Number 532 June 13, 2013

This Week: How We Make Meaning

"Quote" of the Week: "That May Suit Investors"
How We Make Meaning: Anchors and Categories
Propaganda ABCs as Anchors
Getting Meaning from Categories


This issue of Nygaard Notes is really the first three parts of what looks to be a much longer series (Six parts? Eight parts?) on "How We Make Meaning." I'm a little nervous about publishing these first three parts, since I haven't figured out yet where it goes from here. But that's the ol' Nygaard Notes roller-coaster, I guess.

OK, that's all I have room for now. I'll be interested to hear what meaning you give to this series on meaning, so send me a note.



"Quote" of the Week: "That May Suit Investors"

On May 31 the Star Tribune of Minneapolis ran a story in the Business Section headlined "UnitedHealth Trims Plans for Selling to Uninsured." (UnitedHealth, the nation's largest health insurer, is based in Minnesota.) As part of ObamaCare, insurers are expected to offer health plans in the various states to maximize choices in health coverage" for "millions of uninsured." UnitedHealth had planned to offer plans in a couple of dozen states, but just announced that it would only offer plans in half that many, while they "wait and see" if the first wave of uninsured folks are insufficiently profitable to be worth insuring. The Bloomberg News article paraphrased Chief Executive Stephen Hemsley telling investors, "The decision reflects the insurer's concern that the first wave of newly insured customers may be the costliest."

Other giants, like Cigna Corp. and Aetna Inc., are also "backing off." "It's a new marketplace, a new risk pool, new regulations, and I think many of the payers have decided to just wait and see," explained a hospital executive. A "securities analyst" named Sarah James noted that

"That may suit investors, who don't want companies stuck with too many sick customers with uncertain costs."

Heavens no – we wouldn't want to insure people who need insurance!

It's worth repeating yet again: In a socialized health system, the search for profit, and the insanity that it engenders, would be eliminated.


How We Make Meaning: Anchors and Categories

The human brain functions on numerous levels, with different parts of the brain handling different tasks. At the most basic level is the Brain Stem/Cerebellum, together sometimes referred to as the "reptilian brain," or the "reptilian complex." The brain stem handles things like breathing, digestion, heartbeat, reflex, all the things that our bodies do, for the most part, without our conscious effort.

Just "above" the brain stem is the Limbic System, also called the "midbrain." It is sometimes called the "Emotional Brain," as it controls emotions, but it also controls things like motivation and our sense of smell, as well as having a lot to do with memories.

The largest part of the human brain is the cerebrum, or cortex. The list of things handled by the cortex is lengthy: reasoning, planning, parts of speech, movement, problem solving, orientation, recognition, perception of stimuli, visual processing, the perception and recognition of auditory stimuli, memory, and speech. Whew! That's a lot, but for now I want to focus on the part of the cerebrum called the "Frontal Lobe," which is the part that not only has a complicated relation to emotions, but is also famous for being associated with the "higher orders" of brain function, such as problem solving and complex thought. The process of making meaning out of the things we experience is a complex thought, indeed. So, the best place to start is with a brain joke:

Question: What kind of fish performs brain operations?
Answer: A neurosturgeon!

You may or may not think this is funny (I think it's funny), but the point here is that one cannot "get" this joke—or any joke—without connecting it to some things that one already knows. You'd have to know that a sturgeon is a kind of fish, for instance. And you'd have to know the name for a person who does brain operations. And you'd have to know that fish don't generally perform surgery (as far as we know). The point here is that every joke relies on the listener having some previous knowledge, and this odd little answer to this odd little question becomes funny ONLY when connected to that previous knowledge.

Here's the thing: This doesn't apply only to jokes. Actually, no fact or bit of information that we come across has any meaning unless and until it is connected—in our brains—to something that's already there. Explaining how this works, and why it has very great political implications for all of us, is the goal of this series on "How We Make Meaning."


Propaganda ABCs as Anchors

I just said that no fact or bit of information that we come across has any meaning unless and until it is connected—in our brains—to something that's already there. So, we should all be very interested in what is "already there" in our brains, since it gives meaning to your world and mine. And, when enough people share the same existing base of ideas, then the meaning shifts, in practical terms, from being your world or my world to being the world.

In previous issues of Nygaard Notes I have referred to this pre-existing knowledge of the world as our ABCs: Our Attitudes, Beliefs, and Conceptions about how the world works.
Since every society is based on a set of ideas that are widely shared, there are all sorts of forces working on each of us at any moment which are aimed at making sure that we all "know" our ABCs. Without this ideological glue it would be almost impossible to function as a society. As Jacques Ellul says in his book Propaganda: The Formation of Men's [sic] Attitudes, "society rests on certain beliefs and no social group can exist without such beliefs."

I discussed the same idea eight years ago, in Nygaard Notes Number 312, referring to the ideas of the Italian socialist Antonio Gramsci, who spoke of what he called "cultural hegemony." The word "hegemony" usually refers to the domination of a weaker nation or nations by a stronger one. But Gramsci applied the word to the realm of ideas. He used the phrase "cultural hegemony" to refer to the process by which a certain set of ideas comes to dominate other ideas, in the process becoming so widely accepted in a society as to function essentially as the "organizing principles" of that society.

Ideas, like everything else, arise in an environment where some people have more power than others. One of the ways that power is deployed in a culture is in the process of making sure that certain ideas become hegemonic and come to dominate other ideas, ideas that are judged to be less well-suited to the maintenance of the existing order.

I refer to this "set" of hegemonic ideas as our Propaganda ABCs. It's the stuff that everyone knows, the stuff that seems so obviously true to so many of us that it forms the basis for every news report we see or hear. Since it forms the basis for things that we experience, forming a foundation upon which meaning is constructed, I call the ABCs "Deep Propaganda." Of course, what we "know" may not be true, and that brings us back to the brain.

Since incoming information needs to attach to something in order to stick in our brains and mean something, the things to which they stick can be thought of as "anchors." Sometimes these anchors can be trivial, such as knowing that fish don't do surgery. But sometimes they can be quite important, shaping our understanding of the world in critical ways. An example from the personal level will illustrate.

One important idea that is believed by many people is the idea that "I am a bad person." This is the basis of the "shame dynamic" that I discussed back in the year 2000 in Nygaard Notes #100 ("The Psychology of White Racism, Part 2").

When a person with this belief is told, for example, that he or she has a book overdue at the library, the meaning of that fact will be something like, "Here's more evidence of what an idiot I am!" The anchor here is my nature as a person who is stupid, incompetent, unorganized, or otherwise "bad" (as I define it), which the fact of the overdue book serves to reinforce. Such little things can be sufficiently embarrassing for a shame-based person that they may put off even longer the returning of the book. If, on the other hand, my anchor, or underlying belief, is that "I am a good person," then the same overdue notice will likely produce a feeling of gratitude, or relief, for having been given the information needed to do the right thing, which is after all the primary concern of a "good person." This is an example of how one piece of information can have different meanings, depending on the "anchor" that exists in the mind of the listener before the information ever comes in. Any incoming fact (like an overdue book) gets attached to that anchor and takes on its meaning only when it is so attached. And, as we see in this example, the same bit of information can be immobilizing or paralyzing for the person who anchors all incoming messages to their feelings of shame, or activating or motivating for the person whose anchor is high self-esteem. The facts don't change, but meaning changes, and thus behavior changes, depending on the nature of the anchor to which the facts attach.

Little Anchors

People use various anchors to make sense out of the various news items we hear each day. A relatively trivial anchor would be our definition of "taxation." Some people define taxation as confiscation, even theft, and they understand it to be fundamentally illegitimate. So any news of changes in tax rates takes on meaning for them in that light. They may even act in accordance with that anchor (which may lead to them being audited by the IRS, but that's not our subject at the moment).

Other people define taxation differently. They may see taxation as a shared responsibility for the common welfare, or even as the cost of civilization. That anchor leads us to assign a very different meaning to news of tax changes, and most likely different behavior (willing and prompt payment of taxes), as well.

Another example is deficits. Those who believe that the primary economic issue facing us is budget deficits will find the idea of budget cuts to be sensible, even "commonsensical," since such cuts reduce the deficit, at least in the short term. On the other hand, those who believe that jobs are the main issue facing the nation will see the idea of budget cuts as upside-down and backwards. Again, same idea, but different meanings based on different anchors.

Big Anchors

One of the central anchors in the established ideology of the U.S. is individualism. For people with this anchor in their brain, unemployment looks like a personal problem, resulting from a lack of education, a lack of ambition, bad work habits, and so forth. The anchor of individualism assigns blame to the individuals involved. So high rates of poverty, homelessness, or other problems are seen not as social problems, but simply as a result of adding together a lot of people with histories of poor decisions or bad planning or perhaps even a refusal to face "reality."

A different anchor would be a systems orientation, which might explain unemployment as the result of a complex mix of factors, including some personal factors, but also including such things as luck, changing marketplaces, and macroeconomic policies out of the control of any individual looking for work. Likewise with poverty, homelessness and the rest.

The late British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher famously said, "There is no such thing as society! There are individual men and women and there are families..." And so it is for those who are truly attached to an individualistic view of the world: there really are no "social problems." There are just individuals—maybe a lot of them—who happen to have problems. Problems for which they are each, individually, responsible.

In every one of the examples above, note that the facts don't change, but the meaning of those facts does change. And all sorts of arguments and attitudes can be built upon those meanings, even if we never discuss the anchors upon which those meanings are based. Perhaps you have tried to present a factual argument to someone on the "other side" of an issue, and gotten nowhere. It's likely that the recipient of your argument had a different set of anchors than you, so the facts that have led you so logically and inevitably to your conclusions have led them in an entirely different direction. And the lesson here is that those of us who argue only on the level of facts and logic will inevitably observe the same dynamic unfold.


Getting Meaning from Categories

Facts come at us from all directions, millions of them but, as I've said, the only ones that come to have meaning for us are the ones that we can attach to some anchors already in our heads. What does it mean for something to have "meaning"? (What is the meaning of "meaning," is what I mean.) What do we do with the meaning that we attach to something?

One of the things we are saying when we say that a thing "means" something is that we know what it is, and we know where it belongs. In other words, things have meaning when we can fit them into categories.

People get really attached to knowing whether a stated fact is "true" or "false." But many important things have significance not so much because they are more "true" than something else, but rather because they fit better into a desirable, pre-existing category. A proposal, after all—a proposal to raise taxes, or a proposal to balance the budget—isn't really true or false. It's more a matter of being in the category of a "good idea" or a "bad idea." The meaning that we give to many things has less to do with "reality" or "truth" than it does with answering the question: "What is it?" Or, as I'm talking about here: "What does this mean?" And that kind of meaning falls into the realm of Categorization.

Most of the categorizing we do is so basic and non-controversial that we don't really think about it. We know a "dog" when we see one. A car is not a bicycle. Snow is different from rain. But once we try to narrow it down a bit, even these categorizations get tricky. Is it a good dog, or a bad dog? Is it a cheap car or an expensive car? Is the snow evidence of a beautiful winter, or an absent summer?

Categories are everywhere: Good/bad; Important/unimportant; Us/them; Civilized/savage; Pragmatic/extreme; Principled/ideological; Normal/weird; Black/white; Straight/queer; Old/Young. It's easy to compose a list like this, with either/or choices. And it's easy, in part,
because we all use the familiar Compare-and-Contrast technique to better understand things. But there's also a deeper reason why it's so easy to make a list of "opposites," and that is because it fits so well with the conventional wisdom that the world is an either/or kind of place. It's not.

In fact, the habit of seeing things dualistically—which is what we're doing when we categorize things using such two-choice menus—reflects another pillar of U.S. ideology, to go along with the individualism that I mentioned earlier. And that is dualism itself.

Public relations people, and other propagandists, spend a lot of time trying to get people to put things in certain categories instead of others. And they spend a lot of time making sure we attach certain emotions to the categories from which we have to choose. And when the world is simplified into sets of two, where something is either "this" or "that," it becomes much easier to provoke the preferred emotions in response to events, or to tap into already-existing emotions.

In the next Nygaard Notes the plan is to continue this series with a look at emotions, categories in the news, more on individualism and dualism, and some ideas about why this is important to activists and people who are working on changing consciousness.