Thursday, March 14, 2013

The Nuremberg Rally, propaganda and the real dangers of emotion laden discourse.

We have all seen the old b&w newsreel footage of Herr Hitler speaking before serried ranks of enthusiastic followers and deliberately working himself up into an emotional frenzy. For most of us watching though, it is a long time ago, in a foreign language, and it would be ridiculous if it didn't also raise the warning hairs on the back of our necks.

We do recognize how dangerous this was, how these speeches of his and other National Socialist propaganda, subverted a whole nation and killed millions, but its now ancient history right? Those Germans, we think, how could they have been sucked in by such an obvious charade? So, why do we see his book 'Mein Kampf' becoming a popular book in India and extremist groups becoming more numerous in Europe and around the world? Do we keep careful watch on our own politicians of whatever political stripe and their appeal to our allegiance with emotional language and simplistic solutions to complex problems?

We can recognize our attraction to emotionally laced language as a form of tribalism: the right combination of slanted language, lies and emotion, the appeal to our deepest anxieties and allegiances and we are a ravening mob out for blood, or at least are easily influenced to behave along certain lines. We may be able to vote, but if the frame is constrained correctly, we will vote the chosen party, left or right, into power. How do we avoid this pitfall?

This human tendency is of course not limited to politics or to one particular agenda. Religions that appeal to narrow, rule-based interpretations, or that appeal to our emotions, or to observance rather than to independent discussion and understanding are on the rise. Our media has drifted toward 'feelings' and news magazine formats and away from balanced and analytical reportage: how often do we notice that a factual interview must also contain “ How does that make you feel?”and if a few tears or righteous anger can be elicited so much the better. We eat it up!

Below the level of language, our brains function in a fast shifting ferment of conceptual frames and feelings: everything is in flow; from our cerebral cortex to the more ancient parts that supply our most basic emotions. The correct choice of language and imagery by leaders, the right orchestration and tone of voice and we are lead by the nose. It takes a conscious effort on everyone's part to keep debate up out of that powerful emotional gravitation. If we do wish for a change we need to analyze what we hear and see around us, look for the emotional hook, the slanted language ( I have been using some myself, did you notice?), and out and out lies regularly repeated to beat down down our rational minds. We need to point out propaganda when we see others use it and catch ourselves as we slip into the same trap.

As a Canadian I see this in operation in my own national government, in parliament, in interviews with ministers and in the framing of issues to appeal to the most primitive of our emotions: crime ( the streets are unsafe, we need more jails), immigration ( keep out the poor and sick), military, (support our boys, do not question), global warming, ( not proven), environmental, ( terrorists!) and so on. Science, clarity, truth, compassion and reasoned debate, are not wanted here! I am sure that we are not alone in this, that it is on the rise around the world along with increasing populations and diminishing resources and that as human societies we have been down this road many times before and found deadly dead ends.

We do not need to diminish emotion or glorify rationality, that is the complexity of the case, but we do need to take a step back as individuals, groups and political parties, and analyze more, to refuse to be swayed by emotion when thinking is required and to feel genuinely and personally when that is appropriate. We must learn to be selective with language and careful in our debates, whether that be within our families, our town hall meetings, regional and national governments, or between nations. Hold! Enough!

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