Memes, Political Persuasion, and Political Intimidation

An interesting and important post at Quillette: Confessions of a Social-Justice Meme Maker.

I observe that political memes today tend not only to be oversimplified, which goes with the nature of the medium, but also to be insulting.  Political communication today has too often abandoned persuasion in favor of approaches which are believed to rally ‘the base’ while insulting opponents.

I am again reminded of something that Stalin’s master propagandist, Willi Munzenberg, said to Arthur Koestler back when Koestler was still a Communist:

Don’t argue with them, Make them stink in the nose of the world. Make people curse and abominate them. Make them shudder with horror. That, Arturo, is propaganda!

A very high proportion of political memes today would cause Munzenberg to nod in approval.

In addition to stirring up one’s own side (good for contributions and for election day turnout!), a sufficiently vitriolic stream of insults can intimidate opponents from speaking out, lest they themselves be subject to such attacks. This intimidation is more effective, though, when a political side largely dominates the channels of communication, as the Left dominates most American media today.

The insult-and-intimidate approach, though, does have a downside: it may well alienate people who are somewhat aligned with the opposing side but may still be persuadable.  Even if they are intimidated from speaking out, they may still remember the sting of the insults when they alone in the voting booth.  Few practitioners of meme-driven insults and other forms of hostile political communication seem worried about this side effect of their work, though.

A factor that should not be underrated: many people get a certain kind of pleasure from engaging in cruelty while feeling virtuous and also reinforcing their sense of membership in an in-group.  See this horrible example from the UK.  I’ve seen no evidence that this particular incident had anything to do directly with memes, but I’m confident that the same kind of attitude is well-represented among the forwarders and makers of malign political memes.  My 2018 post Conformity, Cruelty, and Political Activism is relevant here.

As I noted above, memes oversimplify, by their very nature.  As the author of the linked Quillette post winds up her piece:  “Everything worth knowing is much more complex than any slogan can possibly convey.”

While this is true, it is also true that the kind of simplification represented by memes is by no means a new thing.  Political cartoons, for example, can be seen as a forerunner of memes.  Is the effect of today’s bad memes any worse than that of scurrilous political cartoons in, say, 1900?  I think that it may be: In 1900, literacy (in a broad sense) was on an upswing, and key cultural institutions of society were encouraging more of it, as did the technologies of the time. Whereas today, literacy (in the sense of being able to read, follow, and understand arguments of some complexity) seems to be on the decline, a trend certainly aggravated by the short-attention-span nature of much Internet media.

Neal Stephenson wrote an interesting little book called In the Beginning Was the Command Line.  While the book does talk about human interfaces to computer systems, its deeper subject is the impact of media and metaphors on thought processes and on work.  He contrasts the explicit word-based interface to systems and to information with the graphical or sensorial interface.

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Ready to Ride

In the apocalyptic visions of St. John, the third of the four Apocalyptic Horsemen is Famine, the other four being Pestilence, War and Death. Death is always with us, one way or another, and we’ve had pestilence, AKA the Commie Crud for the last two years and counting, and War, in the shape of the Russian invasion of the Ukraine … so why not Famine, just to round out the set? The four horsemen usually go hand in hand anyway. Famine is almost a guarantee, as the Ukraine was a major wheat exporter, and now it seems that chemical fertilizers will be in short supply as well. David Foster has already posted a story about this, and other commenters have chimed in regarding the woes of the supply chain and the potential for famine in places and nations which had been able to move past such misfortunes, because of technological advances … advances now in danger.

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Of Agriculture and Ideology

In Arthur Koestler’s 1940 novel Darkness at Noon, the protagonist is an Old Bolshevik who has himself been arrested by the Stalinist regime for political deviations and is facing likely execution.  During his imprisonment, he muses about many things, including…

A short time ago, our leading agriculturist, B., was shot with thirty of his collaborators because he maintained the opinion that nitrate artificial manure was superior to potash. No. 1 is all for potash; therefore B. and the thirty had to be liquidated as saboteurs. In a nationally centralized agriculture, the alternative of nitrate or potash is of enormous importance: it can decide the issue of the next war. If No. I was in the right, history will absolve him, and the execution of the thirty-one men will be a mere bagatelle. If he was wrong…

(emphasis added)

And in real life, Soviet agriculture was greatly harmed by the officially-adopted crackpot theories of Trofim Lysenko, as well as by collectivization.  Nikita Khrushchev was very enthusiastic about what he learned of America methods in farming, especially with corn, and insisted that these methods be applied in the Soviet Union–the effort was not successful because it too often ignored local factors like climate as well as general factors such as working-level knowledge and incentives.

In Sri Lanka in 2019, newly-elected President Gotabaya Rajapaksa embarked on a program to the transition his country’s farmers to organic agriculture. Importation and use of pesticides and synthetic fertilizers were banned, and the country’s 2 million farmers were ordered to go organic.  The project has been a disaster.  Rice and tea production are both down, and half a million people have fallen back into poverty.

And in 2022, the world is facing serious fertilizer shortage, driven in part by the loss of exports from Russia and Ukraine, with prices also driven upward by natural gas prices…this in addition to the considerable reduction in wheat exports from both countries. A complete shutoff of Russian gas to Europe could make things worse, given that gas is a key feedstock for fertilizer manufacturing, that Europe has not built adequate LNG import facilities to replace the Russian gas, and that sufficient LNG from the US may not be available anyhow–a constraint not helped by the Biden administration’s anti-fossil-fuel ideology and policies.  There may be actual famine in some countries, with predictable results in political instability, and plenty of family budgets being squeezed in the USA.

The response from the Biden administration?…Perhaps a new ‘warp-speed’ type of project to accelerate fertilizer output and improve fertilizer logistics?


USAID administrator Samantha Power:

Fertilizer shortages are real now because Russia is a big exporter of fertilizer. And even though fertilizer is not sanctioned, less fertilizer is coming out of Russia..As a result, we’re working with countries to think about natural solutions like manure and compost. And this may hasten transitions that would have been in the interest of farmers to make eventually anyway.

Because farmers don’t know what is in their best interest, but of course you do, Samantha.  See this post at Watts Up With That? on the realities of agriculture and the nutrients that plants need.  (Do you think Samantha Power knows what the Haber-Bosch process is and why it has been historically important?  I’m betting the answer is No.)

Note especially the part of the excerpt from Koestler’s novel that I bolded: “In a nationally centralized agriculture”.  When major activities are centralized, every key decision becomes of dramatic, critical, life-and-death importance. Those making the decisions will be convinced that their decisions are right, and are very likely to use all tools at their disposal to enforce compliance and prevent criticism.

See my related post The Logic of Insatiable Centralization.

Worthwhile Reading and Viewing

Much political anger is based on attributing to opponents views that they don’t actually hold, according to this study, summarized and discussed on twitter here.

Paul Graham, who himself writes some interesting essays, says:

No one who writes essays would be surprised by this. When people attack an essay you’ve written, 95% of the time they do it by making up something you didn’t actually say, and then attacking that.

The skill of surgeons varies tremendously, with bottom quartile surgeons having over 4x as many complications as the best surgeons in the same hospital…so says this study.  And surgeons are keenly aware of who is good & who is bad – their rankings of others are very accurate.  Summarized and discussed on twitter here, where there is also a reference to the classic study  showing 10X range among programmers, and another study measuring the impact of managers on revenue performance in the game industry.

Some innovation stories from small US manufacturers, and a shop-floor driven tooling innovation at GE Aviation.

Speaking of tools, here’s a study suggesting that using mechanical tools improves language skills.

The limits of narrative, at Quillette.

Ryan Peterson, CEO of the digital freight forwarder Flexport, discovered an AI tool that lets you create art without being an artist, and has been having fun with it.