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.

Read more

Response to David that wandered off

I think this supports your point, David, but prompted less by reasoning than impulse:  I am not discriminating in my television viewing,  but, frustrated when Trump seems less persuasive than he should be, I turn off his speeches and interviews.   I didn’t really want to vote for him, but to vote any other way was to betray America to a nominee and a party of grifters, liars, and if not actual traitors then a good imitation.  But within the first day he did many sensible and surprising things – and it continued. He was surprising, directed, somewhat idealistic but also practical.  Energy independence – at last someone who understood its value, the importance of energy!  So, his feckless opposition won and here we are – having thrown away an incredibly important position.   (Remember how Pelosi told us when Palin campaigned,  we couldn’t drill our way to independence?  Is it always 2008 or 2012 for those people?)

Talk of his totalitarian streak was absurd; he was bombastic, the force of his will and personality dominate any scene. But his belief that a buy-in from Europe was necessary for true partnership and for NATO to fulfill its mission was that of an honest partner; he thought Israel should be able to decide where its capitol was, he took seriously the North African sentiments – expressed before but not taken seriously – that they had other fears and other fish to fry, they weren’t solely defined by Palestine.  He thought Congress should take responsibility and the states should not be ridden over in a national power grab, he accepted the division of adversaries – the executive needed to stand up to foreign powers and the states should be responsible for keeping law and order, even if he found some mayors and governors frustrating.  This gaudy entrepreneur argued for prudence – lowering the price of the presidential plane, fighting waste and increasing productivity.  He accepted a structure that didn’t make him king.  He was not a tall Fauci and he hadn’t the Doctor’s Napoleon complex.  He understood schools’ influence, money and policies should arise from local entities.  He backed de Vos as she increased choices for parents and justice in controlling campus crime.  He valued the blood of our soldiers in a way that Biden never has.

More perceptive people got out of his speeches the energy and vision I appreciated.  Of course, I’d rather  a leader acted like a statesman than sounded like one and it would have been nice if idiots on the other side didn’t reduce everything to ad hominem. His defended himself  – fiercely, quickly, angrily fired back before all the lies or nasty memes became immersed in the wide subconscious.  Of course, you are right, a more systematic, rational presentation would have been useful; it also might have raised the level of discussion to policy (where I suspect much more than half the nation would have stood with him).  Unfortunately for us, the Churchills and Lincolns of the world don’t come around that often.  And even a well-formed argument isn’t a skill America values as it once did.  (I taught freshman rhetoric for years. Sure, we read Orwell, sure we talked about the fallacies, but I don’t think I knew and certainly didn’t teach the formal structures that help a writer solidify and reason an audience to agreement.)

I insisted on facts and objectivity and always assumed a knowable and falsifiable truth.  The following segues shamelessly to another tempting arena, demonstrating erratic organization.

An interesting take-down of CRT in terms of the Enlightenment/Romanticism is spelled out in the American Enterprise podcast, hosted by Thiessen and Pletka, “WTH is critical race theory? How a philosophy that inspired Marxism, Nazism, and Jim Crow is making its way into our schools, and what we can do”:

Read more

Alternative Structure

I did note this story on Axios, which was discussed scathingly and at length on Ace of Spades; that the Lefty Progs have belatedly realized that, yes indeedy, us social and political conservatives are building our alternate establishments, in media, money-management, retail, and everywhere else. Welcome to the party, pal… It goes without saying that the Lefty Progs disapprove, most indignantly. I noted the split a little more than a year ago, in this post.

We’re already at the split. We read different books, watch different movies and television shows – those of us who still watch movies and television – follow different celebrities, earn a living in different ways, educate our children differently. We honor different things, different heroes and heroines, have wildly different aspirations and hopes for the future. We are already split.

Read more

Civility

In the aftermath of large crowds chanting “Lets Go, Brandon” or the ruder, cruder variant, certain prog media figures are reacting by ostentatiously clutching their pearls and demanding civility. In response to such demands, many of us who have paid attention over the years are pointing out that the civility ship has long sailed … in fact, circumnavigated the world, crashed into the homeport dock, burned to the waterline, and sank in a gusher of steam.

Read more