Saturday, January 27, 2007

Fighting the Big Lie

I used to think that Harry Truman was the one who discovered the ugly phenomenon of the Big Lie. It turns out that he got it from Hitler (and then used it as a stick to bring public attention to just how evil Hitler was before America had committed to joining Britain and France in the Second World War). Wikipedia has an entry for "Big Lie;" here is its first paragraph:

The phrase Big Lie refers to a propaganda technique which entered mass consciousness with Adolf Hitler's 1925 autobiography Mein Kampf. In that book Hitler wrote that people came to believe that Germany lost World War I in the field due to a propaganda technique used by Jews who were influential in the German press. This technique, he believed, consisted of telling a lie so "colossal" that no one would believe anyone "could have the impudence to distort the truth so infamously". The first documented use of the phrase "big lie" is in the corresponding passage: "in the big lie there is always a certain force of credibility".¹

Why should we be reflecting on this concept today? The reason is that the Los Angeles Times reported yesterday that one of the bigger lies of last year, The Path to 9/11, is about to impose itself on public consciousness again. ABC may have taken a beating for airing this program; but Fox now has outtakes, particularly insidious material that got excised when they were brought to public attention, which it is planning to air on Sunday on (where else?) Hannity's America. Hitler's strategy is alive and well and thriving on Fox, reminding us that the cognitive impact of narrative has a dark side.

For many years I thought I could deal with that cognitive impact on a strictly academic level. I probably cannot count the number of times I have invoked that great summarizing passage from Jerome Bruner's Acts of Meaning that concludes, "what does not get structured narratively suffers loss in memory." This is usually a good thing, but what happens when an institution masters the art of deliberate deception (Big Lie) through narrative structure? As Emery Roe has demonstrated in Narrative Policy Analysis, such narratives are tenaciously impervious to refutation by mere facts, evidence, and reasoning. As a matter of fact, Roe's conclusion is that the only way you can undermine such a narrative is with a counternarrative. (Think, for example, of how this strategy has been deployed by the "intelligent design" crowd.)

The good news is that counternarratives are being deployed. Look at the sort of Iraq documentaries that got Oscar nominations. Getting them distributed, on the other hand, is still a problem, particularly when the Fox pulpit is the biggest bully in the media business! Still, it was nice to see that counternarrative was part of Jim Webb's rhetorical toolbox; so he may be "showing the way" in more ways than one!

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