Saturday, October 3, 2009

Why the Culture War Matters

Having just completed a post on how we should remove the culture war from federal discourse, let me now turn around and explain why the culture war is important. Two words:

Indoctrination works.

That Marx fellow (Karl, not Groucho) was on to something when he realized that human beings are perfectable through relentless education and indoctrination. It works. It works really well. More importantly, it works better and better when you can rope more and more people into receiving the indoctrination. In short, it works better at the federal level than it does at the local level.

Liberals recognized this long before conservatives did. Then, after conservatives understood that it worked, they spent years refusing to use the technique at the federal level. It is, after all, the antithesis of the intellectually grounded Hayekian conservatism. But eventually, certain facts became clear.

First, the messages imparted by mass media have substantially overwhelmed any cultural messages that could be instilled by the school or church. In many weaker families, mass media even have more power than parents to shape many aspects of behavior.

Second, the pedagogy and marketing associated with pushing a behavioral change from a small group who wishes to impart the change to the population as a whole is vastly more sophisticated than it used to be. Civil rights, women's rights, gay rights, anti-smoking, domestic violence awareness--these are all examples of societal changes that were first pushed by a skilled, vocal minority to a highly resistant population. But, over time, the campaigns of that minority got traction and ultimately resulted in profound social changes.

The result of the union of pedagogical and media technology has been a profound change in the nature of social consensus itself. Bottom-up change, which used to be the only way to affect the culture, is now vastly out-muscled by top-down change.

The penny dropped on the conservatives back in the late eighties with movements like the Moral Majority. Suddenly, conservatives were using mass-media technology to push what they they thought were desirable behaviors, not just as a way of surfacing issues. Real attempts to stigmatize certain behaviors and promote other ones were now in place. This has only met with limited success. Whether that's because the conservative agenda is inherently less palatable to the public or that it's harder to preserve certain behaviors than it is to instill new ones, I can't tell.

We view these attempts as the beginnings of the culture war, but they're really just the beginning of both sides using the same methods to achieve different ends. As such, the culture war won't end until one side has successfully managed to indoctrinate the society with its agenda. That's not going to happen any time soon. This is one reason why we perceive society as being so polarized right now; when both sides use these top-down tactics simultaneously, the societal fissures are unpredictable.

Another effect of the advent of effective indoctrination technology is that it becomes much more important to silence your opposition. If you can shut off the media or institutional channels through which you opposition gains access to the public, you can kill their ideas. This is why you see conservative groups attempting to discredit liberal educational institutions and why you see organized campaigns to silence conservative dissent on campus. It's all part and parcel of closing down the opposition's access to an easily indoctrinated population.

But this begs a question: How healthy for our society is it to have this kind of top-down social change? It's obviously vastly more effective than the old-timey bottom-up change, but is its effectiveness somehow reducing our ability to respond to new social pressures? As a general rule, bottom-up, self-organizing systems are more robust than top-down systems. Are we running a risk that the wrong top-down messages will organize us in ways that are hard to change?

In the end, we will have to decide whether this kind of discourse is beneficial or not. But, just as it will be necessary to forgo some rhetorical techniques to de-escalate other forms of political stridency, it may be necessary to place limits on when and how we choose to use indoctrination. I have no idea what the right path forward is for this, but it's something were going to have to grapple with in the not-too-distant future.


David said...

Hi, I'm here because I saw your ridiculously good comment on Marginal Revolution about power laws as they apply to human acheivements.

I agree with your analysis about what's gotten us to this point. What I'd throw out there to consider is whether or not one side or the other in this culture war dispute can in the future obtain an at-least-temporary technological advantage. In my estimation, the eventual game changer will come in that form.

To review, your comment on MR was ridiculously good. You'll be seeing more of me here.

TheRadicalModerate said...

Thanks, David, for the comment. Always nice to know that I'm not shouting into a complete vacuum.

The dynamics of this are tricky. In general, mass media (aka TV) are hard to recruit but vastly effective once they are recruited, while bottom-up media (blogs and other forms of internet rants) are easy to recruit but much less effective. If bottom-up completely supplants mass media, that hopefully makes indoctrination harder to accomplish. We'll see.