Saturday, 27 June 2015

UoN MOOC : Propaganda and Ideology in Everyday Life

BFTF has recently completed a MOOC (a "Massively Open Online Course") entitled "Propaganda and Ideology in Everyday Life" . It was provided by Future Learn (run by the Open University), drawing on academic expertise at the University of Nottingham, as well as documents from the British Library.

Below are the key points that BFTF took away from the course (which took about 15 hours, spread over 5 weeks). It goes without saying that the course content was a lot broader and more detailed than the selective summary points listed below. And worth adding that the online comments and discussions from the participants were every bit as interesting as the course itself.

Liberals believe that less government is better. For example, Edmund Burke (key figure in British conservatism) said "it is in the power of the state to prevent much evil, but it can do very little positive good" - but others have argued that politics is needed to overcome exploitation of citizens.

French philosopher Michel Foucault has argued that citizens needed to be behave in ways that made them easily governable. One analogy to this is the modern open plan office, where workers police each other, preventing skiving etc and ensuring the everyone keeps to the "norms" of behaviour. For Forcault, the modern state achieves something similar by having a population that internalises certain beliefs to the extent that they are felt to be self-evident. One can think of structures such as pensions, visas, insurance schemes etc as being examples of constraints on the freedom of a population, but they are not viewed as such.

Foucalt - with top button done up Bond villain stylee

The concept of "negative freedom", where people should be free do as they wish (such as smoke or gamble) so long as they are not harming others, versus...

The concept of "positive freedom", where people are believed not to be free if they are doing something wrong or irrational. For example, a smoker may not be free to quit smoking because of his addiction.

So, (dependent on whether they support "positive" or "negative" freedom) the policy of a government could vary from allowing people to self harm via smoking - to banning smoking to prevent addiction. Politicians will frame language to define "freedom" such that it supports their view. Steven Lukes, in his book "Power : A Radical Review" describes these forms of freedom as being "three faces of power", which are described by Wikipedia thus :

"This theory claims that governments control people in three ways: through decision-making power, non decision-making power and ideological power. Decision-making power is the most public of the three faces, and is the manner in which governments want to be seen: the power of governments to make policy decisions after widespread consultation with opposition parties and the wider public. Non decision-making power is the power that governments have to control the agenda in debates and make certain issues (such as the possible merits of Communism in the United States) unacceptable for discussion in moderate public forums. The third and most important face of power is ideological power, which is the power to influence people's wishes and thoughts, even making them want things opposed to their own self-interest (such as women supporting a patriarchal society)."

Ideologies can change. For example, 19th century liberalism was focused on private property. However, over time it became more interested in self development and then also in human welfare (i.e. by removing hunger, poverty etc).

The Marxist philosopher Gerry Cohen described how all political systems (from libertarian to communist) allocate freedoms differently. In a libertarian world, I may not have the freedom to pitch a tent on "your" land, whereas I could in a communist world, for example.

We think we are free, but where is the closest place you could pitch  a tent?

Interesting that the historical context in Italy resulted in a common view that irregular soldiers fighting for freedom (e.g. WW2 partisans) were honourable, in contrast to professional soldiers fighting for pay.

Also interesting was mention of Naipaul's comments on how strong tribal codes and national laws do not mix well: "Where there was no law, no institutions that men could trust, the code and the idea of honor protected men. But it also worked the other way. Where the code was strong there could be no rule of law. In the frontier...the modern state was withering away; it was superfluous. People were beginning to live again with the idea of clan and fiefdom..."

To revisit an earlier theme, it is worth noting that the ideas that a group has dictate what they believe is good and bad, as well as their behavior. Critically, these views and behaviours become ingrained over time to the extent that people stop noticing them (this process is called socialisation).

Fashion is a great example of socialisation. This get up was fine in 1761 -
but is unlikely to win you a promotion at the office in 2015.

Nationalism can be viewed as a politic that aims to align the nation and the state. To achieve this, some nationalists try to achieve a homogenous population, either by assimilating or by expelling immigrants or other minority groups. In its most extreme form, this is expressed as fascism.

Nationalism can be ethnic (defined by birthplace, ancestry and race), or it can be civic (defined by rights, responsibilities and values)

One way that nationalism can be reinforced is by so-called "banal nationalism" of barely noticed symbols and language (e.g. the countryside, flags, sporting events, Hovis, afternoon tea)

Fascinating to learn how Communist China encouraged its multi-ethnic population to ethnically self-define but had to back pedal when thousands of groups came forward, some with only a few members. The government eventually reduced the number of groups to 56

The rolling countryside of the Cotswolds, often used as banal propaganda

Thinking about maps, it is worth considering not only which maps have been made but also which maps HAVEN'T been made (BFTF notes that maps of who owns land are conspicuous by their absence). And also which maps are kept and which are throw away (elements of history being written by the victors here perhaps?)

Urban planning can also be a form of political planning.

Public service films are a rich furrow of propaganda, with one example being given that of the 1939 film "A Midsummer Day's Work", which looked at the construction of telephone lines across the county, emphasising their ability to connect communities and connecting images of hi-tech telecoms with images of rural idylls.

Interesting to learn that "rational" legal systems (as proposed by Cesare Beccaria for example), where rich and poor were treated alike are a relatively recent phenomena and the public courtrooms they require have only been in existence for the last 200 years or so.

But there is a difference between "the law" and "justice", with the latter being a much more subjective and contested space than the black and white of the former.

Interesting to consider the similarities between exile of people by the Russian state to Siberia and exile of people by the British state to Australia...

Early 20th Century French thinker, George Sorel was fascinated by the stories of Christian martyrs who had given up their lives for a cause they believed in. He was searching for a similar myth that could be used to unity the working class into siezing the means of production. The myth he decided upon was that of the General Strike. Sorel expected violence to be used, but wanted it be be in a very idealised, limited form.

Perhaps ironically, it turned out that Sorel had the right idea, but the wrong myth. It was nationalism that proved the most effective motivator to get people to rally to a cause. Indeed, it was the fascist Mussolini said that he had "learned the most from Sorel".

Richard Tunney describes how people are more irrational (or, in other words, altruistic) when dealing with close family and friends than when dealing with strangers.

Benito Mussolini - a fan of George Sorel. Pictured here doing a knock out impersonation of Colonel Kurtz.

Considering Public Health campaigns, Canadian researcher Dr R.E.G Upshur has suggested that there are four principles for the justification of Public Health Interventions:

The Harm Principle,
The Principle of Least Restrictive Means,
The Reciprocity Principle, and
The Transparency Principle

In the context of consumer taste (food, art, decor etc), the 1960s French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu argued that upper and middle class cultural taste was something that functioned just like monetary capital in that it gave status and opened doors. Thus these classes worked hard to ensure that their children had the "right" tastes. (something that chimes with a pithy comment that BFTF heard recently "Class is how you are prejudiced against people who look like you").

Governments have sometimes taken up the baton of nudging the population towards "better" taste, as in the UK example of the post war Council of Industrial Design

And in these ecologically aware times, companies can often persuade people to "buy ethical" as a salve to their conscience.

[This can often extend into greenwashing]

[True story from BFTF : Once, when travelling down the M1, stopped at a service station to buy a cup of coffee. Asked for Fairtrade, as is BFTF's tendency, and noticed that there were a great many teens and twentysomethings also at the service station. Turned out that they were on their way to London for a big charity concert in aid of the developing world. BFTF asked the guy at the coffee stall how many of these people were asking for Fairtrade when buying their coffees. "None of them" came back the reply"....]

A particularly interesting discussion related to the comparison of the dystopian futures depicted by George Orwell (in "1984") and Aldous Huxley (in "Brave New World")

Orwell feared that the population would be controlled by fear, censorship, doublespeak and the banning of books.

Huxley feared that the the population would be controlled by apathy, pursuit of pleasures and a deluge of trivial distractions.

Author Neil Postman suspected that Huxley got it right and described how in his book "Amusing ourselves to Death" (see also some cartoons on this here)

BFTF worries that some people regard this book not as a dystopian vision, but as more of a project plan

Image Sources
Foucalt, Tent, 1761, Cotswolds, Mussolini, Brave New World