There are many unanswerable questions; “Which came first, the chicken or the egg ?”, or “Do we get the media we deserve or does the media the change public opinion ?”. While it almost certainly true that no-one will publish things for which there no existing appetite, it is also true that the media can create appetites which were not there before.
We have been aware, for a long time, of the effects of the media on public opinion and attitudes. Sometimes the changes that the media encourages are benevolent and beneficial. For example the displays of tolerance, and the portrayal of bigots in a bad light, on television, in films and in other media outlets has made our society less racist and has led less of us to become bigots. The portrayal of women in active, successful and independent roles has helped counter the aeons of inequality in the opportunities for women and society’s attitudes towards them. In the world of cinema, for example, the 1961 film Victim helped to start to change our attitudes towards homosexuality and lead us to a less prejudiced and censorious way of thinking.
So we all know that the media can change our attitudes and politics. Every businessman and advertiser knows this when they pay for their bit of media space. Every state know it when it either bans media it disagrees with or when it promotes it own. The totalitarian states under Hitler, or subsequently under the communists, were the most active in controlling the media as, they knew, through it they controlled the people.
Perhaps as a consequence of our recognition of the damage that totalitarian states could do through media manipulation we are now more cautious and alert to negative or damaging media interventions. We know that it creates unrealistic views of society in order to manipulate our behaviour. We know that it tries to make us wish to buy things we had not intended to purchase, to want things we didn’t feel we desired, and to need things we were unaware we required.
There has been much written on the harmful effect that advertising, the fashion industry, celebrity culture and others have on young women through their promotion of unrealistic physical ideals of beauty and the physical form. Similarly there are real concerns about the effects of pornography, and its distorted portrayals of sexual life, on the development of young men.
These are not, however, the things that make me want to flee from modern society. These are obvious and easy to spot and to ignore, or counter. The problem I have is with the unintended consequences of the media’s agenda. The unfortunate result of their inept, but frequent, virtue signalling.
In the world of television dramas, soap operas, theatre, advertising, newspapers and periodicals it is held to be important to promote the diversity agenda. It is a valuable positional good for many people as it is a easy and cheap method to express your good nature and moral credentials. If you want to whiten the brand image of your company, blackened by some scandal of cheap child labour, or chemical dumping, or somesuch, then put out an advert supporting gay marriage. Has your company been found out avoiding paying its tax, but you still want the public to buy your coffee ? Then a high profile support of cultural diversity is what you need. It is just a modern version of the old trick of greenwashing.
The unintended consequence of all of this is a misrepresentation of our society. We are presented with a picture of our society in which a larger group are gay than the 3% who self report as such in surveys, more are of BAME origin than the 13% in the last census, for example. Loving couples in adverts are much more likely to be of mixed races rather than the more prosaic, and more common, same race relationship. In dramas the head of the police team, or the successful politician is likely to be a woman, unfortunately not representing the world as it is, but rather as it is wished to be.
But what is wrong with this ? Surely it will no no more than promote further beneficial change ? I fear that it won’t. It is as much about what is missing as it is about what is said.
What is missing is the white, heterosexual male. If he is in the drama he will be the villain. Indeed, it spoils British crime drama just now as, no matter how statistically unlikely, you can always guess who the killer will be in the first episode – it is the middle-class male in a suit (You might have guess the black guy, the gang member with the drug problem is a candidate, but no it is the 55 year old solicitor driving the Volvo). Any traditional character, anyone portrayed as having religious sentiments, will prove to be the moral leper.
Outside the dramas, in the media world of culture and politics the white-male is the “problem”. A problem that is doubly compounded if the white class male has the misfortune to be working class. White working class males, those who didn’t go to university, seem to the focus for the blame for most things that go wrong in the world. Recently he has been held responsible for Brexit and Trump on either side of the Atlantic.
So what is the outcome of this ? When the world is presented in a way that is quite different to how you know it to be. When you are not shown as present, as having any part, in the world as it is wanted to be. When you are described as the problem rather than as part of the solution. What do you do ? I think you start to see this aspect of society as alien to you. You start to feel that their lives are far removed from yours. You start to think they must be in some removed group which has interests antithetical to yours. The idea of a “metropolitan elite“, which acts against your interests, seems to be a credible way to make sense of the of the cultural war that you find yourself.
The unintended consequence of these benevolent, but inaccurate, portrayals and this wishful thinking is to push people into reactionary positions and to make them hostile to they very changes you tried to foster. The consequence is that you create the very problem that you thought you already had. We have as people become more tolerate and welcoming over the years. As we become more familiar with our fellows we can only presume that this tendency will continue and improve. Any recent upsurge in bigotry and intolerance is likely to be due to the media’s cack-handed attempts at social engineering.
Voltaire (quoted in the title) was wrong, left alone, people tend to seek out others, they tend to cooperate and form relationships. Our instincts are social, they need to be as we are a social animal. The dangers arise when we are masses goaded or tempted into action. The horrors of our history are the results of the state encouraging us to to think en masse. The killing fields of Cambodia or the ovens of Auschwitz are examples of states altering how peoples think of their friends and neighbours, these nightmares need the individuals’ thoughts to be overridden to be possible. The dangers may be just as great when the results are unintended. Many in the UK and USA should be reconsidering whether their strategies to promote change are having the effects that they wished.