Number 534 July 25, 2013

This Week: Why Study Media?

"Quote" of the Week: "What Americans Want to See and Hear When They Watch the News"
Thinking Dualistically Leads to Confusion: Here's How
Why Study Media?

To read this issue of Nygaard Notes in PDF format, click here.


Although I talk a lot about The Media, the fact is that I'm not really interested in "media," per se. My real interest is in what I call the "intellectual culture," which is the social context in which we think, feel, and communicate. The intellectual culture is what gives us the anchors and categories that I've been talking about lately, it's what provides the Deep Propaganda that anyone internalizes in the course of living in a culture and which tells us what and how to think. (I'll be talking more about this in a future Nygaard Notes.)

Although media is not my only concern, it's true that I do talk about media quite a bit, and people sometimes ask me why. When I'm out in the community, speaking or teaching or ranting on television, I often explain the seemingly-odd fixation. But I recently realized that I've never actually explained myself in these pages. So this issue has a piece called "Why Study Media?" that attempts to correct that omission.

As always, your feedback is welcome. I love getting emails from you!



"Quote" of the Week: "What Americans Want to See and Hear When They Watch the News"

On July 22nd Al Jazeera, the Qatar-based news service, announced that an ABC News senior vice president, Kate O'Brian, will be its president. Ms. O'Brian has been with ABC for 30 years, and presumably knows the ropes. In announcing the hiring, Mostefa Souag, the acting director general of Al Jazeera very neatly explained a part of the dynamic that elevates people to the top of the ladder in a news "business" that derives its revenue from the sale of advertising. Here's the "Quote" of the Week from Mr. Souag:

"Kate's arrival speaks volumes about what we intend to do and how we intend to do it. She is a highly experienced and award-winning journalist who fully understands what Americans want to see and hear when they watch the news."

In case it's not clear why this is the QOTW, note that the stress is on giving people what they "want to see and hear when they watch the news." Nothing about democracy, or information, or enrichment, or challenging anyone. It's about giving people what they want, which is about maximizing audience, which is about selling ads, which is about making money. And, perhaps, about pushing the agenda of the Qatari government. Enriching democracy? Not so much...


Thinking Dualistically Leads to Confusion: Here's How

In last month's Nygaard Notes #532, I concluded by stating that "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." No room to zero in on it then, so now's the time to look at that pillar of U.S. ideology that I call Dualism.

Dualism is the categorizing of a fact or policy or phenomenon by use of an "either/or" system. Used as a cognitive tool, it can be tremendously useful in helping us to differentiate between things, especially when we are just beginning to understand the nature of something. Consider the wisdom contained in the following elephant joke (a joke genre in which I specialized in the fifth grade):

Little Nygaard: What's the difference between an elephant and an orange?
Hapless friend: I don't know; what?
Little Nygaard: Well, if you don't know, I'm not sending you to the store to buy oranges!

This is a fifth-grade way of saying "This is how we understand the world: By differentiating." If something is not "this," after all, it must be "that," right? Since we know it's not that simple, it becomes hilarious to fifth-graders like me.

But since we're no longer in fifth grade (apologies to any readers who are in the fifth grade; good joke, eh?), let's consider how not-simple it is: All that we really know when we figure out that something is not "this" is that it is something else. We do not know that it is "that," or that it is any specific thing. But in a culture where dualism becomes so dominant that it goes beyond being a useful tool and becomes a way of thinking, then all sorts of problems begin to appear.

As encouragement to consider that there are other ways of thinking than those endorsed by the dominant culture, this essay will point out a few of the problems that we run into when we become captive to a Dualistic way of thinking. On my list of problems are: Oversimplification; A Misplaced Understanding of Causation; Arrogance; Pigeonholing; and Simple Confusion. And all of these problems contribute to what is perhaps the most serious problem of all, which is that it becomes more difficult to think in a systems way.

Problems With Dualistic Thinking

Oversimplification: We hear this all the time in everyday conversation. We learn that someone is "rich" or "poor" and we think we know them, that we know "who they are." A moment's reflection will reveal that it's not so simple, but in a culture of dualism it becomes easy to reduce people to caricatures and stereotypes. Sometimes the most superficial differences—skin color, speech pattern, body type—can form the basis for division of the world into "us" and "them," which is perhaps the most dangerous oversimplification, since it is the basis for all sorts of oppression.

Causation: Once we think we know who someone "is" we can imagine them to be responsible for all sorts of problems. "That kind of person" does "this kind of thing," after all. And we begin to think that this policy makes that happen. All of which leads to the idea that, if we simply replace "this" with "that," then we know what will happen. But once we realize that "this" is a combination of a lot of things, and "that" is similarly complicated (in fact, unknown), then we can stop looking for what "causes" our problems and begin to develop a more complex and realistic understanding of our current situation. Only then can we begin to engage with the real problem, the problem that arises not from a single cause, but that arises out of the workings of the systems of which it is a part.

Pigeonholing: The very definition of pigeonholing is to rigidly categorize something, and the problem here is that pigeonholes are pre-existing. That is, if we come across something new and attempt to understand it by placing it in a category that is not new, then we may or may not have the capacity to make sense of it; it depends on the nature of the pigeonholes we have at the ready. (And a chronically propagandized population will tend to share a common, and limited, number of pigeonholes.) We may think we understand it because it seems to "fit" in our pigeonhole, but it will be a false understanding—because we have distorted it in order to make it fit—and it will be hard to shake.

Arrogance: Arrogance is, at its core, a misplaced and inflated confidence in one's own understanding or abilities. When the world is reduced to a sets of pairs, then anyone who can tell the difference between "A" and "B" runs the risk of thinking that they know more than they do. (But I wouldn't want to send them to the store to buy oranges!)

Simple Confusion: All of the above lead to confusion, and it's not really "simple." When we categorize some complex thing or another after seeing or hearing about only a small part of that thing (often not realizing that it is only a small part), then we get confused. When we are looking for the "cause" of something that really has no cause because it emerges from a complex interplay of interrelated systems, each with innumerable inputs and outputs, then we get confused. When we try to categorize something new to us by placing it in a category of things that are not new to us, then we get confused.

When we begin to think Systems—which will be the subject of a future Nygaard Notes—then we greatly reduce the risks of Oversimplification; A Misplaced Understanding of Causation; Arrogance; Pigeonholing; and Simple Confusion.


Editor's Note: If you'd like a sneak preview of this "Systems Thinking" stuff, I took a stab at it 'way back in 2004, in a piece called Thinking "Systems" (Part 1 in the who-knows-how-many part "How Not To Get Depressed" Series). Since I was writing at the time about not getting depressed, that piece emphasized the personal benefits to be derived from Systems Thinking. You can go to the Nygaard Notes website and see it in Issue #266, August 27, 2004.


Why Study Media?

When trying to understand the workings of the Propaganda system, much could be gained from looking at any of the various doctrinal institutions, such as our education system, our churches, or our families. Yet I choose to speak almost exclusively about one doctrinal institution, which I generally call The Media.

When I refer to The Media I am generally referring to the institution popularly known as The Media. I choose to focus on The Media for a variety of reasons, including the following five:

1. MEDIA IS OMNIPRESENT. Media is the most widespread of the doctrinal institutions, being continually encountered by every human being at every point of our daily travels, no matter where our travels take us.

Writing in the Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science in 1947, the public relations pioneer Edward L. Bernays summarized the power and reach of modern media in typically florid prose:

The tremendous expansion of communications in the United States has given this Nation the world's most penetrating and effective apparatus for the transmission of ideas. Every resident is constantly exposed to the impact of our vast network of communications which reach every corner of the country, no matter how remote or isolated. Words hammer continually at the eyes and ears of America. The United States has become a small room in which a single whisper is magnified thousands of times.

2. Exposure to Media is LIFELONG AND INVOLUNTARY. We can graduate or drop out of school. We can stop attending church and/or religious training. We can, and do, move away from our families. But there is no dropping out of or graduating from The Media. We can't disaffiliate, nor can we "stop attending" Media. If we were to wish to move away from Media, there's nowhere we can go. Like it or not, choose it or not, in this culture we are exposed to constant propaganda via media from the moment we are born until the day we die.

3. EASE OF STUDY. Compared to other doctrinal institutions, Media is perhaps the easiest to study. New examples are pushed into our faces on a daily basis, now even more frequently in the age of The Internet. We don't have to function as anthropologists, delving into the recesses of church, school, or family. We can gather our data simply by turning on the television, radio, or the computer, or opening the newspaper, or picking up a magazine in the dentist's office, or examining the billboards along the road on the way to the grocery store.

4. THE MYTH OF OBJECTIVITY. Media is unique among doctrinal institutions in another way that makes life a little more difficult for those wishing to study how Media may perform a Propaganda function: It's the only institution that denies that it performs such a function. Churches, schools, and families all acknowledge their socialization role, in fact see it as central to their respective existences. Media, in contrast, prefers to believe that it is in the business of reporting "the facts" in an objective manner ("We Report. You Decide." "All The News That's Fit to Print" etc) Since I analyze things using a Systems approach—central to which is a focus on outcomes over intentions—I see The Media's denial of its role as a purveyor of ideology as a part of the system itself. The Myth of Objectivity that forms the basis for the denial actually plays a role in furthering the Propaganda function of the institution.

5. MEDIA AS MASS PHENOMENON. Exposure to media cuts across all boundaries of class, race, gender, and age, assuring that we all share a large number of political and cultural references. And those shared references, in turn, form a part of the intellectual/emotional foundation upon which effective propaganda rests. A 1995 article in the UK journal Marketing Week reported on a survey of 7,000 people in six countries conducted for the International Olympic Committee which found that 88 per cent of respondents were able to correctly identify the commercial trademarks of Shell Oil and McDonald's, while only 54 per cent recognized the Christian cross. That's an illustration of logo recognition (the cross is a logo?!), and that is the result of direct and overt advertising over many years. What I'm talking about—the indirect reinforcement of ideological foundations that is transmitted in the process of reporting the news of the day—is a little different, but it has a similar globalizing effect.

The Media, then, is a powerful doctrinal institution, like the others in many ways but unique in that:

∙ Exposure to The Media is universal, lifelong, and involuntary;
∙ Given the frequency of its news production and its ubiquity in the culture, The Media is the easiest of doctrinal institutions to study;
∙ The Media does not see itself as having a propaganda role, and;
∙ The Media crosses cultural boundaries.

And that's why I talk about it so much.