Thursday, August 31, 2023

Social production of moral indifference - 12a

The basic aim of a nation at war is establishing an image of the enemy in order to distinguish as sharply as possible the act of killing from the act of murder. — Glenn Gray 

Virtually every aspect of our normal speech uses hidden metaphors to communicate abstract ideas and concepts. The metaphors cultures use become so fixed in thought that people  forget they are metaphors and begin to believe them as fact. As George Lakoff puts it, 'Metaphorical concepts . . .  structure our present reality. New metaphors have the power to create a new reality.” People in power get to impose their metaphors on us - political, business and religious leaders, media, advertisers, etc. War metaphors are in common use with everything conceived as a battle, as a zero-sum game with winners and losers. 

We talk of various things in terms of a war because we conceive of them that way, and we act according to how we conceive of things. And as George Lakoff wrote in his paper 'Metaphor and War , '...metaphors backed up by bombs can kill.' James Childress describes the use of war as a metaphor as a dilemma: "In debating social policy through the language of war, we often forget the moral reality of war." Their widespread use dulls the realisation that the brutality of war dehumanises us all. Childress observes, 'We are tempted by seedy realism, with its doctrine that might makes right, or we are tempted by an equally dangerous mentality of crusade or holy war, with its doctrine that right makes might of any kind acceptable.' 

When you remove all the fancy verbiage, you get the reality of war which would be considered serious crime in any other situation. The metaphor system promotes what psychologists call isolation: the dissociation of actions and feelings which allows actions to be pursued without being burdened by feelings. There is a dichotomy in the use of this metaphor system: it is used only to describe the enemy; when it comes to one's own side, the real horror is described. Lakof writes: 'Reality exists. So does the unconscious system of metaphors that we use without awareness to comprehend reality. What metaphor does is limit what we notice . . . '

This makes it important to distinguish what is metaphorical from what is not. Pain, dismemberment, death, starvation, and the death and injury of loved ones are not metaphorical. They are real and they could afflict hundreds of thousands of real human beings. War is violent crime: murder, assault, kidnapping, arson, rape, and theft. To hide this reality, a fairy tale with an asymmetry built into it is sold to the public. The hero (one's own country) is moral and courageous, while the villain (enemy) is amoral and vicious. 

In The Moral and Political Thought of Mahatma Gandhi, Raghavan Iyer writes about Mr. Rae, a schoolmaster at Harrow, who deplored the fact that even children have been so indoctrinated  by the idea of inevitable killing that they have no vision of a world, no desire for a world in which killing is as uncivilized as cannibalism. He mentions three dangerous myths - 1) that violence is not only justifiable but also laudable; 2) that war is fun, a great game; 3) that physical courage is the finest virtue and the moral courage shown by the conscientious objector is contemptible. He writes:

These myths were not, of course, created and spread by those who were doing the fighting; no one who has looked war in the face could describe it as a game. These myths were an essential part of the home front, offspring of official propaganda and human blindness.

Mr. Rae believes that wars are made possible not by megalomaniac dictators or religious fanatics or foolish politicians or blind patriots, but because the majority of people in the world have been brought up to accept war and violence as a normal part of life.

Fraternising between enemy soldiers is quite frequent in war (when they are enlisted men rather than officers.) This has been recorded in the Spanish Civil War, Crimean War, the American Civil War etc. One of most famous of such instances was the Christmas truce during WWII.

On December 7, 1914, Pope Benedict XV suggested a temporary hiatus of the war for the celebration of Christmas. Benedict’s hope was that a truce would allow the warring powers to negotiate a fair and lasting peace, but there was little interest from leaders on either side. This did not stop soldiers at the front from seizing the initiative, however, when outside events seemed to provide a path to the truce that their leaders had rejected. The warring countries refused to create any official cease-fire, but on Christmas the soldiers in the trenches declared their own unofficial truce.

Many lower ranking German and British troops exchanged presents of cigarettes and plum puddings and sang carols and songs. Some Germans lit Christmas trees around their trenches, and there was even a documented case of soldiers from opposing sides laying a good-natured game of soccer. This policy came to be known as “live and let live,” and it would be adopted on an ad hoc basis throughout the war, particularly in less active sectors. It was never repeated — future attempts at holiday ceasefires were quashed by officers’ threats of disciplinary action.

Most psychologists used to believe that an army’s fighting power was determined by ideology, love of one’s country, or faith in one’s chosen party. The widely accepted view was that the soldiers who were most thoroughly convinced they stood on the right side of history and that theirs was the legitimate worldview would put up the best fight. During WWII, most experts agreed that this theory explained why the Germans had a desertion rate that approached zero, and why they fought harder than the Americans and the British. 

A psychologist interviewed one German captive after another and found that this explanation was wrong. The real reason why the German army was capable of putting forth an almost superhuman fight was friendship. All those German men who had resisted the Allied advance tooth and nail had taken up arms for one another. They weren’t fighting for a Thousand-Year Riech but because they didn’t want to let down their mates. ‘Nazism begins ten miles behind the front line,’ scoffed one German prisoner, whereas friendship was right there in every bunker and trench.

Later historians discovered that the military commanders were well aware of this thinking of the soldiers and used it to their advantage. Nazi generals went to great lengths to keep comrades together, even withdrawing whole divisions for as long as it took new recruits to form friendships, and only then sent everyone back into the fray. 

Tuesday, August 15, 2023

Social production of moral indifference - 11b

William Golding’s widely read book, The Lord of the Flies, is supposed to be the unwitting inspiration behind a popular entertainment genre on television today: reality TV. The premise of so-called reality shows, is that human beings, when left to their own devices, behave like beasts. ‘I read and re-read Lord of the Flies,’ divulged the creator of hit series Survivor in an interview. ‘I read it first when I was about twelve, again when I was about twenty and again when I was thirty and since we did the programme as well.’

Apparently, reality shows help us to find out what happens when people stop being polite and start getting real. And 'getting  real' means to behave nastily towards each other. But behind the scenes of programmes like these, candidates are maipulated in subtle ways to bring out the worst in them. In the article, 5 Ways You Don't Realize Reality Shows Lie, one kid who paticipated in a reality show called 'Kid Nation' describes his experience.

The idea in the show was that these children would be left alone to run an abandoned town in the New Mexico desert, to hopefully disastrous results. Everyone who showed up fit into some archetype -- there were kids there who looked like they'd come from the inner city, kids with cowboy hats. 'Everybody had a broad, stereotypical role to play, and once the cameras rolled, the kids were all happy to go along with it. . . . even children know to self-censor and come up with their own bits to make themselves more interesting. We all want attention . . .'

Periodically the TV bosses would find that the kids were getting along too well, and they'd have to induce something for them to fight over. But things often did not pan out the way the makers of the show wanted despite all of the attempts at manipulation. Where most reality shows like to boil everything down to just the worst of the worst behavior, that wasn't true of the smallest children on the show who actually came off much better than the reality. Where they couldn't manufacture real conflict among the group, they would try fudge things so the 'What Happens and What Airs Are Very Different'.

You could say: What does it really matter? We all know it’s just entertainment. Stories are not something you watch and forget. When you keep watching such stories, you might forget their specifics but their basic premise of disageable humans seeps into your mind. Studies have shown that such television shows can make people more aggressive. In children, the correlation between seeing violent images and aggression in adulthood is stronger than the correlation between asbestos and cancer, or between calcium intake and bone mass.

There are two opposing forces inside us: one good and one evil. What plays a pivotal role in making us see greed and selfishness everywhere is the daily news, soaps and reality shows on TV which so many of us are addicted to. Cynical stories have a marked effect on the way we look at the world. In Britain, another study demonstrated that girls who watch more reality TV also more often say that being mean and telling lies are necessary to get ahead in life. As the journalist and documentary film maker Richard Curtis says:

‘If you make a film about a man kidnapping a woman and chaining her to a radiator for five years – something that has happened probably once in history – it’s called searingly realistic analysis of society. 

If I make a film like Love Actually, which is about people falling in love, and there are about a million people falling in love in Britain today, it’s called a sentimental presentation of an unrealistic world.

’At the heart of Lord of the Flies is a thought experiment: What are people like if you put them in a context in which civilization is stripped away, leaving them to behave in their natural state? Absent, in Golding’s terms, “the protection of parents and school and policemen and the law,” what do people do? For many, answers to such thought experiments reveal Machiavellian assumptions about human nature: that free of the structures and strictures of society, our base and violent tendencies spring forth. This is the view that T.V. programs promote. 

The real Lord of the Flies happened when six boys were shipwrecked for 15 months on a deserted island near Tonga in 1965 with few resources and no adult supervision. It turned out very differently from William Golding’s bestseller, Lord of the Flies. It a tale of friendship and loyalty; one that illustrates how much stronger we are if we can lean on each other. But the real-life story is forgotten while the fiction is widely read and hailed as an accurate depiction of reality.

George Orwell said, 'All the war-propaganda, all the screaming and lies and hatred, comes invariably from people who are not fighting.' And where do they get their ideas from? In On killing : the psychological cost of learning to kill in war and society, Dave Grossman also blames the media for perpetuating the myth of easy killing and have thereby become ‘part of society's unspoken conspiracy of deception that glorifies killing and war’. It gives very superficial insights concerning the nature of killing and war. 

Grossman points out that young people see on television or at the movies detailed, horrible suffering and killings. They are learning to associate this violence with their favorite soft drink, candy bar, and the close contact of their date. Firing ranges with pop-up targets and immediate feedback, just like those used to train soldiers, are found in interactive video games. Grossman argues that this is responsible in part for the rising rate of murder and violence, especially among the young. He writes:

We are reaching that stage of desensitization at which the infliction of pain and suffering has become a source of entertainment: vicarious pleasure rather than revulsion. We are learning to kill, and we are learning to like it.'

There is a Native American parable about a debate between two wolves that takes place inside everybody. One is evil, representing  annger, envy, greed, arrogance, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego. The other is good,  representing love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth and compassion. Which wolf will win? The one you feed. The media - especially visual and social media - feed the evil wolf. By cutting off his food supply, you will use your energy and resources on thoughts, feelings, and emotions that serve you in healthy ways. 

Thursday, August 3, 2023

Social production of moral indifference - 11a

‘[He] who tells the stories of a culture really governs human behaviour.’ - Media scientist George Gerbner

Somebody once wrote on the idea of innate aggressiveness and war in humans, “you can’t kill a bad idea.” He was probably right. The common public perception of Darwinian evolution is as a process that is always “red in tooth and claw”. This view is often promoted by mass media hype which concentrates on our battles and the negativity. Occasional reports about our goodness and kindness usually comes at the end of news broadcasts. Watching the news regularly will give you the impression that humans were born to be destructive, violent, and antagonistic. 

Aggression and violence are emotions that easily attract attention and stay in the brain. Positive experiences and emotions rarely stick to the brain to the same extent nor do they receive the same attention in the popular media. We should remember, however, that cheating, corruption, and murder make the news because they are relatively rare. As the phrase “common decency,” suggests, prosocial behaviour is so common we tend not to notice it. We should not forget that Adam Smith argued that just as important as self-interest is the human passion of sympathy, what he called “fellow-feeling.”

Many think that an engaged citizen should follow the news closely. They think that keeping a close eye on diverse  news outlets and following the tweets and Facebook posts of many political figures is a sign of intelligence. I think it is the opposite. The news, according to many studies, is a mental health hazard. Too much of the news is filled with PR-inserted nonsense. Its obsession with the criminal and the deviant makes us less trusting people. People who follow the news regularly are more likely to agree with statements such as ‘Most people care only about themselves.’ Its obsession with the hurry of the day-to-day makes us less reflective thinkers. 

We overestimate our own capacity for truly independent thought. In most areas of life, we necessarily rely on others for the presentation of facts and ultimately choose between manufactured alternatives. The only communications truly without influence are those that one learns to ignore or never hears at all; this is why Jacques Ellul, a French philosopher,  argued that it is only the disconnected — rural dwellers or the urban poor — who are truly immune to propaganda, while intellectuals, who read everything, insist on having opinions, and think themselves immune to propaganda are, in fact, easy to manipulate. He wrote of the individual: 

If he is a propagandee, it is because he wants to be, for he is ready to buy a paper, go to the movies, pay for a radio or TV set. Of course, he does not buy these in order to be propagandized — his motivations are more complex. But in doing these things he must know that he opens the door to propaganda. 

There is a persistent myth that by their very nature humans are selfish, aggressive and quick to panic. But, contrary to what we normally see in the movies, there’s never total mayhem when a disaster hits a city.  Whether it is cities being bombed or struck by natural disasters, people don’t go into shock, they stay calm and spring into action. There is often a marked fall in crime and other forms of antisocial behaviour. The picture we’re fed by the media is consistently the opposite of what happens when disaster strikes. Rutger Bregman writes in Humankind: A Hopeful History:

‘My own impression,’ writes Rebecca Solnit, whose book A Paradise Built in Hell (2009) gives a masterful account of Katrina’s aftermath, ‘is that elite panic comes from powerful people who see all humanity in their own image.’ Dictators and despots, governors and generals – they all too often resort to brute force to prevent scenarios that exist only in their own heads, on the assumption that the average Joe is ruled by self-interest, just like them.

We tend to think that when people take decisions after discussing an issue in a group, an 'average' of the group view emerges. But this is not what happens. People take more extreme views when in a group rather than when they are alone, a phenomenon known as group polarization. Many studies from different parts of the world have shown the phenomenon of group polarization in action. For example, after a group discussion, people already supportive of a war become more supportive, people with an initial tendency towards racism become more racist. 

This phenomenon also occurs in online discussion. Algorithm driven programs popularize more extreme views. People with more extreme views are more likely to express their feelings through clicks, likes and postings than moderates. Over time, the algorithm figures out which box you fit into and tailors suitable results towards you. (It will be called 'enhancing user experience'.) Moderates will give a lot fewer data points for the algorithm to work with and so the targeting will be less precise.

The people behind Facebook, Twitter and Google know what shocks and horrifies you and that this is what makes you click. They know how to grab your attention and hold it so they can serve you the most lucrative helping of personalised ads. ‘Nice’ doesn’t sell ads. And so they keep offering us ever more sensational clickbait, knowing full well, as a Swiss novelist once quipped, that ‘News is to the mind what sugar is to the body.’ Umberto Eco criticised social networks, saying for example that 

"Social media gives legions of idiots the right to speak when they once only spoke at a bar after a glass of wine, without harming the community ... but now they have the same right to speak as a Nobel Prize winner. It's the invasion of the idiots."

Google ranks pages according to the number of links they get and they proclaim that their search results show that ‘democracy on the web works’. But some have the resources to generate more links, perhaps by paying influential sites  to link to them. As Google learns more about our search histories, and customizes the search results through its estimation of our interests, we will increasingly find ourselves in a bubble. You will never encounter the unexpected, the different, the ‘Other’. You will only get information that fits your prior beliefs. So although information has been made available to everyone in theory, walls get built up in practice.

We need to be extremely vigilant about the influence of the media,  Most of us have very little idea how easily the words and images of television, film, and popular music drop into the depths of the mind. We have grown so accustomed to the illusions of film and television that we forget just how powerful they are. They hold us spellbound in a kind of willing suspension of the world in which we really live.