Monday, 4 May 2020
Be Careful What You Think
There was lots of rage and joy in last Friday’s coronavirus testing figures. Pro government voices were of course, ecstatic that the nominal target had been reached even though they knew not whether it was particularly significant. On the other side of the fence, obviously, the narrative was that the government had cheated, by changing the accounting method. This detail was rebuked later in the day at the press conference where the extra-governmental advisor made it clear that the method had not changed. None of this matters though, because you will tend to believe whatever your tribe believes, and even if you imagine you don’t belong to a tribe, you do.
No, you really do. One of the more egregious attributes of tribalism is convincing yourself that you are impartial. You think you can spot when others are being partisan in the way they are using and disseminating information, but it is almost impossible to turn the spotlight on yourself. We can all appear neutral and understand and empathise with both sides of an argument from the outside, but as soon as we are on either side, try as we might, we lose that noble ability. Probably not more than a handful of people can do otherwise and I expect they are all mystics, sitting in splendid isolation on misty mountain tops.
It is pretty much hard wired into us to adopt a position and stick to it. But it is possible to shift an entire group’s attitude to a particular issue and have them believe they have not altered their stance at all. What you believe now is what you always believed. That is called propaganda and it is a deliberate act. Everybody thinks they understand propaganda and would recognise it when they see it. But if this was the case it wouldn't work. The fact that it does work shows how little we understand and can recognise it.
Propaganda relies on pushing a limited and uncomplicated message. Keep on doing it and the more you see people you respect repeating the point the more your groupthink-led brain will lead you to accept it. A famous propagandist of the last century had this to say: “The receptivity of the masses is very limited, their intelligence is small, but their power of forgetting is enormous. In consequence of these facts, all effective propaganda must be limited to a very few points and must harp on these in slogans until the last member of the public understands what you want him to understand by your slogan.”
If you doubt the effectiveness of simple messaging, consider fashion. You laugh now at the clothes you wore in your teens, just as you laugh at what teens are wearing now. But you all went there. You bought gadgetry which didn’t work. You all signed up to social media, even if you don’t use it a lot. The weight of the crowd is a heavy one to bear and few can resist it. Those who do are either true mavericks, or they are fooling themselves. Can you honestly claim to be a maverick? How’s the rarefied air up that mountain, by the way?
So, before you proffer an opinion about the response to the government’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic. Before you give your opinion on whether and how we should suspend the lockdown, how and who we should test or how long it will take to develop a vaccine. If you intend to opine about the state of the economy and the prospects for recovery and whether or not life will be the same afterwards. Before you do any of that, take a moment to have a good long think about whether that opinion you are about to give is actually your own.