Look who’s communicating with power

By CHERIAN GEORGE

 

The theme of this year’s International Communication Association Annual Conference is “Communicating With Power”. But scholars who want to make a positive impact in the world need to recognise that the marketplace of ideas doesn’t necessarily side with truth. This is text of remarks at the Opening Plenary of ICA2016 in Fukuoka on June 9.

 

We are exactly six weeks away from the crowning of Mr Donald J. Trump as the Republican Party nominee for President of the United States of America.

This year’s events in the U.S. have provoked many interesting questions. For me, this one is the most troubling: How did a country whose constitutional order was specifically designed to give primacy to the role of reason in public discourse open itself to a power grab based on blatant lies and kindergarten logic?

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Although various aspects of this year’s race have been called “unprecedented”, this particular problem has been haunting me since 2003, when the US went about conquering Iraq under false pretenses.

You’ll remember that the George W. Bush administration lied that Iraq posed an imminent threat to global security, citing Saddam Hussein’s non-existent weapons of mass destruction and imaginary links to Al Qaeda.

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The American press enjoys constitutional freedoms precisely to question propaganda and protect the public from the tyranny of official untruths. That did not stop Bush leading his country into the 21st century’s most deadly, destabilizing and unnecessary act of war.

A year before the invasion, Bush’s Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, tried to explain the relationship between knowledge and policy with this classic quote:

“There are known knowns. These are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we don’t know we don’t know.”

I think Rumsfeld left out a fourth epistemological category: the unknown knowns.

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These are the things about which reliable knowledge exists—yet powerful interests turn their back on the facts, and persuade citizens to do likewise. The best available knowledge said that Iraq posed no threat to the US and that ouster of Saddam Hussein would create a destabilising vacuum. But these knowns became unknown.

And remarkably, this process of unknowing did not depend on state censorship, which is what we’d traditionally suspect if we saw truths being suppressed. Instead, this was a kind of willful blindness, which television satirist Stephen Colbert dubbed “truthiness”.

This is stuff that people believe in because it feels right at an emotional level, regardless of its factual accuracy. “Truthiness” was Merriam-Webster’s Word of the Year, and commentators mused that we seemed to be in an “Age of Truthiness”.

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Now this was back in 2006. So Donald Trump’s triumphant use of untruths over facts in the open marketplace of ideas represents the fruition of forces whose potency has been evident for more than a decade.

Explaining the social psychology of this phenomenon brings us into the behavioural sciences. At the sociopolitical level of analysis, though, what interests me are the implications for open, democratic societies.

Since the European Enlightenment, scholars have considered the free circulation of ideas as necessary for human progress. But clearly it’s not sufficient. Despite an abundance of data and a practically unlimited capacity to share it, our hyperinformed societies can still act with self-destructive ignorance.

My current research examines one particular dimension of this general problem: the circulation of hate propaganda.

I’ve developed this concept, hate spin, to describe a political strategy that includes not just classic hate speech or incitement, but also deliberate offence-taking or manufactured righteous indignation.

My book looks at how hate spin is used in the world’s three largest democracies, by the Hindu Right in India, the Christian Right in the United States, and the Muslim Right in Indonesia.

This isn’t the place to go into any detail, but I just want to highlight one observation from my research that is directly connected to our conference theme.

And that is that if we have any pretensions of communicating with power on behalf of truth and reason, we’d better start by recognizing that the enemies of reason are pretty effective at communicating with and through power themselves.

Let me illustrate what we are up against with an example from India. India, like many other democracies, has hate speech laws that criminalise the incitement of discrimination and violence. But how does this work in practice?

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In one of Narendra Modi’s first speeches as prime minister in 2014, he spoke of the need to shed “1,200 years of slave mentality”. Now, traditionally, nationalist rhetoric celebrates India’s freedom from British subjugation, but that amounted to only 200 years. So where did Modi get the other thousand?

Only by lumping India’s so-called Muslim period with British imperialism.

Modi was thus reciting the Hindu nationalist line that India’s Muslims are foreign invaders; and that India’s future glory depends on returning to its Hindu roots.

Sociologically speaking, it is quite clear that such rhetoric has contributed to a spike in religious intolerance, communal violence and hate crimes against Muslims and other minorities.

Legally, though, it is practically impossible to hold Modi individually accountable for the crime of incitement. His words are not direct or inflammatory enough to cross the legal threshold. He does not need to get too explicit, his in-group audience can piece together the intended meanings based on what is already out there.

This is typical of of the most dangerous campaigns of hate propaganda around the world: communication is distributed and networked, and therefore extremely difficult to counter or regulate.

The networked manufacture of fear is also a hallmark of the religious Right in the US. This movement includes a fringe group of misinformation experts that has successfully cultivated anti-Muslim sentiments.

The objective facts of radical Muslim terror cannot fully account for the recent rise in Islamophobia.

Of course, September 11, 2001, was a low point for Islam’s image in the US.

But surveys show that a year after the trauma of 9/11, negative feelings about Islam began dissipating and positive feelings began recovering.

The current tide of Islamophobia dates not from 2001 but from around 2007, and particularly from 2010, with the landmark protest against the so-called “Mosque at Ground Zero” project.

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This was after the 9/11 panic had subsided and before the emergence of the Islamic State. So it appears that this wave of fear was more manufactured than organic—perhaps in reaction to the traumatic sight of a black man in the White House, a symbol of the end of white Anglo-Saxon dominance in an increasingly diverse America.

One of the leading figures in the Islamophobia industry, Frank Gaffney, has managed to influence the positions of both Ted Cruz (remember him?) and Donald Trump.

What we are witnessing in India and the US is part of a global struggle between competing nationalisms; between civilisational values.

On one side is civic nationalism, based on political ideals such as equality and freedom; with citizenship defined in an open and inclusive way, and the rule of law stoutly defending the equal rights of all members.

On the other side is religious or ethnic nationalism, with a social order is based on the rule of identity, giving special status to the values and viewpoints of a dominant group.

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India and the US are both republics founded on civic nationalism, but religious nationalism never gave up the fight. In India, religious nationalism is championed by the Hindu Right, which has now seized power through Narendra Modi. In the US, it has consumed the Republican Party in ways that the party establishment can no longer control.

The conflict between these two modes of social organisation—the rule of law versus the rule of identity; inclusive cosmopolitanism versus intolerant ethnic and religious nationalism—is definitive of our times.

What are its implications of all this for communicating with power?

First, the marketplace in which we operate is a competitive one. And by competition I don’t mean the fairly trivial race against peers for those coveted spots in top-tier journals.

I mean that, for many consequential questions in the social sciences and humanities, we collectively as scholars dedicated to the Enlightenment project of progress through reason, are contending with formidable political forces that are actively trying to make the social world impervious to facts and hostile to wisdom—to unknow what’s known.

Here’s one graphic example of the cruel realities of this communication war. The Council on American-Islamic Relations, CAIR, is one of the leading progressive organisations that, together with other civil rights groups, has been trying to combat the Islamophobia industry. The trouble is that CAIR itself is the victim of hate propaganda.

Out of the top 10 Google Search results for CAIR that I found last week, six come from known hate groups that falsely characterise CAIR as a partner of terrorists. So effectively has CAIR been demonised in the public mind that it has been forced to adopt a lower profile, relying on allies among sympathetic Christian, Jewish and secular organisations to front its fight.

This example also illustrates a second point—that the forces of unreason are not lacking in either capacity or commitment to communicate with power.

The repertoires of contention developed by progressive, pro-social movements—t-shirts, buttons, songs—are also used by their opponents.

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And just because new media tools tend to democratize communication does not mean that only pro-democratic groups can use them. We know from research from around the world that despots and hate groups are quite adept at using social media.

Third is a problem that may be peculiar to the issues I’m looking at. As scholars we’ve been taught to believe that the best theories are usually the most elegantly parsimonious. But that doesn’t mean that the best ideas are necessarily the easiest to communicate.

On the contrary, civic nationalism is an inherently harder sell than the competing doctrines of ethnic and religious nationalism, which are more amenable to simple soundbites, slogans or tweets.

It is relatively simple to build solidarities around intimate networks of family and clan, as well as around a common language or religion. Human communities have already evolved systems of moral obligation toward those with whom they share ties of blood or belief.

In contrast, living in heterogeneous societies require capacities and habits that are relatively new in the history of the human species—namely, the duty of care we owe even to strangers and ideological enemies, based on a recognition of inviolable human rights, which is itself an relatively novel concept.

The argument for civic values rests on theories of human societies being diversely different; of identities being multiple and fluid; and of all religions being multivocal and therefore open to interpretation.

I’m not saying that people need PhDs to get it. But developing civic values is certainly a long term process that requires sensitive education policies, responsible media, and morally courageous political leadership among other things.

It is not surprising that, all over the world, politicians who seek quick success draw instead on narrow and exclusive definitions of nationhood.

So how then can we contribute positively to this contest through our work as scholars?

The modest and tentative conclusion that I’ve come to in my own work is never to be so naïve as to think that we are operating in a marketplace of ideas where truth inevitably defeats lies or good automatically overcomes evil.

Communication markets are distorted by power, and power is amoral. To make a positive difference, we need to be guided by a moral compass, and ready to engage in critical analysis of the structural and systemic distortions of the terrain on which we operate.