Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Counterprop is a two-step

A lot of people, a lot of liberals, or what we might better call people of cosmopolitan political sensibilities, live in this fantasy world wherein what they ignore either doesn't exist or will be shooed out of existence by their refusal to pay attention to it. This is, needless to say, not true. - Josh Marshall
Most of what we know about political psychology suggests that this is only half true.

Marshall gets this part right: ideological memes don't just vanish on their own. Eighteenth century rationalism held that they get automatically winnowed out in the marketplace of ideas, and modern liberals still believe that people recognize and reject crazy when they see it -- but this was all long ago empirically discredited as so much wishful thinking. Unchallenged, in fact, ideology tends to spread, particularly when there is a vast, well-funded apparatus of right-wing mass media specifically engineered for its dissemination.

Often, however, liberals make the opposite mistake: like Marshall, they believe that you can defeat ideology with education. This too relies on long-discredited assumptions about the ultimate integrity of human reason and the logical progress of public discourse. Political controversies, it is thought, tend towards resolution through facts and sound reasoning; with adequate evidence and clever enough argumentation, truth must eventually prevail.

This, of course, simply isn't true. It is well understood (as a matter of scientific fact) that human thought is riddled with all kids of biases and cognitive shortcuts that severely handicap our ability to accept disagreeable evidence and engage in sound reasoning. Quite often, no amount of schooling or journalistic persistence can overcome this. Furthermore, contesting a given talking point often just has the perverse effect of drawing attention to it, encouraging its partisans to maintain the controversy, and fostering confirmation bias in political opponents. For these reasons, disputing an ideological meme is often the best way to keep it alive.

The literature suggests that counterprop should be handled as a two-step:

1. Politicize ideology
Pull it out of the realm of uncontested fact or conventional wisdom and into the realm of political controversy. The goal here is not to persuade your audience, but simply to demonstrate to them that a given claim is in dispute. If they are at all amenable to persuasion, you will have given your audience the opportunity to be skeptical of something they may have simply taken for granted; and if they are unamenable to persuasion and they are political allies, they will simply default into siding with you. It is only if they are unamenable to persuasion and political opponents that you will have accomplished nothing, and in that case you wouldn't have been able to advance your position anyway.

2. Downplay ideology
Once you have politicized ideology, work to exclude it from public discourse. This means both ignoring it and changing the subject. An ideological core will continue to maintain their opposition and try to spread it; generally, these people are agitating on behalf of their own political / material interests, and it is those interests, at this point, that must be attacked. But without resorting to censorship, this is really the most you can do.

Obviously these two steps are in tension, but that just means that they have to be strategically balanced. The great problem facing the left today is how to cultivate this balance in a decentralized media environment in which everyone has different judgments and different agendas. After all, Marshall may think we need a lot more education and messaging; but he also gets paid to think that. Capitalism seems to have an inherent preference for step one - so perhaps it's the task of the left to push for step two.