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Sunday, November 11, 2007

"Democratic Politics Manipulates Truth"

George Soros calls for "new ground rules for political discourse":

Democratic politics manipulates truth: But there’s a way out, by George Soros, Project Syndicate: In his novel 1984 , George Orwell chillingly described a totalitarian regime in which all communication is controlled by a Ministry of Truth and dissidents are persecuted by political police. The United States remains a democracy governed by a constitution and the rule of law, with pluralistic media, yet there are disturbing signs that the propaganda methods Orwell described have taken root here.

Indeed, techniques of deception have undergone enormous improvements since Orwell's time. Many of these techniques were developed in connection with the advertising and marketing of commercial products and services, and then adapted to politics. ... More recently, cognitive science has helped to make the techniques of deception even more effective, giving rise to political professionals...

Karl Popper's concept of open society, ... is based on the recognition that, while perfect knowledge is unattainable, we can gain a better understanding of reality by engaging in critical thinking.

Popper failed to recognize that in democratic politics, gathering public support takes precedence over the pursuit of truth. In other areas, such as science and industry, the impulse to impose one's views on the world encounters the resistance of external reality. But in politics the electorate's perception of reality can be easily manipulated. As a result, political discourse, even in democratic societies, does not necessarily lead to a better understanding of reality.

The reason democratic politics leads to manipulation is that politicians do not aspire to tell the truth. They want to win elections, and the best way to do that is to skew reality to their own benefit. ...

We must abandon Popper's tacit assumption that political discourse aims at a better understanding of reality and reintroduce it as an explicit requirement. ... We need to introduce new ground rules for political discourse. These cannot be identical to scientific method, but they should be similar in character, enshrining the pursuit of truth as the criteria on which political views are to be judged. Politicians will respect, rather than manipulate, reality only if the public cares about the truth and punishes politicians when it catches them in deliberate deception. ...

The practical difficulty is in recognizing when political professionals are distorting reality. There is an important role here for the media, the political elite, and the educational system, which must all act as watchdogs. In addition, the public needs to be inoculated against the various techniques of deception. The most effective techniques operate at the subconscious level. When emotions can be aroused by methods that bypass consciousness, the public is left largely defenseless. But if the public is made aware of the various techniques, it is likely to reject them.

One influential technique — which Republican pollster Frank Luntz says that he learned from 1984 — simply reverses meanings and turns reality on its head. Thus, Fox News calls itself "fair and balanced," and Karl Rove and his acolytes turn their opponents' strongest traits into their Achilles' heels, using insinuations and lies to portray the opponents' achievements as phony. ...

The American public has proven remarkably susceptible to the manipulation of truth, which increasingly dominates the country's political discourse. Indeed, a whole network of publications, some of which manage to parade as mainstream media, is devoted to the task. Yet I believe that it is possible to inoculate the public against false arguments by arousing resentment against Orwellian Newspeak. What is needed is a concerted effort to identify the techniques of manipulation — and to name and shame those who use them.

Now is an ideal time to begin that effort. Americans are now awakening, as if from a bad dream. What we have learned from recent years' experience — what we should have known all along — is that the supremacy of critical thought in political discourse cannot be taken for granted. It can be ensured only by an electorate that respects reality and punishes politicians who lie or engage in other forms of deception.

He doesn't mention the role of wealth in this process. The main reason George Soros has a voice in the media is because of his wealth, and there are others with far greater control over the messages coming daily from the nation's editorial pages, people with the ability to influence the interpretation and framing of the news more generally, and with the means to shape the political discourse. My biggest frustration is not with the public's inability "to identify the techniques of manipulation," it's the fact that the media seems to have lost the ability to self-police in a way that weeds out those who engage in this type of deception, and ownership and control of the media needs to be part of an examination of why this has happened. A professional ethic has eroded, it seems, so that unethical reporting and editorial practices are allowed to pass without much comment or condemnation from within. I think people already have the tools they need if information is reported to them in an way that allows fact to be sorted from fiction without requiring considerable additional effort to augment the reporting and ferret out the truth. So sure, let's make people aware of how they can be manipulated, that might help some, but let's not stop there because teaching people to cover their ears may not be the best solution to pervasive political messages backed by powerful interests that distort reality for political gain.

    Posted by on Sunday, November 11, 2007 at 03:24 AM in Economics, Politics | Permalink  TrackBack (0)  Comments (114)

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