Concision and Accusation
There are two forces that stack the deck in favor of the status quo.
“How can we overcome the twin forces of concision and accusation?”
“I’m not sure how to overcome concision—perhaps someone out there has some creative ideas on this front.”
“So I wonder if anyone has any creative ideas about how to overcome accusation.”
How can we overcome the twin forces of concision and accusation? I’m not sure how, but maybe some people out there have some ideas—these two forces make it really hard to challenge propaganda, so we must overcome them.
A friend wrote the following to me about concision:
These indoctrination mechanisms don’t have to be planned. You probably know the following example, which Chomsky has discussed. Whenever ideas are discussed on television there are several reasons why speakers are not allowed to develop their arguments at length, and these reasons are not directly related to propaganda or indoctrination. It’s more that the content has to fit between commercials, and there is fear that people will change the channel if a speaker drones on too long. But this factor, even if unintentionally, supports the propaganda system, because a speaker who is spouting orthodoxy can do so briefly—no evidence or argument is required. But someone like Chomsky, who is defending a radically different view, has to overcome the audience’s entirely understandable skepticism by producing a significant volume of evidence and argument. And that doesn't play on television. So this structural feature supports the propaganda system even though it was not designed for that purpose. No conspiracy is needed.
This is a great point—anyone who tries to challenge conventional ideas knows all about this problem.
For example, there’s “entirely understandable skepticism” about the idea that Washington is blocking peace regarding the war in Ukraine or the idea that Washington provoked Putin’s war in Ukraine—these ideas come across to people like ridiculous pro-Kremlin nonsense. So you have to present some serious argument and evidence, but people don’t have enough time or energy or interest for that—the result is that these ideas can’t get any kind of fair hearing and the propaganda wins out.
And this phenomenon generalizes across the board to every domestic and international issue—I’m just picking the war in Ukraine as one single example among a million examples.
“There’s a big degree of illiteracy and functional illiteracy. It’s remarkably high.”
“What’s more, the interest in reading is declining, or it certainly looks as if it’s declining. People do seem to read less and to want to read less and be able to read less.”
“I know of colleagues, for example, academic people whose world is reading, who won’t subscribe to some journals that they are sympathetic to and find important because the articles are too long. They want things to be short. That just boggles my mind.”
“Concision means you have to be able to say things between two commercials. Now that’s a structural property of our media—a very important structural property which imposes conformism in a very deep way, because if you have to meet the condition of concision, you can only either repeat conventional platitudes or else sound like you are from Neptune.”
“That is, if you say anything that’s not conventional, it’s going to sound very strange.”
“For example, if I get up on television and say, ‘The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan is a horror,’ that meets the condition of concision. I don’t have to back it up with any evidence; everyone believes it already so therefore it’s straightforward and now comes the commercial.”
“Suppose I get up in the same two minutes and say, ‘The U.S. invasion of South Vietnam is a horror.’ Well, people are very surprised. They never knew there was a U.S. invasion of South Vietnam, so how could it be a horror? They heard of something called the U.S. ‘defense’ of South Vietnam, and maybe that it was wrong, but they never heard anybody talk about the U.S. ‘invasion’ of South Vietnam. So, therefore, they have a right to ask what I’m talking about.”
“Copy editors will ask me when I try to sneak something like this into an article what I mean. They’ll say, ‘I don’t remember any such event.’ They have a right to ask what I mean.”
“This structural requirement of concision that’s imposed by our media disallows the possibility of explanation; in fact, that’s its propaganda function.”
“It means that you can repeat conventional platitudes, but you can’t say anything out of the ordinary without sounding as if you’re from Neptune, a wacko, because to explain what you meant—and people have a right to ask if it’s an unconventional thought—would take a little bit of time.”
“Here, our media are constructed so you don’t have time; you have to meet the condition of concision.”
“And whether anybody in the public relations industry thought this up or not, the fact is that it’s highly functional to impose thought control.”
“Pretty much the same is true in writing, like when you’ve got to say something in seven-hundred words. That’s another way of imposing the condition of conventional thinking and of blocking searching inquiry and critical analysis.”
“I think one effect of this is a kind of illiteracy.”
I’m not sure how to overcome concision—perhaps someone out there has some creative ideas on this front. And of course it’s hard to imagine that things haven’t gotten far worse on the concision front since Chomsky’s 1991 remarks—it’s 30 years later and concision is surely far worse.
It’s interesting to look at how much information Bernie Sanders can cram into the confines of three minutes:
But Sanders is a refreshingly decent and honest politician—Sanders isn’t a scholar trying to support various contentions with evidence and argument. And I’m impressed with how Sanders communicates, but let me clarify that I don’t necessarily agree with every single thing that Sanders says in this clip.
Accusation derails the discussion from the topic at hand—it’s annoying to have to deal with accusation.
Accusation puts you in a tough situation where you have to either let the accusation at hand go undebunked or else you have to waste precious time and energy debunking the accusation at hand. And remember that successfully debunking the accusation is still a defeat for the debunker—the discussion has already been successfully derailed no matter the outcome.
Accusation can be a deliberate and cynical and purposeful—and very effective—way to terminate discussion and bound inquiry and bound thought. Accusation is apparently a time-honored and classic and traditional technique that lawyers have long made use of—apparently it’s just about the oldest trick in the book. But the phenomenon of accusation is—of course—very often completely unintentional too, so it’s not like it’s always an intentional technique.
Suppose that I want to talk about the war in Ukraine and I want to quote Chomsky—there are people who will launch a bunch of accusations against Chomsky and say that Chomsky is an apologist for official enemies or a genocide denier. The last thing that one ever wants to do is expend time and energy debunking those accusations. And—like I mentioned—the debunker loses even if they “win”, since the topic is no longer the war in Ukraine even if they “win”.
I just saw a great example of accusation:
Leftist icon Noam Chomsky, too, chides Ukrainian President Vladimir Zelenskyy, saying he needs to “pay attention to the reality of the world” in which resisting such a powerful state is futile. This logic is similar to applauding France’s surrender to the Nazis in World War II in exchange for retaining a shrunken collaborationist regime, while condemning the Polish and Norwegian governments for continuing to fight in exile.
Chomsky, the avowed anti-Imperialist, further argues that Ukrainian requests for arms with which to repel Russia’s invasion are merely “Western propaganda” meant to have Ukrainians “fighting Russia to the last Ukrainian.” We should pause here to consider his staggeringly paternalistic display in dismissing the idea that Ukrainians might genuinely want arms themselves, as well as to wonder why Russia’s imperialism is apparently more tolerable than the West’s.
People can click on the links and find Chomsky’s actual comments and see whether Chomsky said the stuff that’s being attributed to him. And it’s tedious to go into Chomsky’s actual comments and how those comments are being distorted in a silly and outrageous and unreasonable way. And it’s annoying because there are far more pressing topics in our troubled world than the issue of whether this article is distorting—in a silly and outrageous and unreasonable way—things that Chomsky said.
So I wonder if anyone has any creative ideas about how to overcome accusation. Maybe you could move the needle if you created an extremely efficient—and easily linkable—one-stop-shop resource dedicated to debunking accusations against various scholars.