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BIAS AND THE SOCIAL ORDER[image, unknown] The pressures to conform

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New Internationalist
[image, unknown] Issue No. 115 : Editor, Dexter Tiranti

How to get ahead
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Objectivity and truth — these are what journalists,
politicians and teachers usually claim to offer.
Too often they are taken at their word;
but behind the cosy consensus lies a dangerous
process of thought control.
Dexter Tiranti argues against
the extremism of the centre.

This magazine is biased, we don't deny it. That bias is printed on the inside front cover of every issue. Strongly supportive of the rights of the poor and underprivileged, we are looking for ways to reduce poverty and powerlessness.

Not so openly spelt out is the opposing bias of the much wider world. The other channels of communication - publication, entertainment, radio, television and the educational system - all carry their own rich vein of prejudice. And on a supposedly neutral canvas, the 'rights and wrongs' of our garish world are conveyed in subtle pastel shades so they merge into an harmonious picture.

'Truth', 'objectivity' and the 'norm' are the things to aim for. And these are judged to be somewhere in the middle, as defined by the poles. It was the extremism of the centre which justified the United States war in IndoChina, loyally supported by Canada, Australia, United Kingdom, New Zealand and most other Western powers. The polar positions were either to drop an atomic bomb on Hanoi, or to withdraw altogether. The moderate solution - though now it does not seem so moderate - was to bomb Cambodia into the stone age, to develop free fire zones, to spray poisonous defoliants on peasants and their fields, to systematically assassinate dissenters and support one murderous military regime after another in Saigon.

All this in the name of democracy.

There are something like 55 military dictatorships in the Third World. If the free world was so committed to democracy, the growing number of totalitarian states could have been reduced. But of course, such governments offer effective control over their people and an almost universal welcome to foreign enterprise.

A worthwhile illumination of exactly what Western ‘consensus’ foreign policies are about in the Third World, came from a leading figure with much to gain from such policies. At the height of the Argentina death squad activities in 1977, David Rockefeller spelt out to an audience of New York bankers: ‘I have the impression that finally Argentina has a regime which understands the private enterprise system.'

Lack of concern over precisely whose interests are served by such overseas policies, is dully echoed at home. Our domestic politics, based on the Westminster or Washington model, is regarded as neutral, natural and legitimate. There are occasional slip-ups — the Watergate scandal, CIA and FBI criminality, bribes and slush funds, secret computer files on private citizens, police brutality, unauthorized expenditure on nuclear arms . . . the list goes on. But of course, so the consensus theory goes, these are aberrations. In Russia they would be predictable evidence of totalitarianism. But here is no cause for alarm.

‘In every society,’ writes Michael Parenti in Power and the Powerless ‘the dominant class — warriors, gentry, merchants or industrial entrepreneurs, asserts its interests as representative of the people it dominates.’ Part of the folklore of middle America, therefore, is ‘What is good for General Motors is good for the USA.’ Not surprisingly, the quote came from the chief executive of General Motors.

A vital skill for the consensus politician is the art of agenda setting: the dominant interests manipulate what will be discussed. So if racism in Britain is examined, the discussion revolves around the numbers of blacks, whether they are ‘swamping’ the indigenous people (a Margaret Thatcher concern in the 1979 election) and whether the immigration laws are too slack.

It is the number of blacks that is on the agenda — not the existence of racism. Even if the opposition attempts to disprove the figures, the ground rules have been established and the effect on public opinion the same — there are too many of them.

Indeed it is what is not on the agenda for discussion that is just as edifying. Domestic poverty in the West could be ended without great fuss; some Scandinavian and Socialist countries have already done so. It has not been done elsewhere because our governments have other priorities. The subject is left off the agenda.

Our newspapers and magazines could help promote such issues to the agenda — there are enough of them. And superficially our journals, claims to democratic diversity look strong. Certainly their output is very different to Isvestia or Pravda — tame parrots of the Kremlin. And Western journalists don’t have to worry about being committed to a mental hospital if they attack the government. Without such freedom of expression, the New Internationalist wouldn’t exist.

Yet the overwhelming mainstream of newspapers, magazines, books, films, television and radio programmes does little more than gently massage public senses, lulling them into accepting as natural the extremism of the centre. A common technique they use to obscure the issues is to reverse the roles of victim and aggressor. The dominators are shown as being put upon. So imperialism was portrayed as ‘the white man’s burden’, management is oppressed by the greedy demands of ‘bully boy’ trade unions, whites complain that blacks are favoured by reverse discrimination’, men are portrayed as being urged to work harder by their wives who ‘take it easy’ at home, welfare payments are too high and our taxes support claimants in the lap of luxury.

The Professor of Politics at Leeds University, Ralph Miliband, in his analysis of the Western system of power, The State in Capitalist Society, lists some of the influences which ensure the consistency of consensus views:

Most broadcasting and all publishing is owned and controlled by large business corporations. And fewer and fewer own more and more. The Hearst empire in the US now controls 12 newspapers, 14 magazines, 3 TV stations, 6 radio stations, a news service, a photo service, a features syndication service and Avon paperbacks. The Axel Springer conglomerate of West Germany controls over 40 per cent of the country’s newspapers and magazines, rising to 80 per cent in West Berlin. Those who control large corporations have strong establishment views. And they make their views felt through their publications. As Lord Beaverbrook, owner of the Daily Express frankly told a government press enquiry in 1948: ‘My purpose originally was to set up a propaganda paper and I have never deviated from that purpose all through the years.'

Owners often don’t have to exercise direct control, self censorship of editors and journalists is enough. Editors may have considerable independence, but they can rapidly be eased out of the editorial chair if necessary. It is only with some considerable risk that the ideas of the owners are ignored. The journalists follow the same sensitivities and the same self-censorship. She or he may write anything from one to five stories a day. They know which stories will appeal to the editorial eye. If they refuse to conform, their articles will be continually spiked.

The influence of advertisers shouldn’t be exaggerated since their power is seldom used directly. But advertising revenue provides 50 per cent or more of media income, so it is sensible not to tread on advertisers’ toes. They and the financial community are treated with a measure of indulgence seldom shown to trade unions. After the newly elected Conservative government in 1979 removed exchange controls £4,500 million ($9,000 million) of British capital fled the country to be invested overseas within two years. Yet the headline: ‘We was robbed... three million unemployed whilst our money goes abroad’, never somehow appeared. A case of prudent restraint.

And all of Fleet Street is aware of the salutary example of the News Chronicle which closed in the 1950s despite a million and a half circulation. It was persistently starved of advertising income, perhaps because of a strong pro-Labour stance.

If the New Internationalist trimmed its editorial sails, increased advertising could double the number of pages and halve the price. All this would make for ‘good value’ to the innocent reader, and a neutered content.

For the newspapers and television, political argument is the staff of life. But schools are meant to be different. Political indoctrination of any kind is utterly alien to Westem education — it's the sort of thing you see behind the Iron Curtain And Western teachers do certainly try and stay neutral steer clear of any overt bias. But in a society of conflicting interests this means aligning with those on top. If they make no conscious effort to question the value structure of the establishment, then teachers confirm it

And the same procedure of self censorship that applies to journalists works in the staff room too. Those who don’t conform to the consensus, who teach instead a questioning attitude, will ironically be accused of bias. And they know the effects of this on career prospects. Possible school principals don’t come from those who are too ‘controversial’.

A strong ideology of nationalism is also infused in the classroom. It is an assertion of superiority, ‘the best place is here, and the best people is us’. There don’t have to be any directives from a Ministry of Ideology. Schools see their role as encouraging an unquestioning loyalty towards the Maple Leaf, the Star Spangled Banner or Charles, Diana and the Royal Family.

Nationalism feeds into the conservative ideology of consensus because ‘if we all pull together’ and ‘don’t rock the boat’ then we obey whoever is on the bridge. If interests are merged into a comprehensive concern that unites rich and poor, comfortable and deprived, the givers of orders and the receivers, tensions are obscured. It is an ace in the pack that is regularly played by the establishment. Loudly proclaiming their patriotic dedication, opposition to conservative parties everywhere is seen as disloyal or, worse still, as playing into the hands of the Russians.

National and imperial history also plays a role. Part of the collective memory of the country is for those who fought and died for the nation . . . irrespective of the rights or wrongs of the war. It appears nothing but bad manners and carping small mindedness to criticise a social order for whose preservation so many have died. No wonder the returning British troopships from the Falklands displayed banners on their sides supporting Margaret Thatcher and attacking trade unions.

Yet for all the power of the consensus, there is cause for hope. People do change their opinions. Such changes in public opinion helped to stop the genocidal war in South East Asia. Today it is growing in protest against nuclear weapons and another possible genocidal war.

In a rigorous survey of a town in middle America, C. Wright investigated how and why people changed their minds. The results are encouraging. People generally rethought their attitudes not because of what they were told by the formal media but through discussion...over the garden fence, in the canteen, at coffee mornings or down in the bar. Mills explained why conversation was so effective: people can answer back, something that’s always impossible with the newspapers or broadcasting; people cannot switch off, politeness means hearing out an opinion you don’t necessarily agree with; people don’t categorize or stereotype opinions of their immediate acquaintances so easily.

All of us are part of such conversation circles, often a number of them. Generally such circles have opinion leaders, those who sift through the facts in the media, remember some and use them to back up their opinions. Our beliefs is that most New Internationalist readers fall into this category and we hope that our material will be used like this. It is our rationale for publishing a magazine which is biased and against the extremism of the centre.

The pictures in our mind’s eye

IT was in 1922, soon after the carnage of the First World War, that Walter Lippman wrote his classic study, Public Opinion. He discussed how public behaviour is governed by its view of reality, a picture incomplete and distorted. It is impossible for people to discover all the truth so they work through symbols, create their own private world and then act upon it Sometimes the benefit of hindsight makes such mental pictures look absurd. Old women were burned at the stake because people firmly diagnosed them as evil.

The real world, Lippman contended, is too big. too complex and too fleeting for direct acquaintance. These pictures in our heads, millions of them, produce Public Opinion — nothing more than a mixture of images, preconceptions and prejudices. But they are a necessary crutch. For an unfamiliar scene is like a baby’s world...highly confusing. So we introduce consistency and stability through stereotypes that make the world more comfortable and acceptable. We define first, then we see.

Demonstrations will be small and violent to a reporter, no matter how large or peaceful the rally. And when we meet someone now we notice certain traits, and the rest of the picture is then filled in. Within seconds we recognize a frigid virgin, a chauvinist pig, an excitable Latin or a dangerous agitator. Our stereotypes determine what facts we see, and in what light we judge them.

You question such pictures at your peril. Attacking them undermines the foundation of a person’s universe. If those we honour are unworthy, those we despise are noble, then it all becomes too much. There would, contended Lippman, be anarchy in the order of precedence if the meek really did inherit the earth.

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New Internationalist issue 115 magazine cover This article is from the September 1982 issue of New Internationalist.
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