledging that they are racist after all. In an attempt to escape this discomfort, they may seek to rationalise (explain away) their behaviour on some other grounds, which may be spurious, but which allows them to hold on to their otherwise discredited belief.

Many UKIP supporters, for example, often say something like: “I’m not racist though, my brother-in-law/ friend/ uncle’s wife is actually Indian/Chinese/African” and so forth.

Another example is the “allthesame” myth. When you present people with evidence that refutes what was originally a Tory propaganda soundbite, rather than acknowledging verifiable evidence, some people choose to start a hate campaign aimed at trying to attribute all kinds of bizarre “motives” to the person simply telling a truth. Truth and populist perspectives are often poles apart.

And such tactics serve only to fragment opposition to the Right even further. Dividing people by using blame and prejudice further weakens our opposition to oppression. The oppressed can be very oppressive, it has to be said.

Festinger quickly realised that our intolerance for cognitive dissonance could explain many mysteries and irrationalities of human behavior.

Politicians have utilised this intolerance to their advantage – most particularly the Right, who deploy rhetoric heavily steeped in propaganda and behavioural manipulation techniques. (See Cameron’s behaviourist Nudge Unit,  I’ve previously discussed the implications of such manipulation on an unconsenting public and the ramifications for democracy.)

Marshall McLuhan once said: There is absolutely no inevitability as long as there is a willingness to contemplate what is happening.

Objective truth does not change according to our inclination to want something else. Facing that may be difficult at times, but the alternative is simply the idle creation of pseudo-enclaves of fleeting comfort – illusions that distract and disempower us. And make us apathetic.

It’s worth noting that totalitarian and authoritarian regimes arise in societies where populations are politically disengaged and apathetic. If we want to change unpalatable truths – part of the way things are –  the only way to do so is to have the courage, first, to face those truths head-on.

We can’t lie those truths away. There are no short-cuts or real, tenable escapes from that. We have to work our way through the confusion, avoiding the appeal and brief comfort of avoidance strategies, defence mechanisms and flat denial – short-cuts down what is invariably a cul-de-sac – difficult though that often is.

Look at where we are: we have Tory small minds attempting to justify the Tory notion of a small state. But small states and competitive individualism foster adversarial relationships, and reduce us all. Small states and individualism disconnect us from others, sever any sense of social responsibility, mutuality, cooperation and obligation we have towards others.

It divides, isolates and fragments us. Neoliberal small states make us all smaller individuals, less coherent, less connected. Less comprehending. We lose touch with social reality when we disengage with others. We become less rational agents. More dissonant. How can we hold rational, reasoned and democratic debates to oppose what is little more than Tory superstition and prejudice?  

But we must.

Iain Duncan Smith’s “magical elitism” thinking – he’s just knows he’s right – is another indication that we don’t have a democratic government that is willing to engage in dialogue: we have an authoritarian one that is interested only in imposing its own incoherent neoliberal monologue on the masses.

The Queen’s Honours list shows us just what we have become as a society this past 4 years, and how little worth we place on intelligence, honour, basic coherence, decency and genuine achievement. The Maurice Mills MBE is a farce – he blamed Hurricane Katrina on gay people – it’s like open, raucous, insane, cackling laughter from a decrepit, senile, evil elite that has lived far too long. One that is completely detached from our society and its needs. That’s the reality.

Cognitive dissonance theory is an example of the political misuse of psychology which is being used as a means of thought micro-management to ensure that we don’t move and progress. Personal and social development – growth – by their very nature demand that we have the courage to seek to extend ourselves beyond what we know and where we are. It’s very uncomfortable to acknowledge that we are limited, especially when some of that is our own doing, but it’s also essential we do acknowledge it in order to at least try and transcend those limits, extend their context step by step and make progress.

There are no alien space ships to save us from ourselves or from our government. It’s down to us to seek and evaluate the truth, and there really are no shortcuts to positive change and progress. But we can take responsibilty to ensure that what we hold to be true and the decisions we make are fully and bravely informed.

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Inverted totalitarianism and neoliberalism

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One particularly successful way of neutralising opposition to an ideology is to ensure that only those ideas that are consistent with that ideology saturate the media and are presented as orthodoxy. The Conservative election campaign was a thoroughly dispiriting and ruthless masterclass in media control.

Communication in the media is geared towards establishing a dominant paradigm and maintaining an illusion of a consensus. This ultimately serves to reduce democratic choices. Such tactics are nothing less than a political micro-management of your beliefs and are ultimately aimed at nudging your voting decisions and maintaining a profoundly unbalanced, pathological status quo.

Presenting an alternative narrative is difficult because the Tories have not only framed all of the issues to be given public priority – they set and stage-manage the media agenda – they have also dominated the narrative; they constructed and manage the political lexicon and now treat words associated with the Left, such as welfare, like semantic landmines, generating explosions of right-wing scorn, derision and ridicule. Words like cooperation, inclusion, mutual aid, reciprocity, equality, nationalisation, redistribution – collective values – are simply dismissed as mere anachronisms that need to be stricken from public conversation and exiled from our collective consciousness, whilst all the time enforcing their own bland language of an anti-democratic political doxa. The political manufacturing of a culture of anti-intellectualism extends this aim, too.

Words like competition, market place, small state, efficiency, responsibility and so on, now crowd out any opportunity of even a fleeting glance of another way of socio-economic organisation.

Anything presented that contradicts the consensus – a convincing, coherent, viable alternative perspective – is treated to a heavily staged editing via meta-coverage by the media. Anyone would think that the media regards the UK as a one-party state.

And here, people tend to take the Daily Mail with totalitarianism and tea …

“There’s something happening here
  But what it is ain’t exactly clear …”

Such tactics deployed in manufacturing consensus are widely used, and combined, they serve to reduce public expectation of opposition and in doing so establish diktats: it’s a way of mandating acceptance of ideology, policies or laws by presenting them as if they are the only viable alternative.

Adam Curtis explores themes of “power and how it works in society” in depth, and his works draw on areas of sociology, psychology, philosophy and political history.

Curtis points out, in his Oh-Dearism documentary, that there is an emerging “strategy of power that keeps any opposition constantly confused, a ceaseless shapeshifting that is unstoppable because it’s indefinable.” 

Adam Curtis’s Oh-Dearism on Charlie Brooker’s 2014 ScreenWipe show.

I have been reading about totalitarianism recently. You know when you have an itching recognition of something and need clarification of what it is precisely? I’ve felt for a long time that our own Tory government has totalitarian tendencies.

Totalitarianism is the name given to a political system that aims to mobilise entire populations in support of an official state ideology, and to exercise a repressive, absolute control over society, seeking to micro-manage all aspects of public and private life.

However, Sheldon Wolin has outlined an alternative form – inverted totalitarianism  – as not only signaling the political demobilization of the citizenry, but goes on to say that because it isn’t clearly evident in neoliberal ideology or policy, and it isn’t named, this makes recognition, reflection and challenging it very difficult. It is inverted because it does not require the use of overt coercion, police power and a messianic ideology as in the classical Nazi, Fascist and Stalinist versions of totalitarianism.

It’s true that dominant ideologies tend to become naturalised epistemology – acquiring an illusory consensus – and so become embedded and disguised as “common sense.” This makes it very difficult to identify and articulate the doxa, and even more difficult to present coherent challenges to it. See: Manufacturing consensus: the end of history and the partisan man.

Wolin writes:

“Our thesis is this: it is possible for a form of totalitarianism, different from the classical one, to evolve from a putatively “strong democracy” instead of a “failed” one.

Democracy is about the conditions that make it possible for ordinary people to better their lives by becoming political beings and by making power responsive to their hopes and needs. It depends on the existence of a demos – a politically engaged and empowered citizenry, one that voted, deliberated, and occupied all branches of public office.”

Wolin proposes that the United States on occasion came close to genuine democracy, but it was because citizens struggled against and momentarily defeated the elitism that was written into the Constitution.

He sees the New Deal as perhaps the only period of American history in which rule by a true demos prevailed. That is comparable with the rise of welfare states elsewhere in European democracies. Here in the UK, the welfare state arose in part because of the enfranchisement of the working class. The welfare state may be considered a fundamental part of the foundations for democracy. 

Other features of inverted totalitarianism are the same as the ones that formal definitions of classical totalitarianism identify: the mass media is the first mechanism of control that tyrants generally seek, which is used to erect fact-proof screens from reality. 

The regime attempts to control virtually all aspects of social life, including the economy, education, art, science, private life, psychology, morals and the perceptions of citizens. And decision-making. 

I had already linked the government Behavioural Insights Team (the Nudge Unit) with behaviourism and totalitarian thinking last year

To influence the decision-making of the public without their knowledge and consent, using techniques of persuasion – usually associated with advertising – is profoundly anti-democratic. As is the underpinning assumption that the public are generally irrational and fallible, but the government are somehow infallible, formulating a theory of human nature as if from some impossible, mind-independent, species-independent, “objective,” external vantage point. 

It’s like saying: “That’s your human nature, but not ours. We are somehow miraculously exempted from it.” 

This is a government that is encroaching at an existential level and surreptitiously imposing instructions about how we must be. And how we must be is ultimately confined to accommodating neoliberalism.

Edward Bernays, amongst others, has contributed significantly to the rise and perpetuation of inverted totalitarianism through the imported methods and practice of techniques of persuasion drawn from knowledge of social psychology and sociology, from advertising, and the rule of “market forces” to many other contexts than markets, including politics and the media. The ultimate purpose for the use of such techniques is to subvert and obscure the truth. 

Of course history showed that Bernays’ identification of the “manipulation of the masses” as a “natural and necessary feature of a democratic society” was a flawed theory when the rise to power of the totalitarian Nazis demonstrated that propaganda could be used to subvert democracy and generate social conflicts. In his autobiography – Biography of an Idea – Bernays recalls a dinner at his home in 1933 where: 

“Karl von Weigand, foreign correspondent of the Hearst newspapers, an old hand at interpreting Europe and just returned from Germany, was telling us about Goebbels and his propaganda plans to consolidate Nazi power. Goebbels had shown Weigand his propaganda library, the best Weigand had ever seen. Goebbels, said Weigand, was using my book ‘Crystallizing Public Opinion’ as a basis for his destructive campaign against the Jews of Germany. This shocked me. … Obviously the attack on the Jews of Germany was no emotional outburst of the Nazis, but a deliberate, planned campaign.” 

In Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt by Chris Hedges and Joe Sacco, inverted totalitarianism is described as a system where corporations have corrupted and subverted democracy and where economics trumps politics. Inverted totalitarianism is a system where every natural resource and every living being is commodified and exploited to collapse as the citizenry is lulled and manipulated into surrendering their liberties and their participation in government.

Although this is a critique aimed at the US, we have the same social conservatism and neoliberal ideology here in the UK, and to me, it’s as plain as day. One of the main objectives of managed democracy is to increase the profits of large corporations and dismantle the institutions of social democracy – our social security, trade unions, public health services, social housing, access to legal aid, human rights and so forth, and roll back the social and political ideals of the post-war settlement here in the UK, and the New deal in the US. The primary tool is privatisation. 

Managed democracy aims at the abdication of governmental responsibility for the well-being of most citizens, under the cover of improving “efficiency,” reducing small state “intrusion” and cost-cutting. Over recent years, austerity has been used as a front to accelerate this process, increasing economic inequality, redistributing public funds to increasingly wealthy individual’s private bank accounts. 

Another feature of managed democracy is the need to keep citizens preoccupied with the peripheral and the private conditions of human life so that they fail to focus on the widespread corruption and betrayal of public trust. The political function of this is to divide the public whilst obscuring class differences and diverting the voters’ attention from the social and economic concerns (and interests) of the general population.

Neoliberalism is a system of economic arrangements that greatly benefits a few powerful and wealthy people and impoverishes the majority of the public incrementally. As each social group reaches a crisis – struggling to survive – scapegoating narratives are constructed and disseminated via the media that blame them for their insolvency, creating socially divisive and politically managed categories of “others,” which serve to de-empathise the rest of the population and divert them from the fundamental fact that it isn’t the poor that create poverty: it is the neoliberal decision-makers and those who are steadily removing and privatising our public funds and ebulliently shrinking state responsibility towards citizens, leaving many at the mercy of “market forces” without a state safety net – it’s economic Darwinism. 

The Nazis openly mocked democracy, the UK and United States maintain the conceit that they serve as the model of democracy for the whole world. Instead, we have become a showcase for how to reduce democracy to just a brand, displaying how it can be managed without appearing to be suppressed. Democracy has been reduced to a flimsy façade, obscuring its antithesis. 

Totalitarianism isn’t simply a feature of a dystopian novel by George Orwell: it’s become entrenched and naturalised. Alternatives to social conservatism and neoliberalism are either edited out in advance of reaching public attention, or meta-edited, distorted and presented as “all the same” or straw man fallacies to buttress the status quo. 

I’ve been saying since 2012 that democracy is being subverted. The welfare “reforms” were hammered through parliament despite widespread and strong opposition, when Cameron used “financial privilege” as a justification to sidestep democratic process. Then came the widely opposed Health and Social Care Bill, and the Conservative’s refusal to release the details of the risk register to the public. It has remained unreleased.

But mostly, the recognition starts as an uneasy feeling, an indefinable something being not quite right, like a fleeting glimpse from the corner of your eye that triggers an adrenaline trickle of unease. Then comes the discovery that laws are being edited quietly, protective policies are eroded and some have been secretly repealed. Our human rights are being disregarded, and there’s a clearly expressed intention to heavily edit the existing legislation. Human rights are the bedrock of democracy, and observation of them separates democrats from despots. 

It’s so essential that we don’t disengage from politics, but rather, we need to organise, we need to construct a cogent narrative of resistance and transformation, formulating an alternative vocabulary that helps to raise awareness; to motivate; to inspire; to change public perceptions and directly challenge the tyrants. We need to fight to reclaim our democracy; to collectively insist on the re-population of increasingly dehumanising public and economic policies; to re-assert human needs and rights over and above the absurd, anti-humanist and socially fatal demands of desolating, pathological and ever-escalating neoliberalism.

 


 

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