Make no mistake: this divide is intentional. And it surreptitiously exploits our mental frameworks.
In modern America, the metaphor of rival teams is a convenient way to identify and separate our values, organize information, and employ mental shortcuts. Neuroscientists call these mental shortcuts heuristics.
Think of them as file folders in the filing cabinet that is our brain. These files are created very early in life, helping us organize and make sense of the world.
During our developmental years, we begin with such basic labels as Good (candy, Mom, toys) and Bad (broccoli, bullies, dentists). Or Relevant (school schedule, medicines) and Irrelevant (brother’s school schedule, mom’s medicines).
As adults, when we hear a newsflash about illegal immigrants, we may file that under Conservative. If we skim a headline about transgender bathrooms, we may file that under Liberal. Or we may associate Tuna Helper with Poor People, and foie gras with Fancy People. Or Buffalo Wild Wings with White Males, and Popeye’s with Black Males.
To clarify, these statements do not affirm the associations.
These are examples of how we often process information, usually unconsciously, often incorrectly, based on our cultural cues, our family views, and regional social norms.
The problem with such labeling is it leaves little room for complexity, nuance, or adjustments. It often relies on stereotypes, be they positive (Asians are good at math) or negative (white men can’t dance). It confines us to narrow thinking patterns, resulting in Us v. Them thinking.
If you subscribe to a team mentality, then you are likely to filter out information that does not apply to your team. Worse, you may reject it merely because a word triggers a negative reaction.
It’s easy to see how positive associations warrant our attention, while negative ones are easily dismissed.
"When we are rushed, we don’t have the time to take into account all of the factors at play within a decision," writes Robert Cialdini in his new book Pre-Suasion. "Instead, we are likely to rely on a lone shortcut factor to steer us."
These mental shortcuts become our default wiring. The more conditioned we are to associate people, issues, or ideas with one of these file labels, the harder it is to correct course.
For instance, if a male child picks up a girl’s doll, but is chastised by his parents, he begins to associate his feminine preferences with Shame. The more this is reinforced by family and society, the harder it will be for him to accept his sexuality later in life, ultimately leading to depression, low self esteem, and self-loathing, which he may never shake.
Becoming self-aware of these mental patterns, and actively seeking to rewire them, is the foundation of cognitive therapy, i.e. Psychiatry.
Remaining unaware of these mental patterns is the foundation of Advertising, Marketing, and Public Relations, i.e. Propaganda.
It is no coincidence that Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis, is indirectly responsible for the American advertising industry. Trying to understand human desires and behaviors, Freud pioneered the field of psychology.
Freud’s nephew, Edward Bernays, used these psychological insights to manipulate public opinion. In his aptly named book Propaganda, he outlines key manipulation tactics, which Hitler used as a Nazi playbook.
Propaganda is the art of public influence, the marketing of ideology, typically using indirect means.
When I began college to pursue a degree in Advertising, I thought that meant billboards and movie trailers, or jingles and logos. But I was a naive teenager. Today, the industry’s reach is far wider, and more insidious.
See if you can tell what the following have in common:
Boston Tea Party
Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade
Olympic Torch Relay
NASA shuttle launches
Marilyn Monroe’s skirt flying up over a sidewalk grate for The Seven Year Itch
Marketing methods are not always obvious. They do not look like a road sign declaring the next gas station. Instead, they’re the reason we celebrate Valentine’s Day, buy chocolate for Easter, and insist on diamonds for wedding rings.
Such Marketing strategies are not limited to consumerism, but infect every aspect of American life. They mold our personal values, shape our perceptions, and undermine our political process.
To put simply, and to quote Edward Bernays, they “engineer consent.”
MANUFACTURING OUR CONSENT
In Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky’s groundbreaking book Manufacturing Consent, they explain this concept as follows:
Diamonds might be forever, but they sure as hell aren’t rare. We only think they are because DeBeers holds a monopoly on the world’s diamond mines, and as long as we believe this, we’ll continue to overpay for jewels more common than rubies.
The trick to both of these campaigns is undermining science. If they do it long enough, it becomes impossible to file climate change info in the Science or Important file. The doubt they’ve manufactured creates too much confusion. With so many mixed messages, we default to what’s easiest; we toss it in either Liberal or Conservative files, which means half of us disregard it altogether.
The Bush Administration’s Iraq War campaign is a case study on manufacturing consent. "From a marketing point of view you don't introduce new products in August,” explained White House Chief of Staff Andy Card on the rollout of the war. The better strategy was to feed off the anniversary of 9/11 and capitalize on the fear of terrorism all the way to the midterm elections.
"See, in my line of work you got to keep repeating things over and over and over again for the truth to sink in, to kind of catapult the Propaganda." —George W. Bush
Talk about a Freudian Slip.
These manufactured messages are so pervasive and often repeated, most of us don’t realize they were developed by committees out of Mad Men.
“Post Truth” is another way of saying decisions based largely on Belief, not on verifiable data or truth. In other words, on how we think things work, often informed by Marketing messages, Ad campaigns, political distortions, urban legends, or Propaganda. This includes lies, half-truths, myths, folklore, misinformation, and even gossip.
“I’m paid to deceive. My job is to lie to the media so they can lie to you. I cheat, bribe, and connive...I orchestrate these deceptions for...high-profile clients... I create and shape the news for them. Usually it’s a simple hustle. Someone pays me, I manufacture a story for them, and we trade it up the chain – from a tiny blog...to cable news and back again, until the unreal becomes real. Sometimes I put out a press release or ask a friend to break a story on their blog. Sometimes I ‘leak’ a document. Sometimes I fabricate a document and leak that. Really, it can be anything from validating a Wikipedia page to producing an expensive viral video. However the play starts, the end is the same. The economics of the Internet are exploited to change public perception – and sell product.”
When these messages influence our perceptions, our life stories, and our Beliefs, they manufacture our consent. And we are none the wiser.
PRISONS OF BELIEF
From primary school, you may recall the Reading lessons on Fact and Opinion. At the time, the distinction seemed obvious, mainly because the examples were so easy.
Fact: The sky is blue.
Opinion: Ishtar is underrated.
If only things were so simple.
A Belief is little more than an opinion, often accompanied with great conviction.
We believe it to be true, but it’s taken on faith. Regardless of how fervently it’s believed, it is not backed up by certifiable proof; it does not pass scientific rigor; it does not hold up in court.
These Beliefs appeal to our desire to make sense of the world and to find meaning.
Whether we realize it or not, they are often constructed out of fear. We need to be assured that life is not random, but a reciprocal relationship between our behavior and our destiny.
One of society’s key Belief generators is organized religion, and it plays a powerful role in how we view the world. To encourage us to live honorable lives, Churches would have us believe the world is one of reciprocity.
This means: If we obey the Lord, then our lives will be spared misfortune.
This idea that life is reciprocal – that we get what we deserve – is a Belief. It is not grounded in reality. If it were true, the world would look entirely different. But it doesn’t work that way. Six million Jews did not die in the Holocaust because they skipped synagogue.
Sometimes, bad things happen to good people. Accidents occur. Life can be random, even meaningless.
Good people die each day, years before their time, for no reason. Bad people live longer and enjoy better lives because they have no conscience to guilt them. The wealthiest can get away with murder because they can afford better lawyers, or can buy off lawmakers. The poorest may rot in jail, even when they’re innocent, because of human error and lack of resources.
These are inconvenient truths many of us would prefer to ignore. But not all of us have that luxury, especially those who are not white, straight, and gainfully employed.
The world is not fair; it is not just; nor is it always comprehensible.
Bill Cosby drugging and raping women for half a century, but only spending his last 10+ years of life in prison is NOT justice; it’s getting away with 50 years of rape during the prime of his life because of power and money. Whatever meager sentence he receives will be the equivalent of a retirement home downgrade as he transitions from senility to a death bead.
These beliefs of reciprocity are wishful thinking. They are how we want the world to work.
Our brains cling to these Beliefs in order to protect us from truths that threaten our sense of security. And we don’t like to feel insecure. In fact, we go to great lengths not to feel insecure.
“Once we form beliefs and make commitments to them, we maintain and reinforce them through a number of powerful cognitive heuristics that guarantee they are correct.“
Thus, our Beliefs distort our perceptions so they can fit in our file folders. These folders, or heuristics, are more commonly known by another name – bias.
“No matter what belief system is in place – religious, political, economic, or social – these cognitive biases shape how we interpret information that comes through our senses and mold it to fit the way we want the world to be and not necessarily how it really is.” —Michael Shermer, The Believing Brain
The name of that process is called “belief confirmation.”
These Beliefs confirm our sense of identity. They create our personal narratives, which we use to understand our life story.
Explains Margaret Heffernan in Willful Blindness:
"We all strive to preserve an image of ourselves as consistent, stable, competent, and good. Our most cherished beliefs are a vital and central part of who we are – in our own eyes and the eyes of our friends and colleagues. Anything or anyone that threatens that sense of self produces pain that feels just as dangerous and unpleasant as hunger or thirst. A challenge to our big ideas feels life-threatening. And we strive mightily to reduce the pain, either by ignoring the evidence that proves we are wrong, or by reinterpreting evidence to support us."
This means: If we think the world is one of reciprocity, and if our own experience seems to confirm it, then we are more likely to dismiss uncomfortable information.
This is why white people don’t understand Black Lives Matter. This is why men do not understand women’s rights, equal pay issues, or sexual harassment. This is why straight people don’t want, or don’t care about, gay discrimination.
“Faced with the choice between changing one's mind and proving that there is no need to do so, almost everyone gets busy on the proof.” —John Kenneth Galbraith
This conflict between Belief and reality creates what scientists call “cognitive dissonance.”
"It occurs when our thoughts or ideas about the world clash, and we feel tension and internal conflict, which is unpleasant for us. Seeking internal harmony, we make a choice – often not consciously – to focus on something other than the conflict, which could be irrational and maladaptive behavior."
This is the price we pay for reducing life’s complexity into oversimplified file folders.
So, if our brains are working against us so that we feel safe, how can we tell what’s reality? And which Beliefs are influenced by propaganda?
Remember: The single purpose of Advertising is to sell us something, whether it’s in the form of Public Relations, Publicity, or political communication… it’s all the same.
Whether Marketers want us to try a new soft drink, watch a new TV show, or vote for a new candidate, they are selling us an image of what they think we want to buy.
Which brings us to another part of the Marketing machine. See if you can guess what these items have in common:
Fair and Balanced
Tough on crime / War on drugs
War on Christmas
Obama is a Muslim / doesn’t have a birth certificate
Hillary is crooked / untrustworthy
Liberal media / liberal bias
Academics as elitists
Naturally, these are all Beliefs. But before they became Beliefs, they had to be created. These paid-for slogans were crafted in strategy meetings, approved by committee, launched like a product, and repeated so often our heuristics fire just reading the list.
They are examples of Branding. These Brand identities shape how we see political candidates. They anchor us with positive or negative feelings, and we stay loyal to brands for emotional (read: subjective) reasons, not rational (read: objective) data.
When Advertising invades politics, and political rhetoric becomes Brands, capitalism has truly triumphed over democracy.
These methods of persuasion are invective attempts to wield power and influence.
Here’s how they work:
Family Values: Who doesn’t believe in family values? What’s being sold here isn’t morals, religion, or wholesomeness. It’s deliberately inferring that the other candidate is not someone with Family Values.
"In hushed conversations around the halls, these young staffers wondered why the channel masked Ailes’ conservative aims with the Fair and Balanced slogan. One former producer remembered exchanges like this: “What is the crime in coming out and saying what we’re doing? Everyone knows this is what we’re doing… Why do we have to keep it a secret? ...It’s so blatantly obvious.”...The conservative dream of establishing a counter-media hinged, in large part, on convincing the viewers that what they were getting was news, not propaganda. “Fair and Balanced” was a commercial necessity. “If you come out and you try to do right-wing news, you’re gonna die. You can’t get away with it,” [Roger] Ailes said to the Hartford Courant."
Tough on Crime: Who isn’t tough on crime? No one wants convicts roaming the streets looking for victims. This operates much like Family Values, but with one telltale distinction. It was created as a code for “nonwhites.”
"Under Reagan, the Department of Justice de-emphasized investigations of white collar crime – precisely the sort of sophisticated, inter-state crime that requires a well-funded national response. Instead, the Reagan administration made street crime its principal target, declaring a ‘war on drugs.’"
Considering both drug use and crime were in decline, why did they do this?
For two reasons:
1) Power: They were continuing Nixon’s Southern Strategy, devised in response to the Civil Rights Movement. Republicans knew that if they could tap into the white outrage of the era, they’d secure the white vote for the rest of the century. And they did.
2) Racism: The War on Drugs was conceived by the Nixon administration as a way to lock up all demographics that conservatives of power weren’t partial to: blacks, gays, and hippies. Instead of trying to incorporate people of color into the economy, it was easier to create laws that could throw them in jail.
"The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did."
Other scripted talking points from these campaigns include: the concept of a welfare queen; the idea the government can’t do anything right; that welfare recipients are trying to game the system; that white people’s tax dollars are spent on lazy black people; that immigrants are stealing our jobs; that blacks have lower IQ’s than whites, and endless other racist lies...
“By 1968 you can’t say “nigger”—that hurts you... So you say stuff like, uh, forced busing, states’ rights, and all that stuff... Now, you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is, blacks get hurt worse than whites.…”
(This is not unlike in the 90s when MTV needed to purge its older viewers still around from the 80s. They did this by airing divisive shows like Beavis and Butthead, which fragmented their audience down to the desired demographic: teens.)
b) America was founded for religious freedom. This means the freedom to practice ANY religion, be it Mormonism, Scientology, or Festivus. Freedom means each of us gets to choose, not some of us get to choose for everyone else.
Hillary: I’ve written before about the Hillary Clinton bias; when one political party loses power, and they cannot fight their rivals on the issues, they resort to name calling and smearing. Republicans like Newt Gingrich and Karl Rove have revolutionized this type of negative Public Relations.
Think for a moment: Which politicians do you associate with unflattering labels?
My guess is, only ones from a single party, as it’s generally a small group of political operatives who employ these tactics. Thus, these negative associations are emotionally based, not grounded in evidence. If it were verifiable, why don’t we have strong emotional reactions to other politicians guilty of the same thing?
If you can’t fight the message, fight the messenger. Which brings us to the next label.
Elites/Elitists: The reason America has such anti-intellectual problems is because political interests have taught us to disregard experts. Expertise was once respected, but now it is undermined.
Dismissing expert scientists, academics, economists, or journalists by calling them “Elites,” is one more way to smear someone who has an argument you can’t win, especially when he contradicts doctrine, religion, or party platforms. This is known as an ad hominem attack.
Science and data can be such a nuisance when your Belief system requires unquestionable loyalty.
Like Big Oil and Big Tobacco, our leaders who discredit nonpartisan experts by questioning their findings are trying to preserve their political agenda, and their power. This is particularly true when it pertains to their biggest campaign donors: big oil, dark money, Wall Street, and any other corporate sponsors underwriting their legislation.
If you want to mistrust an Elite, make sure it’s an Economic Elite whose commercial interests prohibit common sense solutions to global warming, deforestation, pollution, poverty, gun control, mass incarceration, failed drug policies, healthcare reform, price gauging, or credit protection, to name only a few.
Whoever stands to lose the most money is usually up to no good. This is how we can tell when politicians, corporate sponsors, or political parties use such deceitful tricks.
Our partisan divide begins with Media Manipulators, who disseminate Propaganda through media outlets, which affirm their audience’s Beliefs. These are echoed by politicians, who are funded by the Economic Elites who paid for the manipulation, all in one never-ending circle of deception.
When we stop thinking critically, we surrender to these reinforced Beliefs, perpetuated by clever Branding, pervasive Public Relations, strategic Marketing, Advertising campaigns, and a Journalism of Affirmation.
SEPARATING PROPAGANDA FROM POLITICS
Movements and ideas tend to develop in one of two ways:
Invention: Something isn’t working for a segment of the population, so they seek solutions.
FaceBook, wanting a visual phone book to see what other students look like
eBay, an online auction house no longer limiting antique stores to their geographic region.
Black Lives Matter, demanding that cops stop murdering unarmed black men.
Gay Rights Movement, demanding equal protections under the law.
The Women’s March, demanding that women be treated with the same respect as men.
Ironically, the anti-science lobbyists employ science to deceive us - a double whammy.
The dead giveaway of an opposition tactic is playing into anger and fear, usually through racist or sexist tension and stereotypes.
The key to knowing when these tactics are used is to focus on the powerful, not the powerless.
Inciting anger at the powerless (such as the poor) is always a tactic of manipulation by the powerful (business interests). This has been consistent throughout world history in every civilization.
This is the sole reason for the racial divide in the South. As Nancy Isenberg’s explains in her phenomenal work White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America:
“Even when it’s denied, politicians engage in class issues. The Civil War was a struggle to shore up both a racial AND a class hierarchy. The Confederacy was afraid that poor whites would be drawn in by Union appeals and would vote to end slavery – because slavery was principally a reflection of the wealthy planters’ self-interest... It was James Oglethorpe in Georgia who first put into practice a sensitive and sensible idea: allowing slavery to thrive would retard economic opportunity and undermine social mobility for average white men and their families. In this way, racial dominance was intertwined with class dominance in the southern states, and the two could never be separated as long as a white ruling elite held sway over politics and rigged the economic system to benefit the few.”
In other words, white plantation owners (the 1%) convinced the middle and lower classes (the 99%) to hate blacks in order to secure their financial interests. (Slavery was a workforce they didn’t have to pay.)
But it’s hard to see this when our Bias reinforces our prison of Belief.
Since Beliefs are based in fear, abandoning Belief requires bravery.
It’s all too easy to disregard new information that disrupts our understanding of the world. It’s easier to rely on bigoted Belief systems we inherited from former generations, institutionalized in our culture.
"It is always useful to think badly about people one has exploited or plans to exploit," writes James W. Loewen in Lies My Teacher Told Me. "Modifying one’s opinions to bring them into line with one’s actions or planned actions is the most common outcome of...cognitive dissonance."
In The Republican Brain, Chris Mooney explains, "You can cobble together and defend an assortment of facts that bolster your identity and satisfy your psychological needs. On history, as on science, as on economics, conservatives have done just this: they’ve written a powerful and compelling, though inaccurate, script that reinforces their system of beliefs in both a logical and an emotional way. A narrative they can then pass on to children at their earliest ages."
These long-held Belief systems continue to thrive because they work. It’s how the powerful subjugate the powerless.
But it traps us in a prison of Belief. We are unable to see the bars made of our own bias.
“The ultimate failure of the United States will probably not derive from the problems we see or the conflicts we wage; it will more likely derive from our uncompromising belief in the things we consider unimpeachable and idealized and beautiful.” —Chuck Klosterman, But What if We’re Wrong?
Rejecting information that challenges our Beliefs keeps us from evolving. Remaining trapped in a partisan vacuum, we deny infinite knowledge only a keyboard click away.
When we avoid discomfort in favor of ignorance, we sacrifice democracy in the process.
This is the high cost of low politics. And why America’s future remains uncertain. The forces that peddle lies have too much at stake to correct course, and they are only growing more powerful.
Writes Isenberg: "A pseudo-aristocracy of wealth finds a way to assert its social power. We see how inherited wealth grants status without any guarantee of merit or talent. To wit: would we know Donald Trump, George W. Bush, Jesse Jackson Jr., or such Hollywood names as Charlie Sheen and Paris Hilton, except for the fact that these, and many others like them, had powerful, influential parents?"
The principles of Propaganda and Psychology are at work tirelessly whether we realize it or not.
These merchants of Marketing will not go quietly, nor relinquish their reigns in a moment of conscience. Their money buys influence. Their influence buys power. And power has no conscience. It is only concerned with control.
Controlling the message is how they control the people.
The only way to break free is through critical thinking.
“Civilization is in a race between education and catastrophe. Let us learn the truth and spread it as far and wide as our circumstances allow. For the truth is the greatest weapon we have.” –H.G. Wells
The biggest mistake of those who don’t use Propaganda is that they underestimate its power.
We often assume people are smart enough to see through the slander. But we’re weened on a media diet that knows no boundaries.
We each live in different target markets, segmented by race, gender, and class, reinforced by media messages tailored to our preferences.
Our Beliefs are a combination of stories we are sold, and stories we are told, mythologized by our environment.
If those stories aren’t based in truth, they may be doing more harm than good.