Tag: Glittering Generalities

Political polls, think tanks and propaganda: the antidemocratic writing on the wall

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The Mail on Sunday columnist, christian and Burkean Conservative, Peter Hitchens, has said:

“Opinion polls are a device for influencing public opinion, not a device for measuring it. Crack that, and it all makes sense.”

I don’t agree with Hitchens on very much, but he is right about this.

In his book The Broken Compass, Hitchens informs us that opinion polls are actually a device for influencing public opinion. He says that the establishment and the media are responsible for this manipulation, based on the misuse of statistics. The overall purpose is to “bring about the thing it claims is already happening”. 

The author cites contemporary examples of the media attacking Gordon Brown and the “predicted” win of the Conservative Party at the 2010 general election, although Hitchens also described Brown, as a “dismal Marxoid.”  Hitchens’ comments are based on his time as a reporter at Westminster. He says that political journalists are uninterested in serious political debate, and describes how a media reporting bias is attempting to facilitate a Tory general election win.

Remarkably, as a social Conservative, Hitchens states one of his motivations for writing the book was to frustrate this exercise.

Of course government influence isn’t the only problem. Neoliberal bias and “market forces” that result in a biased presentation include the ownership of the news source, concentration of media ownership, the selection of staff, the preferences of an intended audience, and pressure from advertisers. In short, we cannot escape the cultural saturation of pro-establishment views, and the establishment is of course both neoliberal and Conservative. 

Predicting elections may seem interesting, fun, and perhaps even educational from an academic perspective, but it doesn’t add much to our democratic practices. Polls give an apparency of “data-driven journalism” but it produces a reductive “horse-race” narrative, in which political and policy context is mostly ignored with the numbers, accurate or not, pretty much being framed as all that matters. This trivialises our democracy and obscures the importance of critical thinking and informed choices regarding policies in influencing the public’s voting decisions. 

Priming and framing

Priming is a subconscious form of memory, based on identification of related ideas and objects. This effect happens when external stimuli “manipulate” internal thoughts, feelings or behaviours. After becoming activated by stimuli, priming triggers these associations in our memory. For example, one study showed that a store playing traditional French or German music can prime shoppers to buy French or German products. Political slogans are also frequently used as a priming tool. They provide reference points – they are gateways to underlying ideological narratives.

So, priming may be used as a strategy that entails the intentional use of certain words, phrases or images that can subtly influence our thinking – via an interpretive frame – at least to an extent. Some psychologists have argued that priming can have effects on changing our decision-making and behaviour, that seeing an image of money can affect our political views, for instance, or that reminding individuals of stereotypes applied to their social group can harm their performance in a test and in other ways. Stigma is a political tool, usually reserved for despotic regimes, but in Western democracies, othering traditionally marginalised groups has become such common practice that it’s almost hidden in plain view.

Attempts to test such effects suggest that at least some of them are not reliable. But priming, in a more general sense, still matters, such as when people use contextual cues during a conversation to interpret the meaning of ambiguous language.

Political media priming is “the process in which the media attend to some issues and not others and thereby alter the standards by which people evaluate election candidates”. A number of studies have demonstrated that there is a dimension of powerful media effects that goes beyond basic agenda setting.

In 1982, Iyengar, Peters, and Kinder first identified this added dimension as the “priming effect.” The theory is founded on the basic assumption that people do not have elaborate knowledge about political matters and do not take into account all of what they do know when making political decisions — they must consider what more readily comes to mind. Through drawing attention to some aspects of politics at the expense of others, the media might help to set the terms by which political judgements are reached, including evaluations of political figures. A process of carefully calculated uses of public opinion on policy issues may (and are) very easily  used as strategies to intentionally influence voters’ standards for assessing political candidates’ attributes. 

In sociology, framing is a schema of interpretation: a sort of shorthand collection of anecdotes and stereotypes that individuals depend on to understand and respond to and navigate events. In other words, people build a series of mental “filters” through biological, social, political and cultural influences. Citizens then use these filters or signposts to make sense of the world. The choices they then make are influenced by the  creation of a frames. The effects of framing can be seen in the media.

With the same information being used as a base, the “frame” surrounding the issue can change the reader’s perceptions without having to alter the underlying facts. In the context of politics or mass-media communication, a frame defines the packaging of an element of rhetoric in such a way as to encourage certain interpretations and to discourage others. 

For political purposes, framing often presents facts in such a way that implicates a social problem that is in need of a certain solution. Members of political parties attempt to frame issues in a way that makes a solution favouring their own political leaning appear as the most appropriate course of action for the situation at hand.

Research on frames in sociologically driven media research generally examines the influence of “social norms and values, organisational pressures and constraints, pressures of interest groups, journalistic routines, and ideological or political orientations and bias of journalists” on the existence of frames in media content

Roger Pielke Jr, professor of Technology Policy Research at the University of Colorado, says: Rather than trying to see the future, political science might serve us better by helping citizens to create that future by clarifying the choices we face and their possible consequences for policy.”

“In treating politics like a sporting event, we diminish the partisanship, the choices, and the fundamental values that lie at the core of politics. I fear that data journalists have diminished our politics.” 

When political opinion polls and the media appear to support one political party over another, there can be little doubt that this will have an influence on the psychology of voters, because it’s akin to declaring election winners before the election is actually held. It works rather like a self-fulfilling prophecy.

In the UK, the media is biased and leans heavily towards the right. Despite the fact that the Labour party currently has the highest party membership in Western Europe, yet the party leader is viciously attacked, and very often in a particularly nasty, personal and highly misleading way. The systematic way in which the media are actively attempting to delegitimise Corbyn is unworthy of a so-called democracy.

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Some countries, such as France, Brazil and South Korea, impose a halt on election polling because of the bandwagon effect, which may skew the democratic process. The bandwagon effect describes a process of voters favouring a party that is doing well in the polls, while the underdog effect predicts that support will go to a party trailing in the polls.

There is also the possibility of a projection effect, with voters’ expectations conforming to their partisanship. There is rather less empirical evidence for the existence of underdog effect than there is for the existence of the bandwagon effect, which is based on individuals rallying to the perceived majority opinion, because of a fairly widespread psychological need for feeling we are part of a social ingroup, and a general tendency towards normative compliance and social conformity. And at a time when the strategically engineered and toxic social divisions of political outgrouping is widespread and affecting citizens’ fundamental sense of identity and self worth, this type of insidious call for a normative compliance and artificial consensus creates a false sense of security for some.

We know that political opinion polls are certainly not always an accurate reflection of public opinion. Samples of the population selected to participate may be biased. For example, asking Daily Mail readers who they will vote for will almost certainly produce a majority right wing set of responses. However, if you ask the same question on Twitter, you are much more likely to get a Labour majority.  

The polls do have an effect on voter intentions and on those trying to influence the outcome of elections.

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Poll by ITV’s This Morning asked viewers which party leader they would prefer to see as Prime Minister.

More generally, in sociology and other social sciences, bias is defined as any tendency which prevents unprejudiced consideration of a research question. Bias can occur at any phase of research, including study design, or sampling and data collection, as well as in the process of data analysis and publication.  

It is widely recognised that quantitative social research methods, such as surveys, may be susceptible to reduced reliability and research bias, sometimes entailing a process where the researchers performing the survey influence the results by selecting a specific kind of sample of the population, for example.

Human nature is complex and can not be reduced easily to just a simple either/or response. Bias may arise when researchers inadvertently or deliberately select subjects that are more likely to generate the desired results. Either way, this is a reversal of the normal processes governing science.

Additionally, there is also a risk of response bias – a general term for a wide range of cognitive biases that influence the responses of participants away from accuracy or truthfulness. These biases are most prevalent in the types of studies and research that involve participant self-report, in quantitative research such as surveys. Response biases can have a large impact on the validity of questionnaires, surveys and polls.

With all of this in mind, we need to think about how the conventional political polls are run, who runs them, who funds them and for what and whose purpose.

In the UK, some of the major polls are run by:

  • Survation, pollster to The Mail on Sunday, Daily Mirror, Daily Record and Sky News. They say: “Survation also have an active strategy and campaign advisory business helping clients better understand customers & members, appreciate & help shape public opinion. We help our clients improve customer engagement and effectiveness of campaigns – be they charitable, political or commercial.” 
  • ComRes, retained pollster for the BBC and The Independent. It says on their site: ComRes provides specialist research and insight to support reputation management, public policy and communications. For more than a decade we have used the latest developments in market and opinion research to inform strategies, change behaviours and define debates.”
  • Ipsos MORI (formerly MORI). Ipsos MORI’s Social Research Institute works extensively for the Government of the United Kingdom, looking at public attitudes to key public services, and so informing social policy. Issues such as identity, social cohesion, loyalty, physical capital and the impact of place on attitudes are all key themes of the Institute’s work. The company also specialises in mass media, brand loyalty, marketing and advertising research.
  • YouGov. – Stephan Shakespeare, the firm’s founder and CEO from 2010, once stood as a Conservative candidate for Colchester; he was also a Conservative Party pollster. The other founder, and CEO until 2010, is Nadhim Zahawi a British Conservative Party politician who has been the Member of Parliament (MP) for Stratford-on-Avon since 2010.
  • ICM. They say Understanding choice means you know how your audience feels, thinks and behaves. And how you can change that. We help influence choice in three areas. How do you energise your brand and communications? How do you improve your customers’ experience of you? How do you understand and influence citizens?  
  • Populus, official The Times pollster. They say: “Our Reputation & Strategy team works with the boards of global companies and public institutions to help them understand, influence, and improve their reputations. We are specialists in reputation. We understand why it matters, how to measure it, what drives it, who influences it, how to align it with existing activity, and what you should do to improve it.”
  • TNS-BMRBTNS changed their name to Kantar Public UK: a leading agency providing research and consultancy to UK policymakers. The company is structured around specific areas of marketing expertise: Brand & Communication; Innovation & Product Development; Retail & Shopper; Customer Experience; Employee Engagement; Qualitative; Automotive; and Political & Social.

All of these companies operate within a taken-for-granted neoliberal context, supporting various actors within the “global market place” paradigm, including governments, and therefore have a distinct ideological leaning and very clearly defined economic interests in maintaining the status quo. 

Nudging voting decisions

It’s likely that Lynton Crosby’s international notoriety made him the subject of considerable press attention during the Conservative’s election campaign. However, there was another man also behind the Conservative campaign who was probably even more cunning. American strategist Jim Messina was hired as a strategy adviser in August 2013. Senior Conservative staff had been impressed by Barack Obama’s easy victories in the 2008 and 2012 presidential elections, crediting a relentless focus on data collection to Messina.

Access to this level of personal data was crucial to the success of the Conservative campaign: it determined which voters the party needed to target, contact and which type of message they would present. This process began with direct mail – personally addressed to voters in each target seat, who were divided into 40 different categories, with a slightly different tailored message for each one.

A telephone research company called Return Marketing (now known as Return Research) canvassed thousands of voters in the run-up to the 2015 general election. The calls they made rather tellingly targeted voters in specific, marginal constituencies.

Last year, the The Canary found evidence that the Conservatives may have broken a law that prohibits paying canvassers to support a specific candidate’s election. Whistleblowers speaking to an independent journalist have alleged that they were told to push poll voters (sway voters towards voting for the Conservatives by using loaded questions.)

Channel Four’s secret filming of the company Return Market’s “push polling”- polling designed to influence voters while masquerading as political research – during the EU referendum.

Pollsters, by and large, reject the charge that they herd public opinion, but social psychologists and behavioural economists inform us that there is more than a little truth in the bandwaggon effect theory.

Pollsters say they are careful to avoid influencing the outcome of a poll through priming and order effects in the survey design, but there are many other stumbling blocks to bear in mind. Social psychologists and the new behavioural economists say that in general people want to follow the crowd and do not like to challenge the normative order (which as a concept is in itself a very functionalist and conservative framing of society).

This is reflected in the nudge theorists’ use of social norming strategies, currently being adopted in public policies, which politically target some social groups to change their perceptions and behaviours. Social norming is based on an assumption of pluralistic ignorance bychoice architects. Ultimately, the “choice architects” are the government, who, after all, are responsible for public policies which utilise experimental behavioural theory.

It’s of major concern that attempts by a government to surreptitiously change the perceptions, behaviours, emotions and decision-making of a population using experimental behavioural economic theory and discriminatory policies is not currently subject to public scrutiny and ethical standards. There is nothing standing in the way of “choice architects” using social norming to generate, manipulate or exploit pluralistic ignorance in order to simply maintain and justify the status quo. In fact they DO.

So if we see an opinion poll telling us what the majority thinks, believe or is doing, because many have an inbuilt psychological bias towards following the crowd, we need to question potential motives underpinning that “information”.

The government know about the bandwaggon bias and are designing communications strategies and policies which play to this heuristic. Buying Facebook ‘likes’ is one example of this attempt to create a false impression of  public consensus and political popularity.

Think tanks, the media and the Conservative influence on public thinking

In the late 1960s and 1970s, movement Conservatives persuaded wealthy individuals and businesses to establish a conservative intellectual and political infrastructure. This includes think tanks that resemble academic institutions but publish studies supporting Conservative and libertarian arguments. The American Enterprise Institute was founded in 1943, but was expanded dramatically with new funding in 1971. The Heritage Foundation was created in 1973 and the Cato Institute was founded in 1974.

In Britain, Tim Montgomerie, has described the Conservative movement as “the infrastructure outside of the party that supports small ‘c’ conservative values.”

A March 2009 presentation by Montgomerie and Matthew Elliott listed a number of organisations as part of the British Conservative movement: 

Institute of Economic Affairs | Centre for Policy Studies | Reform | Adam Smith Institute | Policy Exchange | Centre for Social Justice | Civitas | International Policy Network | Taxpayers’ Alliance | ConservativeHome | New Culture Forum | Standpoint | Migration Watch UK | Countryside Alliance | Centre for Social Cohesion

Elliott compared this with the smaller size of the movement in 1997. According to Montgomerie, the comparison was intended to be indicative rather than comprehensive. An up to date, comprehensive powerbase list might include: 

2020 Health | Atlantic Bridge | Adam Smith Institute | Better Off Out | Big Brother Watch | Bow Group | Bruges Group | Campaign for an English Parliament | Campaign for the Protection for Rural England | Centre for Policy Studies | Centre for Social Cohesion | Centre for Social Justice | Christian Conservative Fellowship | Civitas | Conservative Education Society | ConservativeHome | Conservative Intelligence | Conservative Party | Conservative Philosophy Group | Countryside Alliance | Democracy Institute | Direct Democracy | Drivers Alliance | Doctors for Reform | Economic Policy Centre | Enterprise Forum | European Foundation | European Policy Forum | Family Education Trust | First Defence | Forest | Freedom Alliance | Freedom Association | Freedom Zone | The Free Society | Global Vision | Global Warming Policy Foundation | Henry Jackson Society | Institute of Ideas | Institute of Directors | Institute of Economic Affairs | International Policy Network | Legatum Institute | Liberty League | Localis | Message Space | Migration Watch | New Culture Forum | Nothing British about the BNP | Nurses for Reform | Open Europe | Policy Exchange | Politeia | Progressive Vision | Reform | Reform Scotland | ResPublica | Safe Speed | Save Our Pubs and Clubs | Selsdon Group | Social Affairs Unit | Social Market Foundation | Spiked | Standpoint | Student Rights | Sunlight COPS | Taxpayers Alliance | TEA Party UK | UK National Defence AssociationYoung Britons Foundationamong others. 

The problem is that think tanks synthesise, create and communicate “information” and give “advice” to the public and policy-makers, very often through the media. Think tanks tend to be far more media savvy than academics, often with staff who have backgrounds in the communication industry – media, PR or lobbying organisations.

This means that policy proposals, media narratives and public debate are much more likely to reflect Conservative ideology and favour pro-establishment outcomes, rather than being non-partisan, evidence-based and crucially, a representation of public needs. This of course turns democracy completely on its head. 

As Professor Judy Sebba points out in Getting research into policy: the role of think tanks and other mediators: “Far from educating the public about evidence, think tanks are characterised by closedness and exclusivity. They do not subject their work to review by others and so the quality of their outputs are not assessed. Most worryingly, the media present the work of think tanks as credible sources of research and facts without any checks being in place.”  

As key players in “democratic” politics and in shaping public opinion, think tanks have a responsibility to be transparent about their operations, but seldom are. A good question to ask is who funds them and what is their agenda?

The bandwaggon propaganda technique is also used as a key campaign strategy

More recently, I explored the role of intentionally deceitful political language and rhetoric in another article  which highlights the role that the media play in shaping our public life. Media manipulation involves a series of related techniques in which partisans create images or arguments that favour their own particular interests. Such tactics may include the use of logical fallacies, psychological manipulations, deception, linguistic, rhetorical and propaganda techniques, and often involve the suppression of information or alternative perspectives by simply crowding them out. 

Discrediting and minimisation are often used in persuading other people or social groups to stop listening to certain perspectives and arguments, or by simply diverting public attention elsewhere. An example of diversion is the recent widespread scapegoating of refugees and people who need social security, such as disabled people or those who have lost their jobs, in a bid to maintain the hegemony of neoliberalism and its values at a time when its failings were brought into sharp focus during and following the global crisis – also exposing failings in the behaviours and practices of the government and the vulture capitalist financier class.

Neoliberalism always gravitates towards increasing inequality, extending and deepening poverty. Fear mongering is sometimes used with a diversion or misdirection propaganda technique to mask this, and may be pervasive. Sometimes politicians and media commentators suddenly take a debate in a weird and irrational but predictable direction to avoid democratic accountability.

During the coalition and Conservative governments, the tabloids have chosen and framed most of the debates that have dominated domestic politics in the UK, ensuring that immigration, welfare, law and order, the role of the state, and Britain’s relationship with Europe have all been discussed in increasingly right wing terms, while almost ironically, the government have colonised progressive rhetoric to cover their intentions. It also serves to further discredit the narrative of the left.

The reason in part for this rhetoric, importing words such as “fair”, “social justice” and “equal opportunity” and repeating them ad nauseam is that the Conservatives know that such ideas build the trust of ordinary citizens. 

However, there is therefore a growing chasm between Conservative discourse, and policy intentions and outcomes. There isn’t a bridge between rhetoric and reality. 

The Conservatives commonly use a nudge technique called “social norming” – a Behavioural Insights Team variant of the bandwaggon propaganda technique – particularly for General Election campaigning. It’s about manipulating a false sense of consensus, and normalising Conservative ideology. It’s also about prompting behavioural change, and as such, this method is a blatant attempt to influence the voting behaviours of the public, by suggesting that many others have already “joined” the Conservative “cause” and are happier or better off for doing so. The technique uses societal pressures to play on several basic emotional elements of human nature.

Oh, and then there is the basic technique of telling lies, of course.

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And using euphemism:


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Social norming is an appeal to emotional needs to fit in and belong, and also, to be on the side that wins. As stated earlier, it has a kind of self fulfilling prophecy element to it, too. It’s used in advertising – words like “everyone”, “we”, “our” and “most people” or “many” are used a lot to sell brands and imply a popularity of certain products that usually isn’t real.

Political slogans like the almost farcical “country that works for everyone” and the previous “all in it together” are examples of poor attempts at social norming. It’s aimed at shifting our normative framework to accommodate the status quo, too, regardless of how the accounts don’t tally with reality. Once you see it, you can’t unsee it.

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It’s worth noting that “We are all in it together” was a slogan made famous in Terry Guiliams’s dystopic black comedy Brazil. Cameron certainly had a moment of recycling propaganda with grim irony there.

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Propaganda techniques commonly used by the Conservatives

As mentioned previously, bandwagon and “inevitable-victory” appeals attempt to persuade the target audience to join in and take the course of action that “everyone else is taking.” Inevitable victory invites those not already on the bandwagon to join those already convinced they are on the road to certain victory. Those already or at least partially on the bandwagon are reassured that staying aboard is their best course of action.  

Join the crowd is a technique that reinforces people’s natural desire to be on the winning side. This technique is used to convince the audience that a programme is an expression of an irresistible mass movement and that it is in their best interest to join. As an example, see Grant Shapps under fire over website ‘sham’ which used models featured on Australian university site to make Tory activists look ‘youthful and in touch’ with Britain. Also see Behaviourism.

Common man – The ordinary folks or Common Man technique is an attempt to convince the audience that the propagandist’s positions reflect the common sense of the people. It is designed to win the confidence of the audience by communicating in the common manner and style of the target audience. Propagandists use ordinary language and mannerisms (and clothe their message in face-to-face and audiovisual communications) in attempting to identify their point of view with that of the average person, and to naturalise it.

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Ad hominem is a Latin phrase which has come to mean personally attacking your opponent, as opposed to challenging their propositions and arguments. A recent example is Boris Johnson’s strange attack on Jeremy Corbyn, calling him a “benign herbivore” but at the same time, also a “mutton-headed old mugwump.

The word comes from Massachusett, an Algonquian language spoken by the Massachusett people, from whom the US state takes its name. The word mugquomp, meaning “war leader” or “great chief”, appeared frequently in John Eliot’s 1663 translation of the Bible into the Massachusett language, where it was used as a gloss for an officer, captain, and duke.

Sadly, Johnson, languishing in his own in solipsism, has clearly invented his own personal meaning, though he really should pay heed to Wittgenstein, who warned of the dangers of private language (the idea of a language understandable by only a single individual is incoherent.) Then he wouldn’t sound like such a mutton-headed numpty. Johnson, like many Conservatives, has problems reconciling his “inner” (subjective) experience with the “outside” (objective) world.

By the early 1800s the form “mugwump” had been adopted into English as a humorous term for an important person, leader, or boss. J K Rowling was probably thinking of the earlier meaning when she used the word for the head of the International Confederation of Wizards in Harry Potter, the Supreme Mugwump.

Ad nauseam – This approach uses tireless repetition of an idea. An idea, especially a simple slogan, that is repeated enough times, may begin to be taken as the truth. This approach works best when media sources are limited and controlled by the propagator. Joseph Goebbels, not known to be driven by the passionate inspiration of the moment, but by the result of sober psychological calculation, was particularly talented in utilising this approach. Iain Duncan Smith has previously shown a similar penchant for repeated mendacity. Then there is Theresa May’s ad nauseum slogans: ” A strong and stable leadership in the national interest,” and “A country that works for everyone.”

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   Image courtesy of News Thump

Which brings us to the Glittering Generalities technique. This another category of the seven main propaganda techniques identified by the Institute for Propaganda Analysis in 1938. It’s a device often used by the media and in political rhetoric to persuade us to approve and accept something without examining any evidence.

This is a propaganda technique purposefully designed to divert and distract, so that people are less likely to develop their own critical thoughts. This said, the purpose of all forms of propaganda is to tell you what to think, and not how to think.

Glittering Generalities capitalise on increasingly sloganised political discourses, leading to a loss of conceptual clarity, over-idealisation and they also reflect conceptual miserliness – a tendency for some people to prefer simple, superficial and easy answers, rather than having to expend time and effort to grapple with complexity, critical analysis and the need to weigh up evidence. They also succeed in conveying codified messages that reference underpinning discourses which are often prejudiced and controversial, but presented in a way that bypasses any detailed scrutiny, as a consensus view and “common sense.”  An example is the slogan “Taking our country back” as it references an underpinning racist, supremicist discourse, whilst sounding vaguely rightous, because someone nicked England, or hid it on another planet.

Glittering Generalities imply – or signpost us – via common stock phrases to our own tacit knowledge, which often lies below our current focal awareness – prior information, beliefs, ideals, values, schemata and mental models, stereotypes and so on, creating the impression that the person using the terms and phrases understands and sees the world as you do, creating a false sense of rapport by doing so. Or the feeling that some very important recognition has been made.

Glittering Generalities propaganda is sometimes based on a kind of logical fallacy known as Equivocation – it is the misleading use of a term with more than one meaning (usually by glossing over which meaning is intended at a particular time)

Glittering Generalities is a technique very often used by people who seek to stifle debate, sidestep accountability and suppress democratic processes. Because Glittering Generalities tend to obscure or gloss over serious areas of disagreement, they hide controversy and submerge alternative propositions.

As such, Glittering Generalities may often be used to neutralise opposition to dominant ideas. It’s a way of disguising partisanship and of manipulating and reducing democratic choices. It’s part of a process of the political micro-management of your beliefs and decision-making.

Here is a bit of refreshing straight talk for a change:

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I’m not above a bit of sloganeering myself. In 2015, I came up with “Tory cuts cost lives”, which my friend, Robert Livingstone, turned into a couple of memes.

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This one recent one went very viral very quickly, glad to see it so widely used:

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Finally, I thought I would share that the widely used word “selfservative” came from a disillusioned Tory I knew called Derek. I used it a lot on social media, and my friend, Robert Livingstone, popularised it in his memes. Derek defected to Labour and vanished from the Conservative Facebook groups where Robert and I used to have surprisingly civilised debate with him. 

I will be writing more about electioneering, exposing propaganda and other techniques of persuasion, over the next couple of weeks.

Related

Propaganda Techniques (Summary)

The Conservative’s negative campaign strategy: “share the lies and win a prize”

Dishonest ways of being dishonest: an exploration of Conservative euphemisms

The erosion of democracy and the repression of mainstream media in the UK

Department for Work and Pensions officials admit to using fake claimant’s comments to justify benefit sanctions – a very basic propaganda technique called “telling lies”

Our attitudes and beliefs are being manipulated, our decision-making is being “nudged,” citizens are being micro-managed and policed by the state:

“In a white paper authored by Facebook’s security team and published on Thursday, the company detailed well-funded and subtle techniques used by nations and other organizations to spread misleading information and falsehoods for geopolitical goals. These efforts go well beyond “fake news”, the company said, and include content seeding, targeted data collection and fake accounts that are used to amplify one particular view, sow distrust in political institutions and spread confusion.

“We have had to expand our security focus from traditional abusive behavior, such as account hacking, malware, spam and financial scams, to include more subtle and insidious forms of misuse, including attempts to manipulate civic discourse and deceive people,” said the company.

“In general, Facebook said it faced a new challenge in tackling “subtle and insidious forms of misuse, including attempts to manipulate civic discourse and deceive people.

“Facebook described much of the activity as “false amplification” – which included the mass creation of fake accounts; the coordinated sharing of content and engagement with that content (such as likes); and the distribution of “inflammatory and sometimes racist memes”.  – BBC

In its effort to clamp down on information operations, Facebook suspended 30,000 accounts in France before the presidential election. The company said it was a priority to remove suspect accounts with high volumes of posting activity and the biggest audiences.

The company also explained how it monitored “several situations” that fit the pattern of information operations during the US presidential election. The company detected “malicious actors” using social media to share information stolen from other sources such as email accounts “with the intent of harming the reputation of specific political targets”. This technique involved creating dedicated websites to host the stolen data and then creating social media accounts and pages to direct people to it.

At the same time, a separate set of malicious actors created fake Facebook accounts to falsely amplify narratives and themes related to topics exposed in the stolen data.

Facebook did not specify which stolen data it was referring to, but we know that tens of thousands of emails were hacked from Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta’s Gmail account and released by Wikileaks.

Nor did Facebook attribute the manipulation to any nation state, although it said that the company’s investigation “does not contradict” the findings of a January report by the US Director of National Intelligence that outlined Russian involvement in the election.

Russia has also been implicated in the hacking of French presidential frontrunner, Emmanuel Macron, according to a report by researchers with Japanese anti-virus firm Trend Micro, published this week.

Facebook pledged to monitor attempts to manipulate the platform, to develop new ways of identifying fake accounts, educate at-risk people about how to keep their information safe, and support civil society programs around media literacy.

“We recognize that, in today’s information environment, social media plays a sizable role in facilitating communications – not only in times of civic events, such as elections, but in everyday expression,” said the report. “In some circumstances, however, we recognize that the risk of malicious actors seeking to use Facebook to mislead people or otherwise promote inauthentic communications can be higher.” – The Guardian

“The JTRIG unit of GCHQ is so notable because of its extensive use of propaganda methods and other online tactics of deceit and manipulation. The 2011 report on the organization’s operations, published today, summarizes just some of those tactics:

Throughout this report, JTRIG’s heavy reliance on its use of behavioral science research (such as psychology) is emphasized as critical to its operations. That includes detailed discussions of how to foster “obedience” and “conformity”:


An “I told you so” moment from Glenn Greewald


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Words and discrimination: ‘parked’ and ‘vulnerability’

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You can often tell such a lot about people’s views and sometimes, their intentions, by the words and phrases they use. The description of disabled people as being “parked” on benefits (and told/under the impression they will never work again”) is a turn of phrase I loathe. It’s a mantra that’s gained a PR crib sheet resonance from George Osborne and Iain Duncan Smith to Stephen Crabb and Damian Green. To extend the metaphor, parking is subject to the availability of a parking space; permission; to regulations and laws; parking tickets and fines; parking attendants and traffic wardens to police and ensure compliance.

Disability and sickness are compared with the inconvenient abandonment of a vehicle in the middle of a very busy market place. Or the informal blatant plonking and installing of oneself on a sofa or bed, behind outrageously closed curtains in the middle of a busy viral epidemic of the protestant work ethic, prompting further symptoms of oppressive impacted resentments and frank, febrile tutting.

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Yet the Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) Support Group is made up of those individuals who “have a severe limitation which creates a significant disability in relation to the labour market, regardless of any adaptation they may make or support with which they may be provided” (Department for Work and Pensions, 2009: 8).

Disabled people are being excluded, and at the same time, represented in political and mainstream discourse in ways to evoke moral judgments and public emotions such as distrust, disgust and anger. Evidence of state culpability lies in the relationships between political rhetoric, media narrative and punitive, populist social policy.  

However, in official policy documents, welfare cuts have been dressed up as a discourse related to “support” , “social inclusion” and even “fairness” and “equal opportunity”. Though this is only narrowly discussed in terms of employment outcomes. “Inclusion” has been conflated with being economically productive. In contrast, the media rhetoric, and importantly, the consequences of Conservative policies aimed at disabled people, are increasingly isolating and exclusionary, as a result of intentional political outgrouping.

Yet such rhetoric is surely also counter‐productive to even such a limited view of inclusion, inevitably distorting employer responses to ill and disabled people as potential employees. However, Conservative neoliberal policies reflect a consideration of the supply rather than the demand side of the labour market.

“[…] rather than being concerned with the economic position of disabled people in Britain, the development of the Employment and Support Allowance and the Work Programme was concerned with relationships between the supply of labour and wage inflation, and with developing new welfare (quasi) markets in employment services. Attempting to address the economic disadvantages disabled people face through what are essentially market mechanisms will entrench, rather than address, those disadvantages.”  From: Commodification, disabled people, and wage work in Britain – Chris Grover.

Glib, deceptive and diversionary language use and ideological referencing does nothing to address the social exclusion of disabled people, who are already pushed to the fringes of society. Disabled people have become easy political scapegoats in the age of austerity. Scapegoating and outgrouping have become common political and cultural practices. Stigma is being used to justify the most regressive social policies since before the foundation of the welfare state in the 1940s.  

Patronising and authoritarian Conservatives like to speak very loudly over disabled people, and tell us about our own experiences because they really believe we can’t speak for ourselves. They simply refuse to listen to people who may criticise their policies, raising the often dire consequences being imposed on us because of the “reforms”  CUTS. I also think that we are witnessing the most powerful anti-intellectual and anti-rational ethos in government in living memory.

Whilst Conservative rhetoric lacks coherence, rationality, integrity and verisimilitude, it has an abundance of glittering generalities and crib sheet repetition designed from supremacist decisions made around elitist tables behind closed and heavy doors. The Conservatives seem to believe that disabled people aren’t like other citizens and that we don’t need a democratic voice of our own. Policies are designed to act upon us, to “change” our behaviours through the use of “incentives”, whilst we are completely excluded from their design and aims. Our behaviours are being aligned with neoliberal outcomes, conflating our needs and interests with the private financial profit of others. 

As one of the instigators and a witness for the United Nations investigation into the government’s systematic violations of the human rights of disabled people, as a person with disability, I don’t care for being described by a blatantly oppressive Damian Green as “patronising” or being told that disabled people – witnesses – presented an “outdated view” of disability in the UK. The only opportunity disabled people have been presented with to effectively express our fears, experiences, concerns about increasingly punitive and discriminatory policies and have our democratic opinion heard more generally has been through dialogue with an international human rights organisation, and still this government refuse to hear what we have to say.

Oppression always involves the objectification of those being dominated; all forms of oppression imply the devaluation of the subjectivity and experiences of the oppressed. 

Just as Herbert Spencer supported laissez-faire capitalism and social Darwinism (on the basis of his Lamarckian beliefs) – and claimed that struggle for survival spurred self-improvement which could be inherited – the Conservatives apply the same tired and misguided, private boarding school myths and disciplinarian moral principles in their endorsement of a totalising neoliberalism: the bizarre belief that competition, struggle and strife is “good” for character and even better for the market economy.

Under the Equality Act 2010 there are several types of discrimination that are prohibited. These are direct discrimination (s.13(1) Equality Act 2010), indirect discrimination (s.6 and s.19 Equality Act 2010, harassment (s.26 Equality Act 2010), victimisation (s.27(2) Equality Act 2010), discrimination arising from disability (s.15(1) Equality Act 2010) and failure to make reasonable adjustments (s.20 Equality Act 2010). 

Disabled people are being conveniently reclassified to fit Treasury cost-cutting imperatives. However, the government prefer to say that we are claiming lifeline support because we are “disincentivised” to find a job because we are claiming lifeline support… there’s a whole ludicrous circular government monologue going on there that we are being quite intentionally excluded from.

This is one common type of ableist behaviour: it is a form of discrimination which denies others’ autonomy by speaking for or about them rather than allowing them to speak for themselves. Ableism characterizes persons as defined by their disabilities and as inferior to non-disabled persons On this basis, people are assigned or denied certain perceived abilities, skills, and/or character traits. And often, denied rights and a democratic voice.

If you ask disabled people about work, most of us will say we would like to – after all, who of us would actually choose to be ill and disabled – but there are social, political, cultural and economic barriers to our doing so. None of us will tell you we don’t work because we feel secure and comfortably off on an ever-dwindling and paltry amount of ESA, which has been subjected to cuts, further threats of cuts from prominent think tanks, increased conditionality, the threat of sanctions, and constant, distressing assessments and reassessments which were designed to find ways of stopping your lifeline support.

Disabled people became amongst the first citizens of a new class: the precariat. In sociology and economics, the precariat is a social class formed by people suffering from precarity, which is a condition of existence without predictability or security, affecting material and psychological welfare. The emergence of this class has been ascribed to the entrenchment of neoliberalism.

Many disabled people, however, will tell you that they are simply too ill to work. It’s a ludicrous and frankly terrifying state of affairs that the administrating despots in office don’t accept that some people simply cannot work, and persist in hounding them, claiming that cutting social security, originally calculated to meet only basic needs and now reduced to the point where that is no longer possible, is somehow an “incentive” for very sick people to find work. It’s incredible that the government are telling us with a straight face that a poor person’s “incentive” is punishment and financial loss, whilst millionaires are “incentivised” by reward and financial gifts, such as “tax breaks”.

The same approach is apparent in the recent green paper on work, health and disability, where the government casually discusses subjecting disabled people in the ESA support group to compulsory work related activity and “behavioural conditionality” (sanctions are suggested), though the support group were previously exempt from the punitive welfare conditionality regime, since their doctors and the state accepted that this group of people are simply too ill to work. Employers, it is suggested, are to be “incentivised” by financial rewards – tax cuts. When this government discuss “being fair” to the “tax payer”, they are referring to wealthy and privileged people, not the majority of ordinary citizens such as you and I.

Discrimination is defined as “treating a person or particular group of people differently, especially in a worse way from the way in which you treat other people”, based on characteristics or perceived characteristics. Under Labour’s 2010 Equality Act, direct disability discrimination occurs when a disabled person is treated less favourably than a non-disabled person, and they are treated this way for a reason arising from their disability. Indirect discrimination happens when an organisation or government has a particular policy or way of working that has a worse impact on people who share your disability compared to people who don’t. Harassment is defined as someone treating you in a way that makes you feel humiliated, offended or degraded.

The government even have the cheek to call their discrimination “supporting” and “helping” us. I’ve never heard of such immorality, bullying, indecency, prejudice and punishment being called “help” and “support” before. Millionaires are helped; they get financial handouts in the form of tax cuts that they don’t need. Meanwhile we have lifeline income taken away to fund, leaving us without food, fuel and shelter increasingly often. Such mundane language use is an attempt to mask the intentions and consequences of draconian policies. It utterly nasty, manipulative, callous, calculated cold-blooded gaslighting.

Milton Friedman, in Capitalism and Freedom (1962) felt that “competitive capitalism” is especially important to minority groups, since “impersonal market forces”, he claimed, protect people from discrimination in their economic activities for reasons unrelated to their productivity. Through elimination of centralized control of economic activities, economic power is separated from political power, and the one can serve as counterbalance to the other. However, he couldn’t have been more wrong. What we have seen instead is an authoritarian turn. The UN conclusions to their recent inquiry into the government’s systematic and grave violations of the rights of disabled people verify his lack of foresight and his conflation of public needs and interests with supply-side economic outcomes.

A word about the use of the term “vulnerability”

The reason that some groups are socially and legally protected – and the reason why we have universal human rights – is because some groups of citizens have historically been vulnerable to political abuse and are structurally discriminated against. The aim of human rights instruments is the protection of those vulnerable to violations of their fundamental human rights. The recent United Nations inquiry into the UK government’s systematic violations of the convention on the rights of persons with disabilities concludes that disabled people in the UK are facing systematic political discrimination, social exclusion and oppression.

The Yogyakarta Principles, one of the international human rights instruments use the term “vulnerability” as such potential to abuse and/or social exclusion. Social vulnerability is created through the interaction of social forces and multiple “stressors”, and resolved through social (as opposed to individual) means. Social vulnerability is the product of social inequalities. It arises through social, political and economical processes.

Whilst some individuals within a socially vulnerable context may break free from the hierarchical order, social vulnerability itself persists because of structural – social, economical and political – influences that continue to reinforce vulnerability. 

The medical model is a perspective of disability as a problem of the person, directly caused by disease, trauma, or other health conditions which therefore requires sustained medical care in the form of individual treatment by professionals. The medical model sees management of the disability  as central and ideally, it is aimed at a “cure,” or the individual’s adjustment and behavioural change that would lead to better “management” of symptoms.

The social model of disability outlines “disability” as a socially created problem and a matter of the full inclusion and integration of individuals into society. In this model, disability is not an attribute of an individual, but rather a complex collection of conditions, created by the social environment. The management of the problem requires social  and political action and it is the collective responsibility of society to create an environment and context in which limitations for people with disabilities are minimal. Equal access and inclusion for someone with an impairment/disability is a human rights concern.

From the 70s, sociologists such Eliot Friedson observed that labeling theory and a social deviance perspective could be applied to disability studies. Social constructivist theorists discussed a non-essentialist perspective: the social construction of disability is the idea that disability is constructed as the social response to a deviance from the norm. “Disability” is constructed by social expectations and institutions rather than biological differences.

I think there is something positive to learn from the variety of models of disability, and should like to point out that despite the potential merits of any one in particular, each have also been heavily criticised, and most importantly, there is nothing to stop an unscrupulous government from intentionally exploiting a theoretical paradigm to suit an ideological design. 

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Eugenics

The French statistician, Alphonse Quetelet wrote in the 1830s of l’homme moyen – the “average man”. Quetelet proposed that one could take the sum of all people’s attributes in a given population (such as their height or weight) and find their average, and that this figure should serve as a norm toward which all should aspire. This idea of a statistical norm threads through the rapid growth in the popularity of gathering statistics in Britain, United States, and the Western European states during this period, and it is linked to the rise of eugenics. Disability, as well as other concepts including: “abnormal”, “non-normal”, and “normal” arose from this mindset.

With the rise of eugenics in the latter part of the nineteenth century, such deviations from the norm were viewed as somehow dangerous to the health of entire populations.

As a social and political movement, eugenics reached its greatest popularity in the early decades of the 20th century, when it was practiced around the world and promoted by governments, institutions, and influential individuals. Many countries enacted various eugenic policies, including: genetic screening, birth control, promoting differential birth rates, marriage restrictions, segregation (both racial segregation and sequestering the mentally ill), compulsory sterilization, forced abortions or forced pregnancies, culminating in genocide

The moral dimensions of the eugenics in the 19th and 20th centuries rejected the doctrine that all human beings are born equal, and redefined human worth purely in terms of genetic “fitness”. More recently in the UK we have seen a moral shift entailing human worth being politically redefined in terms of economic productivity. 

Common early 20th century eugenics methods involved identifying and classifying individuals and their families, including the poor, mentally ill, blind, deaf, developmentally disabled, promiscuous women, homosexuals, and racial groups (such as the Roma and Jews in Nazi Germany) as “degenerate” or “unfit”, leading to their segregation or institutionalization, sterilization, euthanasia, and ultimately, their mass murder. The Nazi practice of euthanasia was carried out on hospital patients in the Aktion T4 centres such as Hartheim Castle.

The “scientific” reputation of eugenics declined in the 1930s, a time when Ernst Rüdin used eugenics as a justification for the racial policies of Nazi Germany. Adolf Hitler had praised and incorporated eugenic ideas in Mein Kampf in 1925 and emulated eugenic legislation for the sterilization of “defectives” that had been pioneered in the United States once he took power

After World War II, the practice of “imposing measures intended to prevent births within [a population] group” fell within the definition of the new international crime of genocide, set out in the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of GenocideThe Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union also proclaims “the prohibition of eugenic practices, in particular those aiming at selection of persons.”

Recently the government in the UK introduced policies that curtail tax credits to the children of mothers claiming financial support for more than two children. Iain Duncan Smith announced that the policy was introduced to “change the behaviours” of people claiming welfare. Of course this assumes that people don’t plan and have their children in more prosperous periods of their lives, and then experience financial hardship for reasons that have nothing to do with their behaviours, such as recession and job losses, or being in low paid work and so on.This has some profound implications for notions of equality and the idea that each human life has equal worth. Such a policy discriminates against children because of when they are born, as well as being discriminating against poor families. Such a policy is an example of negative eugenics by “incentives”

Some campaigners are very critical of the use of the word “vulnerability”, because they feel it leads to attitudes and perceptions of disabled people as passive victims.

Yet I am vulnerable, despite the fact that I am far from passive. Since 2010, no social group has organised, campaigned and protested more than disabled people. Many of us have lived through harrowing times under this government and the last, when our very existence has become so precarious because of targeted and cruel Conservative policies. Yet we have remained strong in our resolve. Despite this, some dear friends and comrades among us have been tragically lost – they have not survived.

In one of the wealthiest democratic nations on earth, no group of people should have to fight for their survival.

I see vulnerability as being rather more about the potential for some social groups being subjected to political abuse. 

We are and have been. This is empirically verified by the report and conclusions drawn from the United Nations inquiry into the grave and systematic violations of disabled people’s human rights here in the UK, by a so-called democratic government.

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Reframing frames – ideology, George Lakoff and a call for your views

Wall Street Protestors Rally Against Police Brutality

An excellent example of using a slogan to reframe debate about neoliberalism and inequality from the Occupy movement

 

Left wing progressives hope that we can win elections by citing facts, rational debate and by offering policy programmes that serve the majority of voters’ interests. When we lose, we either conclude that we need to move farther to the right, where the voters are; where the Overton window opens, or that we need to move further to the left, to present a genuine alternative to the status quo. That dilemma has rigidly polarised the Labour party, undermining our unity and turning what was once a “broad church” appeal into an either/or basic dichotomy of alliances and reflected interests. The problem is how do we know which of these responses to the dilemmas of being a party in opposition will engage the public? And what if it is neither?

Yet, how can the left possibly lose a debate about the economy and social policy, when our current steeply hierarchical socioeconomic organisation serves the interests of so very few citizens? In fact those policies are seriously harming some social groups, especially those traditionally afforded social protections by previous Labour policies. 

Margaret Thatcher once made the absurd claim that the “problem” with socialism is that it “runs out of other people’s money to spend.” However, the New Right became experts on spending our public funds on extending the wealth of a few privileged millionaires, taking money from those who have the very least and handing it out to those who have the very most.

That really is “spending other peoples’ money.” As a consequence, the UK is now the most unequal country in the world, and that includes the US, where the Chicago boys – the founding fathers of neoliberalism – operationalised their experiment in hierarchical and authoritarian modes of neoliberal socioeconomic organisation.

Things ain’t what they ought to be

I’ve pointed out before that it’s easy to mistake the patterns and social circumstances of our era for “natural laws”. We really do need to revisit the is/ought distinction  (the naturalistic fallacy: we cannot use descriptive statements – what “is” – to make or justify prescriptive ones – what “ought” to be). So many people assume the Conservative world view of competition, mysterious “market forces” and the “invisible hand”, survival of the wealthiest, and Randian self interest is simply how things are: that these qualities are all fundamental to our “human nature”. They are not.

They are the qualities required of us – what “ought” to be the case – in order to prop up a hierarchical society, preserving a privileged elite and the material inequality and power relations of neoliberalism. Social Darwinism, which is like a comic strip version of Darwinism, was debunked last century, but here we are with policies that are directed by an ideology founded on social Darwinist principles once again. It’s become  a “common sense” assumption that we are naturally inclined to be competitive, and as a society, hierarchically ranked, on the basis of power and worth. Yet the matter of what “human nature” actually is has never been resolved over the centuries, let alone accounts of how that “nature” translates into the kind of society we have. Or ought to have, for that matter.

How can the Tories be right in their cynical miserablism, regarding our competitive social Darwinist tendencies?  If we are so fundamentally selfish and self-interested, with a generally Hobbesian temperament, moulded a little more by Burke’s profound anti-intellectualism, how, then, did we end up with a trade union and labour movement, working class enfranchisement, the welfare state, the NHS, legal aid, social housing, human rights and to generally progress to develop an altruistic, collectivist, cooperative approach for our post war settlement?  

“Human nature” is far more complex and much less static and defined than the Conservatives would have us believe. The kind of society that we live in, with its prevailing beliefs, attitudes and organisation, also contributes significantly to the kind of people we are, and importantly, to how we see ourselves and others.

Façade democracy

George Lakoff, a linguist and cognitive scientist, says that Conservatives exalt “obedience to authority,” insulate leaders from accountability, oppose checks and balances against leaders and rely on fear. All of this is true.

Lakoff says the right wins and keeps power by framing issues and “controlling minds”. This explains why Conservatives win elections. They manipulate us more effectively than the Progressives. They’ve been “preparing the seedbed of our brains with their high-level general principles” so that when the “low tax/low welfare society” idea, for example,  was planted in its various guises, repeatedly, “their framing could take root and sprout.” And “as a result, progressive messages don’t take root.”

Tories successfully reframe social issues, re-set defaults and normalise their prejudices and values. They become “common sense.” As dominant narratives do. In doing so, the Conservatives shape how the public see themselves and others.

Lakoff proposes that the left present frames instead of raw facts, in order to “train” the public to think less about neoliberal competition and self-interest and more about serving others. It’s not the platform that needs to be changed. It’s the voters. 

Lakoff says that we need to beat Conservatives at their own game. “Democracy is too important to leave the shaping of the brains of the public to authoritarians.” 

I like a lot of Lakoff’s work, but cannot get behind the idea of using techniques of persuasion to win support and (re)grow a movement. But then, the use of such techniques has been effective for the Conservatives, and that level of manipulation creates a problem for democracy. Lakoff is proposing we address the problem of a managed democracy by attempting to manage it too.

Is it possible to propose we manipulate voters and then still claim to be a democrat? 

He is right in that the rational approach doesn’t always work, but perhaps it’s more a question of how we present our alternative. I can get behind a shorthand and punchier general messages, just as long as it isn’t a strung together lexicon of glittering generalities with nothing meaningful referenced below the surface level. Integrity matters. The new world order is maintained partly by a precarious new word order. But it rests only on the very surface of our mind. It exists, not because it is rational or serves our best interests, but because it appears to be “normal.”

It’s probably true that many voters don’t pay much attention to the details and implications of policies. We have a tendency towards cognitive miserliness – the Principle of Least Effort; we frequently rely on simple and time efficient strategies when evaluating information and making decisions. But this can lead to prejudices. We formulate stereotypes, for example, which are simplistic ways of categorising others. Heuristics are mental shortcuts we often use in order to lessen the cognitive load that decision making requires. We often rely on habitual, superficial explorations and generalisations because we are caught up in our lives, and so to some degree, its a strategy of necessity and efficiency. 

However, this tendency towards cognitive miserliness is also manipulated. We often assign new information to categories that are easy to process mentally. These categories arise from prior information, including schemas, scripts and other knowledge structures, that has been stored in memory and so storage of new information does not require much cognitive energy. Cognitive miserliness means we tend not to stray far from our established beliefs when considering new information. That’s partly why repetition and slogans work so well as propaganda techniques. 

My own view is that we should try multiple approaches to messaging the public, but none of it should be simply about changing a vote for the sake of it. We also need to engage citizens in active participation in democracy. That is something the authoritarian Conservatives will never do: they have a policy agenda informed by private companies and millionaires, not ordinary citizens, and that won’t change.

Public needs have been privatised and pushed into the “market place” of competition and invisible capitalist hands. Increasingly, private companies are operating our essential public services, as the Conservatives claim that this is “efficient.” It isn’t, because it’s costing us billions to support unaccountable private businesses whose only motivation is to make profit.(See for example: Doctors bribed with 70-90k salaries to join Maximus and “endorse a political agenda regardless of how it affects patients.” )

Meanwhile, the privatisation of public need means that individuals shoulder the responsibility for them, rather than the state, who are still taking money from the public to fund those public “services.” Making individuals responsible for the consequences of political decision-making and arising socioeconomic problems like unemployment and poverty then justifies an authoritarian state intrusion in the form of “therapy.” For example, the rise of nudging, which is about the political directives to “change behaviours” because people make “the wrong choices” and so it turns democracy on its head.

This is because nudge is used without public consent, and it is solely aimed at “changing behaviours” of citizens to meet the states’ idealised and narrow neoliberal outcomes, rather than it being about actually recognising and meeting social needs and democratic inclusion.

The left tend to have a rather more optimistic, expansive and generous view of human nature. We believe in the human potential for learning, development and progress. However, that optimism is also tempered with an acknowledgement of our darker side, too. Policies which protect social groups that are prone to being exploited, scapegoated and other socially constructed vulnerabilities have largely been Labour party ones.

However, the problem is that the Conservatives hold up a darkly distorting looking-glass to the public, showing only what they want people to see of themselves. In that mirror, we are rendered ugly – always prone to being stupid, selfish, greedy, impulsive savages that need to to be ruled and controlled. Our self perceptions are shaped by significant others. There arises a subsequent social self-fulfilling prophecy. We project and scapegoat: it is always others that are savage and selfish, not us. This is facilitated by the Conservative tendency to marginalise poor people, creating folk devil stereotypes and social outgroups. 

We’re capable of changing minds. But we have good SOCIAL reasons to do so. That, for me is the key – there’s a difference between propaganda and reasoning; public interest and simply maintaining the public’s interest. The answer probably lies somewhere in a compromise – using both a rational and evidenced approach and the reductive pop politics soundbites to capture public interests AND public interest.

Tory cuts cost lives was a soundbite of mine from 2015. I wanted to reference war, and highlight the enemy in a longstanding and ongoing class conflict. It’s got integrity as a slogan because I’ve spent a few years writing about and presenting evidence of how  Conservative austerity is harming and sometimes killing people. 

But I don’t have all the answers. To come up with effective solutions requires our willingness for collaboration and cooperation.   

I’m particularly interested in what others think about this issue. If you have any thoughts on this, please leave me a comment, and I will revisit them in due course. We can do what the left always do very well: hold a democratic discussion and problem-solve collectively.

 

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Through the looking glass darkly: the Conservatives are colonising progressive rhetoric

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“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.”

“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”

“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master — that’s all.”
Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass

Semantic thrifts: being Conservative with the truth

Much communication in the media is geared towards establishing a dominant paradigm and maintaining an illusion of a consensus. This excludes pluralism and ultimately serves to reduce democratic choices. Such an approach is ultimately aimed at nudging your voting decisions and maintaining a profoundly unbalanced, pathological status quo.

Presenting an alternative narrative is difficult because the Conservatives 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 and the like 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 a bland language of an anti-democratic political doxa.

However, the Conservatives have also raided from the progressive lexicon, and I’m far from alone in noticing the Conservative colonisation of traditionally progressive rhetoric in recent years, using in abundance terms such as “fair”, “support”, “protection”, “freedom” , “opportunity”, “reform” and even “social justice” to pepper their speeches.

Last October, even Dan Hodges noticed the linguistic imports. He said: “Prison reform. Ethnic minority rights. Gay rights. A national housing “crusade”. An “all out assault on poverty”. An attack on “the lowest social mobility in the developed world”. These were the main themes of the Conservative Party leader’s – I’ll repeat that, the Conservative Party leader’s – address to his annual conference. I expected David Cameron to attempt to park his tank on Labour’s lawn.

… It wasn’t just what David Cameron said, but how his party reacted to it. The section of his speech where he said “I want us, the Conservatives, to end discrimination and finish the fight for real equality in Britain today,” was met with a standing ovation.”

The Conservatives have plundered from left wing discourse purely to broaden their superficial appeal and to neutralise opposition to controversial and contentious policy. The legislative context in which such language is being used is completely at odds with how it is being described by purposefully stolen terms and phrases. It’s disorientating and cognitive dissonance inducing to see the language of social justice, democracy, inclusion and equality being used to justify and describe policies which extend social injustice, authoritarianism, exclusion and inequality.

There is a growing chasm between Conservative discourse, and policy intents and outcomes. There isn’t a bridge between rhetoric and reality. Last week I wrote about the chancellor’s budget, and said:

Only a Conservative minister would claim that taking money from sick and disabled people is somehow “fair,” or about “helping”, “supporting” or insultingly, “incentivising” sick and disabled people who have already been deemed unfit for work by their doctors and the state via the work capability assessment to work.

The Tories all too frequently employ such semantic shifts and euphemism – linguistic strategies – as an integral part of a wider range of techniques of neutralisation that are used, for example, to provide linguistic relief from conscience and to suspend moral constraint – to silence both “inner protest” and public objections – to the political violation of social and moral norms; to justify acts that cause harm to others whilst also denying there is any subsequent harm being inflicted; to deny the target’s and casualties’ accounts and experiences of political acts of harm, and to neutralise remorse felt by themselves or other witnesses.

Media discourse has often preempted the Conservative austerity cuts, resulting in the identification, stereotyping and scapegoating of the groups in advance of the targeted, discriminatory policies. Media discourse is being used as a vehicle for the government to push their ideological agenda forward without meeting legitimate criticism, public scrutiny and without due regard for essential democratic processes and safeguards.

The five neutralisation techniques identified by Gresham Sykes and David Matza are: denial of responsibility, denial of injury, denial of victims, appeal to higher loyalties, and condemnation of condemners.

The really critical part of Sykes and Matza’s argument is that rationalisations precede immoral, cruel or controversial acts and are a key factor in making deviant behaviour possible (amongst delinquents, the mafia or Conservative ministers). As such, the rationalisations betray intent.

The cuts of £120 a month to the disability benefit Employment Support Allowance  are also claimed to be “fair.” and “supportive.” Though I have yet to hear a coherent and rational  explanation of how this can possibly be the case. Ministers claimed that people subjected to the ESA Work Related Activity Group cuts could claim PIP if they required support with extra living costs, but now we are told that PIP is to be cut, too.

Osborne ludicrously claimed that the Conservative government was “increasing spending on disabled people”, he said: “Controlling welfare bills is part of what you need to do if you’re a secure country confronting the problems in the world.”

But as Andrew Marr amongst others pointed out, the cuts to ESA and PIP show an intended substantial reduction on government spending to essential support for disabled people.

PIP was introduced by the Conservatives to “target those most in need” and to save money. Despite David Cameron promising before the general election that there would be no further cuts to disability support, ministers nonetheless have claimed that the proposed cuts to PIP are once again to “target those most in need”, which would leave many of those disabled people originally defined as being most in need on an ever-shrinking island.

Linguistic stealth and slick trickery

The Conservatives have co-opted a progressive language to disguise extremely regressive policies, and to blur and manipulate traditional ideological boundaries. It’s purely strategy rather than ideological direction. They have quite cunningly [re-]framed a partisan narrative, dressing it up as common sense. For example, policies are framed using the phrases like “social justice”, “fighting poverty”, Conservatives present themselves as the “party for working people” and claim concern for ensuring people “fulfil their potential”. These are phrases ordinarily associated with discourses of the Left.

This framing makes it much more difficult for the Left to focus public debate on the issues central to social democracy. Equality of opportunity, linked with open social mobility, merit and freedom, is another central value and objective for progressives. However, equality appears to be increasingly couched in negative terms, as opposed to merit, and often associated with social injustice, inefficiency and unfairness by the Conservatives.

Under the Equality Act, provision was made by the Labour government to ensure that legislations didn’t discriminate against protected social groups, which included disabled people. However, the need for public bodies in England to undertake or publish an equality impact assessment of government policies, practices and decisions was quietly removed by David Cameron in April 2011. The legal requirement in the Equality Act that ensured public bodies attempt to reduce inequalities caused by socio-economic factors was also scrapped by Theresa May in November 2010, who said that she favoured a greater focus on “fairness” rather than “equality”, claiming that many people felt “alienated” by the equality agenda.

The Conservatives have paid a lot of money to advisors to develop ways of expressing their world-view and the use of misleading discourse, almost invariably contradicted by policy, practice and outcomes, is intentional.

The Tories use euphemism a lot to neutralise criticism and to present a facade of judicious, equitable rationale for draconian policies founded on ideology and traditional Tory prejudices. The redefinition of the financial crisis as a state – specifically, “irresponsible government” – rather than a market failure, and a narrative of “enhanced efficiency and responsibility in public administration” translates into policy practice as cuts to the public sector, drastic cuts to the post-war settlement social safety net budgets and a steady erosion of workers´ rights, “excellence and free choice in education or health service provision” means widespread privatisation – and a deterioration of public services, leaving  citizen’s with considerably less choice and increasingly unmet needs.

The Conservative’s progressive rhetoric conceals a partisan determination to impose neoliberal policies that shrink the size of the state, while defending traditional Conservative vested interests among the financial sector and the wealthy.

Yet Cameron and his chancellor have successfully placed the blame for the deficit on Labour’s trumped up charge of “profligacy” in government, despite the fact that we were out of recession caused by the global financial crisis, by the last quarter of 2009. Despite the fact that the Conservatives created a recession in 2011, and we lost our Fitch and Moody triple A credit ratings, despite Osborne’s promises and assurances that we wouldn’t. The Conservatives have a historically verified tendency to create recessions, too. The Thatcher administration did, and so did John Major’s. How did the public forget these events? Black Wednesday is estimated to have cost us £3.4 billion. The constant repetition of the profligacy lie, ad nauseam, supplanted the public’s accurate perception of the underlying events.

Tory ideology is about handouts to the wealthy funded by the poor

“David Cameron and George Osborne believe the only way to persuade millionaires to work harder is to give them more money.’

‘But they also seem to believe that the only way to make you (ordinary people) work harder is to take money away.” Ed Miliband, 2012.

Taxation of the wealthy is framed as an unfair burden – an affliction or punishment, propped up by constant implicit references to debunked notions such as trickle-down wealth and job creation. Policies extending social injustice are being reframed as social justice.

Framing takes a long time to develop, and this particular frame was developed by the New Right on both sides of the Atlantic. It does leave progressives with a fight to articulate the moral basis for progressive taxation, obstructed by the outrageous Conservative myth that wealthy people have somehow amassed their wealth all by themselves and therefore deserve it and more. The truth is that it is ordinary UK taxpayers who support the infrastructure of wealth accumulation. It is only fair that those who benefit most from this should also pay their equal share.

Without the veneer of democratic engagement and respectability that the Conservatives raided from discourses of the Left, Conservative policies would appear as they really are: driven by a narrow ideology, based on traditional Tory prejudices and completely indefensible.

 

wc30allbrightedit1.jpg
This image contains 24 word clouds, representing the 24 categories into which a sample of roughly 130,000 statements from UK House of Commons parliamentarians, all made between 2006 and the present day, were partitioned by the clustering algorithm. Each cloud contains ten words; the larger the word, the more representative it is of the cluster. The colouring is also meaningful: red words have meanings more closely aligned with remarks by Labour politicians; blue words, with those of Conservatives; and yellow words, with the sentiments of Liberal Democrats.See source: Clustering debates from UK politicians.

 

Recommended

How the Tories Use the Language of Social Justice to Sell Us Social Injustice

How to Respond to Conservatives –  George Lakoff

 

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Conservative welfare “reforms” – the sound of one hand clapping

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“Labour MPs sat perplexed … By cutting housing benefit for the poor, the Government was helping the poor. By causing people to leave their homes, the Government was helping people put a roof over their heads. By appealing the ruling that it discriminated against the vulnerable, the Government was supporting the vulnerable.

Yes, this was a tricky one.” – From an unusually insightful article in the Telegraph about the incoherence of Conservative welfare rhetoric:  How bedroom tax protects the vulnerable.

“Ministers keep using the mantra that their proposals are to protect the most vulnerable when, quite obviously, they are the exact opposite. If implemented their measures would, far from protecting the most vulnerable, directly harm them. Whatever they do in the end, Her Majesty’s Government should stop this 1984 Orwellian-type misuse of language.”  – Lord Bach, discussing the Legal Aid Bill. Source: Hansard, Column 1557, 19 May, 2011.

Conservative policies are incoherent: they don’t fulfil their stated aims and certainly don’t address public needs. Furthermore, Conservative rhetoric has become completely detached from the experiences of most citizens and their everyday realities.

Under the Equality Act, provision was made by the Labour government to ensure that legislations didn’t discriminate against protected social groups, which included disabled people. However, the need for public bodies in England to undertake or publish an equality impact assessment of government policies, practices and decisions was quietly removed by David Cameron in April 2011. The legal requirement in the Equality Act that ensured public bodies attempt to reduce inequalities caused by socio-economic factors was also scrapped by Theresa May in November 2010, who said she favoured a greater focus on “fairness” rather than “equality.”

The Conservatives have since claimed to make welfare provision “fair” by introducing substantial cuts to benefits and introducing severe conditionality requirements regarding eligibility to social security, including the frequent use of extremely punitive benefit sanctions as a means of “changing behaviours,” highlighting plainly that the Conservatives regard unemployment and disability as some kind of personal deficit on the part of those who are, in reality, simply casualties of unfortunate circumstances, bad political decision-making and subsequent politically-constructed socio-economic circumstances.

The word “fair” originally meant “treating people equally without favouritism or discrimination, without cheating or trying to achieve unjust advantage.” Under the Conservatives, we have witnessed a manipulated semantic shift, “fair” has become a Glittering Generality – part of a lexicon of propaganda that simply props up Tory ideology in an endlessly erroneous and self-referential way. Conservative ideology is permeating language, prompting semantic shifts towards bland descriptors which mask power and class relations, coercive state actions and political intentions. One only need to look at the context in which the government use words like “fair”, “support”, “help”, “justice” , “equality” and “reform” to recognise linguistic behaviourism in action. Or if you prefer, Orwellian doublespeak.

The altered semantics clearly signpost an intentionally misleading Conservative narrative, constructed on the basic, offensive idea that people claiming welfare do so because of “faulty” personal characteristics, and that welfare creates problems, rather than it being an essential mechanism aimed at alleviating poverty, extending social and economic support and opportunities – social insurance and security when people need it.

The government claims to be “committed to supporting the most vulnerable” and ensuring “everyone contributes to reducing the deficit, and where those with the most contribute the most.” That is blatantly untrue, as we can see from just a glance at Conservative policies.

2014-02-17-BurdenoftheCuts-thumb

Conservative rhetoric is a masterpiece of stapled together soundbites and meaningless glittering generalities. And intentional mystification. Glittering Generalities are being used to mask political acts of discrimination.

Cameron claims that he is going to address “inequality” and “social problems”, for example, but wouldn’t you think that he would have done so over the past five years, rather than busying himself creating those problems via policies? Under Cameron’s government, we have become the most unequal country in the European Union, even the USA, home of the founding fathers of neoliberalism, is less divided by wealth and income, than the UK.

I’m also wondering how tripling university tuition fees, removing bursaries and maintainance grants for students from poorer backgrounds and reintroducing banding in classrooms can possibly indicate a party genuinely interested in extending “equal opportunities.”

It’s perplexing that a government claiming itself to be “economically competent” can possibly attempt to justify spending more tax payers money on appealing a Supreme Court decision that the bedroom tax policy is discriminatory, when it would actually cost less implementing the legal recommendations of the court. As Owen Smith, Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary, said: “Just the Supreme Court session itself will cost the Government more in legal fees than the £200,000 needed to exempt domestic abuse victims affected.

“If the Tories had an ounce of decency they could have stood by the decision and exempted the two groups.

“Instead they are instructing expensive lawyers to fight in the Supreme Court for the right to drive people further into poverty.”

As a consequence of the highly discriminatory and blatantly class-contingent Tory policies, rampant socio-economic inequality apparently is the new Tory “fair”. There is a clear incongruence between Conservative rhetoric and the impact of their policies. This is further highlighted by the fact that the UK is currently being investigated by the United Nations regarding serious contraventions of the human rights of sick and disabled people, and other marginalised groups, because of the dire impact of Conservative welfare “reforms.”

It’s clear that the austerity cuts which target the poorest are intentional, ideologically-driven decisions, taken within a context of other available choices and humane options.

The rise in the need for food banks in the UK, amongst both the working and non-working poor, over the past five years and the return of absolute poverty, not seen since before the advent of the welfare state in this country, makes a mockery of government claims that it supports the most vulnerable.

Income tax receipts to the Treasury have fallen because those able to pay the most are being steadily exempted from social responsibility, and wages for many of the poorer citizens have fallen, whilst the cost of living has risen significantly over this past five years.

The ideologically motivated transfer of funds from the poorest half of the country to the more affluent has not contributed to deficit reduction. It doesn’t take a genius to work out that the cumulative impact of Tory tax and welfare changes, from out-of-work and in-work benefits to council tax support, to the cut in the top rate of income tax and an increase in tax-free personal allowances, has been extremely regressive and detrimental to the poorest.

The revenue gains from the tax changes and benefit cuts were offset by the cost of tax reductions, particularly the increase in the income tax personal allowance, benefitting the wealthiest.

The Treasury response to this is to single out the poorest yet again for more cuts to “balance the books” – which basically translates as the Conservative “small state” fetish, and deep dislike of the gains we made from the post-war settlement. Yet for a government that claims a non-interventionist stance, it sure does make a lot of interventions. Always on behalf of the privileged class, with policies benefitting only the wealthy minority.

How can Conservatives believe that poor people are motivated to work harder by taking money from them, yet also apparently believe that wealthy people are motivated by giving them more money? This is not “behavioural science,” it’s policy-making founded entirely on traditional Tory prejudices.

The government claim that “Every individual policy change is carefully considered, including looking at the effect on disabled people in line with legal obligations,” but without carrying out a cumulative impact assessment, the effects and impacts of policies can’t possibly be accurately measured. And that is intentional, too.

Despite being a party that claims to support “hard-working families,” the Conservatives have nonetheless made several attempts to undermine the income security of a signifant proportion of that group of citizens recently. Their proposed tax credit cuts, designed to creep through parliament in the form of secondary legislation, which tends to exempt it from meaningful debate and amendment in the Commons, was halted only because the House of Lords have been paying attention to the game.

The use of secondary legislation has risen at an unprecedented rate, reaching an extraordinary level since 2010, and it’s increased use is to ensure that the Government meet with little scrutiny and challenge in the House of Commons when they attempt to push through controversial and unpopular, ideologically-driven legislation.

Conservative cuts are most often applied by stealth, using statutory instruments. This indicates a government that is well aware that its policies are not fit for purpose.

We can’t afford Conservative ideological indulgence.

The National Audit Office (NAO) scrutinises public spending for Parliament and is independent of government. An audit report earlier this month concluded that the Department for Work and Pension’s spending on contracts for disability benefit assessments is expected to double in 2016/17 compared with 2014/15. The government’s flagship welfare-cut scheme will be actually spending more money on the assessments themselves than it is saving in reductions to the benefits bill – as Frances Ryan pointed out in the Guardian, it’s the political equivalent of burning bundles of £50 notes.

The report also states that only half of all the doctors and nurses hired by Maximus – the US outsourcing company brought in by the Department for Work and Pensions to carry out the assessments – had even completed their training.

The NAO report summarises:

5.5
Million assessments completed in five years up to March 2015

65%
Estimated increase in cost per ESA assessment based on published information after transfer of the service in 2015 (from £115 to £190)


84%
Estimated increase in healthcare professionals across contracts from 2,200 in May 2015 to 4,050 November 2016

£1.6bn
Estimated cost of contracted-out health and disability assessments over three years, 2015 to 2018

£0.4 billion
Latest expected reduction in annual disability benefit spending

13%
Proportion of ESA and PIP targets met for assessment report quality meeting contractual standard (September 2014 to August 2015).

This summary reflects staggering and deliberate economic incompetence, a flagrant, politically-motivated waste of tax payers money and even worse, the higher spending has not created a competent or ethical assessment framework, nor is it improving the lives of sick and disabled people.

The government claim they want to “help” sick and disabled people into work, but nearly 14,000 disabled people have lost their mobility vehicle after the changes to Personal Independence Payments (PIP) assessment, which are carried out by private companies. Many more, yet to be reassessed, are also likely to lose their specialised vehicles.

In 2012, Esther McVey revealed that the new PIP  was about cutting costs and that there were targets to reduce the number of successful claims when she told the House of Commons:330,000 of claimants are expected to either lose their benefit altogether or see their payments reduced.How else could she have known that before those people were actually assessed? A recent review led the government to conclude that PIP doesn’t currently fulfil the original policy intent, which was to cut costs and “target” the benefit to “those with the greatest need.”

That basically meant a narrowing of eligibility criteria for people formerly claiming Disability Living Allowance, increasing the number of reassessments required, and limiting the number of successful claims. The government have used the review to attempt to justify further restrictions to PIP eligibility, aimed at cutting support for people who require aids to meet fundamental needs such as preparing food, dressing, basic and essential personal care and managing incontinence. “Greatest need” has become an ever-shrinking category under Conservative austerity measures. 

DPAC

The use of political pseudo-psychological “diagnoses” to both stigmatise and “treat” what are generally regarded by the Conservatives as deviant behaviours from cognitively incompetent citizens, infering that the problem lies within the individual rather than in their circumstances, or arise as a consequence of political decision-making and socio-economic models, has become the new normal. We are discussing people here who have been deemed too ill to work by their own doctor AND the state. Not for the first time, the words Arbeit macht frei spring to mind.

Welfare has been redefined: it is preoccupied with assumptions about and modification of the behaviour and character of recipients rather than with the alleviation of poverty and ensuring economic and social wellbeing.

The stigmatisation of people needing benefits is designed purposefully to displace public sympathy for the poor, and to generate moral outrage, which is then used to further justify the steady dismantling of the welfare state.

It is the human costs that are particularly distressing, and in a wealthy, first world liberal democracy, such draconian policies ought to be untenable. Some people are dying after being wrongly assessed as “fit for work” and having their lifeline benefits brutally withdrawn. Maximus is certainly not helping the government to serve even the most basic needs of sick and disabled people.

However, Maximus is serving the needs of a “small state” doctrinaire neoliberal government. The Conservatives are systematically dismantling the UK’s social security system, not because there is an empirically justifiable reason or economic need to do so, but because the government has purely ideological, anticollectivist prescriptions. Those prescriptions are costing the UK in terms of the economy, but MUCH worse, it is costing us in terms of our decent, collective, civilised response to people experiencing difficult circumstances through no fault of their own; it’s costing the most vulnerable citizens their wellbeing and unforgivably, it is also costing precious human lives.

It’s not just that Conservative rhetoric is incoherent and incongruent with the realities created by their policies. Policy-making has become increasingly detached from public needs and instead, it is being directed at “incentivising” and “changing behaviours” of citizens to meet a rigidly ideological state agenda. That turns democracy completely on its head. There is no longer a genuine dialogue between government and citizens, only a diversionary and oppressive state monologue.

And it’s the sound of one hand clapping.

one hand clapping

There are many ways of destroying people’s lives, not all of them are obvious. Taking away people’s means of meeting basic survival needs, such as money for food, fuel and shelter – which are the bare essentials that benefits were originally calculated to cover – invariably increases the likelihood that they will die. The people most adversely and immediately affected are those who have additional needs for support.

The moment that sick and disabled people were defined as a “burden on the state” by the government, we began climbing Allport’s Ladder of Prejudice.

Whilst I am very aware that we need take care not to trivialise the terrible events of  world war 2 and Nazi Germany by making casual comparisons, there are some clear and important parallels on a socio-political level and a psycho-social one, that I feel are crucially important to recognise.

Gordon Allport studied the psychological and social processes that create a society’s progression from prejudice and discrimination to genocide. In his research of how the Holocaust happened, he describes socio-political processes that foster increasing social prejudice and discrimination and he demonstrates how the unthinkable becomes acceptable: it happens incrementally, because of a steady erosion of our moral and rational boundaries, and propaganda-driven changes in our attitudes towards “others” that advances culturally, by almost inscrutable degrees.

The process always begins with the political scapegoating and systematic dehumanisation of a social group and with ideologies that identify that group as an “enemy” or a social “burden” in some way. A history of devaluation of the group that becomes the target, authoritarian culture, and the passivity of internal and external witnesses (bystanders) all contribute to the probability that violence against that group will develop, and ultimately, if the process is allowed to continue evolving, genocide.

If you think this observation is “extreme” then you really haven’t been paying attention. By 2012, hate crime incidents against disabled people had risen to be the highest ever recorded. By 2015, there was a further 41 per cent rise in disability hate crime. This is the so-called “civilised” first world, very wealthy liberal democracy that is the UK.

Most disabled people have worked, contributed to society, paid taxes and national insurance. Those that haven’t genuinely cannot work, and as a decent, civilised society, we should support them. Being ill and disabled is not a “lifestyle choice.” Unfortunately it can happen to anyone. A life-changing accident or illness doesn’t only happen to others: no-one is exempted from such a possibility. That this government thinks it can get away with peddling utter nonsense about the characters, lives and motivations of a marginalised social group, dehumanising them, directing hatred, resentment, prejudice and public derision towards them, demonstrates only too well just how far we have moved away from being a decent, civilised society. 

It seems to be almost weekly that there’s a report in the media about a sick and disabled person dying after being told by the state that they are “fit for work” and their lifeline benefits have been halted, or because the state has sanctioned someone and withdrawn their only support. There are many thousands more suffering in silence, fearful and just about living.

 

Propaganda techniques part one: Glittering Generalities – language and the New Word Order.

Image result for securing a better futurePropaganda techniques

Introduction.

This is part one of a series of articles I am writing about propaganda techniques, with the aim of explaining the seven main types that The Institute for Propaganda Analysis identified in 1938, and looking at current examples of their use.

Propaganda techniques are still very commonly used in the media, in advertising, in politics, in rhetoric and debate. In the US, much of the work by the Institute of Propaganda Analysis tended to focus on the techniques of persuasion used by Stalin and Hitler. Many people think that there is no need for research nowadays, but propaganda techniques are still being used widely.

In Britain, the current government has adopted a psychocratic approach to governing, reflected in public policies that have a central aim of  directing”behavioural change” of targeted social groups, and are founded on quasi-scientific understandings of the basis of human decision-making.

The Conservatives claim to champion the small-state and minimal intervention, yet the consequences of their policies insidiously intrude into people’s everyday experiences and thoughts. Our attitudes and beliefs are being manipulated, our decision-making is being “nudged,” citizens are being micro-managed and policed by the state.

The Conservatives use Orwellian-styled rhetoric crowded with words like “market forces”, “meritocracy” “autonomy”, “incentivisation”, “democracy”, “efficient, small state”, and even “freedom”, whilst all the time they are actually extending a brutal, bullying, extremely manipulative, all-pervasive state authoritarianism.

Furthermore, this authoritarianism entails a mediacratic branch of government that powerfully manipulates public opinion. The mind-numbing mainstream media is conformative rather than informative, and is designed to manufacture and manage public consensus, whilst setting agendas for what ought to be deemed important issues. The media is scripting events rather than simply reporting them, filtering information by deciding which events may and may not have precedence.

And really, it’s the same old same old. Propaganda is an extremely powerful weapon and seizing control of the mainstream media is one of the first things that all tyrants do:

“Everything within the state, nothing outside the state, nothing against the state.” Benito Mussolini.

The current government is not interested in any form of democratic dialogue. They simply want to set a rigid agenda to control socio-political outcomes to benefit the powerful and wealthy elite.

We are witnessing attempts to control virtually all aspects of social life, including the economy, education, our private life, morals and the beliefs and attitudes of citizens. We are also seeing the rise of political behaviourism, which is closely linked with totalitarian forms of thinking.

The officially proclaimed ideology penetrates into the deepest reaches of societal structure and the totalitarian government seeks to completely control the thoughts and actions of its citizens.” Richard Pipes.

Recent public policies related to behavioural change exploit the emotive, automatic drivers of decision-making through methods such as subconscious priming or default settings. This is extremely worrying, as it bypasses rational processes, and has some serious implications for conceptions of human autonomy and agency, which is central to the design of liberal democracies.

Democracy is based on a process of dialogue between the public and government, ensuring that the public are represented: that governments are responsive, shaping policies that address identified social needs. However, Conservative policies are no longer about reflecting citizen’s needs: they are increasingly all about telling us how to be.

So we do need to expose and challenge such insidious, anti-democratic state control freakery and psychocratic shenanigans.

scroll2Part 1. Glittering Generalities: all that glitters is glib, not gold.

Glittering Generalities is one category of the seven main propaganda techniques identified by the Institute for Propaganda Analysis in 1938. It’s a device often used by the media and in political rhetoric to persuade us to approve and accept something without examining any evidence.

This is a propaganda technique purposefully designed to divert and distract, so that people are less likely to develop their own critical thoughts. This said, the purpose of all forms of propaganda is to tell you what to think, and not how to think.

Glittering Generalities capitalise on increasingly sloganised political discourses, leading to a loss of conceptual clarity, over-idealisation and they also reflect conceptual miserliness – a tendency for some people to prefer simple, superficial and easy answers, rather than having to expend time and effort to grapple with complexity, critical analysis and the need to weigh up evidence. They also succeed in conveying codified messages that reference underpinning discourses which are often prejudiced and controversial, but presented in a way that bypasses any detailed scrutiny, as a consensus view and “common sense.”  An example is the slogan “Taking our country back” as it references an underpinning racist, supremicist discourse.

Gordon Allport’s Principle of Least Effort is a theory that humans engage in economically prudent thought processes, taking “short-cuts” instead of acting like “naive scientists” who rationally investigate, weigh evidence, costs and benefits, test hypotheses, and update their expectations based upon the results of the “experiments” that are a part of our everyday actions.

Sometimes we are more inclined to act as cognitive misers, using mental short-cuts to make assessments and decisions, concerning issues and ideas about which we know very little, as well as issues of great salience.

The term “Cognitive Miser” was coined by Fiske and Taylor (in 1984) to refer, like Allport, to the general idea that individuals frequently rely on simple and time efficient strategies when evaluating information and making decisions.

Rather than rationally and objectively evaluating new information, the cognitive miser assigns new information to categories that are easy to process mentally. These categories arise from prior information, including schemas, scripts and other knowledge structures, such as stereotypes, that have been stored in our memory.

The cognitive miser tends not to extend much beyond established belief when considering new information. This of course may perpetuate prejudices and cognitive biases.

Glittering Generalities imply – or signpost us – via common stock phrases to our own tacit knowledge, which often lies below our current focal awareness – prior information, beliefs, ideals, values, schemata and mental models, stereotypes and so on, creating the impression that the person using the terms and phrases understands and sees the world as you do, creating a false sense of rapport by doing so. Or the feeling that some very important recognition has been made.

Glittering Generalities propaganda is sometimes based on a kind of logical fallacy known as Equivocation – it is the misleading use of a term with more than one meaning (usually by glossing over which meaning is intended at a particular time)

Glittering Generalities is a technique very often used by people who seek to stifle debate, sidestep accountability and suppress democratic processes. Because Glittering Generalities tend to obscure or gloss over serious areas of disagreement, they hide controversy and submerge alternative propositions.

As such, Glittering Generalities may often be used to neutralise opposition to dominant ideas. It’s a way of disguising partisanship and of manipulating and reducing democratic choices. It’s part of a process of the political micro-management of your beliefs and decision-making.

It also reduces public expectation of opposition and in doing so it contributes to establishing diktats: it’s a way of mandating acceptance of ideology, policies or laws by presenting them as if they are the only viable alternative.

This propaganda technique bypasses rationality altogether, by employing morally laden or emotionally appealing words and phrases so closely associated with highly valued concepts and beliefs that carry conviction – convince us – without need for enquiry, supporting information or reason.

The meanings of such words and phrases is generally based on a loose, tacit public consensus, often varying between groups and individuals. Semantic shift describes a process of how the meanings of words may change over time, but meanings also shift and vary amongst social groups. Language is elusive and changeable. (Words like wicked and bad, for example, shifted subculturally. Originally: evil, corrupt, sinful, malevolent → superb, excellent, great, fantastic. ) Let’s not forget that when we use language, it is with purpose and intent.

So, Glittering Generalities are rather like platitudes or clichés presented as semantic signs to cognitive short-cuts that are often used to distract and placate people, they provide a superficial, broad, symbolic map to a logical cul-de-sac. They are superficially appealing and convincing but ultimately empty, meaningless words or phrases.

To summarise, Glittering Generalities may be identified by the following criteria:

  • Use of attractive, but vague “virtue” words that make speeches and other communications sound good, but in practice say nothing in particular.
  • Use of lulling linguistic patterns such as alliteration, metaphor and reversals that turn your words into easy to remember soundbites that often flow and rhyme in hypnotic patterns.
  • Use of words that appeal to morals and values, which often themselves are related to triggering of powerful emotions.
  • A common element of glittering generalities are intangible nouns that embody ideals, such as freedom, democracy, integrity, justice, respect.

Some further examples of Glittering Generalities are: economic plan, all in it together, big society,  freedom, family values, the common good, democracy,  principles, choice, incentivise, efficiency, fairness, hard-working families, parental choice, a caring society, fiscal responsibility, market choice, meritocracy, personal responsibility, making work pay, scroungers and strivers, anti-austerity, socialism, progressive, disenfranchised, deceit, Westminster establishment, the needs of the people, but that’s all just semantics really.

A good example of a Glittering Generality is the Conservative’s phrase “making work pay.” It refers to the Tory welfare “reforms” which were nothing to do with the level of wages. How does reducing benefits for unemployed people actually make work pay? Especially given the fact that wages have dropped for those in work, at the same time, the cost of living has risen, and consequently many working people are now living in poverty. The question to ask is: making work pay for whom?

The Tories have an Orwellian dexterity in manipulating semantic shifts. They do like to dress-up words and parade them as something else. For example, take the word “reform,” which usually means to make changes to an institution, policy or practice in order to improve it. The welfare “reforms” have involved the steep and steady reduction of welfare provision and an increase in political scapegoating and victim-blame narratives.

We have also seen the return of absolute poverty since the “reforms” were (undemocratically) implemented in 2012, which can hardly be considered as an “improvement” to what came before the Tories made savage and brutal cuts to poor people’s lifeline benefits, making them even poorer, with some people dying as a consequence.

Then there is the Tory drift on the word “fair.”  It’s generally taken to mean treating people equally without favouritism or discrimination, and without cheating or trying to achieve unjust advantage.

However, the Conservatives have repeatedly claimed that cutting people’s lifeline benefits is “fair.”  As I’ve previously stated, the value of wages has also dropped to its lowest level ever, whilst the cost of living has risen and many in low paid work are now living in poverty, in reality the welfare cuts have simply made people desperate enough to take any low paid work, which does not alleviate circumstances of poverty.

Furthermore, how can the welfare cuts be regarded as remotely fair, when they took place in a context where the government handed out £107,000 of public funds to each millionaire, in the form of an annual tax break?

Finally, it’s not only the Tories that utilise propaganda techniques, and some parties on the Left have also used Glittering Generalities. These parties especially capitalized on the public’s growing cynicism and dissatisfaction with the “Westminster establishment.” UKIP and the Scottish National Party drew on nationalism (and independence,) whilst using superficial, simplistic and ambiguous phrases and symbols, the Green Party and other Left-wing factions also drew on public dissatisfaction with “mainstream parties” and appealed to people’s hopes and fears to present an “alternative.”

Both the Greens and the Scottish nationalists presented a rhetoric skillfully tailored and laden with words and phrases that reflect progressive ideals whilst also claiming a position that opposed austerity. Yet this lacked integrity, as the rhetoric wasn’t fully connected to actual manifesto policies.

Crucially, the Scottish National Party’s spending plans implied deeper cuts than Labour’s plans entailed over the next five years, as the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) said in a report in April, highlighting a “considerable disconnect” between the nationalist’s rhetoric on austerity and their policies.

The Green Party had a similar disconnect between an anti-austerity rhetoric and their incompatable policy proposals of a zero-growth economy and the universal citizen’s income. The latter was heavily criticised because, as it was modelled, the universal basic income would create deeper poverty for the poorest citizens and further extend social inequality.

The Labour Party ran a more rational but superficially less appealing campaign based on improving the material conditions of society for the majority of people. The policy plans for an extensively redistributive tax system, for example, matched the rhetoric about addressing growing social inequality, as well as a social reality. But the current climate of  right-wing anti-intellectualism, widespread disillusionment with the political establishment and increasing public disengagement from democracy doesn’t prompt a rational exploration of policy proposals and any analysis of potential consequences for society from many people.