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Systems Change

The Paradox of Manufactured Consent in the Information Age

The “information age” of instant communication and ubiquitous internet access has saturated all of us with information. Unfortunately, most of the information streaming along fibers and across airwaves is of low quality and dubious intention. The opinions and perspectives and agendas communicated, explicitly but especially implicitly, through the mainstream media channels are highly attuned to the prevailing interests of the wealthy and powerful. These information streams are principally responsible for defining the popular lexicon and for fortifying the prevailing assumptions that favor the status quo. Therefore, to a great degree, mainstream media is instrumental in bounding the subjective reality of the majority of the population in possession of even the potential capacity for political engagement.

This paradox of widespread thought control in an age of extreme information access raises some obvious questions: Why doesn’t the public better inform itself given the fact that broader perspectives and better information are now widely available? What barriers to alternative views might exist deeper in the public psyche beyond that of (potential) access to them, and from what are such barriers derived? Are they universal, or peculiar to certain societies or certain historical circumstances or certain collusions between economic and political institutions of power? And importantly, who is to blame?

Blame is often placed on the individual (as with common “explanations” of inequalities, where ‘the poor are poor because they’re lazy or wicked, and the wealthy are wealthy because they work hard and deserve to be’ is in some circles taken as settling the matter), and on some level, of course a measure of blame should be evenly distributed across everyone complacent in the system. But does that get us very far in understanding why the vast majority of people are complacent in the system, or why the system produces both complacency and inequality (and irreversible environmental pollution, global climate change, mass extinctions, et cetera ad nauseum, as well)?

Contrary to the common accusation that to ascribe blame to “the system” is “passing the buck” further down the line to avoid individual responsibility, such an ascription is actually passing the buck back up the line, upstream. We must realize that popular apathy itself has been carefully engineered; that the public’s condition as misinformed, distracted, and highly isolated consumers rather than educated, engaged, highly organized citizens is not coincidence or accident, and especially not failure of character en-masse. Rather, this condition is the product of our particular system and has been shaped by both the purposeful action of powerful players and the properties inherent to the particular kind of system we’ve established, which, in coming full circle, produces inequality precisely because it also shapes the public to apathetically accept that inequality. It’s a bit like the anthropic principle …. our society is the way it is precisely because the properties, arrangements, and interactions of its component parts have produced what we observe.

Could we change the public’s apathy or the degree of economic and political inequality by changing the peculiar characteristics of our system? For example: by investing more in public education and broadcasting rather than less; by expanding campaign finance laws rather than eviscerating them; by bailing out homeowners instead of banks; by shifting policy to favor the interests of the majority of Americans rather than a tiny minority of influential Americans; by eliminating lobbying while tying politicians’ salaries to key national outcomes so that, like corporate CEOs, the better the country’s citizens do, the greater politicians’ reimbursements? We can change the outputs of our system by any of thousands of tweaks or radical revisions, knowing that the system isn’t a natural phenomenon as unalterable as gravity, but rather a set of conventions that we have made up and that could be different; conventions that have now been tested and found to be inadequate for our society’s sustained survival, let alone our future flourishing. Whether such changes will take place remains to be seen, but it is certain that if those of us with the capacity and opportunity to engage these questions don’t do so and the current system moves forward unchallenged and unchanged, then the burden of responsibility will fall squarely on those of us who shirked the obligations of our privilege. The most meaningful targets of blame will be those of us who failed to engage, to ask questions, to expand debate, to challenge conformity, to reject inequality and injustice and corruption and the subversion of democratic principles, despite having ample opportunities to do so.

A colleague of mine, in discussing this topic, recently voiced reluctance to assign “moral blame to those who would manipulate the public”, instead championing the adage already discussed – the “personal responsibility” each individual bears for their decisions and behaviors. But to my mind, the fallacy of such a position is in confusing the moral responsibilities of the manipulators with the manipulated. Should we also equate the moral responsibilities of aggressors and those they harm, or of slave owners and slaves, or of rapists and the victims they violate, or of transnational corporations and the laborers they exploit for profit? I don’t believe so and doubt my colleague does either. Yet the same logic that clearly distinguishes violator from victim in these more conceptually familiar contexts must also apply to the case of media, advertising, public relations, and mass propaganda and the public to whom they do violence.

Arundhati Roy has suggested there is only one story – the story of power and powerlessness. While we may not be able to completely “blame” the powerful for the natural course of exercising power, we can certainly decide if disparities (in power, and in justice, and in political influence, and in access to all that is necessary to fully realize human rights, and in opportunities, and in legal protections and prosecutions, and in life trajectories affected by the thousand-faceted features of our current social, economic, and political orders) should define the sort of society we’d like to live in, participate in, contribute to, defend, and pass on. Media, advertising, public relations, and mass propaganda, to the degree they have helped create the contemporary world and the complacency that sustains it, must be held accountable by those of us with the capacity and opportunities – and the moral responsibility – to do so.

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