The Labelling of a Mass Society

I don’t know about you, but I know that I don’t consider my perspective of the world as identical to everyone else’s. I don’t interpret information in the same way, and I certainly don’t come to the same conclusions. And yet when society is addressed in terms of cultural studies, and especially in the study of propaganda, we begin to hear the term “the masses.”

What is meant by mass society? Propaganda is often defined as a way of manipulating “the masses.” But with this description comes the assumption that each person is receiving and responding to information in an identical way. Given, it is valid that propaganda campaigns address people in this way. But the use of the term isn’t limited to this argument.

When we hear about “mass media” and “mass culture” as they appeal to a mass society, we are essentially being told that within society there is this uniformity, this simplistic structure that simply doesn’t exist. While there are definite similarities in terms of lifestyle (sources of information, entertainment, basic behaviors and decisions), this in itself does not mean that each individual is one and the same.

When analyzing any given society, it needs to be considered that each individual makes decisions and assumptions based on personal experiences and beliefs. Simply because the sources of media and culture are generally similar, this doesn’t mean that people derive meaning in the same way. One needs to consider differences in personality and experience, both of which inevitably affect how people look at the world.

This also applies to the perception of perceived enemies, considering that in wartime the generalization of an enemy’s people is a common way of removing the humanity from those people. It is interesting that this removal of humanity extends to the interpretation of our own culture.

It all comes down to the issue of reception…

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The Issue of Reception

Motivation is essential when considering persuasion.  Knowing why an argument is being made is key to understanding the merit of that argument.  But what about the consequences?  In the long term, isn’t this what has the lasting impact?

One problem with many studies of propaganda is that they overlook the issue of reception.  In this case, analysis focuses on the tactics and methods of those producing propaganda, while overlooking how people receive and process the propaganda.  Anthony Pratkanis and Elliot Aronson (Age of Propaganda: The Everyday Use and Abuse of Persuasion) briefly address this when saying that recognizing propaganda tactics does not leave one immune to being manipulated by propaganda.  But this in itself is a vague explanation of reception.

While reception would be difficult to measure, especially in cases of propaganda’s effectiveness, there are questions that are worth considering when analyzing any specific case.

How does propaganda affect behavior?

Exactly how much of the population is in agreement with the propaganda?  Were they to begin with, or were they effectively persuaded?

What sorts of appeals are most effective to the audience?

What were the reactions of those who disagreed?

How was the propaganda received on an international basis?

Were the general consequences in accordance with the original motivations?

Or, some questions in reference to measuring reception itself:

Given the varying degrees to which people could be persuaded, how could the reception of propaganda be effectively measured?

Why isn’t this perspective generally addressed in studies of propaganda?

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Propaganda and War

Gaining the necessary support to wage a war obviously involves some pretty serious tactics of manipulation, especially after traditionally learning that it is immoral to kill. When comparing wartime propaganda, specific patterns begin to emerge.

1) Trivializing and/or villainizing the enemy is essential. Often times the enemy is compared to vermin, and euphemistic terms are used to describe violence against them. Additionally, groups that are being defended are often portrayed as weak and defenseless. This makes war justifiable by because the nation waging it is defending those who cannot defend themselves, and is fighting an enemy that is less than human and therefore not worthy of consideration on a human level.

2) To reinforce existing prejudices. (see previous post)

3) To wage the war on humanitarian grounds. This is a tactic commonly used as the “humane” approach to war. Of course, those taking the anti-war stance do so on humanitarian grounds as well–in this case, the motivation of both pro and anti-war advocates is essentially the same, but this commonality is overlooked based on discrepancies in the solution.

4) To prevent the spread of unethical doctrines and fascism (Nazism, communism, Saddam Hussein and the Baathist party, etc.)

5) Preemptive attack–this has been especially common in more recent years, as justified by the U.S.’s bombing of “potential” enemies.

The list could go on, and note that these are relatively basic commonalities and patterns. But their repetition is worth considering.

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Prejudice as Propaganda

It doesn’t take a very thorough study to recognize that one of the most successful and vicious methods of indoctrinating the masses is to enforce prejudice. This can be seen in extreme cases like the Holocaust, or in more subtle cases like exposure in the modern media. To a huge extent, television and mainstream film do a pretty good job of enforcing stereotypes, or at least limiting the amount to which they are challenged. I don’t have anything against straight white men, but I don’t want them controlling most of the important decisions that affect the rest of the population.

Take the upcoming election, for instance. Unless they live in a hole, it is likely that the majority of Americans know the two main candidates for the Democratic party were an African American and a woman. The press addressed this repeatedly. But do you think as many people could intelligently tell you about their platforms? What specific policies they value? Probably not.

Historically speaking, prejudice has been an effective way of boosting the esteem of the in-group and of perpetuating the “us versus them” dichotomy. Hitler used already existing anti-Semitism and anti-Bolshevism to promote German superiority and boost nationalism after the country was left injured by WWI. These prejudices were nothing new, which is why Hitler was able to get away with them to the extent that he did.

In America, this is especially true as well. There are plenty of examples, many of which are common knowledge, many of which aren’t.

The treatment of Japanese during WWII is one example of this. In school we are taught about Japanese Relocation. We see the pamphlets that were designed to distinguish Japanese citizens from “your Chinese friend.” We hopefully recognize this behavior as discriminatory and a human rights violation.

But then there are the aspects that aren’t addressed, or at least not as much. I can remember learning that the Americans took “trophies,” or body parts, from enemy soldiers they killed. I don’t remember learning that based on the photographic record of the war, not one of these “trophies” came from a European soldier. And I don’t remember learning about how deeply rooted anti-Asian prejudice was in American society–including a tax on pigtails in the 1800’s to prevent immigration from Asia, or popular conspiracy novels about Chinese and Japanese immigrants taking over America as a colony (Renny Christopher, The Viet Nam War/The American War). Maybe I received a particularly bad education, but it wouldn’t surprise me if a relatively large percentage of the population was unaware of this.

Then there is the genocide in America–the extermination of 95% of the Native American population as a way of supporting American colonization, resulting in the ostracizing and marginalizing of the remaining population.

Think about the way that war is justified. During WWII it was argued that the Japanese had no concern for human life. During the Vietnam War, the same argument was made about the Viet Cong. And today we have heard the same thing about the Iraqis.

Promoting prejudice has been and continues to be a major form of propaganda, and although in the U.S. it currently takes on more subtle forms, it needs to be addressed as a major ideological issue.

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The Individual versus the Community

Okay…now that I brought up the issue of dichotomies, here’s one that I’ve been personally conflicted about. Maybe it’s because there’s this underlying perspective that fiction and non-fiction are generally at odds. Fiction is the “opiate of the masses” and non-fiction is “the truth.”

When it comes to resisting propaganda, it is often suggested that the power really is in the people. It’s the work of the public that can promote media reform and a change in political standards. This is a really hopeful notion, one that I believe, for the most part, to be true.

But there is a certain association that goes with the word “activist.” It is the revolutionary, the person who devotes their life to a cause. It is the person functioning on behalf of the community.

I think this term scares a lot of people away. I remember an activist friend of mine once saying that it’s as if people who are trying to promote change have to work exponentially harder to make up for everyone who doesn’t. I think that to a large extent this is absolutely true. Change isn’t an unlikely goal–it only requires that everyone work a little harder.

But then it comes down to the individual functioning for the community. And this in itself isn’t fulfilling enough. For me, I can’t imagine not devoting time to these issues. It’s an important part of being human to have empathy for others, to look out for each other, to speak up for those who have been denied a voice. But then there’s the side that needs something more. To focus on the personal. To be an artist.

It can be different things to different people. To be successful. To be a good parent. Everyone has their own way of defining themselves.

I think it comes down to the fact that those in the spotlight–whether it be activists, scholars, journalists, politicians–are held to entirely different standards than everyone else. That’s why their personal lives are so pettily scrutinized. Anyone who carries their cause on their sleeve is bound to be criticized.

I think it’s the issue of balance that is so difficult. It’s essential for people to see these perspectives as one and the same–as essential components of being human. They might address different aspects of the human condition, but both are equally necessary.

Joseph Campbell once said that communities should be designed for the benefit of the individual rather than the individual for the benefit of the community. But I think a recognition of this balance is necessary before this goal can be achieved.

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A Perspective of Public Opinion

Public opinion polls in themselves don’t mean much. But they can provide insight into the way the government relates to the public.

Professor Justin Lewis made an interesting argument for this in the filmConstructing Public Opinion: How Politicians and the Media Misrepresent the Public (clip below), which is based on his book by the same title.

The premise of his argument was that the polls are designed as a way for politicians to respond to the needs of the public, which they clearly don’t do. One reason for this is that the way polls are worded. Lewis suggests that people tend to support vague conservative themes, but shift to a liberal perspective in terms of specific policies. For example, people will support a business’s right to control its use of land. However, when government regulation is framed as part of environmental protection, people will generally favor this policy.

Another argument is that most people are more liberal than the supposedly liberal politicians. Issues of education, health care, the environment, and poverty are generally considered important to the public. However, even the Democratic politicians tend to favor more conservative policies (note Clinton’s passage of NAFTA.)

And when these issues are addressed by the media, they are addressed in ways that favor conservative solutions. For example, when traffic becomes a problem, the solution isn’t to improve public transportation, but rather to build more roads or improve technology that makes traffic updates readily available.

The way that tax dollars are spent is one area where this becomes most evident. The funding devoted to the military is exponentially higher than that devoted to these social issues. At the time the film was made (2001), the amount of spending was equivalent to that during the Cold War. That number is more than likely higher today. The next leading spender was Russia (a U.S. ally,) and even when potential enemies’ spending was combined, it was outnumbered by the U.S. and its allies by 33:1.

These were definitely valid points. The way that tax dollars are spent is essential to understanding whether public interest is being addressed. And clearly the way polls are worded is going to affect their outcome.

Of course, Lewis did not address the fact that polls themselves are inaccurate and do not address the degree to which a person holds any given belief. Or that the selection of people being polled might have favored a certain group. Also, he naturally, like anyone else, selected information that supported his claim (who knows what media coverage was omitted.)

However, the perspective is at least worth considering as a study of propaganda and the increasing rift between the public and the elite.

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The Nature of Dichotomies

One noticeable pattern when it comes to formulating an argument is the use of binary thinking. In its most extreme it boils down to an “us versus them” mindset, at its least as “both sides” of an issue.

This is something that I know I’ve been guilty of. It’s probably impossible not to be. How often are political issues framed as conservative versus liberal, or Republican versus Democrat? In the mainstream media, one might argue almost exclusively. Clearly it isn’t this simple–there are always more than two ways of looking at an issue. And even between any two perspectives there is a spectrum.

This isn’t a new revelation. But at the same time, it’s difficult to perceive the world in such a complex way. Social psychologists have suggested some possible reasons for this. One is the need for self-image maintenance–the need to feel individual or unique, or in cases of prejudice, to boost self-esteem. Another reason is simply the need to sort information in a way that can be processed quickly. Easier to come to conclusions based on two possibilities than, say, a potentially infinite number of possibilities that would be involved otherwise.

But what happens when the majority of opinions are overlooked? It’s not surprising that people feel alienated and misrepresented by what is considered mainstream. And no wonder people are conflicted. How can we expect otherwise?

A set of dichotomies is applied to so many of the topics we hear about. You’re either for or against, say, abortion. Or war. And that’s what gets reported. The same thing when it comes to countries. It’s the U.S. versus whoever the given enemy is at the time. By overlooking commonalities, the humanity is removed from an entire group of people. And this is no way to resolve a dispute.

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