Bookcase: McLuhan and “The Medium is the Message” — Part II

Marshall McLuhan, 1945. (Wikimedia Commons)

What did Marshall McLuhan mean by “The medium is the message?”  I think the idea is clearer today than back in 1962 when he published his landmark book Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man.  He argued that it was not the content within the media that affects us the most, whether the media be radio, TV, newspapers, or anything else.  Rather, it is the actual medium itself that changes us, that transforms our minds. To try to unpack this concept, just think about your average teenagers today with their smart phones.  (Or yourself!)  Is it mostly the content on that phone that influences them as they ceaselessly tap and slide their fingers across the screen? Are they really looking for the latest news? What’s more addictive — the content or the process? McLuhan would  likely argue that it is the environment of the medium itself that has us transfixed.  It is the technology that is transforming us.

This is a also a theme in Nicholas Carr’s 2011 book The Shallows, in which he posits that the internet actually is changing how we think and even the very structure of our brains as we allow ourselves to get pulled into its clickholes that never seem to end.  As an aside, I’ll add that is why it’s critical that we step back from communications media and re-learn how to connect with people one-on-one and face-to-face.  The forces of these technologies have become way too powerful, as have the tech titans who are controlling social media.

It is the way in which we use a technology that causes it to become an “extension of man,” as McLuhan subtitle implies. Interestingly, he means that he sees technology as extensions of our bodies, extensions of our natural functions.  For example, he has a chapter on clothing as a medium — an extension of our skin.  And transportation such as cars and bicycles are media that are extensions of our feet.  Those that affect our minds in terms of audio-visual media are, likewise, extensions of our central nervous systems.  If you are interested in the development of language — and especially how the phonetic alphabet impacted human society — that’s another reason for extending your eyes to read this amazing book.

By the way, five years later (in 1967) McLuhan coined another phrase: The Medium is the Massage.  This is the idea that a medium –whether TV, radio, the internet, a photograph — actually massages our senses and changes our perceptions in ways we don’t realize. So rather than the content of the message itself, it’s the medium — the presentation of the content, if you will — that affects us most.  I tend to agree.  And I think awareness of this point is key to building self-awareness today.

Bookcase: Looking at “The Medium is the Message” 56 years Later — Part I

Marshall McLuhan (1911-1980) was a communications professor in Canada when he published his landmark book Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man  in 1962. It is an absolutely fascinating read, though convoluted at times.

You may know that McLuhan coined a lot of well known phrases, such as “The medium is the message” and “global village.” But his theories are amazing and prescient.  Some of what he writes is all over the map and I don’t agree with all of it.  But he predicted with uncanny accuracy that with the information explosion due to hit later in the 20th century, our society would not really experience pluralism.

Quite the contrary.  At the time, he wrote about how the medium of television was affecting us.  His general thesis was that the effect of a medium itself — the environment it creates — is far more vast than the content of any particular program on it. His verdict:  we were actually undergoing an implosion of the Western society.  In other words, television was causing us to regress, to return to tribalism and divisions as opposed to becoming a more cohesive and open society. Consider also how the internet is affecting thought processes — causing a loss of clarity with all the noise and scatter that accompanies the technology. Well, McLuhan seemed to foresee that. He warned that newer communications technologies would only further expedite the implosion.

I’m certain this was very counter-intuitive when he wrote the book.  After all, what could seem more mind-opening than having more avenues of expression that would come with more avenues of information?  And more people chiming in? My personal conclusion is this: Well, it depends on how aware we are of how media plays on our minds. Are we more open to reason and logic, or have people become more emotional?  And it also depends on who controls the media. We as individuals who believe in self-governance? Or power elites directing a media that drive us more into a collective mindset?

Part II tomorrow . . .

(Book cover above is the MIT Press 30th Anniversary Edition)

Food for Thought: Today’s Two Political Camps are really just Pro-Thought or Anti-Thought

“The Thinker,” Auguste Rodin, 1904. This cast is in the Palace of the Legion of Honor in (Ha! Today’s Belly of the Anti-Thought Beast!) San Francisco (Wikimedia Commons)

Last month I wrote a Federalist piece in which I elaborate on a conclusion I reached some time ago.  There are really only two political camps:  Pro-Thought and Anti-Thought.  Think about it.  The tired old labels of Left and Right and Conservative and Liberal and so on don’t really mean anything.  It’s time people learn — or re-learn — how to think clearly and for ourselves.  And realize that our basic choices in self-identifying are either as a Free Thinker or a Thought Policer.

Here’s a novel idea:  Let’s teach kids — and everyone else! — how to think independently of what the media and Hollywood and Academics on their high horses tell us to think.  (Those folks aren’t really thinking on their own, anyway.)  Let’s stop being slaves to propaganda.

You can read the article here:  “Today’s Two Main Political Camps are Pro-Thought and Anti-Thought.”  And here’s an excerpt:

“Let’s remember that all of the other First Amendment rights follow in logical order from the first:  freedom of religion/belief/conscience/thought. Freedom of speech is the right to express what you think and believe. Freedom of press means the right to record those expressed thoughts in writing or other media. In this vein, freedom of association would mean being able to deliver your ideas to anyone willing to listen. It means the right to peaceably assemble and have open conversation with other people.

“The heavy hand of the state has no right to cut off or interfere in our ability to spark thoughtful conversations. If the state violates our First Amendment rights, the First Amendment also gives us the right to petition as a means of fighting back against that abuse of power.”

And here’s another:

“Once the Mass State starts manipulating language by legislating everyday expressions, such as forcing every citizen to adhere to unfamiliar pronoun protocols under the guise of anti-discrimination, it builds walls between people. That’s exactly what it’s designed to do.

“We’ve probably all observed how political correctness controls speech and thought by inducing self-censorship. How does this happen? Through manipulating the primal human terror of being socially isolated for non-compliance. People comply with political correctness in order to avoid that perceived isolation. Yet political correctness is designed to isolate us socially through our compliance with it! Heads, they win; tails, you lose.

“The only way to avoid that Catch-22 is to stand up to political correctness before its illusions root too deeply. The First Amendment is a use-it-or-lose-it proposition. And it’s all or nothing.

“The only way the bubble of political correctness can pop is if all free thinkers are inclined to follow through with the First Amendment. Thinking will only remain free as long as we express our thoughts by speaking them, recording them, and cross-pollinating them through peaceful assembly. Nothing less can insure against the de-humanizing effects of thought policing.

“Let’s think about that. And talk about it constantly.”

The Link between Mass Schooling and Mental Instability in Kids

High School Hallway. (Image from Wikimedia Commons)

The other day I wrote a piece for the Federalist in which I explore the ways mass public schooling actually cultivates mental instability in children.  You can read it here:  “13 Ways Public Schools Incubate Mental Instability in Kids.”

In the wake of another school shooting – and now the ways children are being used to serve as mouthpieces for PC agendas, including (but not limited to) gun control — I think it’s high time we take a good hard look at the institutions that are shaping them for most of  their waking hours. The schools teach abject conformity in so many ways, that I believe they are literally making kids ill.  In my piece I list 13 ways this happens in today’s government mega-schools. They include the hierarchy of cliques, status anxiety, relational aggression, hostility towards family and faith, politicization, and enforced conformity.

I’m sure you can add many more ways today’s schools feel oppressive, and even prison-like.  And yet there are now places called “school refusal clinics” for children to be psychologically “treated” if school becomes so alienating and lonely for children that it literally makes them sick.

Below is an excerpt on just one of those 13 points.  In it, I reflect on how the sheer size of today’s schools have grown exponentially.  I think this in itself promotes an alienating environment that’s not conducive to mental health.

Back in 1929-30, there were about 248,000 public schools in the United States, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. How many today? Far less than half that. By 2013-14, the number had shrunk to 98,000.

When you consider that the U.S. population nearly tripled in that timeframe, there’s no question this factory model of schooling has grown exponentially. The numbers speak to the intense bureaucratization of a public school system that is becoming more centralized with less local control, packing ever-larger numbers of students in one place.

The natural effect for a young human being is an emotional malaise that fuels a sense of confusion and detachment. I believe the sociologist Emile Durkheim coined the term “anomie” to describe this state of isolation. Even the physical architecture of public schools is getting more estranging. They tend to be larger and more looming, almost blade-runner-like in their effect of shrinking and sequestering individuals to irrelevance.

 

 

My FRC talk about Social and Emotional Programming, the latest fad in Education

I recently spoke at the Family Research Council about a new fad in mass public schooling called “social and emotional learning” (SEL.) Those who advocate for SEL claim the program will give children critical life skills, such as empathy, getting along with others, and making good decisions. An organization called the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) wants a government mandate that will bring this program into every school. You can watch my FRC policy lecture here:

In this talk I give my perspective on SEL.  While good teachers are always a godsend, bureaucrats can never achieve what they promise in such programs. Especially since their framework is mass schooling. Such values and attitudes need to be taught in intimate settings of trust, such as families.  Not in hyper-bureaucratized mega-schools.  I see the SEL program as a bait-and-switch operation, because it demands universal compliance with its methods, with its content, and with its monopoly.  By its very monolithic nature as program driven by a government monopoly, it is coercive. In the video, you’ll see a clip in which a representative for SEL tells us that they “need the WHOLE child.” And if you delve into this more, you can see that the SEL program is really all about enforcing conformity: Conformity of feelings, attitudes, emotions, speech, attitudes, beliefs, and behavior.  When such things are directed by a centralized State mandate, rather than by de-centralized mediating institutions —  institutions of family, faith, and voluntary associations — there can be no freedom, nor can there be real diversity.

Must Read: The Devil’s Pleasure Palace

I have a review of Michael Walsh’s book (now out in paperback) “The Devil’s Pleasure Palace: The Cult of Critical Theory and the Subversion of the West” over at Acton Institute’s Transatlantic blog.  If you haven’t yet read Walsh’s book, it’s a must read for understanding the Left’s war on reality, and how it spawned political correctness and multiculturalism to divide and control us all.  Here’s the link for purchasing the book on Amazon:  The Devil’s Pleasure Palace

My review is here:  Book Review: “The Devil’s Pleasure Palace” by Michael Walsh.

We can trace critical theory back about a hundred years, to a group of Marxists in Germany:

The neo-Marxist thinkers who invented critical theory coalesced at the Institute for Social Research in Frankfurt after World War I. The core idea was to foment radical social change and undermine “repressive” Western culture by advancing roughly the premise that all ideas – except theirs, of course – should be criticized and challenged. The attacks on the institutions that make freedom possible – family, religion, classical education, the arts, free markets, free speech – can be traced to critical theory. Critical theory operates under the guise of “equality” and “social justice,” but suppresses all competing influences.

Walsh’s book is rich with allusions from literature and opera.  The title is based on the Schubert opera “The Devil’s Pleasure Palace,” a metaphor for the nihilism of critical theory which is all built on illusion — and crumbles into nothing when it is confronted head on.

Some Study Questions for “Cults in our Midst”

If you decide to read Margaret Thaler Singer’s book, “Cults in our Midst,” I offer a few study questions below.  I also hope you have the beginnings of a book club to get the conversation going on these issues.

We are living through a time of immense social change and instability.  It is during such times throughout history — especially with fast technological changes — that cult activity takes root and thrives.  But even more alarming is that there is virtually no discussion in public discourse about how cult-like thinking penetrates and infects a society.  This level of unawareness is a red flag.

If you can’t read the whole book, I recommend focusing just on the following pages/chapters:  Singer’s INTRODUCTION (to the first edition); Chapter 1 – DEFINING CULTS (pp. 3-28);Chapter 2  A BRIEF HISTORY OF CULTS – Just 2 pages: 29-30)  THE PROCESS OF BRAINWASHING —  (pp. 52-82); Chapter 4 – WHAT’S WRONG WITH CULTS?  (pp. 83-102); Chapter 5 – RECRUITING NEW MEMBERS (pp. 104-124); Chapter 9 – THE THREAT OF INTIMIDATION (excerpt pp. 224-43); Chapter 11 — WHY IT’S HARD TO LEAVE – (excerpt pp. 270-79)

Pay special attention to Chapter 3 in which Singer identifies the six basic features of cults, which are as follows:  1. Keep the person unaware that there is an agenda to control or change the person; 2. Control time and physical environment (contacts, information); 3. Create a sense of powerlessness, fear, and DEPENDENCY; 4. Suppress old behavior and attitudes; 5. Instill new behavior and attitudes; 6. Put forth a closed system of logic.

Singer also includes discussion of the eight themes of cults, as ennumerated by cult expert Robert Jay Lifton:  1. Milieu control; 2. Loading the language; 3. Demand for purity; 4. Confession; 5. Mystical manipulation; 6. Doctrine over person; 7. “Sacred science;” and 8. Dispensing of existence.

Singer also discusses the Edgar Schein’s theory of three stages that a person in a cult goes through as their attitudes are being reshaped to suit the cult’s leadership:  the freezing of thought processes; the transformation of thoughts; and then the unfreezing of thought processes.

Here are some study questions to consider while reading:

1.     Review the charts in Chapter 3, and especially the list of Singer’s six conditions that allow brainwashing to happen.  Then answer: What makes a person susceptible to that kind of psychological manipulation?  

 2.     What groups (or institutions or policies or social trends) can you name in Western life today that apply cultic methods and techniques to unduly influence behavior and suppress freedom?

3.     According to Singer, the effects of brainwashing are very often reversible. What can ordinary citizens do to help Americans – and especially students – keep their minds free of undue influence?

4. Why do you think the methods and techniques of cult activity never come up for discussion in America today?

 

Next Up for Stella’s Book Club: “Cults in our Midst”

In February I posted a fascinating chart from Margaret Thaler Singer’s book “Cults in our Midst.”  You can find it in my blog post entitled:  “Do you know the difference between real education versus coercive thought reform?”  The chart which Singer drew up is called “The Continuum of Influence and Persuasion.”  On one side of the continuum is true education that involves open and civil discourse with no intent to deceive.  On the other side is coercive thought reform, or brainwashing, which uses deceptive tactics to blunt independent thought and control the person.  In between are other, varying forms of influence: advertising, propaganda, indoctrination.  It’s very helpful to understand what’s going on in each of these forms of persuasion.

I believe that the study of cult methods is useful for resisting political correctness. And especially today.  First of all, few people are actually focusing today on the methods and processes of thought reform.  Certainly not the media or academia.  And as we are battered with floods of information from all quarters — the internet, news outlets, social media, TV, our education institutions, and so on — one thing should be clear:  there is a battle to push us into conformity of thought to the benefit of power elites and their power-consolidating agendas.  There’s nothing new there.  This has been the story in advertising and propaganda from time immemorial.  But what is most disconcerting is that few are investigating the actual guts of the propaganda machinery itself.  At some point we have to tune out the constant barrage of blather and start sniffing out the machinery that its coming from!

The study of cults offers a key to understanding how propagandists behave:  their methods, their features, their techniques for controlling how people think. It’s especially helpful in strengthening us to resist the temptation to self-censor in our culture of political correctness. And that’s critical because giving in to it creates a spiral of silence that makes it ever harder to express an independent thought.  Propagandists know this!  Anyone pushing a power-centralizing agenda tends to be hellbent on shutting off all other forms of influence in people’s lives. Driving you into this sort of isolation is exactly what political correctness is designed to do.  Did it ever occur to you that this is precisely how cult leaders operate as well?

So, please take a look at Singer’s book as soon as possible.  Find another person to do the same so you can talk about it.  Hopefully you can grow a book club like mine, dedicated to propaganda awareness and the fight for freedom of expression.  I hope soon to post some some study questions that go with the book.

Next up for Stella’s Book Club: Doris Lessing’s “Prisons We Choose to Live Inside”

My book club met the other day and we had a lively discussion of Denise Winn’s book The Manipulated Mind: Brainwashing, Conditioning, and Indoctrination.  Next we’ll be reading Doris Lessing’s book on this topic.  That little volume (77 pages) of five essays entitled Prisons We Choose to Live Inside (1986) is a gem that deserves a whole lot more attention.  Lessing (1919-2013) was an icon of feminism who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2007.   Youtube has posted excerpts from those speeches in which she talks about conformity and how group think operates on us.  You can listen here:

Over the years, especially as Lessing became more unsettled by the noxious influences of group think and mob psychology in Western society, she became a great champion of free speech.  I wrote about her in two previous blog entries:  “Acclaimed Author Doris Lessing: Our Future Depends on Resisting Group Think” and “Doris Lessing on Fighting Group Think.”

I am more convinced than ever that awareness of how propaganda works on us is KEY to helping our society regain sanity and reason.  As more and more students at campuses around the country shout down politically incorrect speakers — even to the point of rioting — it is clearer than ever that our very individuality is under attack.

Freedom of conscience, of speech, of association is all under attack.  Radical education reforms continue to sow ignorance. They continue to intellectually kneecap students so that they are not even capable of listening to diverse points of view.  Instead, students seem to have been programmed to respond reflexively and emotionally against free speech, as they did the other day at Indiana University at Bloomington when scholar Charles Murray spoke there.  Watch here:   https://twitter.com/idsnews/status/851924596769128448   The act is so self-destructive, it’s as though these students have been virtually programmed to shoot themselves in the head.

Let me provide an insightful quote from Lessing’s book.  Whether or not you read the book, please keep this particular quote in mind:

“. . . it is always the individual, in the long run, who will set the tone, provide the real development in a society.

Looking back, I see what a great influence an individual may have, even an apparently obscure person, living a small, quiet life.  It is individuals who change societies, give birth to ideas, who, standing out against tides of opinion, and change them. This is as true in open societies as it is in oppressive societies, but of course the casualty rate in the closed societies is higher.  Everything that has ever happened to me has taught me to value the individual, the person who cultivates and preserves her or his own ways of thinking, who stands out against group thinking, group pressures.  Or who, conforming no more than is necessary to group pressures, quietly preserves individual thinking and development. . . .

“It is my belief that an intelligent and forward-looking society would do everything possible to produce such individuals, instead of, as happens very often, suppressing them.  But if governments, if cultures, don’t encourage their production, then individuals and groups can and should.”

Isn’t it interesting that political correctness is all about suppressing the voice of the individual?  To force self-censorship on us? I suspect that is because the small minority of power elites have always wished to control the masses.  But they realize — better than we do — that there is great power in the individual voice. So, as always, they employ group think-tactics in order to mobilize mobs to shut down conversation and friendship.  We’ve no choice but to go against that hostile tide.  So start your book club to help disable the propaganda machine! Even if it’s only with one other person.  It’ll grow.

Maybe Ferris Bueller took a Day Off, but Real Education has taken Generations Off

When I see the great clip below of Ben Stein as a high school economics teacher — from “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” — I’m very amused.  But at the same time, I  can’t help but feel saddened because I believe the scene also reflects the  intellectual theft committed by our education establishment over the past couple of generations.  The lecture in this classroom scene deals with the handling of the U.S. economy in the wake of the Great Depression. It’s another fascinating topic rendered irrelevant and boring by our factory methods of schooling, as well as by the effects of radical education reform.  The students neither know the answers nor care.  And their apathy is not something we can simply blame on a boring teacher.

I recall a feeling of annoyance — anger, actually — when I realized that so much classical education was basically withheld from me in my public high school.  Thanks to radical education reform, my high school did not offer the average student any year-long surveys or foundational courses in English and History. Instead, we got a new curriculum with a fractured menu from which we could pick from among many various 9-week classes.  Among the offerings were “American Drama” in which students could read a play or two by Lillian Hellman or Tennessee Williams; “Modern Poetry,” which mostly consisted of the lyrics of songs by Bob Dylan, The Beatles, and Simon & Garfunkel;  “Shakespearean Tragedy,” in which you could spend the academic quarter reading and studying nothing but Macbeth.  As far as History was concerned, students could choose from a menu in which they might study the Civil War for a quarter.  Or a new course called “Ecology.”  Or American Presidents. In the latter each student would simply pick one president to write a report about and then share it with the class.

Question: What’s wrong with this picture?  Answer:  It is devoid of context.  Instead of a continuum of foundational knowledge, students are offered fractured bits and pieces of out-of-context readings and discussions unattached to any greater body of knowledge.  A good survey course, on the other hand, will place historical events and people in context.  You’ll get the Big Picture instead of a few random and disconnected puzzle pieces.  A good English survey course will provide the entire spectrum and history of English literature.  By the time I got to college I realized that neither Chaucer nor Milton were even mentioned once in any of my English classes.  There were really only two ways to get a survey of history at my high school:  either you were selected for Advanced Placement or took the summer school class which crammed the entire academic year into six weeks. The former was not available to very many students, and the latter (which I opted for) was too compressed to retain much of anything.

This sort of experimental education laid the groundwork for the even more fractured education children are getting today, so much of it rife with political correctness.  And, as I wrote a couple of weeks ago at The Federalist, “Today’s Riot-Prone Mobs are a product of America’s Cult Like Education System.”