Eight ways the Spanish government uses language and the media to “manufacture consent”

Interesting article over last weekend in the Spanish daily El País reminiscent of the thesis and arguments put forward by many illustrious postmodernist authors and activists about the blatant manipulation of the cultural and linguistic discourse carried out by the Partido Popular (ironically – “Popular party”, PP), Spanish current right-wing government.

brainwash

The three authors argued that the PP’s neoliberal, rightist mentality accounts for an immense political and financial power that not only imposes its radical economic and political model onto the people, but it also seeks to impose a change of thought and ultimately to achieve cultural hegemony.  This project, they claim, is based on a systematic campaign of self-legitimation and discredit of progressive arguments by using the media which, is mostly dominated or at least influenced by the government.

How is this consent achieved?

Using the following, and other, manipulation strategies, already referred to by Noam Chomsky in many of his lectures and publications:

1. Creation (or borrowing) and diffusion of concepts and terms –  competitivenesswage moderationcreation of market confidenceprivilegesco-payments, etc .These new notions draw a map of public life, the actors and their conflicts and are presented as unquestionable truths. And yet, their meaning and scope are never made ​​explicit. The more imprinted in public life and in government policy they become, the lower their semantic precision. For example, “freedom” takes on a meaning related to “security”. BESCAM (the local Madrid police force)’s slogan is “Investing in security ensures your freedom.” As in Orwell’s “Newspeak” new ideas become “doublethink” or simultaneously accepted contradictory beliefs – The “Plan of Assurance of Basic Social Services” is the name given to the Castilla-La Mancha government’s cutbacks program. The “process of regularisation of hidden assets” promulgated by Finance Minister Cristobal Montoro is, in fact, a tax amnesty.

These “reconfiguration” of the language by right-wing leaders is a common phenomenon (think of Nazi slogans or the constantly repeated hackneyed phrases by Australia’s opposition leader Tony Abbott’s to make us believe that “boat people”are here to invade Australia). The Spanish right-wing party is manufacturing a set of convincing terms which oppose logic – “we cannot spend what we don’t have”, “free health services are unsustainable“, “only we have “common sense“. In fact, capitalism is based on credit and spending more than what one owns; public health services is not free but financed collectively by the public and therefore, common to all. But the simplicity of these slogans and their seemingly non-ideological nature make it easy for these tautologies to adhere to people’s minds and become unquestionable truths.

2. Appropriation of opponents’terminology

Admittedly, no one owns a language, but it could legitimately claimed that certain expressions are associated with specific traditions, stories and political identities. By usurping the terms of the left, the right wing simultaneously neutralises its opposition and attains a rebellious feel of sorts. Esperanza Aguirre, the current right wing mayor of Madrid,  claims that the policies of the syndicates “are outdated, reactionary and anti-social.” Words like “change” or “reform” rather linked to progressive projects, are used in disguise to refer to what are actually counter-reforms. Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy said at the official commemoration of the 1812 Constitution: “The people from Cadiz taught us that in times of crisis not only is it necessary to make reforms, but one also has to have  the courage to carry them through.” He used the symbolism of earlier reforms and reformist movements to justify and legitimate current cutbacks and dress them up as reforms.

3. Stigmatisation of certain groups

The government’s discourse refers to the unemployed as the beneficiaries of the labor reform, a lazy cast that needs to redeem its uselessness repaying the employed population with social work. For instance, Victor Grifols, president of a pharmaceutical company in Spain, proposes that “in times of crisis we could pay the unemployed 60 euros per week to donate life, earnings which could be added to their pensions.” With this proposal, the jobless body becomes a commodity, human waste that can be bought at a (minimum) price.

Some of the earlier government cutbacks also reveal a new type of paria – the sick person, now blamed for the country’s deficit and forced to pay for his/her weaknesses.

And this is the beginning, surely many other groups are bound to be falsely blamed, stigmatised and outcast.

4. Arguments based on simplicity and immediate understanding

“It is not a matter of right or left, but simply a matter of common sense,” said Alicia Sanchez-Camacho, President since 2008 of the PP in Catalonia. Mariano Rajoy’s well known appeal to “common sense” helps the party sustain a mental framework that makes people accept all imposed ideas as if they were their own conclusions, irrefutable expressions of pragmatism and the collective interest.

Euphemisms, attenuations, exaggerations, the defense of contradicting premises – all of these figures have been normalised in the right-wing rhetorical repertoire. For instance, Rajoy says it will do “whatever is necessary, even if I do not like it and even if I had previously said I was not going to do it.” The reduction of temporary teachers “should not be understood in terms of layoffs“, claims Education Minister José Ignacio Wert, “but in terms of renewal of contracts.”

5. Constructing frameworks of meaning

It’s easier for those in the public arena to enjoy more power when they control the framework of what can be said and debated. As it is, and after a protracted degeneration of public life, the PP owns a consensual logic of the system – there is only one reality and no option to interpret it.

6. Orchestration tactics

The insistent repetition of a slogan by different voices, in different times and places is now commonplace:  ”unions survive on subsidies“,” teachers don’t work much at all“etc.. As the bellman in Lewis Carroll’s The hunting of the shark said “whatever I tell you three times is the true“. The right takes advantage of that “performativity” governing public statements and whenever a particular type of behavior is repeatedly normally, it tends to become normalised, or to become stigmatised if it has been repeatedly been labeled as an anomaly.

7. Using the power of the media to reinforce these mechanisms

The media helps the Popular Party spread new expressions and slogans while government consultants continue manufacturing statements and translate them immediately into a headline. Inversely proportional to the impact of these messages is the ability to answer them: any possible critical analysis by opposition forces are dissolved in a flurry of articles and editorial columns which achieve a much lower diffusion and influence than the government’s own propaganda.

Noam Chomsky has been warning us for decades now about this active (but subtle) use of the media to manufacture consent and achieve  popular control. Chomsky has argued that editorial distortion is aggravated by the media’s dependence upon private and governmental news sources. If a given newspaper, television station, magazine, etc., incurs governmental disfavor, it is subtly excluded from access to information. Consequently, it loses readers or viewers, and ultimately, advertisers. To minimise such financial danger, news media businesses editorially distort their reporting to favor government and corporate policies in order to stay in business.

8. Moralising public discourse

Good or badnormal or abnormal – these morally charged adjectives are attributed categorically and without room for discussions, appropriating the universality of the concept in dispute. The “normal, sensible people of Spain” to whom Rajoy tries to appeal to belong, undoubtedly, to the right. But by concealing its moral fundamentalism, the PP incurs a political paradox and so, PP advocates like former Mayor of Madrid, Ruiz Gallardón, attempt to assume the defense of women’s rights and the fight against the ingrained domestic violence in Spanish society with a counter-reform of the abortion law which, still limits abortion rights and reinforces legal violence further.

Let’s start by being aware of what is being said and done to us. And then, let’s show our indignation about the use of our own language, our own words,  to treat us as brainless commodities with no capacity to analyse and counter-argue.

International law is merely a tool for the powerful”. Discuss (or Why last was a sad week for civil liberties)

“International law is merely a tool for the powerful”.

Discuss with reference to the US approach to the law on the use of force or human rights.

This was one of the questions put to us in the final exam of a post-grad course on International Law over a couple of years ago. Can’t remember exactly how I came out of it, but I probably went on blathering about how International Law is used by the US and other major hegemons to advance their own self-interest. Nothing new, nothing surprising but a topic that hits us every day with more intensity.

Last week I felt particularly sadden and angered by a number of events that took place across the globe, which again brought the above question-statement to the fore:

1. The threat by British authorities to arrest Julian Assange from the Ecuadorean Embassy after the Latin American country granted him political assylum.

Julian ASSANGE arrested, painted portrait - Wikileaks

Beyond the manhunt against Wikileaks founder for obviously orchestrated allegations of sexual misconduct in Sweden (see this article for a rundown on the sequence of events put together from a number of leaked police reports and other witnesses’ accounts), what’s angered me is the biased media coverage against Assange, the lack of support from his own government (Australia), and the blatant use of threats against cilvil liberties and international law from major governments.

2.The incarceration for two years of three members of the Russian feminist punk band Pussy Riot, after a judge decided that the band’s actions were notivated y religious hatred when they staged an anti-Kremlin protest at the altar of Moscow’s Chris the Saviour Cathedral.

pussy riot protest-8

3. The Lonmin’s Marikana platinum mine massacre in South Africa that left 34 dead and 78 wounded when police open fire at the crowd of striking miners as result of a week-long strike over demands for a wage rise (the average pay for one of these miners being US$500 a month).
Clashes between mineworkers and police at the Marikana mines where platinum is extracted. Official reports indicate around 44 have died over the last week.

Never stop questioning

All three cases highlight and remind us of both the fragility and the biased nature of International Law in the hands of powerful political and private interests – the protection of military and state secrets, the mocking of an autocratic ruler and his paraphernalia/machinery and the defense of private interests at any cost including the loss of the lives of underpaid and overworked workers. But I won’t go into any more details as I’m sure you’ve had enough of the media circus that surrounds all of them.

What I want to do is to stress once more the need to keep on questioning the institutions used to govern us, to judge us, to teach us, to lead us. Because, as Noam Chomsky reminds us we “need to be able to detect forms of authority and coercion and challenge those that are not legitimate”. If we forget that and accept what’s served to us by governments and by the media, we will help further the interests of those in control.

We need to remember that liberal values are shown to us to be at the core of the purpose and mission of the dominant western democracies in the world – they need to be seen to promote human dignity and spreading democracy (whether that is true or whether the merely advance corporate interests). But in reality, what happens is that once these ideas have been recognised, once they have normalised and accepted  as valid by their own citizens and the countries in the periphery, the impression of dominance disappears entirely, we believe their legitimacy and stop questioning them.

So, today, I just want to remind us that International Law (as other institutions and norms that are presented to us as necessities for a civil society) in as much as it may have been founded on principles of fairness and protection of basic human dignity, it is pervasively albeit discretely used as a tool of the powerful to protect their hegemonic power and their legitimacy. How?

How does International Law get abused/neglected/reshaped?

The use and abuse of International Law (and by default in many cases, the abuse of civil liberties)  by the powerful comes in many shapes and sizes.

Withdrawal

Sometimes, we see a withdrawal of the powerful from the very institutions of International Law (as in the case of the International Criminal Court and the Kyoto Protocol) they formulated and helped shape. Take as a example the case of the United States versus the International Criminal Court. After campaigning  for the formation of an international tribunal and being one of the main participants in the formation of  the Ad Hoc Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (and later the ICTR to deal with crimes perpetrated in Rwanda) and their important role in a preparatory committee in 1996 to conclude a draft earlier presented by the International Law Commission for the formation of an International Court of Justice, the United States refused to ratify the Rome Statute. The Bush Administration embarked on a campaign against the establishment of the ICC as in theory according to the statute, the ICC would have jurisdiction to detain US citizens (and those from other non-signatory nations) without the consent of the US directly or through its agreement with a Security Council decision. The emergence of an international institution capable of detaining US officials hence capacitated to restrict their power to employ military forces at will beyond US borders, did not sit well with the US administration.

Change

In other cases, we see a forceful change in International Law. For instancein the last 15 years, the US have advanced claims for new rights to use force in the following areas:a right to unilaterally enforce Security Council authorisations in the interventions in the former Yugoslavia and Iraq; a broadened right to exercise self-defence against terrorist attacks in the missile attacks on Sudan and Afghanistan and later the war in Afghanistan; and a bold right to pre-emptive self-defence, so far only cautiously invoked in the war in Iraq.

Disregard

And in other cases, we see a blatant attempt at disregarding the power of International Law and human liberties. For instance, WikiLeaks has revealed since its inception the seemingly indiscriminate killing of Baghdad civilians by a United States Apache attack helicopter; details about the true face of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars; the Obama administration’s pressure on other nations not to prosecute Bush-era officials for torture; and many other thorny secrets. These reports have angered certain factions in the US and in fact, the US Justice Department has recently confirmed that there was a continuous investigation against WikiLeaks, and just-disclosed Australian government documents from this past February state that “the U.S. investigation into possible criminal conduct by Mr. Assange has been ongoing for more than a year.” WikiLeaks itself has published e-mails from Stratfor, a private intelligence corporation, which state that a grand jury has already returned a sealed indictment of Mr. Assange.

If Britain denies safe passage for Julian Assange to Ecuador and he is eventually extradited to the United States, the consequences will reverberate for years around the world. As filmakers Michael Moore and Oliver Stone explain, given the fact that Assange is not an American citizen, and none of his actions have taken place on American soil, charging him with espionage or terrorism against the US could open an international can of worms because, by the same logic, other countries like Russia or China could demand that foreign reporters anywhere on earth be extradited for violating their laws.

So, for those that question Julian Assange’s innocence or for those that believe the Pussy Riots should not have gone that far, or for those who think unrest in a mine results in a loss of profit for many and it needs to be suppressed at any cost, remember:

I am not talking about conspiracies, I am talking about instruments used to establish and consolidate hegemony and legitimacy of the powerful. Using the tools already available to them, creating tools that suit their purpose, working with propaganda, the powerful distort the important information and create illusions that make the population believe what they are told and away from the truths behind the political process.  

In Noam Chomsky’s words: “At this stage of history, one of two things is possible: Either the general population will take control of its own destiny and will concern itself with community interests guided by values of solidarity and sympathy and concern for others, or alternatively there will be no destiny to control.”

So, never stop questioning.