Tag: self fulfilling prophecy

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

Daily Mail crush the saboteurs
In George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, Winston Smith invents the heroic historical figure Comrade Ogilvy, who had “no aim in life except the defeat of the Eurasian enemy and the hunting-down of spies, saboteurs, thought-criminals, and traitors generally”. Theresa May’s world, too, seems to have shrunk to one in which the greatest enemies are the enemies within and democracy must be democratically eliminated for the good of the people.” Steven Poole.

The Daily Mail headline calling those who oppose the government “saboteurs” is the kind of oppressive tactic and despotic language that is commonly used in totalitarian regimes and by dictators. It’s not the kind of media headline expected in liberal democracies, where opposition to the status quo is necessary for the best interests of the country and essential for any meaningful democratic exchange.

Dr. Lawrence Britt examined the fascist regimes of Hitler (Germany), Mussolini (Italy), Franco (Spain), Suharto (Indonesia) and several Latin American regimes. Britt found 14 defining characteristics common to each, and it is becoming increasingly difficult to overlook some of the parallels with the increasingly authoritarian characteristics of our own right wing government here in the UK. Fascism is an authoritarian and nationalistic right wing system of government and social organisation, though not all authoritarian governments are fascist. However, the two terms are quite often used interchangeably. 

Controlled mass media is one example of a key defining feature of authoritarianism, with “news” being directly controlled and manipulated by the government, by regulation, or via sympathetic media spokespeople and executives. Censorship is very common. There is often an identifiable obsession with “National Security” – along with fear being used as a “motivational tool” by the government on the public, and also, as a justification for greater degrees of censorship.

The United Nations’ 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights states: “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference, and impart information and ideas through any media regardless of frontiers”. However, unlike the United States, Britain has no constitutional guarantee of press freedom

The right to freedom of expression is fundamental to a functioning democracy – information and ideas help to inform political debate and are essential to public accountability and transparency in government.

Just to clarify, I don’t, however, condone any incitements of hatred. This is not the same thing as free speech. In fact hate speech is designed to close discussion down by intimidating and silencing targeted social groups. In the Uk, several statutes criminalize hate speech against several categories of persons. The statutes forbid communication which is hateful, threatening, or abusive, and which targets a person on account of disability, ethnic or national origin, nationality (including citizenship), race, religion, sexual orientation, or skin colour. 

Yet just last year, the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance (ECRI) criticised the  right wing Daily Mail and the Sun for “offensive, discriminatory and provocative terminology”.

The ECRI report said hate speech was a serious problem, including against Roma, gypsies and travellers, as well as “unscrupulous press reporting” targeting the LGBT community. 

The report also concluded that some reporting on immigration, terrorism and the refugee crisis was “contributing to creating an atmosphere of hostility and rejection”.

It cited Katie Hopkins’ infamous column in The Sun, where she likened refugees to “cockroaches” and sparked a blistering response from the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, and the same newspaper’s debunked claim over “1 in 5 Brit Muslims’ sympathy for jihadis”. It seems that the tabloids have confused their frequent incitements to hatred, their many contributions to growing social prejudice and hate speech with free speech.

We have witnessed the political right and the tabloids using rhetoric that has increasingly transformed a global economic crisis into an apparently ethno-political one, and this also extends to include the general scapegoating and vilification of other groups and communities that have historically been the victims of prejudice and social exclusion: the poorest citizens, unemployed and disabled people. These far-right rhetorical flourishes define and portray the putative “outsider” as an economic threat. This is then used to justify active political discrimination and exclusion of the constitutive Other. 

Only some people have the right to freely express themselves, apparently.

Freedom of expression is a universal human right. It is not the prerogative of the politician. Nor is it the privilege of the journalist. In their day-to-day work, journalists are simply exercising every citizen’s right to free speech.

This includes the right to communicate and to express oneself in any medium, including through words, pictures, images and actions (including through public protest and demonstrations).

However, the UK government is more generally failing to live up to its human rights obligations. Social groups with protected characteristics, such as disabled people and asylum seekers, have fared very badly over the past few years. The tabloids have preempted draconian Conservative policies which target those social groups with extensive stigmatising and scapegoating campaigns. This is another indication of the Conservative’s radical authoritarian turn. 

The News Media Association (NMA) say: “Threats to press freedom include attempts to strip back journalistic exemptions under the EU and UK data protection legislation, efforts to water down Freedom of Information legislation which the NMA is campaigning against, new court reporting restrictions, a review of the D-Notice Committee, strengthening police powers to obtain journalistic material, the use of RIPA powers to uncover journalists’ sources, and the continuing campaign to introduce jail sentences for breaches of the Data Protection Act.

Journalists in the UK are also subject to a wide range of legal restrictions which inhibit freedom of expression. These include the libel laws, official secrets and anti-terrorism legislation, the law of contempt and other legal restrictions on court reporting, the law of confidence and development of privacy actions, intellectual property laws, legislation regulating public order, trespass, harassment, anti-discrimination and obscenity.

There is some special provision for journalism and other literary and artistic activities, chiefly intended as protection against prior restraint, in the data protection and human rights legislation. There are some additional, judicial safeguards requiring court orders or judicial consent before the police can gain access to journalistic material or instigate surveillance in certain circumstances, but, in practice, the law provides limited protection to journalistic material and sources.”

The new proposed Espionage Act and a data disclosure law.

The UK government are proposing to change the four Official Secrets Acts, which date back to 1911. They want them scrapped and replaced with a “modernised” Espionage Act and a data disclosure law.

However, the Conservatives have been accused of “criminalising public interest journalism” as it plans to increase the number of years for the “leaking of state secrets” from 2 years to 14, in the first “overhaul” of the Official Secrets Act for over 100 years.

Under the proposals, which were published in February, officials who leak “sensitive information” about the British economy that damages national security could also be jailed. Currently, official secrets legislation is limited to breaches which jeopardise security, intelligence defence, confidential information and international relations.

The government released the proposals citing the “new reality” of the 21st-century internet and national security dangers as justification for a more “robust” system of prosecution.

The recommendations centre around the Official Secrets Act (1989) which governs how public servants in government and the military must keep government information secret and out of publication.

Journalists and civil liberties groups have warned that the threshold for the increased sentence has been lowered and that journalists and whistleblowers acting in the public interest will be effectively gagged. 

In the new government recommendations, the threshold for being prosecuted for revealing state secrets will be changed from “having caused definite damage” to the likelihood of causing damage to national interests. The Law Commission also stated that a defendant should be prevented from making a defence that they believed they were working in the public interest. 

Michelle Stanistreet, general secretary of the National Union of Journalists, said: “The ramifications of these recommendations are huge for journalists and freedom of the press. Journalists face being criminalised for simply doing their job and the public’s right to know will be severely curtailed by these proposals. The union will respond robustly to the Law Commission’s consultation on changes to the Official Secrets Act.

“The National Union of Journalists is also concerned that the Digital Economy Bill, now in Parliament, threatens to undermine journalists sharing information in the public interest.” 

“This union is deeply concerned at yet another attempt by the UK government to curtail the media. The Investigatory Powers Act has put journalists’ sources at risk now that a large number of authorities have the power to intercept reporter’s’ emails, mobile phone and computer records.

“We have plenty of evidence that some police forces routinely used the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act to get their hands on journalists’ records without their knowledge. The NUJ is also concerned that the Digital Economy Bill, now in Parliament, threatens to undermine journalists sharing information in the public interest.”

The consultation on the UK Government’s new proposals closed earlier this month. Organisations such as Amnesty have submitted their statements and expressed their opposition. 

Campaigners say the bill would make any investigation of government culpability harder and lower the amount of accountability in the civil service, military and government.

From the consultation document: “Chapter 6 – Freedom of Expression Enshrined in Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights, freedom of expression is a fundamental right. We consider whether compliance with Article 10 requires the introduction of a statutory public interest defence for those who make unauthorised disclosure. Our conclusion is that Article 10 does not require the introduction of a statutory public interest defence. Our view accords with that the House of Lord in R v Shayler.” 

Once you hear the jackboots…

Three years ago, I wrote an article  – Once you hear the jackboots, it’s too late – which discussed the unannounced visit by government national security agents to smash computer hard drives at the Guardian newspaper offices, though it hit the news unsurprisingly quietly, when Edward Snowden exposed a gross abuse of power and revealed mass surveillance programmes by American and British secret policing agencies (NSA and GCHQ) last year. (More detailed information here).

David Miranda, partner of Glenn Greenwald, Guardian interviewer of the whistleblower Edward Snowden, was held for nine hours at Heathrow Airport and questioned under the Terrorism Act. Officials confiscated electronics equipment including his mobile phone, laptop, camera, memory sticks, DVDs and games consoles. This was a profound attack on press freedoms and the news gathering process, and as Greenwald said: “To detain my partner for a full nine hours while denying him a lawyer, and then seize large amounts of his possessions, is clearly intended to send a message of intimidation.”

My article also outlined another extraordinary and vicious attack on The Guardian, instigated by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) communications chief and senior government spin doctor, Richard Caseby, who called for the newspaper to be “blackballed” and prevented from joining the new press regulatory body, because “day after day it gets its facts wrong.” Remarkably, “ineptitude or ideology” were to blame for what he deemed “mistakes” in the paper’s coverage of the DWP’s cuts to benefits. He called for the broadsheet to be kept out of the new Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO), set up after the Leveson Inquiry into media standards. 

As a former journalist at the establishment-directed Sun and The Sunday Times, Caseby certainly has an axe to grind against the paper that revealed how those right wing papers’ stablemate, the News Of The World, had hacked the voicemail of murdered teenager Millie Dowler, sparking the phone hacking scandal that forced Rupert Murdoch to close the tabloid down.

In connection with Murdoch’s testimony to the Leveson Inquiry “into the ethics of the British press,” editor of Newsweek International, Tunku Varadarajan, referred to him as “the man whose name is synonymous with unethical newspapers.”

Not a shred of concern was raised about any of this or Murdoch’s nasty and corrupt myth production industry, and right wing scapegoating empire, coming from our government, a point worth reflecting on for a moment. Miliband said the phone-hacking was not just a media scandal, but it was a symbol of what was wrong with British politics.

He called for cross-party agreement on new media ownership laws that would cut Murdoch’s current market share, arguing that he has “too much power over British public life.He said: “If you want to minimise the abuses of power, then that kind of concentration of power is frankly quite dangerous.”  I completely agree.

Those that criticise the unscrupulous right wing status quo, on the other hand, are being increasingly filtered out from the media, or censored. Yet journalists are regarded as “democracy’s watchdogs” and the protection of their sources is the “cornerstone of freedom of the press.” And freedom of the press is a cornerstone of democracy. Although enshrined in such terms by the European Court of Human Rights, these democratic safeguarding principles are being attacked in an increasingly open manner all over the world, including in the democratic countries that first proclaimed them.

The erosion of democracy and the Press Freedom Index

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Reporters Without Borders (RSF) are a collective of journalists who study freedom of the press at a comparative and international level. RSF publish an annual Press Freedom Index (PFI), which provides a ranking for every country, calculated to indicate how much governments restrict the media. The UK has been consistently in low position (the higher the score, the lower the ranking) for the last five years, this year it dropped lower still, highlighting an increasing intrusion of the government on and restriction of the freedom of the press.

This won’t surprise many, especially given the numerous public announcements in the press by the likes of Iain Duncan Smith over the last few years regarding the government’s “monitoring” of the BBC and other media for “left wing bias”. We have a media with a very heavy weighted right wing bias, yet any criticism of government policy reduces our government to shrieking hysterically that the communists have been infiltrating the establishment. It’s a curious fact that authoritarians project their rigidity, insecurities and micro-controlling tendencies onto everyone else.

I’m sure Chris Patten, Rhona Fairhead and Sir David Cecil Clementi, successive government appointed chairpersons of the BBC Trustto act as the ultimate decision makers regarding the BBC’s strategic direction, are just the kind of people who are not tied to political ideologies and corporate interests. After all, everyone knows what a veritable hotbed of communism Chris Patten secretly nurtured. (Sorry, my tongue appears to be momentarily stuck to my cheek).

That the UK government felt the need to announce even more surveillance of the BBC indicates a creeping and considerable degree of authoritarianism, and worryingly, it demonstrates how supremely unconcerned and utterly without shame they are in building a public bonfire to burn what remains of media impartiality in the UK. 

The current RSF report says that the decline in respect for media freedom in democracies is not new. It was already noticeable in previous Indexes. But what is striking in this year’s Index is the growing scale and the nature of the violations seen.

The erosion of democracy and subsequent muting of the media isn’t a problem peculiar to the UK, it’s happening on a global scale. The RSF report says:

“Most of the movement in the World Press Freedom Index unveiled today by Reporters Without Borders is indicative of a climate of fear and tension combined with increasing control over newsrooms by governments and private-sector interests.”

“Journalism worthy of the name must be defended against the increase in propaganda and media content that is made to order or sponsored by vested interests.”

The Index is based on an evaluation of media freedom that measures pluralism, media independence, the quality of the legal framework and the safety of journalists in 180 countries. It is compiled by means of a survey questionnaire in 20 languages that is completed by experts all over the world. This qualitative analysis is combined with quantitative data on abuses and acts of violence against journalists during the period evaluated.

The report says: “The election of the 45th president of the United States set off a witchhunt against journalists. Donald Trump’s repeated diatribes against the Fourth Estate and its representatives – accusing them of being “among the most dishonest human beings on earth” and of deliberately spreading “fake news” – compromise a long US tradition of defending freedom of expression. The hate speech used by the new boss in the White House and his accusations of lying also helped to disinhibit attacks on the media almost everywhere in the world, including in democratic countries.”

Framing and tilting the media: asking the million dollar questions

Robert Mercier is the plutocrat and right wing US computer scientist and media “strategist” at the heart of a US-based multimillion-dollar propaganda network, who expresses an “unwavering commitment to neutralising left wing bias in the news, media and popular culture”. He funded the setting up of Breitbart and has close links to Steve Bannon, Donald Trump and Nigel Farage. See: Robert Mercer: the big data billionaire waging war on mainstream media.

It is a very troubling development, give the US had a global reputation for promoting a strong free press, protected by the First Amendment. This said, it’s certainly not a recent development that political leaders of western so-called democratic countries have intervened directly in an attempt to modify and direct media reporting. The US is ranked at 43 in the 2017 World Press Freedom Index. 

RSF now ranks the UK 40th in the index; a fall from 38th place in 2016. The Nordic countries have the most favourable PFI ranking, with Norway being at the top, followed by Sweden, Finland, and Denmark. It’s an indictment of both UK and US claims to democracy and freedom of the media that three former Soviet countries: Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania rank more highly. The British press were also outranked by Uruguay, Costa Rica, Jamaica, Namibia, Samoa, Trinidad and Tobago.

RSF’s report says: “Media freedom has never been so threatened and RSF’s “global indicator” has never been so high (3872). This measure of the overall level of media freedom constraints and violations worldwide has risen 14% in the span of five years. In the past year, nearly two thirds (62.2%) of the countries measured have registered a deterioration in their situation, while the number of countries where the media freedom situation was “good” or “fairly good” fell by 2.3%.”

“It was also in late 2016 that the United Kingdom (down 2 places at 40th) adopted a new law extending the surveillance powers of the British intelligence agencies. Dubbed the “Snoopers’ Charter,” the Investigatory Powers Act put the UK in the unenviable position of having adopted “the most extreme surveillance legislation in UK history”, with a law that lacks sufficient protection mechanisms for journalists and their sources. Even more alarming, in early 2017, the Law Commission put forward a proposal for a new ‘Espionage Act’ that would allow the courts to imprison journalists and others for up to 14 years for obtaining leaked information.”

It goes on to say: “The past year also saw a continuation in the trend for media ownership to become concentrated in ever fewer hands, which is exacerbating the media’s dependence on political and economic power holders.”

“A heavy-handed approach towards the press – often in the name of national security – has resulted in the UK slipping down the [PFI]. Parliament adopted the most extreme surveillance legislation in UK history, the Investigatory Powers Act… posing a serious threat to investigative journalism. Even more alarming, the Law Commission’s proposal for a new ‘Espionage Act’ would make it easy to classify journalists as ‘spies’ and jail them for up to 14 years for simply obtaining leaked information.”

The extensive report also warns that:

“Journalism worthy of the name must be defended against the increase in propaganda and media content that is made to order or sponsored by vested interests.”

“It is unfortunately clear that many of the world’s leaders are developing a form of paranoia about legitimate journalism.” (RSF secretary-general Christophe Deloire).

“The climate of fear results in a growing aversion to debate and pluralism, a clampdown on the media by ever more authoritarian and oppressive governments, and reporting in the privately owned media that is increasingly shaped by personal interests. Journalism worthy of the name must be defended against the increase in propaganda and media content that is made to order or sponsored by vested interests. Guaranteeing the public’s right to independent and reliable news and information is essential if humankind’s problems, both local and global, are to be solved.”

The press freedom map below is a visual overview of the situation in each country in the Index. The darker the colour, the worse the PFI ranking. 

The mass media are often referred to as the fourth branch of government because of the power they wield and the oversight function they exercise. However, democracy requires the active participation of citizens. Ideally, the media should encourage citizens to engage in the business of governance by informing, educating and mobilising the public.

The notion of the media as a watchdog, as a guardian of public interest, and as a conduit between governors and the governed was once deeply ingrained. The reality, however, is that the media in democracies are failing to live up to this ideal. They are hobbled by stringent and often repressive laws, monopolistic ownership, and too often, the threat of brute force. State controls are not the only constraints. Balanced and impartial reporting is difficult to sustain in a context of neoliberalism because of competitive media markets that put a premium on the superficial and sensational.

Moreover, the media are manipulated and used as proxies in the battle between political groups, in the process sowing divisiveness rather than consensus, hate speech instead of sober debate, and suspicion rather than social trust. The media significantly contribute to public cynicism and democratic decay.

Noam Chomsky has written extensively about the role of the free market media in reinforcing dominant ideology and maintaining the unequal distribution and balance of power. In Manufacturing Consent, Chomsky and Herman explore the media’s role in establishing the apparence of a political and economic orthodoxy (neoliberalism) and extending a seemingly normative compliance with state policies, while also marginalising antithetical or alternative perspectives, dismissing them as heresy. In the US and UK, most left wing commentors have a very diminished media platform from which to present their perspectives and policy proposals.

This “free-market” version of censorship is more subtle and difficult to identify, challenge and undermine than the equivalent propaganda system which was present in Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union. 

As Chomsky argues, the mainstream press is corporate owned and so reflects corporate priorities and interests. While acknowledging that some journalists are dedicated and well-intentioned, he says that the choice of topics and issues featured in the mass media, the unquestioned premises on which that “coverage” rests, and the range of opinions that are expressed are all constrained to reinforce the state’s dominant ideology.

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Last year, research by YouGov found that the British media is the most right wing in Europe. Readers also ranked the British press as the most biased in all of the seven countries surveyed.

On average British people are more likely than any other country to see the media as skewed towards the right (26% compared to 23% for Finland and 19% for France). Britain’s media is viewed as having a right wing bias, most of all on the subject of economics (net 15 points to the right).

The media have recently portrayed Jeremy Corbyn as both a pacifist and as someone with a paradoxical tendency to “love terrorists”, but then logic and accuracy have never been apparent in most media attacks of the left. (See the Zinoviev letter, for a historic example). 

You know the world is in big trouble when diplomacy and negotiation skills are considered a “threat” to security. It seems that the establishment prefer bombing civilians to get other governments to comply with their wishes. I know which is probably going to contribute to keeping peace the most, and it isn’t “humanitarian” bombing. 

The “poor relations” between nuclear powers has contributed to an atmosphere that “lends itself to the onset of crisis,” according to a very worrying report by the UN Institute for Disarmament Research. The report goes on to say: “The rise in cyber warfare and hacking has left the technical vulnerabilities of nuclear weapons systems exposed to risk from states and terrorist groups.

Nuclear deterrence works—up until the time it will prove not to work. The risk is inherent and, when luck runs out, the results will be catastrophic.

The report went on to say: “The more arms produced, particularly in countries with unstable societies, the more potential exists for terrorist acquisition and use of nuclear weapons.”

The UN report comes as Donald Trump of the US and Vladmir Putin of Russia have both indicated support for expanding their country’s nuclear weapon arsenals. 

Deterrence is at the “greatest risk of breaking down” in North Korea and between India and Pakistan over the disputed territory of Kashmir.

The report also stated an expressed concern over tensions between the West and Russia, which have grown since the annexation of Crimea in 2014. President Putin has maintained Russia would use nuclear weapons if it felt sufficiently threatened.

You know, I think diplomatic skill is a far better quality to look for in a leader, speaking from the perspective of a civilian, in these troubled times. 

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In most newspapers, including even The Daily Mirror and The Independent, Labour voices that are unreasonably anti-Corbyn outweigh those that are pro-Corbyn. Corbyn’s voice is often absent in the narratives and reporting on him, and when it is present it is often presented in a highly distorted way. 

We all want and need a strong and a critical media, a watchdog of the powers that be, but maybe we do not need an “attack dog” who kills off anyone who dares challenge the status quo and dares to suggest we need a different kind of politics.

 

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Ed Miliband eating a bacon butty on Channel four’s The Last Leg

The coming of epistemological totalitarianism in the UK

Epistemology relates to the theory of knowledge, especially with regard to its methods, validity, and scope, and the distinction between justified belief and opinion. In the UK, our “knowledge” is being framed by the right wing media. The media doesn’t exactly tell us how to think, but it does tell us what to think about, by a selective agenda of topics and the framing of public debate.

The UK establishment news media are highly centralised and dominated by elites who serve and maintain the status quo and who detest democracy.

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In 2015, I wroteOne particularly successful way of neutralising opposition to an ideology is to ensure that only those ideas that are consistent with that ideology saturate the media and are presented as orthodoxy, to “naturalise” them. The Conservative election campaigns are a thoroughly dispiriting and ruthless masterclass in media control.

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

Presenting an alternative narrative is difficult because the Tories have not only framed all of the issues to be given public priority – they set and stage-manage the media agenda – they have also almost completely dominated the narrative; they construct and manage the political lexicon and now treat words associated with the left, such as welfare, trade unionism, collective bargaining, like semantic landmines, generating explosions of right wing scorn, derision and ridicule. This form of linguistic totalitarianism discredits any opposition before it even arises.

Words like cooperation, inclusion, mutual aid, reciprocity, equality, nationalisation, redistribution – collective values – are simply dismissed as mere anachronisms that need to be stricken from public conversation and exiled from our collective consciousness, whilst all the time enforcing their own bland language of an anti-democratic political doxa. The political manufacturing of a culture of anti-intellectualism extends this aim, too.”

The London School of Economics (LSE) media and communications department undertook a research project, aiming at contributing to the ongoing public debate regarding the role of mainstream media and of journalists in a media-saturated democracy. In Journalistic Representations of Jeremy Corbyn in the British Press: From “Watchdog” to “Attackdog”, the research team say:

“We set out to recognise and acknowledge the legitimate role of the press to critique and challenge the powers that be, which is often encapsulated by the metaphor of the watchdog. Our systematic content analysis of a representative sample of newspaper articles published in 8 national newspapers between 1 September and 1 November 2015, however, shows that the press reacted in a highly transgressive manner to the new leader of the opposition, hence our reference to the attackdog metaphor.

Our analysis shows that Corbyn was thoroughly delegitimised as a political actor from the moment he became a prominent candidate and even more so after he was elected as party leader, with a strong mandate. This process of delegitimisation occurred in several ways: 1) through lack of or distortion of voice; 2) through ridicule, scorn and personal attacks; and 3) through association, mainly with terrorism.

All this raises, in our view, a number of pressing ethical questions regarding the role of the media in a democracy. Certainly, democracies need their media to challenge power and offer robust debate, but when this transgresses into an antagonism that undermines legitimate political voices that dare to contest the current status quo, then it is not democracy that is served.”

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See Cameron ridiculed for hypocrisy and quoting Corbyn out of context.

According to the Independent Press Standards Organization (IPSO), newspapers are obliged to “make a clear distinction between comment, conjecture and fact and this has not been applied to media discussion of Jeremy Corbyn, by and large.

You can download the full LSE report here.

Also worth a read: How many of Jeremy Corbyn’s policies do you actually disagree with?

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.

The process often begins with a marginalised group being singled out and held to blame for the socioeconomic problems created by the system of socioeconomic organisation itself. Using the construction of folk devils (welfare “skivers” , “workshy” “something for nothing culture”, “culture of entitlement” or “dependency” for example), the political class and media generate moral panic and outrage, which serves to de-empathise the public and to justify the dehumanisation of politically created outgroups, and draconian policies.

Campaigners against social injustice are labeled “extremist” and politicians on the left who stand up against prejudice and discrimination are labeled “saboteurs”, “weak”, “anti-British” and extensively ridiculed and smeared. Every single Labour leader, with the exception of Blair, has had this treatment from the mainstream media.

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.

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.

Social norming is an appeal to emotional needs to fit in and belong, and also, to be on the side that wins. It has a kind of self fulfilling prophecy element to it, too. It’s used in advertising – words like “everyone” 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 “a 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.

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

I wouldn’t dream of telling you who to vote for in the coming General Election. However, I will ask that you please very carefully consider what you vote for. 

Independent media organisations like Novara Media, Evolve Politics, Media Diversified, Media Lens, CommonSpace, The Canary, Bella Caledonia, Real Media, The Dorset Eye, Welfare Weekly, Scisco Media, Ekklesia, STRIKE! magazine, The Bristol Cable, Now Then, the Manchester Mule, and many others are taking the fight to the establishment. The new independent media have freedom from institutional dependencies, and in particular, from the influence of government and corporate interests.

Independent media includes any form of autonomous media project that is free from institutional dependencies.

We are not constrained by the interests of society’s major power-brokers.

The independent media collectively reflect a model that is democratic, prefigurative, often collaborative and that has a mutually supportive approach to public interest and conscience-based, as opposed to market-based, media.

We are a collection of diligent witnesses writing a collective, qualitative social testimony, marking and evidencing an era of especially historic political upheavals on a global scale.

The Canary says that independent media “have been ably assisted by an array of skilled and committed bloggers like Vox Political, Another Angry Voice, Pride’s Purge and Politics and Insights (Kitty S Jones) to name but a few.” (Takes a small bow). I would add THE SKWAWKBOX to the list, too.

Related

Don’t buy the lie. To oppose the government is not sabotage –  video by Paul Mason

The bias in our mainstream media makes a lot more sense when you see who owns and runs it – Kerry-Anne Mendoza

We need to talk about the mainstream media and the election. Because a disaster is looming – Steve Topple

BBC’s Stephen Sackur accuses Tories of spreading propaganda about Jeremy Corbyn, and of being unaccountable and undemocratic

Inverted totalitarianism and neoliberism 

Dishonest ways of being dishonest: an exploration of Conservative euphemisms

Once you hear the jackboots, it’s too late

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

Hypernormalisation – Adam Curtis

Politics and Insights condemns George Osborne’s appointment to the Evening Standard in joint independent media statement


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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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Nicky Morgan proposes a retrogressive, enforced segregation of pupils based on ability

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 Every Child Matters, Labour’s flagship child protection and welfare policy, was scrapped in 2010, the day after the Coalition took office

 

As Social Darwinists, the Tories do like ranks, taxonomies, hierarchies, outgrouping and social segregation. Nicky Morgan, the education secretary, proposes to introduce compulsory “setting” according to pupil’s ability in secondary schools. Patrick Wintour reports in the Guardian that it’s expected Morgan will ask the education watchdog, Ofsted, to implement and enforce the measure, probably by making it a condition of receiving an “outstanding” rating. Ofsted is likely to be highly critical of the proposal.

I think this proposal tells us such a lot about Tory ideology. It would turn the clock back on inclusion 30 years, to a time when the idea of segregating children was acceptable, if this becomes policy. This is also an attack on the very principle of inclusion. The foundation of any progressive education policy must be settled on and work towards all schools being willing and able to include, value, support, care for and respect all children, in their diversity, including young people with complex needs that require additional support.

Diversity is a strength and a great learning resource – it shouldn’t ever be the basis for segregation and exclusion.

Schools may currently decide whether to put children into classes according to ability. The proposal to make it compulsory is likely to raise questions as to how the plan is to be enforced legally, since independent state academies were supposedly set up to be free of state control.

Setting according to ability for separate subjects is controversial since it helps those with high ability and tends to leave those with lower ability behind.

And with the Conservative’s emphasis on cutting funding, and their previous form, it’s unlikely that any meaningful support will be put in place for those children with “additional” educational needs.

Sir Michael Wilshaw, the Ofsted chief inspector, has been a firm supporter of setting, he said in 2012 that “bright teenagers fail to achieve top grades in some comprehensives because teachers insist on mixed-ability classes and concentrate on weaker students. Able children are being held back in some schools that do not tailor teaching, tasks and resources to stretch their best pupils.”

Dr Mary Bousted, general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, said: “If Nicky Morgan is committed to closing the gap for disadvantaged children the last thing she should do is to divide children into ability sets and to use Ofsted to enforce this.

“This is educationally unjustifiable. The evidence is overwhelming that this practice holds back poor children, denying them access to an appropriately demanding curriculum. Any claim that Ofsted is independent of government ideology will be shot to pieces if the agency is required to enforce ministerial dogma.”

Research has indicated that overall, ability grouping benefits higher attaining pupils and is detrimental to the learning of mid-range and lower attaining learners. On average, ability grouping is not regarded to be an effective strategy for raising the attainment of disadvantaged pupils, who are more likely to be assigned to lower groups. Summer born pupils and students from ethnic minority backgrounds are also likely to be adversely affected by ability grouping.

The evidence is fairly consistent and has accumulated over at least 30 years of research. (I know of some studies that date back to the 1960’s.) Although there is some variation depending on methods and research design, conclusions on the impact of ability grouping are relatively consistent. It is therefore difficult to see this proposal as anything but an endorsement of discrimination, in light of consistent findings that those pupils labeled “less able” are being set up to fail.

Morgan fails to recognise that there’s an important distinction to be made: that a measure of “current attainment,” such as a recent curriculum test, is not the same as a measure of a child’s ability or of potential.

Furthermore, a strong body of historical research indicates that the allocation of children to bands and sets is often based upon inaccurate and prejudicial teacher assessments of pupils’ abilities and/or potential.

Working class pupils are disproportionately likely to be allocated to lower bands and sets for reasons unrelated to their educational abilities and potential. Furthermore, the consignment of some pupils to lower bands and sets is likely to affect their self-confidence and therefore to restrict their educational progress.

Social interaction theorists (from the 1960’s onwards) said that the processes of streaming, setting and banding involve the negative and positive labeling respectively of mainly working class pupils in the lower sets and mainly middle class pupils in the higher sets, which has adverse consequences for the educational prospects of the lower set pupils.

Hargreaves study – Deviance in Classrooms – of mainly white working class secondary modern school boys in the 1960s – demonstrated that low stream pupils were denied academic status within the school and that they therefore tried to regain status among their peers by rebelling, misbehaviour and unwillingness to work which led to the development of anti-school subcultures in lower streams. Paul Willis’s study, Learning to Labour, yielded similar conclusions.

Additional criticisms of setting, banding and streaming were made by Nell Keddie in Classroom Knowledge (1970) where she observed that an undifferentiated humanities course was delivered differently according to the sets of the students and that, for example, teachers chose not to teach the more complex, theoretical ideas to mainly working class, lower set students on the unfounded assumption that these students would not understand them.

In the 1950s almost all the schools in the UK were “streamed” – a process by which students are grouped by “ability” in the same class for all subjects. A survey of junior schools in the mid-1960s (Jackson, 1964) found that 96% of teachers taught to streamed ability groups. The same study also revealed the over-representation of working-class students in low streams and the tendency of schools to allocate teachers with less experience and fewer qualifications to such groups.

Students’ experiences of ability grouping have historically been disaffection, polarisation and the construction of failure. Low sets are correlated with low expectations and limited opportunities. It establishes self-fulfilling prophecies.

Labelling theory

“We cannot live in a world that is interpreted for us by others. An interpreted world is not a hope. Part of the terror is to take back our own listening. To use our own voice. To see our own light.”  Hildegard Von Bingen

Self-fulfilling prophecy is the behavioural confirmation effect, in which behaviour, influenced by expectations causes those expectations to come true. People react, not only to the situations they are in, but also, and often primarily, to the way they perceive the situations and to the meanings they ascribe to their perceptions. Sociologists often use the Pygmalion effect, interchangeably with self-fulfilling prophecy, and the effect is most often cited with regard to educational under-attainment, social class and race.

“When teachers expect students to do well and show intellectual growth, they do; when teachers do not have such expectations, performance and growth are not so encouraged and may in fact be discouraged in a variety of ways. How we believe the world is and what we honestly think it can become have powerful effects on how things will turn out.”  James Rhem, executive editor for the online National Teaching and Learning Forum.

In the context of race, gender and class, negative labeling is often associated with  socio-political control mechanisms and prejudice. Stereotypes and labels estrange us from our authentic possibilities. The attributions and labels that people exchange on a symbolic level, also have the function of instruction or injunction, this function may be denied, giving rise to one type of “mystification”, rather like hypnotic suggestion.

It is argued that working class pupils are disproportionately likely to be allocated to lower bands and sets for reasons unrelated to their educational abilities and potential and that the consignment of some pupils to lower bands and sets is likely to affect their self-esteem, self-concept, and therefore to restrict their educational progress. So working class young people are written off as incapable of achieving, by the setting up of a frame of reference in which their failings are noticed and their achievements discounted.

Numerous studies have concluded that teachers, who themselves originated mainly from middle-class backgrounds, have often failed to assess their pupils’ academic potential objectively and instead have been very likely to assess students’ academic potential in terms of such variables as their appearance, language, social skills and social class background rather than in terms of their real intellectual abilities, with a bias towards judging working class children as being on average less intelligent than middle class children. It followed that where streaming, setting or banding systems were in operation, working class students were more likely to be consigned to lower streams, sets or bands even when in reality they often had very good academic potential.

Setting establishes an educational elitism which is based largely on class distinctions and not abilities, those labeled negatively are unlikely to progress onto further and higher education. That’s such a blatant repression of potential and opportunities.

It’s strange, isn’t it, that those who value orders and classes are always at the top of both?

Of course I can’t, in good conscience, leave this topic without a Marxist analysis.

Louis Althusser argued that the main role of education in a capitalist society was the reproduction of an efficient and obedient work force. This is achieved through ideological state apparatus – such as schools – used to augment the reproduction of class relations using insidious ideological machinations controlled by the dominant ruling class in the context of a class struggle, to repress, exploit, extort and subjugate the ruled class.

Schools are used for transmitting ideology that capitalism is just and reasonable, schools, for example, encourage competition amongst pupils, school hierarchies of authority train future workers to become submissive to authority.

The Hidden Curriculum

Bowles and Gintis’s research Schooling in Capitalist America (1976) supported Althusser’s ideas that there is a close correspondence between the social relationships in the classroom and those in the workplace, through the hidden curriculum . As a means of social control, the hidden curriculum promotes the acceptance of a social “destiny” without promoting rational and reflective consideration.

The functions of the hidden curriculum include: the inculcation of values, political socialisation, training in obedience and docility, the perpetuation of traditional class structure-functions that may be characterised generally as social control.”  Bowles and Gintis argue schools introduce the long shadow of work because schools create a hard-working disciplined workforce for capitalist societies. This process is essential for social reproduction – the reproduction of a new generation of workers schooled (disciplined) into accepting their role in society.

This occurs because school mirrors the workplace through its hierarchical structures – teachers give orders and pupils obey. Schools are a microcosm of society, too. Pupils have little control over their work – a fact of life in the majority of jobs. Schools reward conformity, punctuality and obedience and are dismissive of independence, critical awareness and creativity – this also mirrors workplace expectations. The hidden curriculum is seen by Bowles and Gintis as instrumental in this process.

Schools reflect and justify social inequality – they legitimate the Conservative myth that everyone has an equal chance – those that work hard deserve the top jobs, these people deserve their superior rewards – this is the myth of meritocracy. It is in this way that inequality becomes normalised and justified. However Bowles and Gintis argue that rewards in education and occupation are based not on ability but on social background. The higher a person’s class or origin the more likely they are to attain higher qualifications and a career.

Besides family background and income differences, other determinants such as race and gender do contribute to differences in educational attainment. Bowles and Gintis conclude that the educational system is a gigantic myth-making machine which serves to create and perpetuate inequality, and by emphasising IQ as the basis for economic success, the educational system legitimises an authoritative, hierarchical, stratified and unequal social system, it manufactures the myth that those in powerful positions in society deserve their positions and financial “rewards”.

IQ testing is an intellectual cul-de-sac that does not reflect skill and talent

IQ testing is culturally specific. It tells us nothing more than how well people perform IQ tests. Traditional studies of “intelligence” based on IQ tests, which have drawn links between intellectual ability, race, gender and social class, have led to highly contentious claims that some groups of people are inherently less intelligent that other groups. But that betrays a thinking of intelligence as a fixed, innate ability, instead of something that develops as a process in a context.

Intelligence isn’t something we have, it’s something we learn to do. 

But this is the kind of government that would have children learning their times tables by rote, which is just so very century before last. This approach is based on a view that students are passive objects, rather than participating subjects, in the learning process. It seems that Conservatives are incapable of learning from historical policy failures. And the many sociological studies that were instrumental in formulating more effective education methods in the late 60s and 70s.

Rote learning is a way of bypassing critical thinking and understanding-based learning. And creativity. It’s founded on a “jugs and mugs principle” – an authoritarian-styled learning process, where teachers “fill” the pupil with facts and it’s not remotely about democratic engagement and participatory, dialogic learning. It turns students off, disengages them, excluding them from the learning process.

Children being ranked and labelled is extremely problematic – each of us is complex, with such varied, developing and ongoing talents, aptitudes and preferences, and it seems that any one number purporting to quantify our intelligence must be grossly misleading in every case, as well as providing nothing more than a snapshot of limited and specific task performance.

The right are obsessed with the taxonomic ranking of human beings based on superficial characteristics. They have no interest in the depth of “who” we are, but only the surface appearance of us – the “what” we are.

IQ testing originally evolved from the eugenics movement. The founding father of eugenics was  Sir Francis Galton, a cousin of Charles Darwin. Over the course of Galton’s varied career, he not only codified the “science of eugenics” but also pioneered psychometry as a tool for measuring people’s “intelligence” and determining whether it would be best for them to breed or not. Galton coined the phrase nature versus nurture and identified the trend of regression towards the mean, though his original term for this was reversion towards mediocrity. So long as “unintelligent” people were allowed to reproduce freely, mankind could never rise above its “native mediocrity”. What a wretched, oppressive, repressive and right-wing view.

Charles Murray’s New Right treatise on the white, male elite supremicism

I read the The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life  (1994) by psychologist Richard J. Herrnstein and American political scientist Charles Murray in the 90’s, and it filled me with utter despair. Funded by Conservatives in the States, the book was simply a neo-eugenic narrative masqueraded as “academic study”. Murray justified the status quo by claiming poor people, and especially ethnic minorities, were of lower intelligence than white middle class citizens, and that this was largely genetically determined.  

Bob Herbert, writing for The New York Times, described the book as: “a scabrous piece of racial pornography masquerading as serious scholarship.Others, including Noam Chomsky, have pulled this cheap right-wing pseudo-scientific catalogue of prejudices apart most thoroughly, ever since.

Challenging what he deemed to be “educational romanticism”, Murray, a darling of Thatcher and Cameron, wrote Real Education: Four Simple Truths for Bringing America’s Schools Back to Reality. His “four simple truths” are:

  • “Ability varies.”
  • “Half of the children are below average.”
  • “Too many people are going to college.”
  • “America’s future depends on how we educate the academically gifted.

In a paper published in 2005 titled Where Are the Female Einsteins?  Murray  the charmer stated, among other things: “no woman has been a significant original thinker in any of the world’s great philosophical traditions”. 

Murray advocates educational exclusion and social oppression for the majority of pupils. He has been a “academic witness” before United States congressional and senate committees and a consultant to senior Republican government officials in the United States, and of course, Conservative officials in the United Kingdom.

From the ranking, banking model to a democratic, dialogic model

So, is there an alternative education model?

Yes. One I have worked with myself, (as a community worker and informal educator), and it’s based on liberation psychology. It’s far more about critical thinking, egalitarianism, creativity and inspiration than formalised teaching permits.

The genesis of liberation psychology began amongst a body of psychologists in Latin America in the 1970s. Ignacio Martín-Baró is credited as the founder of liberation psychology, and it was further developed by others. Of particular interest here is the work of Brazilian educator Paulo Freire, and one of the key concepts of liberation psychology is concientización: critical consciousness – a recognition of the intrinsic connectedness of the person’s experience and the sociopolitical structure. Freire believed education to be a political act that could not be divorced from pedagogy. Freire defined this as a main tenet of his critical “Pedagogy of the Oppressed.”

Teachers and students must become aware of the politics that surround education. The way students are taught and what they are taught serves a political agenda. Teachers themselves have political notions that they bring into the classroom.

Freire attacked what he called the “banking” concept of education, in which the student was viewed as a passive participant – empty accounts to be “filled” by the teacher. He notes that “it transforms students into receiving objects. It attempts to control thinking and action, leads men and women to adjust to the world, and inhibits their creative power.” 

Freire recognised that emphasis on individual characteristics are a result of social relations, and to view such individualistically de-emphasizes the role of social structure and  is responsible for the incorrect attribution of sociopolitical problems to the individual. Liberation psychology addresses this by re-orienting the focus from an individualistic to a social one. Using this framework, the behaviour of oppressed people is conceptualised not through intra-psychic processes, but as a result of an alienating environment.

Freire advocated authentic dialogue-based learning, where the role of the student shifts from object to active, critical subject. Freire heavily endorsed students’ ability to think critically about their education situation, this way of thinking allows them to recognise connections between their individual problems and experiences and the social contexts in which they are embedded.

Realising one’s consciousness is the first step of praxis, which is defined as the power and know-how to take action against oppression, whilst stressing the importance of liberating education. Praxis involves engaging in a cycle of theory, application, evaluation, reflection, and then referring back to theory. Social transformation is possible through praxis at the collective level.

In 1999, PAULO, a National Training Organisation named in honour of Freire, was established in the United Kingdom. This agency was approved by the New Labour Government to represent some 300,000 community-based education practitioners working across the UK (myself included). It was a platform also, perhaps surprisingly, for Blair’s re-democratising democracy programme, based on a dialogic democracy, and a recognition of the centrality of life politics.

PAULO was given formal responsibility for setting the occupational training standards for people working in this field, and was based on a revolutionary anarchist/Marxist model of critical education. Even outside of that political context, Freire’s collective works, and especially Pedagogy of the Oppressed, has huge value and merit as a direction for an approach to teaching which is based on self awareness, community awareness, political awareness, responsibility, critical thinking, creativity, dialogue and social solidarity, and not on manipulation and oppression.

The Tories, however, are unrelentingly authoritarian, and this is reflected in their notions of “education”, which are: “Raising standards (through “setting” and taking those segregated off record: the “disappeared”)… and restoring discipline – so our children can compete with the world’s best and enjoy a better future.”

So nothing at all there about developing human potential, personal development, social development or even the fundamental capacity for critical thinking.

A person who has not had opportunities to think critically about social and political reality, but simply accepts it is thereby simply participating in the world in a way that has been organised and designed for him/her by others.

If being human means exercising choice and freedom, then such uncritical, passive acceptance means being less than human.

But Tories prefer us that way. They don’t like to extend equal opportunities.

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Pictures courtesy of  Robert Livingstone


 

I don’t make any money from my work. I am disabled because of illness and have a very limited income. But you can help by making a donation to help me continue to research and write informative, insightful and independent articles, and to provide support to others. The smallest amount is much appreciated – thank you.

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Sticks and stones: abusive labels, self concept – when words become weapons

The socio-political perspective.

My friend Harry Ottley once told me, many years ago, that I could kill a man with words. It was at a time when I was struggling to come to terms with a series of horrible events. Recovering from trauma takes time and for a while, I wasn’t myself. I didn’t want any company at the time, and Harry, who simply wanted to offer support, found me somewhat antisocial and blunt.

We can heal, though. It takes time, a lot of soul-searching, it’s often a very painful process and there are no short cuts. One of the reasons I decided to study psychology and sociology was my abiding interest in how we are immersed in each other: we exist, connect, shape and are shaped in a social context: in an inter-subjective realm, our behaviours affect each other, often profoundly.

Language, narratives, ideologies, norms and all of the mechanisms we draw on to make sense of and to navigate the universe can stifle us, damage and repress us, but may also transform and liberate us.

Harry is right. What we say to each other matters very much.

The range of what we say and think and do is limited by what we don’t notice. And because we fail to notice that we fail to notice, there is little we can do to change; until we notice how failing to notice shapes our thoughts and deeds

Some people often use the “freedom of speech” plea to justify their prejudice. They say they have a right to express their thoughts. But speech is an intentional ACT. Hate speech is intended to do harm – it’s used purposefully to intimidate and exclude vulnerable groups. Hate speech does not “democratise” speech, it tends to monopolise it. Nor is it  based on reason, critical thinking or open to debate. Bigotry is a crass parody of opinion and free speech. Bigots are conformists – they tend not to have independent thought. Prejudice thrives on Groupthink.

Being inequitable, petty or prejudiced isn’t “telling it like it is” – a claim which is an increasingly common tactic for the right, and particularly UKIP – it’s just being inequitable, petty or prejudiced.  And some things are not worth saying. Really. We may well have an equal right to express an opinion, but not all opinions are of equal worth.

And the right-wing do frequently dally with hate speech. Hate speech generally is any speech that attacks a person or group on the basis of their race, religion, gender, disability, or sexual orientation. In law, hate speech is any speech, gesture or conduct, writing, or display which is forbidden because it may incite violence or prejudicial action against or by a protected individual or group, or because it disparages or intimidates a protected individual or group. Critics have argued that the term “hate speech” is a contemporary example of Newspeak, used to silence critics of social policies that have been poorly implemented in order to appear politically correct.

This term was adopted by US conservatives as a pejorative term for all manner of attempts to promote multiculturalism and identity politics, particularly, attempts to introduce new terms that sought to leave behind discriminatory baggage attached to older ones, and conversely, to try to make older ones taboo.

“Political correctness” arose originally from attempts at making language more culturally inclusive. Critics of political correctness show a curious blindness when it comes to examples of “conservative correctness.” Most often, the case is entirely ignored, or censorship of the Left is justified as a positive virtue.Perhaps the key argument supporting this form of linguistic and conceptual inclusion is that we still need it, unfortunately. We have a right-wing Logocracy, creating pseudo-reality by prejudicial narratives and words. We are witnessing that narrative being embedded in extremely oppressive policies and in their justification.

The negative impacts of hate speech cannot be mitigated by the responses of third-party observers, as hate speech aims at two goals. Firstly, it is an attempt to tell bigots that they are not alone. It validates and reinforces prejudice.

The second purpose of hate speech is to intimidate a targeted minority, leading them to question whether their dignity and social status is secure. In many cases, such intimidation is successful. Furthermore, hate speech is a gateway to harassment and violence. (See Allport’s scale of prejudice, which shows clearly how the Nazis used “freedom of speech” to incite hatred and then to incite genocide.) As Allport’s scale indicates, hate speech and incitement to genocide start from often subtle expressions of prejudice.

The dignity, worth and equality of every individual is the axiom of international human rights. International law condemns statements which deny the equality of all human beings. Article 20(2) of the ICCPR requires states to prohibit hate speech. Hate speech is prohibited by international and national laws, not because it is offensive, but rather, because it amounts to the intentional degradation and repression of groups that have been historically oppressed.

The most effective way to diffuse prejudice is an early preventative approach via dialogue: positive parenting, education and debate. Our schools, media and public figures have a vital part to play in positive role-modelling, like parents, in challenging bigotry, encouraging social solidarity, respect for diversity and in helping to promote understanding and empathy with others.

Hate speech categories are NOT about “disagreement” or even offence. Hate speech doesn’t invite debate. It’s about using speech to intentionally oppress others. It escalates when permitted, into harassment and violence. We learn this from history, and formulated human rights as a consequence.

UKIP would have us unlearn the lessons of the Holocaust so that people can say “I’m not being racist, but…” or “It’s not wrong to say immigrants should be sent home…” and so on.

Wittgenstein once said: “The limits of my language are the limits of my  world.”

Words are powerful. As well as describing, signifying, explaining, persuading, interpreting, obscuring, deceiving and so on, they may also issue commands and instructions. We “spell” words. Spelling may also be described as “words or a formula purported to have magickal powers.” Words act upon others and elicit responses.

Yes, they may profoundly impact on others. With words, both spoken and unspoken, we can shape and re-shape the universe. We shape and transform each other. We can create. Einstein changed the meaning of the word “mass” and transformed Newton’s universe of structures to his own – one of events. It’s a different universe.

We can oppress or liberate with a few intentional words. The choice is ours.

The psychological perspective

“Every relationship. . . implies a definition of self by others and other by self. . . A person’s ‘own’ identity can never be completely abstracted from his identity-for-others.” From Self and Others – R D Laing.

The human mind is social. Through a process of symbolic interactions, beginning as children, humans begin to define themselves meaningfully within the context of their socialisations.

The looking-glass self is a social psychological concept, first mentioned in Human Nature and the Social Order by Charles Cooley in 1902. It’s basis is that a person’s sense of self-hood arises from social, interpersonal interactions and the perceptions of others. We internalise those interactions. The term refers to how people shape their self-concepts based on their understanding of how others perceive them.

People tend to conform to how they think others think them to be,  especially children, since they don’t have the necessary experiences and inner resources to reject labels, and it’s difficult, or arguably impossible, to act differently from how a person thinks he or she is perpetually perceived. Individuals use language and thought as the basis of their self concept.

Cooley said: “The thing that moves us to pride or shame is not the mere mechanical reflection of ourselves, but an imputed sentiment, the imagined effect of this reflection upon another’s mind.”

Self-fulfilling prophecy is the behavioural confirmation effect, in which behaviour, influenced by expectations, causes those expectations to come true. People react, not only to the situations they are in, but also, and often primarily, to the way they perceive the situations and to the meaning they ascribe to their perceptions.

Sociologists often use the Pygmalion effect, interchangeably with self-fulfilling prophecy, and the effect is most often cited with regard to educational under-attainment, social class, race.

“When teachers expect students to do well and show intellectual growth, they do; when teachers do not have such expectations, performance and growth are not so encouraged and may in fact be discouraged in a variety of ways. How we believe the world is and what we honestly think it can become have powerful effects on how things will turn out.”  James Rhem, executive editor for the online National Teaching and Learning Forum.

In the context of race, gender and class, negative labelling is often associated with  socio-political control mechanisms and prejudice. Stereotypes and labels estrange us from our authentic possibilities. The attributions and labels that people exchange on a symbolic level, also have the function of instruction or injunction, this function may be denied,  giving rise to one type of “mystification”, rather like hypnotic suggestion.

“Pain in this life is not avoidable, but the pain we create avoiding [our own] pain is avoidable.” Ronnie D Laing.

It’s almost impossible for individuals – especially children – to avoid experiencing changes to their psyche and  subsequent actions following repeated emotional abuse (and physical abuse, psychological violence is so very often a precursor to physical violence).

Research consistently shows that children subjected to verbal aggression, may exhibit a range of serious disorders, including chronic depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, dissociation and anger. Words Can Be Weapons is a powerful multimedia campaign based in China that illustrates how words may be turned into weapons, to illustrate that what we say can hurt and damage others, very literally.

The number of crimes committed by juveniles has doubled in China, and the Centre For Psychological Research in Shenyang says its studies link juvenile crime to childhood emotional abuse – a taboo subject in China. The centre partnered with the Beijing office of advertising agency Ogilvy and Mather. Six teenagers were interviewed in Shenyang Detention Centre about negative, hurtful statements their parents had said to them in the past, such as “moron” and “You’re a disgrace.” The video then transforms these words, powerfully, into replications of the actual weapons these young people later went on to use to commit crimes.

Juggi Ramakrishnan, Ogilvy and Mather’s executive creative director in Beijing, said, in a press release: “Verbal abuse of children is like setting off a time bomb. It explodes only much later, long after the original perpetrator has left the scene. And it is society that pays the price, as is evident from the rising rate of juvenile crime. We really needed to tell this ‘cycle-of-violence’ story in a way that will make people sit up and take notice.”

One young person begins his interview by saying:  “I guess my world must be a dark one… My mother would yell at me every day, often telling me to go away and die.”

When he heard these words again, this time from his manager, he lost his self-control and stabbed him. The campaign took the words that had haunted him his entire life, and turned them into a knife, like the one he had used in his assault.

The campaign, in the English language version of the video was published on YouTube in April but has only recently garnered the attention it deserves. It has all the content from the project, including full interviews with the young people who are residents in the Detention Centre, at: wordscanbeweapons.co

We know from extensive research that victims of emotional and psychological abuse may also become perpetrators, particularly if no support has been available for the victim. Though many do not.

Damaged self-esteem and psychological injury destabilises us, it may lead to learned, created and distorted or false behaviours as a defence against further psychic injury. Abusers distort our sense of self, lower our self-worth, disorder our emotional responses to others, destroy our faith in our own judgements, skew our perception of others, and erode our personal boundaries.

For children and young people especially, there’s a risk of victim or victimiser roles being normalised, because the experience of alternative  interactions is limited.

In psychology and sociology, internalisation is the process that involves the integration of attitudes, values, standards and the opinions of others into one’s own identity or sense of self.

Studies suggest that young people who have internalised a view of their self as “positive and good” tend to have a developmental trajectory toward pro-social behaviour, those with damaged selves are more likely struggle with the social rules, codes and norms of conduct, empathic affects to others, and adaptive behavioural strategies.

Our selves may be either authentic or false. False selves tend to be an adaptation to false realities.(As opposed to fake selves, which are contrived to manipulate others).

We live in times when the media constructs such false realities every day, with the UK government directing a scapegoating and vilification process which targets vulnerable groups, because of Tory traditional prejudices, in order to justify their ideological inclinations to dismantle the social gains of our post-war settlement, withdraw publicly funded state support for those in need. We have a conservative social order built upon bullying, abuse and coercion from the aristocratic top down: it’s a hierarchy of control and power. And the only authentic quality David Cameron has is his inauthenticity. He’s a typical public school bully, and his atrocious role-modeling gives others permission to bully.

As a consequence, everyday untenable situations arise for those least able to cope with them, because we internalise identity, and through a process of attribution, this currently involves political pretence, dishonesty, illusion, elusion, delusion, and media collusion. This is a government that has normalised abuse on every level, and the consequences of that inflicted psychic trauma will be with us for several generations to come.

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Gaslighting
is a form of  mental abuse in which false information is presented with the intent of making victims doubt their own memory, perception and sanity. Instances may range from simple denial by an abuser that previous abusive incidents ever occurred, to the staging of  events and using a narrative with the intention of disorienting the victim, and “invalidating” their experience. The UK government uses gaslighting techniques, by calling critics “scaremongers”, by claiming cuts to services and provisions are “reforms”, and that coercive welfare sanctions “support” people into work, or “make work pay”, especially given the largest fall in wages ever.

Pictures courtesy of  Robert Livingstone 

 


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