Detracting From the Narrative

My personal feeling is that citizens of the democratic societies should undertake a course in intellectual self-defence to protect themselves from manipulation and control. — Noam Chomsky

As I grow older, it’s curious how some of the catchphrases bequeathed by my parents, and no doubt handed down by their parents, take on a halo of wisdom.

“Two wrongs don’t make a right”: that was my noisy mother shouting at three boys bent on poking and prodding each other, who would each then complain and give the excuse that the other guy started it. I’m convinced now that on the rock of that simple statement an entire ethical edifice could be constructed, for individuals, communities and nations.

“Don’t believe what you read in the newspapers”: both my father and mother this time, when as lads we might describe some political or unusual event reported fervently in the newspapers or other media.

Subversive knowledge

This subversive statement could only be a bequest from earlier generations of working class, farming and business people in both family lines. They are all unknown to me, those ancestors, although I recall a book of old photos of extremely plain and homely women in Victorian finery on my mother’s side, unknown even to her. Yet there seemed to be a strain of undisciplined, critical intelligence, usually unfocussed on the trappings of success, that descended to us, the unruly lads of my parents.

I’m struck by the mock-academic tone of some current affairs commentators — say on CNN — when they talk about the construction of narratives by politicians and their cronies, although it does encapsulate an interesting way of looking at competing factions and viewpoints. It’s all about who gets to tell the story, and who is convinced of it. It’s about manipulation of information to move people politically and ideologically, or medically.

Pandemic?

I’m thinking of the H1N1 “pandemic.” I think the World Health Organization has shot themselves in the foot this time. They’ve cried wolf about a disease that on balance is roughly comparable, or less, to the flu we all deal with every year. The northern hemisphere even had the benefit of observing the less than fearsome aspect of the “second-wave” in Australia and other southern jurisdictions.

In Canada, at least, though, we heard panicky statements about the second wave, the need for millions of doses, the spending of billions of dollars, and the lack of need for thorough testing for a “completely safe” substance (although so-called unadjuvanted vaccines would be provided for pregnant woman — to me this is strong medical doubt about the safety of the adjuvanted variety).

The newspapers and other media were full of trumpeted calls to get vaccinated right now… no time to lose, or the sky would fall.

Of course, there wasn’t enough vaccine for everybody who should have it right away. And the demand created by the media resulted in long line-ups at clinics and increasing restrictions to select groups (except for some teams of hockey players who jumped the queue — the fans might catch it from them, you know…).

Now health officials are complaining that people are starting to lose interest in getting vaccinated as the “crisis” winds down. As of today, 250 people have died of swine flu in Canada. During regular flu season, as many as 4,000 will die. Permit me to add the voice of a health official, the former chief medical officer of the province of Ontario, critical of the entire vaccine situation as it was perpetrated by the authorities and mainstream media:

“I’m not letting the media off the hook totally, but I think the real villains of the piece here have been those public health officials who have consistently overplayed and overstated the importance of what is happening.”

So the near hysteria has begun to dissipate as the fearmongering largely came to nought. This will require a new object of fearmongering.

The power of the media

This is a lovely case study of a social narrative manipulating people, and the power of the media.

I become more and more skeptical of the mass purveyors of the news — they are primarily, it seems to me, agents of social manipulation. Oh there is news, when it can be distinguished from entertainment, and occasionally useful information is brought forward, but that does not seem to be the primary purpose. I think of sportscasts on CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) radio twice as long as the short news blurbs given without context or critical thought. I think of CNN’s relentless focus on the death of Michael Jackson for what seemed weeks. Surely there is a wide world out there, with significant events that need informed attention. No?

Recently on CBC TV I saw the host of a news show seriously question the necessity for the usual overheated rhetoric of a reporter who provided a typically fearful segment on the swine flu. This reporter readily and even pridefully gloried in the power of her report to rouse people to action and anxiety. She seemed indifferent to whether or not it might be totally accurate. It was a telling moment for me.

By the way, there’s an intriguing article by J.M. Balkin on how the media simulate political transparency — the nature of the mass media such as TV is to subvert the information they may attempt to impart. And for a more readable take on the media and propaganda check out Methods of Media Manipulation by Michael Parenti.

The struggle for the narrative

We see this struggle for the control of the mass “narrative” on every hand. Take global warming, for instance, which is considered of real concern by just about every scientific body on the planet. Yet, the real problems that are in progress right now are obfuscated by undeclared lobby groups with ostensibly respectable names and professionals specializing in denial funded by big power. The tobacco industry went through the same process when the link to cancer became obvious, but apparently the money behind the current crop of global warming skeptics is even more stupendous.

Sometimes there’s not even a struggle: the “narrative” is taken as given and it becomes a subtext of the culture at large… I think of the constant and subtle glorifications of war that go on continuously in the media and in our hearts.

When I was a kid, living in a log cabin lined with books in the wilds of British Columbia, my mother at some point ordered for us the logic game Wff ‘N’ Proof. She aspired for us more than we were capable of or interested in: I don’t think my brothers and I ever seriously played it, preferring the excitement of Risk and Pit to the arid climes of logic.

Lorne Greene

But as part of that same game package, there was The Propaganda Game, co-written by Lorne Greene, of Bonanza fame and old-time CBC radio announcer. (Interestingly, he acted in the HBO mockumentary The Canadian Conspiracy, about the supposed subversion of the United States by Canadian-born media personalities.)

I remember in the game documents that he expressed concern about the need for independent thinking from the citizenry, and this was his way of contributing.   I spent some time with The Propaganda Game, although again my younger brothers weren’t very keen on playing. They always claim I cheat…

In the game, players learn to identify prejudice, causal oversimplification, faulty analogy, tabloid and wishful thinking, hasty generalization, attacking a straw man, appeals to ignorance, emotion, flattery, pity, prestige, etc. (For a short course on the mechanisms of propaganda covered in the game see these excerpts…. )

The “Expert Game”

In the “expert game,” one seeks examples from the real world.

Why is this, or something very similar, not taught seriously in every school at every level? Who controls the narrative on these kinds of enquiries as a staple of education?

In his article on the manipulation of images as a means of controlling the social narrative about the Iraq war, David Hiles cites Noam Chomsky’s plea above.

In a heartening related article, teacher educators Mark Hofer and Kathleen Swan examine how educating students about the technology of photo manipulation can give insight into how to best “read” images.

The power of technology, its speed and versimilitude in controlling narratives, is substantially more than in Lorne Greene’s day.

I found this journal article excerpt by Anthony Kubiak on the narrative of terror and terrorism to have a useful discussion on what “narrative” actually means. He states narrative and the structures it builds are prior to language. I’m not sure…

And whatever the basis of terrorism, that one man’s terrorist can be, sorrowfully, another man’s role-model, brings home to me that my parents’ compressed truths above would do well to hold sway.

“Two wrongs don’t make a right. Don’t believe what you read in the papers.”  Thanks, all my relatives.

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2 Comments on “Detracting From the Narrative”


  1. Hi Fencer,
    This is indeed thoughtful commentary.
    I find the news so empty of real factual information that I barely listen to it anymore. We get snippets of what is going on, but no depth at all; and if the story is sensational enough, it can be repeated for days with hardly any change to the text.
    I find CBC Newsworld panels the most interesting – especially when they have a representative of each official political party because then they bring out more information or opinion and often refute one another, so that there is a feeling that there is more than one way to look at a single event.
    One needs to be in the corridors to power to know what is going on, and even then, there is much masking of activity so that there can be no protest. We so often find out what is happening after the fact when it is too late to have any say in molding the activity.
    K

  2. fencer Says:

    Hey, lookingforbeauty,

    Thanks for your thoughts…

    It seems almost like we’re in the bottom of the information well, while those in the know decide what to throw in…

    Regards


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