Number 533 July 12, 2013

This Week: How We Make Meaning, Part II

"Quote" of the Week: "When We Push The Poor Into a Separate Category"
Categories in the News: Placement and Not-Seeing
"Important" Stories and Their Categories
Emotions and Decisions
Stepping Outside the Vicious Circle
Making Meaning: Lessons for Activists


For any readers who are well-versed in cognitive science (which is what I guess I'm talking about in this series, to some extent) I apologize for the shortcuts and glossing over of details that I realize may be misleading. For example, I know that the affective processes known as "emotions" and "feelings" are not the same thing, yet I use them interchangeably. So, sue me! This is a short newsletter, after all, it's not intended to be a scientific journal!

I don't mean to make light of my shortcuts, and I do my best to be aware of them when I use them. My hope is that my scientific imprecision serves the larger goal of bringing to light some important ideas that may be of use to people as we go about trying to change the world.

What this series really is, to be perfectly honest, is a draft of a chapter of this book that I've been working on for what seems like forever. I've decided that the only way I can make enough time to finish the book, while still putting out Nygaard Notes, is to simply publish some chapters as if they were Nygaard Notes pieces. (This issue and the last one appear to be, maybe, Chapter 7.) So that's what I'm doing, and the result is that you can expect a little less "news" in the Notes during the summer, and more in-depth pieces like this, I guess.

Up next: I have no idea. Maybe Chapter Eight! But I would certainly appreciate any comments on this "How We Make Meaning" series. I've struggled mightily to express in few words some quite complex processes. Let me know what you think.



"Quote" of the Week: "When We Push The Poor Into a Separate Category"

Economist Michael Zweig, in his book The Working Class Majority: America's Best Kept Secret, states that "To treat the poor in isolation from the experience of the entire working class is to obscure what has been going on." In that context, he says that

"When we push the poor into a separate category outside of 'regular society,' the problems of the poor are more easily explained by the supposed deficiencies of the poor themselves, rather than the workings of society and the economy. We come to believe that poverty is poor people's fault."

How, exactly, do we "come to believe" this idea? That is the subject of this series on "How We Make Meaning," the second installment of which appears before you.


Categories in the News: Placement and Not-Seeing

The doctrinal systems in any society are always working to maintain and strengthen themselves. We can see this at work in the media in regard to categorization of events and policies.

The first and possibly the most important categorizing done by media is literally invisible. That is, it is the result of decisions about which stories we will not see. When a story is ignored by the nation's agenda-setting editors and producers, the message is clear: This story is not important. The decision about whether to place an event into the "newsworthy" category or the "nobody needs to know this" category is one of the most important and least-discussed functions of the institution known as "the media." While many people may believe that each and every individual has the right, and the power, to decide for themselves whether something is important or not important, in practice many of us delegate this right to the people who produce and edit our news. And there's some sense to this: We can't, after all, pay attention to everything.

Innumerable times over the years I have attempted to discuss an under-reported or unreported story and have been met with a variation of this response: "Well, I've never heard of it, so it can't be that important." That strong message—"It can't be that important"—has an institutional source, as it has to do with decisions made in the nation's newsrooms that ripple through the culture.

Through the normal workings of the mass media system a strong message is sent to the larger society that some stories are unimportant, unworthy of our attention, or maybe false. And, when an issue is not brought to the attention of the broader public, in a sense it becomes unimportant, since most people will never have heard of it. It's a vicious circle: Lack of coverage breeds ignorance, ignorance reduces demand for news of the issue, the low demand in turn justifies the lack of coverage, and on we go.

A second category of categorization (!) by newspapers is placement. For example, the New York Times ran an article in their issue of June 4, 2013 headlined, "Promising New Cancer Drugs Empower the Body's Own Defense System." Here are the two lead paragraphs:

The early success of a new class of cancer drugs, revealed in test results released here over the last several days, has raised hope among the world's top cancer specialists that they may be on the verge of an important milestone in the fight against the disease.

The excitement has spread to Wall Street. Shares of Merck and Bristol-Myers Squibb, which are developing such drugs, rose more than 3 percent on Monday after data from their studies was presented over the weekend at the meeting of the American Society of Clinical Oncology.

While the article ran in the "Health" section of the online New York Times, in the national paper edition it appeared on the front page of the "Business" Section, for reasons which should be clear upon reading the opening paragraphs. Further clarity is offered by a later paragraph, which tells us that "Analysts, who predict billions of dollars in sales, are trying to determine which of the three front-runners—Merck, Bristol-Myers and Roche—have the best drug and how soon the drugs could reach the market."

The placement in the Business Section was no doubt due in part to the fact that there is no "Health" section in the Times. But regardless of the intent of the editors in categorizing a possible breakthrough in cancer treatment as a "Business" story, the effect is to reinforce several ideas about health care in this country, ideas that would be questionable if they were stated overtly, which they are not in this case.

One idea is that cancer research is best pursued in a market environment. Another idea is that it is legitimate for life-saving drugs to result in "billions of dollars in sales" in an already hugely inefficient and expensive health care system. A third, implied, idea is that competition between huge corporations is the best and fastest way to bring these drugs to cancer patients (referred to, in this context, as "the market," which is in itself another powerful implied message).


"Important" Stories and Their Categories

There are some events that do receive front-page, or otherwise prominent, coverage, and thus come to be placed in the category of "important stories." The media system has all sorts of ways of communicating when a story is "important." Not only is it placed on the front page, but it is also repeated day after day, discussed on talk radio, and featured in top-of-the-hour updates, follow-up articles on the internet, and stories in weekly news magazines.

Once a story is deemed "important," the events, people, and institutions that are featured in these important stories have themselves to be categorized. And this is when the Propaganda function of media can quite easily be seen. A news story about Afghanistan will illustrate.

Back in February of 2013 the New York Times ran an article headlined "Plans for U.S. Troop Drawdown Stir Concerns That Aid to Afghanistan Will Dry Up." The story focused on an "intensified debate" in this country in light of the planned reduction in U.S. military forces in Afghanistan. The debate is about "how long the United States and its allies should pour civilian aid into the country." The second paragraph did the categorizing:

The 12-year effort to modernize and stabilize Afghanistan is by some measures the most ambitious nation-building program ever undertaken by the United States. It is also among the most scrutinized and second-guessed.

The categories appear here on two levels. The first level is the literal answer to the question, "What has the U.S. been doing in Afghanistan over the past 12 years? And the answer offered is something called "nation-building."

Since the category of "nation-building" is somewhat vague—even controversial—additional language is deployed in order to make crystal clear that "nation-building" is a positive thing: We're told that it's an "ambitious program" intended to "modernize and stabilize" Afghanistan. In the dualistic way of thinking to which we are accustomed, the entire operation falls on the "good" side of a "good/bad" choice.

Another, more subtle, category is indicated by the use of the word "second-guessed." To "second-guess" is "to judge, question, or reconsider by hindsight." That is, after the results are known. Of course, the entire attack on and occupation of Afghanistan was criticized at the time it began—and before it began—including on numerous occasions in Nygaard Notes (The attack on Afghanistan began on October 7 of 2001, and the first condemnation of the operation appeared in NN two days earlier, on October 5th, in an article called "Military Retaliation Against Terror: Legal?") Yet the Times refers to the Afghanistan crime as being "among the most scrutinized and second-guessed" examples of "nation-building" ever undertaken by the U.S. The Times is implying here that the only criticism of the operation—despite intense scrutiny—occurred only after the results were known, which is false for two reasons.

One reason that it's false is because critics at the time, including yours truly, did not need hindsight to condemn the policy, since our objections were principled and not dependent on results. So we could judge it to be bad policy from the moment it was proposed, regardless of whatever military outcome might result. Many of us were screaming at the top of our lungs that the very choice of a military response to the phenomenon of "terror" was wrong. We're still screaming.

The second reason that the claim of no judgement until completion of the mission is false is that anyone who needed hindsight to condemn the occupation would be basing their judgement on results, on the "success" or "failure" of the policy, which presumably would depend on how it turned out. In that case, there can be no second-guessing yet, since the U.S. operation—"nation-building" or whatever it is—is ongoing. That is, since second-guessing involves reconsidering by hindsight, it cannot be undertaken until the thing being reconsidered is complete.

So, in summary, the New York Times in this paragraph is asking us to categorize the "12-year effort" of the U.S. in Afghanistan by seeing it as:

1. A "nation-building" campaign (bringing "democracy" to a benighted nation)
2. A noble effort (to "modernize and stabilize");
3. A potentially successful effort (depending on results)

The plausibility of each of these categories is based on the holding of certain anchors to which the information about U.S. actions in Afghanistan can be attached. Among those anchors are the idea that U.S. leadership is virtuous, and the idea that U.S. foreign policy is altruistic and primarily aimed at relieving the suffering of the world.

There are substantial numbers of people who would take exception to each of those categories, and the anchors to which they attach. Just to be clear I'll explain why.

First, the anchors: In place of virtue and altruism as the drivers of U.S. policy, many people understand U.S. leadership to be just like the leadership of every other great power in history and thus to be motivated by a complex mix of things, including self-preservation, desire for power, fear, megalomania, and ego.

An invasion and occupation by such leadership, then, will not be categorized as a noble attempt at nation-building, one that "just might work." Instead it will likely be categorized as a power-grab, an attempt at revenge, a grandiose assertion of dominance, and an illegal projection of U.S. power. That's because different anchors suggest different categories, and different categories lead us to different interpretations of every single piece of information about the occupation that we see.

In summary, then, the media's routine classifications in service of Propaganda involve:

1. Choices to report certain stories and ignore others;

2. Choices to categorize the nature of a story (as "Business," "National Security," "Local," etc)

3. Classifications of the details within a story as a way of interpreting what appears to be "factual" information.

We can see in the above case that the reader/viewer is being sent a message, although he/she will have to figure it out for themselves. And in the previous essay we saw that media workers also send messages when they decide not to cover a story, and when they decide to place a story in an obscure or questionable place. With uncovered stories the message is that the story is not important. The placement of a story tells us that a story is important for certain reasons. And when we apply the hidden or implied premises that come along with a news story, we get whatever message needs to be gotten in order to make sense of that story. And if we don't have enough information or experience to make our own sense of things, these stated or implied messages become a part of our personal base of knowledge, or what I have been calling our Propaganda ABCs.

All of this goes on, for the most part, below the level of consciousness. Rather than conspiring to "propagandize" their readership, reporters and editors are simply making sense of things the best they can, and passing that "sense" on to us, and to anyone who reads or watches their reports. We make this sense, more often than not, not from being told directly, but by putting two and two together ourselves.

In logic, when something is not stated but we can take enough from what is stated to "figure it out for ourselves" what we are doing is inferring. Much of the evidence we use to figure things out is implied, and not directly stated. It's like the old saying, "Where there's smoke, there's fire." If someone shows you the fire, then you just categorize it as a fire. When we only see smoke, we have to infer that there is a fire. Fire is implied by smoke, and we are left to make the obvious inference.


Emotions and Decisions

I've been speaking of the usefulness of mental "anchors" in helping us to make sense of incoming information, much of which comes to us in the process of taking in the daily news. My comments so far assume that every bit of news will succeed in attaching itself to one or more existing anchors. But that's not always the case. Sometimes there is no available anchor, for whatever reason. Maybe we don't understand the facts in the news story well enough to attach them to anything. Or maybe we're not sufficiently familiar with the general subject to have developed any relevant anchors.

As far as categories, here also we need to have a category in mind before placing anything in it. And what if something comes at us that doesn't "fit" into any of the categories we've learned up to this point? What happens then?

This is where it gets interesting.

Recall in the last issue that I talked about the brain having three "levels" of activity: The Brain Stem handles all the unconscious things, like breathing, digestion, heartbeat, etc. The Limbic System, sometimes misleadingly called the "Midbrain," deals with emotions, motivation and aspects of memory. The Cortex handles most of the "higher functions," such as the stuff we like to call "thinking." (Actually, the relationship between emotions and the brain is far more complex and mysterious than this, but the important point here is that the brain works in various ways with both cognition—thinking—and emotion—feeling. [see Editor's note])

As it turns out, humans don't generally engage in any activity at all primarily because of what we think. We take action primarily because of how we feel. And, while we may like to believe that we "decide" to take action in a rational, well-thought-out way, that's not obviously true. As one academic study put it, "the forces that drive human behavior cannot be attributed to the rational conclusions generated by our linguistic mind but are functions of the inner workings of our emotional mind." The neuroscientist Joseph Ledoux puts it this way in his book The Emotional Brain: The Mysterious Underpinnings of Emotional Life: "Emotions are things that happen to us rather than things we will to occur." The result is that "We have little direct control over our emotional reactions." Nonetheless, says Ledoux, "once emotions occur they become powerful motivators of future behaviors." More powerful than we may think.

Many people don't like to believe this, as evidenced in a 1977 study by Richard Nisbett and Timothy Wilson that looked at how humans "decide" to do something. As it turns out, people come up with "reasons" that are rational and are the result of a cognitive (thinking) process, but that's not really how it works. One scholar summarized Nisbett and Wilson's findings by saying that they "noted that individuals always provide reasons for their actions. However, when reasoned and plausible reasons are not available, people make up reasons and believe them." (The original 1977 article is quite humbling, and important to our current discussion. It's called "Telling More Than We Can Know: Verbal Reports on Mental Processes.")

** KEY CONCEPT ALERT **: Humans are driven to action by emotions, but we prefer to think that we make "rational decisions" about what actions to take.

Now, back to the media. When confronted with new information while reading an article in the newspaper (or watching on TV), people with little background in a subject will do one of two things if they have a hard time finding an anchor to attach it to or a category to place it in. They will either: Ignore it, dismissing it as meaningless, or; Construct or adopt some anchors to which they can attach the information.

It's a lot of work to construct new anchors, so most people will look around for anchors to use that are already associated with the new information. There are always anchors handy, and the handiest of all are the ones that come right along with the daily news. In the case of reporting on the U.S. occupation of Afghanistan, for example, there are a number of anchors—such as the anchor of virtuous U.S. leadership—that are embedded in virtually every story about the occupation, since it has been internalized not only by the people who talk to the high-level reporters who generate the news from Afghanistan, but also by the reporters themselves. And their editors.

And, since we are all exposed to many stories about Afghanistan, and since most people in the United States have not studied Afghanistan in any depth, it is to be expected that the anchor of good U.S. intentions will be widely adopted by the public who—whether they like it or not—get virtually all of their information about Afghanistan, and U.S. foreign policy in general, from the mass media and the high-ranking sources upon which high-ranking reporters rely. (The little case study of reporting on Afghanistan in this issue spells out how this works.)

It's not just Afghanistan, of course. Media stories that are the source of any new information will always "package" the information along with its own anchors and categories, some of which are very deep, foundational ideas about how the world works. For example, if the premise for a report on poverty is that being poor is somehow deserved, the article will not make sense unless that anchor is accepted. When repeated—or, rather, assumed—often enough and widely enough, the effect is to elevate and reinforce an idea (individualism) and a way of thinking (analytical, cause-based). These ideas and ways of thinking then can and will be used to make a certain kind of sense out of future stories on poverty. In the next article I'll talk about this backwards way of thinking, but right now I want to talk about anchors, categories, and emotions.

Anchors, Categories, and Emotions

We've seen that emotions are what motivate us to action. The action might be voting, or going on strike, or "dropping out," or other sorts of participation in or protest of the political process. So any incoming information will motivate us to the degree that we have an emotional response to it. And that depends on how we anchor the information. All anchors have emotions attached to them, and any fact/story/event that becomes associated in our minds with an anchor attaches to the same emotions. And this is precisely where Propaganda comes into the picture.

The fundamental point of Propaganda and its associated social science, Public Relations, is to get people to act in certain ways. They do this by ASSOCIATING EMOTIONS with SYMBOLS. I explained how this works in Nygaard Notes Number 315 in an article called "How Propaganda Works: Three Key Concepts." (The concepts are: Symbols, Emotions, and Association.)

When we talk about immigration, for instance, the narrative anchors include ideas about legitimacy ("legality"), belonging, deserving, status, and so forth. The underpinnings for many, if not most, news stories about immigration include the ideas that "we" have something that is somehow threatened by "them," unless "we" stop "them" from doing something: Crossing the border, stealing "our" jobs, receiving health care, or whatever the majority are afraid of that can be blamed, rationally or not, on an identifiable "other." Remember, this is all about emotion.

Virtually every news story on the subject accepts, and thus reinforces, this type of "us/them" construction, although it is rarely discussed. And that "us/them" distinction may or may not be grounded in much of anything, but by virtue of the fact that just about everyone has been socialized (propagandized) to see the world this way, we come to have an immigration "issue" that is based on this idea, real or not. It is a SOCIAL REALITY, whatever the basis—or lack of basis—for the idea.

In this sense it is like racism, which is based not on biology, but on an exclusion dynamic that was and is useful to those who have the desire and the means to use it to protect their privilege and power. When people in power want something, they create an "other" and attribute to that other all sorts of fearsome qualities and unsavory attributes, which then are used to provide the justification for the violence and dehumanization that are needed to maintain an unjust social order.


Stepping Outside the Vicious Circle

In logic, there are two basic ways to sort things out. One is induction and one is deduction. Here's the difference: Deduction is when you have an idea about how the world works, so when you see something you say, "Oh, I know what that is, because I know how the world works." That is, you already have a general theory, and you use the general theory to make sense of, or give meaning to, the specific thing you're seeing. You use the theory to explain the facts: general to specific.

Induction is the opposite. Induction is when you see something, and from that information you generalize and say, "Oh, that must be how the world works." Induction usually involves seeing more than one thing—ideally, many things—so a pattern can be seen, which then forms the basis of the theory that explains that pattern. You use the facts to create a theory: specific to general.

So, if you know about the law of gravity, you can deduce that this is why your keys drop to the floor when you let go of them. If you didn't know about the law of gravity, but dropped your keys 700 times, observing each time that they fell to the floor, then YOU would discover, using induction, the Law of Universal Gravitation, as if you had never heard of Sir Isaac Newton.

Elsewhere in this issue I mention that an inference is the meaning we make of something based on implied evidence. We can infer by either induction or deduction, and we do it all the time in the process of making sense of the daily news. We do it in a kind of crazy way, too. Here's how:

Making "Reality" from Media in 10 Easy Steps

Step 1: A fact, or story, or report, comes into our awareness and we have no anchor to which we can attach it (because we've never thought about it, or whatever). So we can't formulate a response by deduction, since there is no theory in our heads. We can't say, "Oh, this is what I'm seeing, because it's one of those." So...

Step 2: We attempt an induction, which is where we've seen a bunch of other things like this, so we can see the pattern. "Oh, it's another one of these; this must be how these things work." But we haven't seen this before, so that doesn't work, either.

Step 3: At this point we may choose to ignore or dismiss the news as unimportant or unintelligible. In that case, the process ends, for now. But, should we decide to try to make sense out of it, we proceed to Step 4.

Step 4: We go looking for an anchor to use in making meaning of this news item.

Step 5: We find an anchor! It's right there in the article (if it's not stated directly, it can be inferred from what is stated). It's always there, because the people who wrote and edited the story have to base it on one or more premises, or anchors.

Step 6: We use the anchor, implied or stated, to validate the fact or story that is the main point of the news report, and upon which the report is based.

Step 7: If it's really judged by the media establishment to be an "important" story—immigration, war, budget deficits, "entitlements," terrorism—then the process will be repeated many times. And each time some "facts" will be validated by the same or similar anchors.

Step 8: Eventually sufficient facts will be collected to allow us to induce a theory to explain why we feel the way we do about these facts. The more emotion that is attached to these anchors the more strongly we will embrace them.*

Step 9: Conveniently, just the right kind of theory is found in the embedded emotional anchors that were originally used to validate the facts.

Step 10: We adopt the theory, and its emotion, as our own, internalize it and use to validate future facts and our responses to them.

I think that the sort of "constructing reality" thinking process outlined above happens all the time, in conversations with friends and family, and in our everyday attempts to make meaning out of the things we see and hear. But it's more important and easier to see when one of the sides of the interaction is a powerful doctrinal institution, like media, school, church, the public relations industry and so forth.

In terms of actual thinking, it's a sort of tragedy: When a fact is repeatedly "validated" by an assumption, especially an assumption with great emotional content, eventually the assumption itself comes to be perceived as a fact. It's a circular process, and it depends on people not perceiving the circle. In fact, being able to step outside of this vicious circle is (I think) what is meant by the term "critical thinking."

If, as the research seems to show, people don't like to think that emotion plays such an important role in their adoption of ideas, but prefer to think that they have "rational" reasons for accepting certain beliefs, then we will convince ourselves that we have figured out all these anchors for ourselves. But, as I hope we can see, many of the foundations that we use to interpret the daily news are implanted in our heads through an insidious process that is more or less built in to the process of media as we know it. So what is an activist to do?

* Here are a few examples of emotional anchors and the stories they inform:

The idea of "My Country, Beacon of Democracy" informs stories about Foreign Wars and Foreign Policy;
"Immigrants Are Stealing Our Jobs": Immigration;
"The Nuclear Family is Under Attack": Abortion, Gay Marriage, etc;
"The Country is Going Broke": Austerity, Entitlements;
"Government is Inept – Or Worse": Privatization;
"The 'Other' is a Threat to 'Us': Racial Profiling, Voter Suppression;
"They Hate Us and Must Be Stopped": Intelligence, Military Spending.


Making Meaning: Lessons for Activists

What if it's true, what I'm saying in this series on How We Make Meaning? What if it's true that a lot of important ideas about how the world works are imposed on us by the workings of the mass media system, simply due to the nature of that system? If it is true, it won't work to "throw the bums out," since the problem isn't "bums" to begin with. That is, it's not a conspiracy, at least not primarily. But, bums or no bums, we are constantly being socialized in particular ways, trained to accept ideas that serve the One Percent and hurt the rest of us. What's an activist to do?

The first and most obvious thing to do is to create and support media that is based on a different set of ideas about how the world works. In an era in which corporate, advertising-based media is crumbling before our eyes, we have a golden opportunity, and the process is certainly already underway.

The second thing we can do, when we are communicating with allies or would-be allies, is to remember always to operate on multiple levels, knowing that our deeply-held ABCs shape everything. The most powerful assumptions and anchors enter our minds below the level of consciousness, and they are reinforced by a process that also occurs below the level of consciousness. The reinforcements are much more powerful when they are hidden or implied than when they are exposed to the light of day. So let's expose them every chance we get, and then let's expose people to some real alternative anchors while we're at it!

The third thing is to remember how the emotional brain works and to honor that knowledge. As organizers, we won't go far if we continue to dwell primarily in the Cortex. We need to attend to the Midbrain, the Limbic system. If we only argue the facts, and ignore the emotional anchors and categories that drive those facts, our arguments will be discarded or, worse, discredited. In a thoroughly-propagandized culture, ideas that challenge existing systems and structures will be perceived by most as being weird and "on the fringe" no matter how noble or how consonant with human values our ideas may be. And the ideas that now make us seem like the fringe will continue to relegate us to the fringe if we continue to neglect the emotional parts of our intelligence. Brain science is teaching us this, and we ignore it at our peril.

The fourth thing is to remember that unconscious processes which are carried out by powerful institutions usually seem more powerful than they are. And that's because, when people become conscious of a formerly-unconscious process, they begin to ask questions. Questions like, "Who says?" and "Where did that idea come from?" And when brought to consciousness and found wanting, even the ideas that had seemed the most solid begin to lose legitimacy. And—here's the beautiful part—the institutions that benefit from the mass dissemination of those ideas also lose legitimacy, making space for new institutions to grow. The mental and emotional chains that bind us and steer us in certain directions, after all, only hold up as long as nearly everyone accepts them. It's like a Propaganda Ponzi scheme, and delegitimization via consciousness-raising is what can bring it down. Bob Marley was right: Big trees are felled by small axes. And if we understand how the scheme works, it makes our axes sharp, and helps us to use them wisely.