If you engage in political discussion these days, you’ve almost certainly encountered a particular brand of pessimism.
I’m not talking about a general tenor of, “Everything is bad.”
Nor the pessimism in the Russian joke where you ask, “How are things?” and the pessimist answers, “Worse than yesterday,” while the optimist answers, “Better than tomorrow!”
And it’s not the pessimism of looking at climate change and saying, “We’re screwed. There’s too much CO2 in the atmosphere already, feedback loops have been triggered, and our societies don’t seem to be all that interested in doing anything serious about it anyway.”
(I’m temperamentally unable to live in that particular pessimism, but I can’t prove that it’s wrong.)
The one I’m talking about is, “It’s over. The oligarchs have won. What Cambridge Analytica showed is that with enough money, you can buy not just people’s votes, but their minds. Now that the transnational elites have that power, democratic elections can’t fix the problem.”
I appreciate the sentiment, and it sometimes crosses my mind.
But it also contains a paradox.
Because presumably the person making the statement has not had their mind bought. The person making the statement is still a fully autonomous subject, in charge of his or her own judgment, able to observe things as they really are.
And what they observe is that people are no longer fully autonomous subjects in charge of their own judgment. People have become mere pawns of the oligarchs and their newly empowered techniques of mind-control.
Other people, I mean.
I’m still an autonomous subject, in charge of my own judgment.
Which is why I can see that the rest of you have turned into zombies.
I don’t mean to deny that our moods, inclinations, and actions can be influenced by the things that other people make sure we see.
A recent Invisibilia podcast discussed evidence that the stories we’re exposed to can change not necessarily our own views on what’s right, but our views of what others think is right, and that in turn alters our behavior. (Scroll down to March 15, 2018.)
Three years ago Radio Lab was discussing Facebook’s experiments with tweaking people’s moods by altering what news items showed up in their feeds.
And let’s say you take a person who is maybe not a fan of Hillary Clinton, but sees some serious problems with Trump. If you can fill their mental environment with stories about how Clinton is linked to a pedophilia ring in the nonexistent basement of a DC pizza joint, you can probably get someone who might have voted for Clinton as the lesser of two evils to at least stay home, or maybe even vote for Trump.
So I’m not trying to laugh of the Facebook/CA/etc. story.
I’m just observing that, if you can see how other people are manipulated by propaganda, it must be true that that particular form of propaganda isn’t universally effective, because it didn’t work on you.
And so the important next step is to ask why you’re immune to it, so that we can help develop our social antibodies against it.
Because it’s not going away.