|Number 592||January 15, 2016|
This week is the second-to-last in my list of 10 Concrete Tips for Media Propaganda Self-Defense. I hope you've been finding the tips useful. Next week I'll conclude with the final, and probably the shortest and simplest, tip. Then we'll move on to something else. As always, I don't know what that may be, but I think it may be some thoughts on how the emphasis on Individualism in the U.S. philosophical tradition goes about the business of distorting our thinking in some dangerous and unfortunate ways. I've been thinking about this a lot lately, so that may be up next.
Of course, the next Nygaard Notes may well be about something completely different. How would I know? In fact, it could be that I'll write about something you suggest. If you have any suggestions, send them along as a reply to this email, or this paper edition of the Notes.
Until issue #593, then, I remain faithfully yours,
This week's "Quote" is from a 2003 article in the London Guardian called "The Global Hierarchy of Race" by Martin Jacques.
"The dominant race in a society, whether white or otherwise, rarely admits to its own racism. Denial is near universal. The reasons are manifold. It has a huge vested interest in its own privilege. It will often be oblivious to its own prejudices. It will regard its racist attitudes as nothing more than common sense, having the force and justification of nature. Only when challenged by those on the receiving end is racism outed, and attitudes begin to change. The reason why British society is less nakedly racist than it used to be is that whites have been forced by people of colour to question age-old racist assumptions. Nations are never honest about themselves: they are all in varying degrees of denial.
This is clearly fundamental to understanding the way in which racism is underplayed as a national and global issue. But there is another reason, which is a specifically white problem. Because whites remain the overwhelmingly dominant global race, perched in splendid isolation on top of the pile even though they only represent 17% of the world's population, they are overwhelmingly responsible for setting the global agenda, for determining what is discussed and what is not. And the fact that whites have no experience of racism, except as perpetrators, means that racism is constantly underplayed by western institutions—by governments, by the media, by corporations. Moreover, because whites have reigned globally supreme for half a millennium, they, more than any other race, have left their mark on the rest of humanity: they have a vested interest in denying the extent and baneful effects of racism."
The entire article is well worth reading, and you can find it online HERE.
Longtime readers of Nygaard Notes are aware that I try to avoid using fancy words to describe important things. Never having gone to college myself, I am wary of academic language, as I think it puts off less-educated readers, telling them in effect that "if you don't have my vocabulary, then this is not for you." And, of course, the acquisition of that vocabulary is to some extent a function of privileges which are not distributed equally in our grossly unequal society. So I try to use simple words, even when discussing complex things. Especially when discussing complex things.
Now, by way of contradicting myself, in this issue of the Notes I'm introducing the term "metacommunication." In all of the 1.5 million words (really!) that I've published in Nygaard Notes I've never used the word until now. I talk about the concept all the time, but so far I've avoided using this fancy word. But it's a feature of this week's Nygaard Notes, because it's such a good word that I just can't resist using it! Before we go any further I'd better tell you what I mean when I use it.
The term has been around for a while, and is often associated with psychology or psychiatry. A psychologist named Marie Hartwell-Walker, writing on PsychCentral.com in 2009, offered a standard definition: "Metacommunication is all the nonverbal cues (tone of voice, body language, gestures, facial expression, etc.) that carry meaning that either enhance or disallow what we say in words. There's a whole conversation going on beneath the surface."
Gregory Bateson talked about metacommunication in the 1970s (some day I'll write more about Gregory Bateson), and he did a lot to popularize the idea of interpersonal metacommunication. I'm interested in that idea of communications that happen "beneath the surface," but I'm not talking here about interpersonal communication. I'm talking about mass communication. That is, media.
When I use the term metacommunication in this context I'm referring to the media phenomenon in which there are multiple meanings attached to everything we see or hear on the news. One is the meaning we get by simply reading or listening to the words, which we can think of as "communication." But there also are other meanings being communicated at the same time by things that we do not find in the words. These things may enhance or contradict what is being said, but the point is that we all respond to the whole thing, and sometimes the unspoken/unwritten message overrides the spoken or written one. And we're usually not aware that this is happening, which is why one of my Concrete Tips for Media Propaganda Self-Defense is to become aware of metacommunication and see how it works.
Back in the first paragraph I talked about how the use of academic language can put off people with less formal education. That statement is itself an example of a metacommunication. The phenomenon in which "academic language... puts off less-educated readers" by setting up a vocabulary barrier that keeps some people out is a perfect illustration of what metacommunication is and does. The message that "only certain people have the necessary training or education to understand what's in here, and you're not one of them" is a powerful message, and is a part of the structure that serves to enforce a certain social order.
So, what do we have here? We have communication—the message we are supposed to get—and metacommunication—the messages that inevitably come along with the communication. Sometimes the communicator is aware of the metacommunication and sometimes not. As always, I don't care too much about what the communicator is trying to do, or what they're aware of, because the effect is the same either way. The important thing is that, once we are aware of how this stuff is affecting us, we can defend ourselves against it, whether or not it's intentional.
OK, that's my Fancy Word Warning. Now, on to Media Propaganda Self-Defense, Concrete Tip #9: NOTE THE METACOMMUNICATION
I just explained what I mean by the term "metacommunication," and longtime readers will know that a big part of Nygaard Notes is talking about the various forms of metacommunication that we see in the media. It may seem obvious to say, but all communication includes tons of meaning that appears "beneath the surface," as the psychologists point out. Media communication is no exception. So, if Concrete Tip #9
NOTE THE METACOMMUNICATION
is to have any meaning, we had better learn to spot metacommunication in the media. In pursuit of that goal, I suggest that the following six questions may usefully be asked when reading or watching a news story.
Question #1: Why is this being reported?
There are millions of events, speeches, studies, press conferences, protests, and other possibly-newsworthy things happening every day. Only a very few of them appear in the mass media. And this has great social and political significance because, even in the age of the Internet, the daily mass media sets the agenda for most people's thinking about "what is going on." When I say "the daily mass media" I'm referring to the media that most people see or hear without making any special effort; it "just happens." Consider this dynamic: At any given point in time there are many forces that shape our lives in important ways. BUT... if those forces are acting on us in the same ways today as they were yesterday, the media system will most often fail to report on it, since there is no "news" there. (And social media is little different; will something be "trending" if it's the same as it was yesterday? Not likely.) For most people, "news" is the reporting of something that is different than it was yesterday. Or, in the digital age, different than it was 16 nano-seconds ago.
And if we look, we can see a powerful metacommunication here: Tying our idea of "news" to the phenomenon of rapid change has the effect of "normalizing" even the most brutal and harmful social realities. Systems of domination rely on most people being passive, and the best way to enforce passivity is to cultivate ignorance. And failing to notice the unchanging, or slowly-changing, structures of domination that do so much to shape our lives is a great ignorance indeed. It's certainly important to know "what's new." But it's equally, or more, important to know and understand what is not new. With important exceptions, mass media does a poor job in this regard.
Question #2: Why is it being reported here?
The placement of a story in the news cycle is important. What makes any given story worthy of the front page, and who gets to say so? Why do many health care stories appear in the "Business" section? How does that placement (in the business section) affect which aspects of the story are emphasized, and which aspects are ignored?
What about that little section called "News Briefs" or "National Briefing," or whatever? Sometimes stories that appear there seem like front-page stories to me. What can we learn about our information system by noticing the locations to which news stories are relegated? Remember that the fundamental job of a commercial "news" organization is to attract readers and viewers to look at the ads. So the intent of placing a story in a prominent spot may be simply that it's a "talker." But the effect is to leave readers with the impression that "This must be important." And, front page or not, other choices about placement—business section? arts section? technology section?—have the effect of "helping" us to categorize things in certain ways.
If you see a story and it is reported in a different place than you would prefer, or expect, then that will tell you something about the news source. But what do your preferences and expectations tell you about... you? If you are conscious of the metacommunication conveyed by placement, you're less likely to absorb the message uncritically. And, the more you think about your preferences and expectations, the more likely you are to understand if they are really yours, or if they've been pressed into your mind by the power of the media (and other doctrinal institutions).
Question #3: Why is this being reported now?
Some stories are in today's news simply because they just happened and they're easy to report. But sometimes stories get in the news because powerful interests want to sway public opinion in a certain direction in anticipation of upcoming events (powerful interests are always thinking about such things, while most of us are not). So, when you see a featured story in the commercial press, don't assume that it's there due to it being particularly newsworthy. Maybe it's a tip-off to something brewing beneath the surface. Or maybe it's a slow news day, and some otherwise-minor stories are pushed onto the front page to fill a vacuum. Don't get sucked in. Remember to ask some questions, like "Is this a new phenomenon?" or "Is this merely connected to, or perhaps a distraction from, the important phenomenon that is new?"
Question #4: Who might want me to know (believe) this?
There are always powerful interests at work striving to publicize certain things. Sometimes journalists—knowingly or unknowingly—report this sort of thing as news. When you're reading an article, ask yourself who it is who might see the world this way, and who it is who might like us to see the world this way. It also might be useful to ask whether our acceptance of the facts in the story serves the interests of any powerful people or institutions.
A great example to illustrate this point is the media's reporting of claims that recent protests against police brutality are endangering police, making them hesitant to do their jobs, and that this is resulting in a nationwide increase in crime. This is such a great example, in fact, that it's the subject of another essay in this issue of the Notes (No Crime Wave, No "War on Cops").
Question #5: What is not being reported?
Just as there are always powerful interests at work striving to publicize certain things, there are always powerful interests at work striving to conceal certain things. An obvious example here is the endless stream of stories about legislation to repeal the Affordable Care Act—with the most recent legislation going to the President last week. Meanwhile, a bill to create a single-payer national health plan receives barely a mention in the press (unless Bernie Sanders mentions it).
And this despite the fact that such a bill—"The Expanded & Improved Medicare for All Act (H.R. 676)"—which has been introduced in every Congress since 2003, now has 59 co-sponsors, and is supported by a majority of voters (58 percent). Newsworthy? Well...
I said back in Concrete Tip #5 (NN #588) that sometimes a featured news story serves only as a distraction from the "real" story—which is sometimes why it is in the newspaper in the first place. The best example here is the coverage of the presidential campaign, which focuses on what the candidates say, and what the other candidates say about what they said. It's all a distraction from the real stories about what the candidates have done, or tried to do. And even stories about the candidates' records (when they appear) mostly distract us from another story, which is the story of both major parties being bought and paid for by Big Money. This is not to say that the Democratic Party and the Republican Party are identical in terms of policy. But the degree to which they agree on the basic outlines of domestic and, even more, foreign policy is a story that is far more important than the latest insult hurled by Trump or the latest absurdity uttered by one of the other candidates.
Question #6: Are there bigger ideas embedded in this story? Are there deeper layers of meaning below that? What are these ideas connected to?
To use the presidential campaign once again as an example, the very fact that the seemingly-endless campaign is considered front-page news virtually every day has the effect of promoting one side in a very important debate that's been going on for 175 years or so. In 1841 the Scottish philosopher and writer Thomas Carlyle famously stated that "The history of the world is but the biography of great men." (Yes, he said "men.") The other side of the debate—and I'm firmly on this side, as any reader of my work will know—takes a more sociological, systems approach. Systems thinking takes the "Great Man Theory" (as it is called) and turns it on its head.
A systems understanding would say that history is not made by great individuals. Instead, it says that great individuals are made by history. That is, there are special times when millions of actions, and organized campaigns, and non-human activities all come together and produce a moment that virtually cries out for leadership. Such moments, in effect, demand that leaders be produced, and soon the positions are filled. And the people who fill them (they're not always men!) are often remarkable, even heroic. But if conditions are not right, these "great" people can't change the course of history, at least not much. But the corollary is that these great people—and the rest of us, too—can always, always, always be working to create the conditions that WILL change the course of history. Not all of us will be leaders, but all of us have a part to play in paving the way for the leaders we need.
The well-known pattern of coverage of the presidential campaigns also ends up promoting an even bigger idea. And that's the idea that the best that most of us can do is to look for, and vote for, some "hero" or other who will change the world in the direction we want. It's a disempowering idea, and it's connected to the still-larger idea of Individualism, which sees formal voting as the essence of democracy. The Big Idea that is discouraged by the media's fixation on election campaigns is the idea of collective action, or movement building, which may involve voting, but only as a part of a project that is aimed at deeper change than voting alone can hope to produce.
The behavior of the media in focusing on the words and actions of the "great" men and women who may be the next president of the United States has the effect of promoting an individualistic approach to understanding the world. That's a pretty big idea, and it's so dominant that it squeezes out other, equally important ideas.
In summary, then, if we want to understand media metacommunication—the unspoken, often unconscious, communication that comes along with every news story we see—we can ask ourselves the Big Six Questions: Why is this being reported? Why is it being reported here? Why is it being reported now? Who might want me to know (believe) this? What is not being reported? Are there bigger ideas or deeper meanings embedded in this story, and what are these ideas connected to?
And that is Media Propaganda Self-Defense, Concrete Tip #9: NOTE THE METACOMMUNICATION. Next week, the final tip: THE TWO BIG QUESTIONS
Here's the lead paragraph from the Washington Post of December 22nd: "At various times over the past 12 months, we heard dire predictions of a 'nationwide crime wave,' complete with stats about soaring homicide rates. We've also heard incessant chatter this year about a 'war on cops' and how it's never been more dangerous to wear a police uniform. Inevitably, the same people making these claims have then cast blame on police critics, protest movements such as Black Lives Matter, viral videos of police abuse and efforts to hold bad cops accountable."
I think the Post reporter, Christopher Ingraham, has a strong point here. As evidence, consider this excerpt from a December 22nd press release by "Law Enforcement Leaders to Reduce Crime and Incarceration," or LEL, which describes itself as "a group of 150 of the country's most prominent current and former police chiefs, sheriffs, district and state's attorneys, U.S. Attorneys, attorneys general, and other law enforcement leaders":
"Crime in the U.S. is at an all-time low across the country, and we expect it to stay that way. Despite some misleading reports about a surge in crime rates, the data show just the opposite. In fact, as recent studies show, the overall crime rate will be lower this year than it was last year, and half of what it was in 1990."
So we certainly don't see a nationwide crime wave. How about that "war on cops"? Well, here's a note from the "conservative" think tank The American Enterprise Institute:
"This year (2015) is on track to be the second-safest year for US police officers in history, second only to a slightly safer year in 2013. Gun-related police deaths in the US per 1 million population were about 6 times higher in the 1970s (0.674 in 1971) and 14-17 times higher during America's War on Alcohol (Prohibition), when it was as high as 1.55 per 1 million in 1921 (the first full year of the War on Beer)."
The Post underlines the point, saying, "You'll find similar results if you look at the deaths tracked by the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund, where firearms-related deaths of cops are down 20 percent this year  from last year—and again, only 2013 was lower. Moreover, the 38 deaths this year include at least one suicide and two cases in which a cop was shot by another cop."
So, despite what you may have heard, there is no crime wave and there is no "war on cops" in the United States. And the protests against police violence, far from making us all less safe, are aimed at transforming police culture from a culture based on an "us vs them" mentality into a culture based on the idea that "we ARE them." Protesters don't want to tie the hands of police. They just want those hands to be clean. And those heroic efforts are what the news media should be telling us about. Not some phony crime wave.
This past fall I participated in a remarkable 10-week community racial dialogue workshop put on by a St. Paul-based group called ASDIC Metamorphosis. These multi-racial dialogues occur regularly, and the next one starts on February 6th in St. Paul Minnesota. I encourage you to consider participating in it. It may very well change your life.
Nygaard Notes often features articles about the theory and practice of racism in the United States. And that's because I believe that understanding the why and how of racism is fundamental to understanding current social and political realities, on the personal, community, national, and global levels.
But, having said that, there is nothing like dialogue and structured interaction to bring home the impact that racism has had, and continues to have, in our culture, and in the personal lives of each one of us, regardless of our racial identity.
Participating in a Circle could be considered a form of continuing education for those already working on these issues, although if you're a "beginner" in terms of anti-racism work, that's fine too. The Circle is open to all, and the co-directors of the program, Margery Otto and Okogyeamon, do a remarkable job of creating a culture in the group that balances the need to take risks with the need for safety when dealing with the suffering wrought by racism. The expectation is that, once people honestly face the reality of racism, they will want to do something about it. And there is lots of support for figuring out what you can do. Options are endless.
There's a lot of reading, a lot of dialogue, videos are watched, and the emphasis is on both the internal/psychic/spiritual meanings of racism and the structural, systemic meanings. The facilitators do not pretend to have all the answers, but participants are encouraged and supported in getting clear on the questions, and getting in touch with the lived experience that we all share in our highly-racialized 21st-Century society.
The next ten-week Circle starts on February 6th, and meets every Saturday morning until April 16. As of this writing there are still spots open for people of all racial identities to participate. Go online and learn more. Or email Okogyeamon firstname.lastname@example.org or Margery email@example.com for more information. (They're also sponsoring a big Mardi Gras celebration, also on February 6th, which you may wish to check out; see the website.)