Wednesday, February 24, 2021

What to Do

Jacques Ellul 
photo credit: Jan van Boeckel, ReRun Productions, Wikimedia CCA-BY-SA-4.0 International

A Gary Larson cartoon that a friend recently shared illustrates, by analogy, some of the dilemma the United States faces tackling domestic terrorism.

In the cartoon, four pampered pooches are grouped together in a green field. They are looking toward the edge of trees or woods on the left, and behind them is a pull-cart, with one dog in harness to the cart. The cart is stacked with large books labeled Domestication. The pooches are well-groomed and relaxed, with the lead dog reading aloud from a large open book, also labeled Domestication. This optimistic pooch directs the reading from the book toward the woods, where a pack of wolves glare back at the dogs, fixed in their gaze, and poised for attack, clearly anticipating lunch.

Putting aside the visual exaggeration the cartoonist used to create the comic, the recognizable dilemma remains that "we the people" (also known as "lunch") don't seem to be equipped with even a basic playbook to handle the culture of domestic terrorism. 

And, wouldn't it be a good thought to have some ways to address this reality? Especially since, of the many human phenomena, culture is among the slowest to change - regardless of what the latest promises for culture change in organizations promise. 

Almost two decades ago, after 9/11, and following a dozen bomb alerts in just one day, I recall my wife's wisdom saying sadly that this would change the country forever. So, to handle foreign terrorism domestically, we have built practices to lessen risk. 

But, it was two years ago that a neighbor wanted to help fight the coup. This then-odd comment was stimulated by a domestic wannabe-leader's using such words repeatedly in mailings to the neighbor and so many others. I knew then we were at the beginning of a very different reality. 

Domestic terrorists have used age-old emotional appeals, such as fear of "others" or an array of desires... for recognition, for virility, for accomplishment or for belonging, to strengthen connection with adherents and to acquire new followers for the propagandist's worldview.

Unfortunately, as a society, we are well primed to tolerate and respond to propaganda processes, thanks to generations of political and commercial propagandists working us over. For example, perhaps we think of rumor and fashion as two very different realities that we live with. Yet they are very similar in how potently and quickly each spreads and stimulates automatic responses. As Jacques Ellul pointed out, rumor and fashion are forms of propaganda; it's just that in the interests of commerce, we've given fashion a more friendly name.

Fads of fashion are spread by ad populum appeals, advancing a herd-mentality, especially when supported by advertising campaigns. Just one odd example was the now, little-seen yo-yo. This toy, for anyone not familiar with it, consists of small discs joined by an axle spinning at the end of a piece of string, and was featured as far back as 440 BC on a Greek vase. The toy's popularity has waxed and waned over the centuries. From the 1960s, the yo-yo saw a comeback campaign, with a series of television advertisements. It was also used to help sell otherwise unrelated products, as yo-yo dexterous performers toured the world's schools and fairgrounds; and, by the way, promoted products. 

These folks displayed skill we wanted to emulate, by delivering amazing tricks with these spinning disks at the end of a piece of string, from the basic "walk-the-dog," which every self-respecting school-kid might master, to "around-the-world," "rock-the-cradle," and other more elaborate tricks that only the truly competent could tackle after much practice. 

All this seemed fairly harmless. It was certainly less immediately dangerous than the physical harm dealt out in some enduringly fashionable contact sports. Yes, fashion is quite the driver of a range of behaviors, including the banal, like hula-hoops, emoji, and the assigning of "likes."

The problem that occurs for "we the people" is when the propagandist, whether commercial or cult-promoting, can find, from among all the possible responses that we might make, a relational response that connects us to the propagandist's objective. In other words, we, the propagandized give ourselves over to automatic response to what's said by the propagandist about what's going on around us.

Or, putting this into pulp-talk, when anyone enters that zombie-zone, even someone silently scorning the propagandist or related conspiracy theorists or partisan politicians and pundits, that person becomes a participant in the propagandist's play. A more engaged level in the zombie-zone is when you spend energy on criticizing the propagandist. This usually requires repeating and therefore promoting the propagandist's name and some foolishness or dogma, while making the criticism. Maybe more importantly, it also means you're wasting your time in the propagandist's alternative reality, taking you away from real reality.

In his comprehensive and nuanced book Propaganda, Jacques Elull concluded by illustrating where propaganda could fail. He implied ways to mount counter-attacks, to diminish the impact of propaganda, as I've outlined in earlier blog posts. The strategies he described are potent, as are the recommendations more recently in the work of Randal Marlin, so well-grounded in the wisdom of both Ellul and George Orwell. All these writers have serious value in these times. Each helps to build further principles and techniques for the practical dismantling of propaganda.

It's good that many school curricula have increasingly included ways to identify and counter propaganda techniques. Many incorporate simple approaches for dismissing the inane emotional fallacies of much advertising; but more and broader efforts are needed. 

For example, further strengthening is needed more widely of efforts to teach writing through a problem-solving approach, to advance writing as thinking. For some insights on this, do take a look at former colleague, Roslyn Petelin's interview of Professor David Crystal in 2014 (on YouTube). Crystal raised concern about the absence of grammar from most writing classrooms from the 1960s up until the 1990s, which, as Petelin pointed out, Professor John Frow called "a calamity." Hard to figure how one's supposed to write thoughtfully without a workable knowledge of grammar. Whatever fashion drove this impulse might periodically still need dismantling.

In relation to the domestic terrorists in the United States, it's a reasonable start to keep calling terrorists what they are and to keep calling out lies or "the big lie," while prosecuting illegal behaviors. We do also need to get beyond these first stages and address the systemic challenges though.

What will we do to - 

* Enhance feelings of belonging in civil society among the propagandist's targets?

* Defuse the impact of rumor that occurs through social media and otherwise, which gains power, as Ellul noted, "the farther away the source and the greater the number of individuals who have passed it on, [so that]... the more the objective fact loses importance and the more the rumor is believed by the multitudes who adhere to it"?

* Nurture a variety of viewpoints through stepped-up "conversation and dialogue" as Ellul urged - to sharpen doubts about formulaic comments, and lessen the likelihood of responding to a propagandist?

* Intercept spontaneous responses to a propagandist, before these become learned responses connected to the propagandist's objective?

Brainwashing seeks to weaken independent thought and absorb the individual into the mass. Ellul pointed out that propaganda more broadly also aims to eliminate individualizing factors. He warned that: "At the moment when the attitudes learned by propaganda begin to prevail over... [what is] ... second nature, they become collective, and the propagandist who has taught them can then calculate more easily what a given stimulus will elicit from them."

Our better future will be found through the vigor of our strengthening individual thought.

Wednesday, February 10, 2021

What We Say

Audrey Hepburn, My Fair Lady
photo credit: movie studio publicity, Wikimedia Commons Public Domain

Way back when, Australian schoolchildren would challenge each other to spell what we understood was the scientific name for that unusual mammal, the Platypus. 

By school-age, Aussie kids had sidestepped hazards beyond the schoolyard, surviving some of the world's most deadly jellyfish, sharks, snakes, spiders, and more. So, the smart kids would reply to the daunting challenge of "Ornithorhynchus is a hard word, spell it," by simply answering "I...T," choosing to focus on the literal meaning of the sentence.

For anyone with an interest in words though, what words suggest, rather than what they denote, might hold special interest. 

Pioneering professors of phonetics showed how we say more than what we literally mean in our choice of words. It was the character, Professor Henry Higgins, in George Bernard Shaw's play Pygmalion and Higgins' subsequent appearance in the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical version, My Fair Lady, that  popularized some wide awareness of how language choice and pronunciation marked class stratification. The character of Higgins was based in part on the pioneering, prolific but cantankerous British professor of phonetics, Henry Sweet. 

Beyond this, the words we choose tell much about us, as later linguists and psychologists have shown. They know more than we do ourselves about the meanings we share, through the words we choose and how we speak.

For example, in the early twentieth century, European researchers speculated that a high ratio of nouns (and their related adjectives, articles etc.) to verbs (and their related adverbs etc.) might be a flag for people having some psychological challenges. Linguistic researchers have long noted that someone using many verbs versus nouns projected a more in-touch, vigorous personality. 

Ongoing research has refined clues about noun/verb ratios and other language features, to help diagnose and treat some serious psychological conditions. In more recent decades, the computerized counting of word types, along with content analyses, have helped to extend the understanding of some effects from a variety of the accumulated language features.

We can all recognize the sleep-inducing effect of bureaucratic messages, with complex sentences and too much passive voice or past tense verbs. And, breaking an old grammatical "rule," what about the very great value of using the little word "and" to begin a sentence, or just more frequently - and connect thoughts, as we do in conversation. Jonathan Swift and some other powerful writers used "and" a lot, which helped to keep us interested in what they had to say, by making them seem more conversational. So, the revelations abound, when you realize what to look for. 

Even a small variation from an expected style might have big effects. It was the researcher Mr E.H. Flint, in the early 1970s, who pointed out to our class that sentence fragments (a.k.a. non-principal sentences, to the traditional grammarian) uniquely occurred in the spoken language and not the samples of written Australian English that he was reviewing at the time. 

The big deal he pointed out to us was how dramatically even a single sentence fragment in writing helped to create an informal, conversational effect. That President Biden used 38 sentence fragments in his Inaugural Address, as I noted in the previous blog post, had a really big effect.

I wonder what Mr Flint would have thought of the eminent British linguist, David Crystal's publishing a book with the title Txting: The gr8 db8, as long ago as 2008; much less the ongoing shifts in what we now consider formal or colloquial or intimate language.

Beyond the strengths found in how language choices influence what we think about the tone and style of a speaker or writer, there are even more enjoyments in these Elysian Fields - for example, looking at how word choice, sentence form, and passage construction "Xtra-verbally" influence the potency of emotional appeals, or the effectiveness of an argument, or other communication effects. 

A field far from the Elysian Fields also contains the bad folks who continuously deny, distract, or delay, by putting the small word "not" in front, to say they are not advocating something or other, when they really are. As I've noted before, in relation to so-called "fact-checking," like most car drivers who genuinely don't see cyclists, we don't see the NOT and focus again on the lie; and when we repeat a statement from these folks, with "not" upfront, we're really helping to state what they said/the lie, again and again and again.

Then, to come right up to date, there's a whole other field of positive-sounding words like "Remember this day forever;" which, given the context, is quite the hyperbolic signal to strengthen commitment to nasty actions that I believe even school-kids might know are NOT democratic.

Once we more consciously look at the meanings of words well beyond the "thing" or concept that a word represents, it's kind of like wearing X-ray glasses from science fiction - you might want to keep your vision adjusted and never want to take your new X-ray glasses off.