While I was studying social psychology in college, I had the opportunity to have dinner with a famous social psychologist, Robert Abelson, who happened to be the father of a college friend. At the time, I asked him what he was currently exploring, and he said, “Scripts.” Dumbfounded for a response, I smiled politely and changed the subject. As my studies progressed into graduate school, the full impact of his work began to be felt in the field, and I realized what I had missed. The study of scripts - the semi-conscious ideas we carry around about the way events are supposed to unfold - exploded in the field of social cognition. The point of having a script, is to save our brain cells from having to think about each step we take in familiar situations; rather, we just “follow the script.”Another academic, Ellen Langer, took scripts to the next step, showing how they lead to mindlessness. Langer showed that people will often respond to the structure of a message, rather than to its content - we mindlessly follow the script. When it comes to the failings of the corporate media, others have been eloquent. George Lakoff has shown how the neocons use seemingly neutral phrases that frame a policy position in their favor, and how the media pass on those phrases - e.g., “tax relief.” Media Matters for America demonstrates daily how the MSM unthinkingly pass along the Republican frame. And progressives bemoan the fact that Democrats fail miserably in the framing department (as Thom Hartmann point out, they have the PATRIOT Act and we have SCHIP.)
In the meantime, the media treat each phrase as a given variable, to be shuffled around in various new stories, without questioning the logic of the phrases themselves.
While we progressives wait for Democrats to come up with better frames, or for the corporate media to stop propping up Right Wing frames, what we really need is for these unexamined phrases to be questioned.Take, for instance, the term “the enemy.” On CNN‘s This Week at War on 12/16/07, Michael Scheuer, former CIA officer, addressed the issue of the destroyed interrogation tapes:
“The information the enemy gave us in those tapes, certainly, we don't want to enemy to know what we know.”
Who, exactly, is the enemy? It’s such a cynically elusive phrase. As long as it goes undefined, it can be used to dehumanize whoever the Administration wishes to strip of any rights whatsoever. Thus, any mistreatment, including torture, is by definition, justified.Similarly, the term terror suspects is used liberally, with little indication of what such suspicion is based on. In an environment in which George W. Bush alone can designate someone an enemy combatant, and detainees in Gitmo, Iraq, and in black sites are routinely beyond the reach of our justice system, it’s a question that needs to be asked.
This cavalier attitude towards the distinction between the accused and the convicted, allows Mitt Romney to make statements like the following, in response to a question about torture:
“… I want to make sure these folks are kept at Guantanamo. I don't want the people that are carrying out attacks in this country to be brought into our jail system and to be given legal representation in this country.”The “war on terror” has led to a frenzy of detentions, both in Iraq and at Guantanamo Bay. The International Red Cross determined in 2004 that 70-90% of Iraq detainees were arrested by mistake. A number of seemingly senseless sweeps have also been reported in the case of Gitmo. Yet, Anderson Cooper never asked Mitt Romney in that CNN/Youtube debate who “these folks” were, much less why - in the United States of America - detention alone should be treated as proof of guilt.
Last night, on Rachel Maddow’s radio show, Rachel asked David Bender why Republican candidates seem to be treating the American public as if they were stupid, in their response to the assassination of Benazir Bhutto:“I think that people look at what happened in Pakistan today and say, ‘Why are supporting this Musharraf guy? Our foreign policy is so screwed up.’”
As long as the media acts like frightened children, allowing Bush to act as Layoff’s “strict father,” telling us who the bad guys are without challenge, Rachel’s hopes will be dashed. It’s not so much that the American people are stupid; they just are being lulled into complacency by the mindless mainstream media.