An anecdote: Once, many years ago, I was applying for membership in a local medical clinic. My intake interview was being conducted by a blond, blue-eyed young woman who reminded me of myself (except the woman part). She was a few years younger than I, and she had the official University of Minnesota medical school form in front of her.
After many questions about my medical history and so forth, she came to this question: "What is your religion?" I replied, "None." She looked up, a bit startled, then returned her eyes to the page, which she scanned for a few moments. "That's not on my list," she said, looking up again, expectantly. "Well," I replied, "that is my answer, regardless of what is, or is not, on your list."
At this, there was a long pause, followed by another intense scan of "The List" by my very gracious, but apparently inexperienced, interrogator. Finally, she looked up at me again and cocked her head to the side. "Well," she asked, "should I just put 'Christian?" Much explaining ensued, after which, if memory serves me correctly, I was categorized under "Other."
Another anecdote: About five years before the Medical Intake Incident, I was informed that only about 20 percent of the world's population was Christian. I think the correct number was more like 35 percent, but, in any case, I was SHOCKED! In my world of small-town Minnesota, I had come to believe that 80 percent of the world was CATHOLIC, with about 15 percent Protestant, and the rest I-had-no-idea.
The assumption that my fellow small-towner revealed in the interview, and which was shared with almost everyone else who was raised around here at that time, was the assumption that everyone--everyone!--believed in some form of organized religious creed. So, when I said "None," it made literally no sense to her. When an assumption is that widely shared, and when an "average" person in the dominant population group cannot imagine any other way to think about something, then we are beginning to see the meaning of the word that is the subject of this essay: "hegemony."
The concept of hegemony is an old one, going back at least to the 6th Century BC. My Oxford dictionary defines "hegemony" as "Dominance or undue influence exercised by a country over its weaker neighbors." Hegemony can also be understood to be the dominance of one class over another.
For the purposes of my discussion of Propaganda, I want to focus on the idea of "cultural hegemony." One of my favorite thinkers on the subject is a guy named Antonio Gramsci. He was an Italian socialist, political theorist, and activist of the 1920s and '30s, whose activities became such a threat to the Italian authorities (dominated by the Fascists at the time), that he was imprisoned for the last ten years of his life. He died in prison in 1937.
In his "Prison Notebooks" Gramsci articulated several important ideas that I think are still very useful (some seven decades later!) in understanding how Propaganda and media work.
According to Gramsci, "cultural hegemony" is achieved when certain attitudes, beliefs and conceptions about the world become so widely accepted in a society as to function essentially as the "organizing principles" of that society. This is what I have called "Deep Propaganda." That is, the stuff that seems like "common sense," the stuff that is so obviously true that it forms the basis for every news report you see or hear. (Of course, what we call "common sense" may not be true, which is why I like the bumper sticker: "Don't Believe Everything You Think.")
Gramsci pointed out that a society that was stable and peaceful was that way because of "[t]he 'spontaneous' consent given by the great masses of the population to the general direction imposed on social life by the dominant fundamental group." It is only when that "consent" (which can be "active" or "passive") begins to break down that the dominant groups will use force, or what Gramsci calls "state coercive power." He's talking about the police, or the National Guard, or the various means spelled out in the Patriot Act, for example.
Furthermore, Gramsci believed, as do I, that hegemony is a result of power. That is, different groups of people have their own ideas about how the world works, what is fair, how the economy should be organized, how crime is dealt with, and so forth. The ideas of the most dominant group will generally prevail, since they tend to use their power to reinforce the ideas that support them remaining in power. They can then be said to have achieved Cultural Hegemony.
The reason you might care about the concept of hegemony is that it will help you to understand next week's installment in the Propaganda Series: Who Does Propaganda? See you then!