Tag: propaganda

Constructing and using delegitimizing labels: “conspiracy theories” and “stereotypes”

Are all claims that two (or more) people worked together to commit a crime conspiracy theories? What about this claim? “Multiple members of the Reagan administration violated the law to sell arms to Iran and used the proceeds to illegally give funds to the Contras in Nicaragua.”

–Is this a conspiracy theory or just a claim that people conspired?

Are all claims that two groups manifest differences, on average, on some trait, stereotypes? What about this claim? “Men are, on average, physically stronger than women.”

–Is this a stereotype? Or, just a claim about group differences?

More generally, when is a people-conspired claim or a groups-differ claim just a claim? When do such claims constitute something specific, and, specifically…bad? Meriting special bad- or irrational-claim treatment? Or, to put it differently, when should we avoid engaging with the substance of a claim – and reflexively categorize them as irrational and beyond the pale? Do we really need special social practices regarding putatively dodgy people-conspired and groups-differ claims, so that this subset of claims, when they are voiced, can reliably be walled-off from interrogation and contestation?

The most casual review of public discourse confirms that we have routinized practices (associated with the labels “conspiracy theory” and “stereotype”) that reliably do precisely this walling-off work. Why? Where did these practices come from? How do they function? Are these collective short-cuts for responding to these claims making our public discourse more sound? Or, are they doing something destructive?

If you want these questions answered, I recommend reading this excellent 2007 paper [“Dangerous Machinery: “Conspiracy Theorist” as a Transpersonal Strategy of Exclusion.” Symbolic Interaction 30(2)] in which Boise State sociologists Ginna Husting and Martin Orr isolate and track how labels can function as discursive control tools. They examine how the conspiracy theory/ conspiracy theorist labels function, though much of their analysis applies well to other labels including, for example, stereotype.

Their analysis illuminates the process whereby labels are imbued with interactional or (what they call) micropolitical power. That is, they examine the process whereby the phrase conspiracy theory/theorist is ‘loaded’ with meaning such that, when linked to a claim, it will reliably nudge audiences toward perceiving the claim as inaccurate and the claimant as irrational. Their elaboration shows how discourse managers can construct labels that can be linked to a speaker or their speech to diminish their legitimacy. I’m persuaded that the label stereotype functions similarly. That is, when linked to a claim, it nudges audiences toward perceiving the claim as inaccurate, and the claimant as irrational if not bigoted. It is likely the ‘loading’ of the label stereotype was accomplished through very similar means to conspiracy theory.

While they don’t emphasize how labeling is implemented, their analysis nevertheless sheds light on how rhetorical devices such as labels can be developed and disseminated such that they can be utilized by a decentralized network of operatives to control discourse in a desired direction. Given that most contemporary censoring involves implementation by such operatives these insights are most welcome.

Who is deploying those dodgy women’s-victimization claims? And why?

Book review of: “Who Stole Feminism” by Christina Hoff Sommers

Four years ago, I was sitting with a friend getting updated on her daughter’s college application process. My friend mentioned her concern about campus safety and in particular, her worry that her daughter might get raped. She said one in five girls are sexually assaulted while in college. I was surprised & skeptical, and I said so. A week or so later she forwarded a piece with comments by Hillary Clinton confirming there was an ‘epidemic’ of sex assault on campus.

I responded by doing research into the claims and into the data behind the claims. Suffice it to say, I did not find any trustworthy evidence of a sex-assault-on-campus epidemic; but I did discover an extraordinary strategic communication campaign to create the perception of one. NB. An excellent overview of these claims, the data and the communication campaign can be found in The Campus Rape Frenzy by Stuart Taylor, KC Johnson (2017) – see Chapter 2. Once I started to pay attention, I discovered signs of similar propaganda hyping women’s and girls’ plight all over the place (e.g. domestic violence claims; girls education claims).

The discovery piqued my interest into the managers of these communication campaigns: Who were they? What did they want? How did they benefit by persuading Americans to believe that our universities are rife with would-be rapists? That men regularly beat their wives? That most schools are short-changing girls? I decided to investigate the ideology and the political movement behind it. I’m a social scientist and a policy wonk, and I did not want to read polemical content. I wanted to read something scholarly – and I wanted to find a scholar who took a balanced look at the political movement. Sommers’ book fit the bill perfectly. Of all that I have read on the gender feminist movement in the ensuing years, Sommers’ book is the most valuable. It makes an invaluable contribution to creating the understanding and the public discourse that is necessary if the gender feminist political movement is to be recognized and, where appropriate, challenged.

I would like to urge women in particular to read the book. Why?

  • Checking on our ‘representatives’. Gender feminist advocates across many domains are acquiring and using power in *our* name. We should all have at some familiarity with what these ‘representatives’ are up to.
  • For love of men and boys. Gender feminist supported initiatives often have detrimental effects on men and boys in our society; domains include: schools, family courts, universities, civil and criminal courts. These effects are often hard to see, and occasionally they are deliberately obscured. Voices to contest these initiatives based on harm to men and boys are quite weak in public and political discourse. Most women care not only about what happens to women and girls but also to men and boys. Women who read this book will be in a better to position to think through the implications of gender feminist supported policies and initiatives, in terms of *all* the people they care about.