No One Leaves the Herd for Long

Much of what we call ‘common sense’ is fossilised thought; arguments and ideas left behind by brains long turned to soil. The world is round, wear a seatbelt, germs make you sick, democracy is good, it’s unacceptable to strike your spouse, it is acceptable to strike your child.[1] You’ll find people who disagree with each and every one of these assumptions but, to the extent that it’s possible to say this, they are all ‘officially’ true. They are ‘the way of things.’

Some of these assumptions are empirical and others are normative: the world is round, one ought to wear a seatbelt. For normative statements especially, it is consensus that determines ‘ought’, not whether something is inherently right or wrong. In Europe, it used to be common sense that a man should chastise his wife, nowadays it isn’t. In the UK, it’s still common sense that a parent can chastise their child but, in a few decades, it may very well not be. Slavery was once common sense but nowadays most people think benefiting from slave labour is unacceptable unless it’s sanctioned through a smartphone contract. Does that mean that slavery once was right but now is wrong?

The obvious concomitant of something being common sense is that most people haven’t really thought about it because the thinking has already been done for them. It’s cultural learning. How many people could say now how they know the earth isn’t flat? Or take the age of the earth: before 1600, a reasonably well-educated European would have cited the Bible to answer with 6000 years. In 2018, they would tell you that it’s vastly more ancient than that, citing something they remembered from school or saw on TV. In both cases, the prevailing view is based on the authority of an institution; church or science.[2]

Diet is a signal example of cultural learning and one of the most ingrained. The challenge of changing behaviour for the vegetarian and vegan (veg*n) movements has been to politicise common sense, to show that eating animal products is a choice rather than merely the way of things. This is done, for instance, by marshalling evidence on the consequences of animal agriculture; for the global environment, for people’s health, and for the animals, themselves. Veg*ns also seek to show the arbitrariness of according respect and consideration along species lines. In this latter respect, the veg*n movement is engaged in what may be the final stage of expanding the circle of ‘moral concern’ (to borrow Peter Singer’s phrase), which began with our own family or tribe and widened over millennia to include larger communities, nations, and — for some — all humans, irrespective of petty differences of skin colour, religion or culture. This development was anticipated by the utilitarian philosopher, Jeremy Bentham, when he wrote in 1823:

The day may come when the rest of the animal creation may acquire those rights which never could have been withholden from them but by the hand of tyranny. The French have already discovered that the blackness of the skin is no reason why a human being should be abandoned without redress to the caprice of a tormentor. It may one day come to be recognised that the number of the legs, the villosity of the skin, or the termination of the os sacrum, are reasons equally insufficient for abandoning a sensitive being to the same fate.[3]

 

Jeremy_Bentham

The corpse of Jeremy Bentham at UCL (No, really)

Naturally, the veg*n project at every stage has encountered resistance and hostility, just as other great emancipatory campaigns, such as women’s rights, race relations, LGBT, and the peace movement have. This is understandable in each instance, since not only often have vested interests been at stake (property rights, the slave economy, the church, the military industrial complex) but so has people’s deeply ingrained common sense. I’ve experienced the annoyance, defensiveness, and hostility of flesh eaters on any number of occasions, face to face and online. I don’t usually bring the subject up anymore unless asked but even just being at a meal where I am not eating what others are eating can be taken as a silent rebuke.

 

Years ago, at a local food fair, I ran a stall giving away vegan cakes and savouries (granted a stall for free, we weren’t allowed to sell anything). For two long, hot days, we gave away hundreds of home-baked cakes and snacks to anyone who was curious (or thrifty). Many chatted with us (mostly women), some argued (mostly men), and others were apologetic for not being vegan but cited the usual justifications (‘my body needs meat,’ ‘I couldn’t give up cheese,’ ‘I once heard of a vegan who became ill,’ etc.). Almost without exception, all were pleasant. It’s hard to be aggressive while eating cake. The person who sticks in my mind, though, was an elderly man who never got as far as our stall. As he stamped past, he broadsided us with, ‘you’re not going to stop me eating meat!’ Never underestimate the ability of a cake stall to enrage the passer-by.

I think one explanation for this defensiveness and the precipitous descent into anger and incoherence I often see is that people are having to defend a behaviour they never consciously adopted in the first place. Veg*ns have made a reasoned decision to step outside the herd and adopt an opposing lifestyle. This means they’ve examined their behaviour and built some sort of intellectual case for changing it.[4] People who eat meat will likely never have taken the time to build a case for it because they just been following the herd. That means they’re most likely not equipped to offer anything but the thinnest, most sloganistic defence for their actions. They’ve brought a carving knife to a gun fight.

DefOmniBingoIn the early 21st century, most veg*ns are, I imagine, those who have adopted the lifestyle. As it involved a clear choice, they should be able to articulate their reasons for doing so. But as veg*nism grows, this will change. Firstly, we will see more second and third generation veg*ns who will have inherited the lifestyle from their parents. More broadly, I’m optimistic enough to believe that what I see as the latest stage of human ethical evolution will gather speed, just as other progressive social movements have. Vegetarianism has been ‘legitimate’ for decades and now veganism appears now to be moving from being a fringe pursuit to a recognised lifestyle, too.[5] I suspect the 3.5m indicated by one recent survey is an overestimate of the number of vegans in the UK but I don’t think it’s unreasonable to believe it’s now a seven figure number.[6] As veganism gains visibility, the current common sense about our current hellish tyranny over billions of animals each year will continue to crumble. The more popular veganism becomes, the easier it will be, and the even more popular it will become. Perhaps decades from now, a combination of increased ethical awareness, second and third generation vegans, and economic and environmental pressures will relegate the consumption of animals to a fringe pursuit; the equivalent of fox hunting or wearing fur today. Not to exploit animals will become the new common sense and those who deviate will be seen as reprehensible or at least objectionable. One day, it will be illegal entirely.

But will this be the utopia vegans dream about? The slaughterhouses will be demolished, save for a few standing as bleak witness to our past barbarism. The billions held in pens and cages waiting for a sharp, brutal death to end their short, agonised lives will be no more than pictures in history books and documentaries. The ‘eternal Treblinka’ will be gone.[7] Certainly, that will be a triumph for the animals with whom we share our world, for the planet, and for our health. A victory in all the ways that truly matter. But intellectually, will the vegan campaigners of the early 21st Century have won when the society of the 22nd Century is vegan but never stops to think why? Will a 5th generation vegan who has merely absorbed society’s values —who’s just part of the herd — be as ‘good’ or as ‘enlightened’ as their early 21st century great, great grandparent? Will we continued to be ‘enlightened’ when our good behaviour is not backed by a conscious understanding of why it’s good? Without an almost impossible state of constant reflection and reappraisal of our own beliefs, what are we but plagiarised people; patchworks of other people’s thoughts, beliefs, and struggles?

At least I can take comfort in the belief that none of this will matter to the animals themselves, who care nothing for what we think or say but only for what we do. So, here’s to auto-utopia. One day, my brain will have turned to soil, but I can at least hope that it will be part of a vegetable patch.

Notes

___________

[1] You may think that you don’t think it’s acceptable for parents to hit children but ask yourself how you’d react in the street to a man slapping his wife compared with a mother slapping her child. You may not agree with either, but I suspect you would accept the latter.

[2] Naturally, this is not to say that both views have equal validity. There is no comparison between, on the one hand, Bishop Ussher’s study of the Bible, which led him to conclude the world was created on 22nd October, 4004BC, and, on the other, over a century of radiometric dating.

[3] Jeremy Bentham (1823) ‘Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation,’ available at https://www.econlib.org/library/Bentham/bnthPML.html?chapter_num=3#book-reader

[4] Unless they just don’t like meat, which is often true as well.

[5] See for example Dan Hancox ‘The unstoppable rise of veganism: how a fringe movement went mainstream,’ The Guardian, 1st April 2018, available at https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2018/apr/01/vegans-are-coming-millennials-health-climate-change-animal-welfare

[6] Olivia Petter, ‘Number of vegans in UK soars to 3.5 million, survey finds,’ The Independent, 3rd April 2018, available at https://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/food-and-drink/vegans-uk-rise-popularity-plant-based-diets-veganism-figures-survey-compare-the-market-a8286471.html

[7] This phrase is from Isaac Bashevis Singer’s ‘The Letter Writer’. ‘In his thoughts, Herman spoke a eulogy for the mouse who had shared a portion of her life with him and who, because of him, had left this earth. “What do they know — all these scholars, all these philosophers, all the leaders of the world — about such as you? They have convinced themselves that man, the worst transgressor of all the species, is the crown of creation. All other creatures were created merely to provide him with food, pelts, to be tormented, exterminated. In relation to them, all people are Nazis; for the animals it is an eternal Treblinka.’

 

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I See No Ships…

Very often, when one points out the incessant and almost exceptionless thumping the mainstream media has given Jeremy Corbyn since (before) he was elected Labour leader, the response from his detractors is to blame Corbyn’s team for their poor media management. That the press is against Corbyn is a conspiracy theory or, if it is true, it’s a founding block in the edifice to ineptitude that is ‘Compo Corbyn.’ A savvier leader,  one with sharper suits and no bicycle clips, wouldn’t suffer so; he’d simply caress the jackals’ bellies until they sang ‘The Red Flag’ — while still finding time to single-handedly stop Brexit.

On Twitter, I’ve several times seen the following quotation from Enoch Powell invoked in support of this view:

For a politician to complain about the press is like a ship’s captain complaining about the sea.

But it’s a poor metaphor and a poor argument. Yes, the sea can be choppy and destructive; it can run you aground, leave you in the doldrums, or sink you altogether; but it has no agency or will. Whatever it does to you, it’s nothing personal. To think otherwise is the same superstitious ascription of intent that has led people to worship both sun gods and sons of god. So the metaphor fails because the press is not like the sea. My guess is old Enoch was never a sailor, not even on a river of blood.

The press most certainly can sink a politician and will often mean to do just that. Despite its name, the media is not a neutral medium, bestowing fair winds and misfortune without favour, through which politicians chart their course. To think that buys into the fish tale of the press as the ‘Fourth Estate,’ some more or less fair arbiter between political competitors. In fact, the media is largely the corporate media  — not an independent power centre but one largely subordinated to big business.

I’m not going to spend several thousand words unpacking this argument. If you’re new to it, read Manufacturing Consent by Ed Herman and Noam Chomsky or look at the work produced by Media Lens. In short (and to simplify) the media is a sub-department of business and is structured by its imperatives. This happens in two ways. The first is its structural dependence on advertising revenue. Looked at in simple, institutional terms, the bread and butter of a newspaper company is not selling newspapers but selling readers to advertisers. That’s why newspapers can be given away and why news websites hate ad-blocking. A celebrated historian of British newspapers, Francis Williams, asserted in 1958 that the press ‘would never have come into existence as a force in public and social life if it had not been for the need of men of commerce to advertise. Only through the growth of advertising did the press achieve independence.’[i] Note the use of the word ‘independence,’ there. It’s only intelligible when we recall that the principal threat to press freedom was once the state. There’s a whole history of state control and the radical ‘unstamped’ press that I shan’t go into here. It’s enough to say that the press gained its freedom from government at the expense of being owned by rich men.

The same criticism applies to the commercial broadcast media – it sells viewers’ attention to advertisers on whose revenue it depends. This view was endorsed as long ago as 1989 by the Economist, which noted that, since projects ’unsuitable for corporate sponsorship tend to die on the vine,’ the media ‘have learned to be sympathetic to the most delicate sympathies of corporations’.[ii]  In a 2000 Pew Centre for the People & the Press poll, about one-third of the 287 US reporters, editors, and news executives who responded said that stories that would ‘hurt the financial interests’ of the media organization or an advertiser go unreported. 41% admitted avoiding or moderating stories to benefit their media company’s interests.[iii] Even the influential right wing US radio pundit, Rush Limbaugh, hardly a fellow traveller of Noam Chomsky, agrees. A ‘turning point’ in his career came when he realized that ‘the sole purpose for all of us in radio is to sell advertising’.[iv]  In 2004, Patrick LeLay, the head of the French media giant TF1, described the purpose of his company thus:

…let’s be realistic: fundamentally speaking, the job of TF1 is to help Coca-Cola to sell its product … If an advertising message is to register, the viewer’s brain needs to be made available. The object of our programmes is to make it available: that is to say to entertain the viewer, to relax him and prepare him between the adverts. What we sell to Coca-Cola is an availability of human brain time.[v]

The second way that the media is subordinate to business is through a process of ideological filtering of its staff, which occurs from school through higher education and into the workplace. There is little need for advertisers or owners to actually tell journalists what they may or may not write because by the time they’re in the job for a while they will have internalised the ‘correct’ values. As Alan Rusbridger, late editor of the late Guardian, conceded several years ago in an interview with Media Lens,

I’m sure… that the pressures of ownership on newspapers is, is pretty important, and it works in all kinds of subtle ways – I suppose ‘filter’ is as good a word as any; the whole thing works by a kind of osmosis. If you ask anybody who works in newspapers, they will quite rightly say, ‘Rupert Murdoch’, or whoever, ‘never tells me what to write’, which is beside the point: they don’t have to be told what to write… It’s understood. I think that does work, and obviously the general interests of most of the people who own newspapers are going to be fairly conventional, pro-business, interests.[vi]

Or, as Noam Chomsky once said to Andrew Marr, ‘I’m sure you believe everything you’re saying. But what I’m saying is that if you believed something different, you wouldn’t be sitting where you’re sitting.’[vii]

It’s not a perfect system, as Hermann and Chomsky concede, but it is very effective.[viii] There will be occasional deviations by a few more independently-minded journalists, but the overwhelming weight of the system still favours the neoliberal consensus of the past forty years. And this isn’t to touch on the personal preferences of many journalists at the higher end who have done very well out of the current system and so have a class interest in keeping it.

It should be obvious, then, that the idea that a socialist party simply needs to manage the press better is a nonsense. The corporate media is not there to be won over, it can’t be ‘managed’ into giving Corbyn a fair hearing. In fact, once one understands how the media works, the burden of proof would rest with anyone those who claimed that it  wouldn’t be biased against Corbyn.

The only time the media has approached even-handedness with Corbyn was during the imposition of impartiality rules on broadcasters during the 2017 General Election campaign. For the BBC, these came into force on 3rd May, although for commercial broadcasters, they began with the announcment of the dissolution in Parliament, which was  27th April. Their coincidence with the upturn in Labour polling, as shown in the Britain Elects poll tracker, is striking. The Blue and Red horizontal lines represent Tory and Labour polling and my addition of the green vertical line shows when the OFCOM broadcasting rules came into effect.

Opponents of this line of thought will point to the Blair Governments and their far better treatment from the corporate media when compared with both Foot, Kinnock, and Smith before, and Brown, Miliband, and Corbyn afterward. It’s certainly true that Blair and Alasdair Campbell employed a thorough and systematic approach to managing the media, from the ‘Rapid Rebuttal Unit’ and the Excalibur computer, to combative press briefings and a deliberate campaign to ‘woo’ newspaper editors and previously ignored areas like women’s magazines. Yet Rupert Murdoch besieged Labour before and after Blair; it’s not tenable to believe that this changed merely because his editors had been bought a good lunch. Rather, New Labour were the Sun on Sunday to the Tories’ News of the World. New Labour’s real success was not to win over business but to capitulate to it. A genuinely socialist party can make no such concessions, which is why a cellar-full of Krug won’t win editors over to Corbyn. Hence, we see that, once again, old Enoch was wrong. The press is not the sea on which Corbyn sails, it’s a fleet of enemy ships.

Correction 9th August 2018

Following feedback in the comments, I have corrected a typo in which I incorrectly stated that Theresa May called the election on 27th of May. I have also clarified the timeline of events. For more details, see Eleanor Bley Griffiths ‘Here’s why the media is banned from reporting on general election campaigning while the polls are open,’ Radio Times 8th June 2017, available at https://www.radiotimes.com/news/2017-06-08/heres-why-the-media-is-banned-from-reporting-on-general-election-campaigning-while-the-polls-are-open/

For OFCOM rules, see the ‘Election Reporting’ section of the Channel Four Producers’ Handbook: https://www.channel4.com/producers-handbook/media-law/other-laws-affecting-broadcasting/election-reporting

 

Notes.

[i] Quoted in James Curran and Jean Seaton (1981 [2010]) ‘Power Without Responsibility. Press, broadcasting and the internet in Britain,’ p. 4.

[ii] ‘Castor oil or Camelot?’ in The Economist, 5th December, 1987, quoted in Noam Chomsky (1989) ‘Necessary Illusions. Thought Control in Democratic Societies,’ p. 8.

[iii] ‘Fear & Favor 2000: How Power Shapes the News’, Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting Annual Report available at  https://fair.org/extra/fear-amp-favor-2000-the-first-annual-report/ (accessed 06/08/2018).

[iv] Quoted in Pratkanis & Aronson (2001), ‘Age of Propaganda: The Everyday Use and Abuse of Persuasion’ p. 56.

[v] Cited in Ignacio Ramonet, ‘Final edition for the press’, in  Le Monde Diplomatique (English Edition), January 2005,  available at  http://mondediplo.com/2005/01/16press (last accessed 06/08/2018); Full quote available at https://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Temps_de_cerveau_humain_disponible (last accessed 06/08/2018). The full quote in French reads: ‘Mais dans une perspective business, soyons réaliste : à la base, le métier de TF1, c’est d’aider Coca-Cola, par exemple, à vendre son produit… Or pour qu’un message publicitaire soit perçu, il faut que le cerveau du téléspectateur soit disponible. Nos émissions ont pour vocation de le rendre disponible: c’est-à-dire de le divertir, de le détendre pour le préparer entre deux messages. Ce que nous vendons à Coca-Cola, c’est du temps de cerveau humain disponible’. My thanks to Daniel Simpson for the translation.

[vi] Media Lens (2000) Interview With Alan Rusbridger, Editor,The Guardian, available at   http://www.medialens.org/index.php/alerts/interviews/80-interview-with-alan-rusbridger-editor-the-guardian.html (accessed 06/08/2018).

[vii] Andrew Marr interviewed Noam Chomsky for a series called ‘The Big Idea,’ which was broadcast on the BBC in February 1996. The thirty minute programme can be viewed here:  https://youtu.be/GjENnyQupow

[viii] The model proposed by Herman and Chomsky has been criticised. James Curran (2002), for example, argues that the radical critique is ‘bedevilled by a simple “system logic”’, which assumes that ‘business-controlled media serve business’ thus ignoring or downplaying countervailing influences such as the need to maintain audience interest to remain profitable, the need to preserve their legitimacy, and the need to consider the ‘professional concerns of their staff.’ (James Curran ‘Media and Power’ p. 223).