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About media framing • (written by Brian Dean)

Archive for the ‘Identity politics’ Category

Glenn Greenwald’s generalisation on “British journalists”

british-journos-compAug 26, 2015I wrote a brief piece a while ago about the dangers of certain high-level generalisations – obvious in racism, sexism, etc, but not so obvious in other cases. This is another short post along similar lines. It uses, as an example, a recent (and to my mind incredible) generalisation about “British journalists” by Glenn Greenwald.

Greenwald, a journalist with over half a million Twitter followers, recently tweeted (Greenwald has since deleted over 27,000 tweets, including those I’d linked to here):

“I’ve never encountered any group more driven by group-think and rank-closing cohesion than British journalists.”

This wasn’t a one-off – Glenn has generalised before about British journalists, and even “Brits” in general. For example:

“Tribalistic Brits have spent centuries proclaiming their superiority & the inferiority of Others. You learned well.”

“The more authoritarian their own country becomes, the more Brits love to lecture the world on Freedom…”

Of course, he’s making points about certain aspects of “British” culture/history – presumably to do with certain ruling or privileged “elites”. But why generalise to “Brits” (which in this context implies some sort of homogeneity corresponding to nationality)? There’s a difference between validly categorising a person or group as “British”/”Brit”, and, on the other hand, generalising that “Brits” (or a large subsection, eg “British journalists”) behave in a certain way. Twitter restricts you to 140 characters, but it should be possible to make his points (whatever they are) while avoiding pernicious – and absurd – overgeneralisations.

When challenged about his “British journalists” generalisation by a “British journalist”, Greenwald responded: “I’m speaking generally and culturally. As is true for all such observations, there are many, many exceptions”. Well, of course, but at what point does “speaking generally” become overgeneralisation leading to insidious nonsense? Does this not occur when the “exceptions” outnumber the cases conforming to the generalisation? “British journalists” denotes a very large and diverse group. I certainly see evidence of “group-think and rank-closing cohesion” among lots of groups which share certain beliefs, educational backgrounds, etc – some sections of the BBC, for example (if we’re talking about journalists). But to extend the generalisation to every journalist who just happens to be British? Does that seem reasonable? I think not, even if one allows for “many, many exceptions”, and even if one has the excuse of writing in Twitter shorthand.

It’s become a cliché to say, “try substituting the word ‘Jews’ in that generalisation”, and I don’t really approve of this, unless you do it not to compare obviously incomparable cases, but to simply highlight the illogic of high-level generalisations with regard to labelling/categorising large groups of people and making inferences about “their” behaviour/beliefs. Slightly less emotively, you could instead try substituting other national generalisations into Greenwald’s tweet: “the Irish”, “the Pakistanis”, etc, to illustrate the dangers of this type of thinking.

In fact, you don’t need to, because several respondents to Greenwald’s generalisation about “British journalists” offered their opinions about “journalists” of other nationalities. So, apparently, “Italian”, “Swedish”, “Irish”, “Dutch”, “Scottish”, “Australian” or “USA” journalists are as bad as “British journalists”, depending on your viewpoint or prejudices. Glenn says he agrees that “Americans” are “not far behind” “British journalists”.

So, fifteen years into the 21st century, intelligent folk with relatively progressive views are still making these types of generalisations about people based on their nationality. To repeat: no doubt “group-think” and “rank-closing cohesion” does exist among actual (ie linked), and necessarily smaller, groups of journalists – as opposed to “groups” defined merely by national abstraction. It’s the same with so-called “conspiracy” groups: lots of relatively little “conspiracies” – or “interest groups” – obviously compete in the real world. But the big fungible conspiracies only seem to exist in imagination – and in the abstractions of language.

By the way, the official Wikileaks Twitter account (2.68 million followers) responded to Greenwald: “Imagine if New York, LA and Chicago were in DC for a thousand years. That’s London. One giant inbred suck-fest.” In the course of my everyday life, if I overheard someone refer to “London” as “one giant inbred suck-fest”, I’d assume they were deranged and quickly walk on. But this is Wikileaks, so perhaps I should consider the context and regard what they say as a Substantive Contribution Made By Experts?

Update (5/11/2015)

I just noticed this new tweet from Greenwald. I note that for a very long time, Seumas Milne has been a central part of that “Characteristically Homogenous” “British Media” (he’s been an editor at the Guardian for years):


Written by NewsFrames

August 25, 2015 at 10:33 pm

Identity politics, “trolls” & anonymity

monty_python_headerOct 29, 2014Just as UKIP and the rightwing press forever trumpet identity (“Losing Our Britishness”, etc) so do sections of the left always seem snarled up in identity politics. Strangely enough, both the far right and “radical” left use some of the same identity-labels to denounce what they see as the fungible wrongdoer class: “liberal”, “elite”, “establishment” (although perhaps the favourite bad-identity label on the left is “corporate”).

Framing by assertion of identity (as opposed to argument) triggers the territorial “us vs them” mode of cognition. This kicks in quickly and (to put it mildly) tends to reduce one’s empathy with those on the ‘wrong’ side. It’s no more a conscious choice than adrenaline is. But there’s an argument (quite a good one) which claims that identity politics increases and/or reinforces “authoritarian” tendencies over time – even among those with “progressive” aims.

Can there be authoritarian progressives? In a word, yes. One reason is that means and ends can function as different domains of experience. Thus one can have progressive ends but authoritarian conservative means. One can even, in the extreme, be an authoritarian antiauthoritarian. (George Lakoff, The Political Mind, p73)

The increased opportunities for communication brought about by blogs, online newspaper comment sections, social media, etc, seem, in some cases, to have amplified the worst tendencies of identity politics: preoccupation with status, “importance” and celebrity, intolerance of ambiguity regarding allegiances and, in particular, fear of anonymity. (I wrote about a similar trend in my pieces on radical churnalism, group generalisations and populist framing).

Fear of anonymity & “trolls”

anon-vs-identity-politicsGiven that anonymity is the absence of identity, fear of it seems a natural corollary of identity politics. Anonymity has had a bad press recently, with media focus on abuse of celebrities by internet “trolls”. As a result, anonymity seems to be framed in “negative” conservative terms – as “suspect”, “criminal”, etc – by virtually everyone I read. This view of anonymity also reinforces the authoritarian “Nothing to hide, nothing to fear” frame, which establishes the case in people’s minds for more surveillance, more online policing, more recording of personal data, etc.

Perhaps people should stop worrying about anonymity and pay more attention to accountability, which is a different thing altogether. Lack of accountability for harmful acts or remarks is the problem, not anonymity (the authorities, of course, require proof of identity in legal cases). Identity doesn’t confer accountability (some of the biggest “identities” – eg our ostensible “leaders” – lack accountability). Conversely, the anonymous can easily be accountable. How? By supporting their statements and correcting errors, etc – by abiding by shared conventions that generally apply to argument (as opposed to identity).

Anonymity doesn’t (and shouldn’t) make one suspect. Most internet users, studies tell us, prefer to be anonymous. We need to reinforce a progressive framing for anonymity, otherwise the authoritarian view will become “common sense” in an increasing number of public domains. Identity politics of both left and right takes us in the conservative direction on this, unless we reverse the trend.

Anonymity – a progressive view

id-card-smIn the early days of the web, people experienced the liberating effect of communication without identity. Everyone had “handles” (screen names, aliases) – a term borrowed from the world of CB radio. You didn’t know if the person talking to you was a rich, elderly Alaskan woman or a poor young man from Pakistan. And that seemed, generally, a good thing.

Anonymity threatens the “authoritarian” mindset – it blocks the reflex to pigeonhole people, something we all do to establish a sense of control. At the ugly extreme, you have those who need to identify your ethnicity, gender, etc – so that they “know who they are talking to”. Less extreme, but very common, people want to know how “important” or “successful” you are, who you’re associated with, what your political allegiances are.

Anonymity demands that we evaluate the content of communication without the crutch of authority. No status, no presumptions or prejudices – we have to think for ourselves. Intelligence is the main currency, and no ID card or DNA sample is required. Of course, that doesn’t stop abusive idiots from being anonymous – but then identity never stopped destructive fools from reaching positions of authority.

Creative/”guerilla ontology” type uses of anonymity: The Association of Autonomous AstronautsDiscordianism, Decadent Action, Luther Blissett, Luther Francone, etc.

Written by NewsFrames

October 29, 2014 at 8:35 am