Saturday, March 18, 2017

On Bannon's Propaganda and Why It Works

Check out Abby Martin's brief doc on Steve Bannon. It's on his love of war and his passion for making propaganda films that primarily focus on the story of society in collapse and are largely unsuccessful. Then gaming became his thing with IGE, which was run by a team of men that had each been charged with sexual assault of young boys. It morphed into Affinity Media with Bannon at the lead. He tried to glom on to Sarah Palin, but won the lottery with Trump. Breitbart, which Bannon heads, went from an audience of 8 million to 18 million with Trump. He consorts with lots of people who say openly bigoted things and is generally pretty terrifying. According to Martin, we'll likely be at war with China within five years.

What's interesting to me, though, is one particular line, a protection against claims of racism that's gaining some traction: "White Americans are in a position where they have to prove they're not racist."

People are sick of being politically correct, watching everything they say and do to avoid being called out for some kind of -ism. Some, like Jordan Peterson and William Deresiewicz, go as far as suggesting that people are being oppressed by the PC police. We heard a lot about the PC police in the early 80s, when some men said they were afraid to open a door for a woman for fear of the reprisal it might provoke. It took a while to figure out the door-opening situation, but we managed it. But it's very easy to see how Bannon's lament is a great one to use to rally people around the evil forces forcing us to watch what we say, and, of course, stripping away our rights to free speech.

Deresiewicz expresses concern about dogmatic thinking in universities:
"There is a right way to think and a right way to talk, and also a right set of things to think and talk about. Secularism is taken for granted. Environmentalism is a sacred cause. Issues of identity—principally the holy trinity of race, gender, and sexuality—occupy the center of concern....If you are a white man, you are routinely regarded as guilty until proven innocent, the worst possible construction is put upon your words, and anything you say on a sensitive issue is received with suspicion at best."
But I don't think this is a university issue, and I also don't believe it's a liberal issue nor "an invocation of Stalinism" as he suggests. This type of thinking happens in high schools and general communities and, as far as I can tell from my own observations, it always has. It hasn't always been this position that's at the centre of concern, but there's always a group who dominate, and their opinions are louder and more often repeated by the masses. It's not a liberal-driven conspiracy, but a dominant view of the world that has an arsenal of pat arguments, homilies even, that make it easy to defend by the laziest thinkers. Oppression is only felt by those fearful of expressing dissenting opinions because they might face a strong opposition. It's hard to muster the courage to go against the grain, but religious views and anti-environmental views are definitely heard regardless the perceived consensus. He wants to invoke the First Amendment in the classroom, but are students nervous to speak up because they fear litigation, or because they fear opposition? They might be opposed, but, as far as I can tell, they're neither banned nor punished. That's an important distinction to make, and we need to work on helping our charges to feel strong enough to speak up. Deresiewicz raises the concern that school administrators are aligning themselves with students against their own faculty, but that's a different issue that requires some strong union backing, and it somewhat runs counter to the rest of his argument that students are victims of the PC police.

Vlogger Jay Smooth responded to this kind of anti-PC argument ages ago here, mimicking the thought-process that leads to the lament:
"Respecting each other's humanity is such a pain in the ass! Do we really have to do this forever? Can't you all just lighten up so I don't have to respect you anymore?" 
He explains the burgeoning idea that being 'post racism' means no longer considering how our words affect each other, and he makes it clear that this is just crazy. The closer we get, the more we need to be concerned with our effect on others.

BUT, of course we also want to be respectful of the person who's made the offending remarks, whether they're intentional or accidental. Some get gregarious promoting their position and can end up being aggressive. Only by challenging claims without insults and attacks can we get to the other side of this. Like Asam Ahmad says in this article (a few years old but reanimated here),
"No matter the wrong we are naming, there are ways to call people out that do not reduce individuals to agents of social advantage. There are ways of calling people out that are compassionate and creative, and that recognize the whole individual instead of viewing them simply as representations of the systems from which they benefit."
AND, there's a different issue around what attacking looks like. Someone can feel attacked after being told, "You need to choose a different word for that because the one you used is offensive." Is it the case that those are offensive words because it's in the form of a declarative statement rather than a request? Or is it the case that some people are too easily wounded when they're told they've done something wrong? It can get really tricky, so we all need to tread gently.

But back to Bannon. The anti-PC lament is a brilliant way to gather allies who wouldn't have considered themselves racist before, but they're just getting so tired of being so darn thoughtful all the time that some of Bannon's concerns seem like they might make sense. It's not just PC exhaustion; it hurts to think badly of ourselves, and it can be easy to make a mistake and accidentally offend. This is difficult terrain to manage.

I do my best to be respectful, and I usually do a good job of it, so it was a learning experience to offend recently. I asked my kids for the name of "that black guy on that show..." and my kids were horrified. "Oh, my God, mum, you can't just say someone's black!" I've been referring to people with black skin as black for some time now, and just recently found out it's deemed racist (by the current white university student demographic at least). I tried googling the most appropriate nomenclature, but couldn't come up with anything solid. My kids inform me it's "African American," which sounds old-school to my ears, and what if we're referring to someone Canadian or British? I'm suddenly so confused. It shouldn't be this difficult to be appropriate. Like I said with the transgender identity issue, people most affected need to make it clear which words are most acceptable, but it's easiest for the rest of us if it's not in flux.

The easiest thing to do when we feel badly about something we've said or done is to lash out. It's easiest to defend our position, insist we're not wrong, and attack our accusers. Most of us recognize that it's a ridiculous tactic, but, in the moment, saving face is often so much more important to us than doing the right thing, which is to apologize for any offence we might have caused and try to change for the better.

It's an effort to continue to avoid causing offence, but it's a necessary effort. We can't let flourish the ideology that we're all wounded by the social drive to stop any truly offensive words and ideas from creeping into our vernacular. We have to acknowledge harm with care and with the level of respect we hope to be given in return, but jumping on the anti-PC bandwagon is a mindless and thoughtless response to it all.

No comments: