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Thursday, October 8, 2015

Branding vs. Imagination

Last year, University of Toronto philosophy professor Joseph Heath published Enlightenment 2.0, a book that considers the intersection between the way we think--or more importantly, perhaps, the way we manage to avoid thinking--and the new media environment in which our civic and political lives unfold.  He quotes Joseph Goebbels, Nazi minister of propaganda and devoted follower of Hitler, on two occasions, both with respect to successful propaganda.  Success goes to "the man who is able to reduce problems to the simplest terms and who has the courage to keep forever repeating them in this simplified form, despite the objections of the intellectuals" (Heath 239).  Intellectuals, Heath notes, are defined by their belief in evidence and careful reasoning; an intellectual is "a person who thinks that beliefs should be assessed on their merits" (Heath 192).  But if that repeated message resonates, the public will begin to feel that it is intuitively right, and the minute we bring intuition into our decision-making process, we have turned out reason's lights. Intuition has no capability for meta-cognition, for questioning its own beliefs or conclusions, largely because intuitions are emotional, not rational.

Goebbels was, in a way, one of the first people to practice branding.  In the 24-hour media universe, a small phrase or an image becomes, through repetition, both the way we tell its adherent from the other guys out there, and a statement about the way things should be.  In a world where we are bombarded with stimuli and information, these simple statements come as a relief, and other concerns become irrelevant.  "Justin Trudeau will run deficits."  "The NDP doesn't understand business."  "We need to keep Canadians safe from terrorism." 

While all parties use such stock phrases, it's the Conservatives who have been  most expert. "Just not ready" is the meme that is supposed to stick in our heads when we enter the voting booth--and handily, the "just" echoes "Justin."  Fortunately, the other parties have played with this tactic--including the comment about the "great hair."

But nowhere is this tactic more insidious than the the Conservatives' opposition to the wearing of the niqab at citizenship ceremonies.  I'm with Calgary's Mayor, Naheed Nenshi, a Shia Ismaili:  "I don't like the niqab," he told Wendy Mesley.  Nor to I, but I am also the first person to admit that I don't understand why women wear it, and I can't possibly know any woman's individual reasons for doing so.  What I'd like to have happen is for her to thrive in a free society long enough that change might just unfold, perhaps not for her, but for her daughters.  Kwame Anthony Appia, a Princeton philosopher, wrote in his insightful book Cosmopolitanism:  Ethics in a World of Strangers, that the most ethical and effective way to make cultural change is to tell stories, to simply talk to one another, without judging or forcing people to conform to arbitrary rules.

Here's what the Conservatives attempt to accomplish by keeping their opposition to the niqab and their promise of a hot line for "barbaric cultural practices" front and centre.  First--and obvious to you--they draw attention away from Harper's bad economic record, from the senate scandal, from a PMO's office that has ballooned and that virtually runs the country, from his opposition to science or any kind of fact that might challenge his "intuitions" and ideologies about the way the world should be, from budget surpluses gained by cutting services to the very veterans that exemplify his more "muscular" approach to foreign policy, from the building of ineffective prisons instead of effective schools--particularly on reserves, and from his abysmal environmental record.  (Did I miss anything?  Please add it in the comments section below!)  He will protect us from the Other and from their "barbaric cultural practices."   As Jonathan Haidt noted in another fabulous book, The Righteous Mind, when we are fearful, we vote right. 

Yet at this historical moment, weather is far more dangerous than terrorism.

Here's what else he does.  Heath notes that we need language in order to reason.  But the Harper campaign's manoeuvre does an end run around language:  there's the image of a niqab, and there's the Canadian maple leaf that the Muslim woman hopes to grasp.  If we're going to protect the Canadian identity, we have to challenge the niqab.  That image--flashed how many times on your TV screen in the past week or so--effectively shuts down argument by seeming to obviate it.  We don't need words for this!  If pushed to defend his position, Harper offers careless reasoning.  He assumes these women are oppressed and hopes that taking off their niqab in the citizenship ceremony will teach them the value of openness so dear in Canada. (Senate scandal?)  Except these oppressed women are talking back to the Canadian government, and that government, in stipulating what they will not wear is being as oppressive as husbands and fathers of the "barbaric cultural practices."  Oh, how handy that phrase is, in spite of the fact that we already have a hotline for barbaric cultural practices:  911.  Moreover, Harper hopes to ignore the practices that have led to the missing and murdered aboriginal women; we don't need to understand these.

Here's perhaps why the image resonates.  We see on the nightly news long lines of refugees, largely Muslim, taking to boats and flooding Europe, where we nightly see them in other long lines attempting to find a route to a country who can take them and offer them an opportunity for work and a peaceful life.  We have also seen footage of ISIS and of their executions.  These people are scary!  We don't understand them!  Harper is appealing to our chimpanzee brain with its tendency when under stress to identify in groups and out groups.  And now that fear is summed up in the image of a woman in a niqab.  Not, incidentally, a man in a Sikh turban.  Harper is appealing to all that is weakest and least developed in the human brain:  intuition, fear, appeal to in groups and out groups to explain why our world is experiencing chaos.  You can tell from the paragraph above that I don't think much of the way he's governed, but I do feel that his party's messaging for the last week or so represents a new low in his practices and in uncritical voter reactions.

What I want to appeal to is more than simply ABC:  vote anything but Conservative.  I want to appeal to your imaginations.  If Goebbels's strategy is to simplify, then the strategy of the imagination and of art is to admit the complex.  If Goebbels's strategy is to mock and ignore the intellectuals' challenge to the simplification,  then the imagination's and art's strategy is to seek as many perspectives as possible.  Lawrence Hill, author of The Book of Negroes, one of the most successful Canadian novels of all time, has just published The Illegal, which is the next book in my autumn pile.  Set in a fictional but realistic setting, the novel is about Keita, a young runner who is caught between one regime engaging in ethnic cleansing and a country that has "draconian immigration and refugee laws."  Hill is obviously one of those gifted and visionary writers who sees history coming before the rest of us, and so has written about what it is like to be a refugee.  Hill's background for this novel comes out of his youth, when, in 1973, he worked for the Ontario Welcome Centre, where his job was to help newcomers find accommodation and navigate government bureaucracies.  What he hopes to do with The Illegal is "to excite the imagination.  Because that is, I think, where we fall down.  We just don't imagine, or don't want to imagine, refugees in our midst" (TGAM, Saturday, September 5).

By pure coincidence, besides reading the article about Hill's book, I have also been reading Shelley's  A Defence of Poetry, written in 1821--nearly 200 years ago.  Yet Shelley's take on the imagination is not that different from Hill's.  He writes "The great secret of morals is love; or a going out of our own nature, and an identification of ourselves with the beautiful which exists in thought, action, or person, not our own.  A man, to be greatly good, must imagine intensely and comprehensively; he must put himself in the place of another and of many others; the pains and pleasures of his species must become his own."  In another part of the lengthy essay, he distinguishes between the efficacy of ethics and imagination, acknowledging that it is not "for want of admirable doctrines that men hate, and despise, and censure, and deceive, and subjugate one another.  But poetry acts in another and diviner manner.  It wakens and enlarges the mind itself by rendering it the receptacle of a thousand unapprehended combinations of thought."  But there are other books I could have been reading that might have said the same thing:  Fry's The Ethical Imagination, Martha Nussbaum's Love's Knowledge, Virginia Woolf's The Common Reader, Roger Fry's Vision and Design.  Our own imaginative lives open us up to the experience, feeling, and thoughts of people quite unlike ourselves, helping us to understand the cultural differences and to celebrate the human similarities.

Any art does this.  If I were simply to survey the six Canadian novels I taught in my last year at U of R, it would be easy to point how each of these authors does the work that Hill and Shelley think that literature ought to do.  Michael Ondaatje gave my students an inside glimpse of the civil war in Sri Lanka.  Lisa Moore gave them an opportunity to think about the experience of a family that loses their father to an industrial accident.  Esi Edyugan allowed my students to understand the terror of being a black jazz musician in Nazi Germany and occupied France.  Dennis Bock explored the defenses of a scientist who had helped make the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagisaki, and put us into the perspective of a Japanese woman whose life was forever changed, not only by the death of her family, but by the damage done to her own body.  Where the meme or the brand or the image seek to shut down thought, to "resonate" wordlessly (and hence uncritically) with the fears of the moment, the imagination works in an other way entirely, prompting us to be open to multiple possibilities, prompting us to understand before we judge. 

If you are still reading this blog, then I'm probably preaching to the choir.  So I'm going to invoke Derek Stoffel's Minifie Lecture on Tuesday night as a strategy for challenging the lazy  ways of thinking.  Stoffel told us that like many young journalism students, he had hoped to change the world by giving his audience both facts and stories that widened their knowledge and thus their perspective.  Stoffel's important mentor (whose name I unfortunately can't remember) suggested a more realistic goal:  keep conversations going around dinner tables.  Thanksgiving is coming.  Keep conversations going, even if they're uncomfortable.