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Friday, December 12, 2014

America’s Illusion of Free Will

The mainstream U.S. news media’s narrow parameters, especially on foreign policy issues, give the American people little opportunity to engage in meaningful debate or to influence outcomes. Typically, public perceptions are managed and consensus is manufactured, as Lawrence Davidson writes.

By Lawrence Davidson

Most Americans believe they have a range of choices in their daily lives and that they may choose among them freely. That is, they intuitively believe that their choices are made autonomously and without outside interference.

They would probably be surprised to learn that what they take for granted in this regard, the exercise of what is called free will, is a hotly debated topic among learned men and women in fields of study as widely separated as physics, philosophy and theology.

President George W. Bush in a flight suit after landing on the USS Abraham Lincoln to give his "Mission Accomplished" speech about the Iraq War.
President George W. Bush in a flight suit after landing on the USS Abraham Lincoln on May 1, 2003, to give his “Mission Accomplished” speech about the Iraq War.

For instance, many physicists are convinced that if one could know the position and momentum of all the atoms in the universe, one could accurately predict the future behavior of those atoms (including the ones that make up you and me). Of course, one cannot acquire that sort of total knowledge, but the proposition does call into question free will in principle.

Philosophers, in their turn, have debated whether free will is compatible with a natural world where cause and effect is the prevailing physical mechanism. And theologians have spent an equal amount of time trying to figure out how free will can coexist with their assumed omniscient and omnipotent God.

One doesn’t have to have a graduate degree in physics, philosophy or theology to question the notions that people have a wide range of choices and the unfettered will to choose among them. A close consideration of our social and cultural milieu reveals strong deterministic influences – particularly the mass media and its engines of advertising and selective news dissemination.

How many individual daily decisions are determined by some degree of media manipulation? Well, for many they can include what we eat, what we wear, how we entertain ourselves, how we groom ourselves, even whether we feel safe or unsafe (and buy or don’t buy that burglar alarm).

Those who use the media to try to sway our behavior declare that they are simply providing information that allows informed choices or, as one pro-advertising web site says, “advertising ensures that we don’t have to settle for second best. It helps us exercise our right to choose.”

However, this is problematic. Advertisers seek to restrict choice, not broaden it and ultimately they want to determine the choice for you. So, generally, what you see as a range of choices is really limited options within a predetermined context – the context of the marketplace. And your freedom of choice? Your choice may well be made on the basis of which product sponsor is most effective in manipulating your perceptions.
This is media determinism in action and it has proven very successful. U.S. businesses spend some $70 billion a year on TV advertising alone. And, as one ad executive comments, “companies would not invest [that much money] in something they thought didn’t work.”

This is discouraging news for those who believe in the everyday consumer’s freedom of choice, though indeed this sort of media persuasion leads to death and destruction only occasionally (think anorexia). There are, however, other categories of our lives where media determinism is much more likely to lead us right off the proverbial cliff, i.e., in politics and issues of war or peace.

Media Determinism: Political

Given the ubiquitous presence of the media and its influence, the use of persuasive advertising has long since found its way into the realms of politics and policy promotion. Once again, the object is to limit choices, in this case by shutting down debate that is outside an acceptable frame, and thereby sweep you along with enthusiasm or resignation to adopt one of the allowed choices.

You would think that when it comes to choosing political leaders and deciding between war or peace, the public would deserve information approaching objectivity. This is exactly what they never get.
For instance, political campaign promises and party platforms are almost never scrutinized by the media, nor does the media point out that they are only rarely translated into post-election blueprints for action. Instead the media present manipulated information, mostly in the form of expensive campaign ads, as data upon which to base voter choices.

Millions are swayed by these ads and millions more, recognizing the vacuous quality of the undertaking, opt out of the political process altogether. The former play inside a manipulated game with severely limited choices; often the latter unhappily acquiesce to the prevailing system because challenging it seems pointless. Yet such is the power of the myth of democracy that the process rolls on while the charade is glorified in the media and no one seems able to change it.

In times of emergency the practice of media determinism gets worse. What little critical inclination might exist among journalists is suppressed in the name of national unity. The press rallies around a government position or storyline. This can be seen in the follow-up to the 9/11 attacks in 2001. An investigation as to why these attacks were carried out was suppressed, i.e., what U.S. policies in the Middle East prompted al-Qaeda’s suicide hijackers to fly planes into buildings.

Thus, any possibility for the public to examine the ongoing U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East was also shut down. The official line was that such critiques were attempts to blame the victim. In the same way, any option for the prevention of future attacks was limited to a military one rather than seriously considering diplomatic or policy change alternatives. President George W. Bush’s approval rating at this time had reached 90 percent.

The alliance between government and media can be seen in what soon followed. President Bush’s determination to attack Iraq, a country that had nothing to do with 9/11, led to an orchestrated campaign of misinformation. In March 2003, as the invasion took place, polls showed that between 72 percent and 76 percent of Americans supported the President’s war.

In doing so, did they exercise free choice? Most of them would probably have told you that they did. Yet a strong argument can be made that because of the misinformation given them in the run-up to the war – for instance, misinformation about the Iraqi people’s desire to be rescued from Saddam Hussein and the notorious issue of weapons of mass destruction – they were in fact victims of media determinism.
It turns out, however, that it is difficult for the media to sustain a campaign of misinformation in the face of gross contradiction. Thus, when U.S. troops were not welcomed with flowers as they invaded Iraq, and the weapons of mass destruction were nowhere to be found, the administration’s approval ratings took a dive. But by the time the events revealed the misleading nature of government-media information, the damage had been done.

Despite having been shown to be misleading, the role and style of media news presentation has not changed much. Today, external issues vital to the nation’s future — such as the dangerous alliance with Israel, deadly drone campaigns, the catastrophic potential of global warming and the deteriorating relations with Russia, as well as internal ones, such as the need for more aggressive economic regulatory enforcement, the expansion of health care reform and increased taxation of the wealthy — are little discussed in the media or, when mentioned, come to us in suspiciously biased form.

Truly, objective information and fair-minded analysis are hard to come by – and the encouragement of meaningful debate about substantive topics is absent from the major media.
So what is real, free choice and what is media determinism? The picture sketched above suggests that the former is significantly limited by the latter. This appears to be the case when it comes to mundane things as well as matters of life or death.

How many of us understand this to be the case? It has to be very few, for if very many realized the situation, they would surely demand that the media break its alliance with the powerful. Without honest information, there can be no meaningful pathway to free choices.

Lawrence Davidson is a history professor at West Chester University in Pennsylvania. He is the author of Foreign Policy Inc.: Privatizing America’s National Interest; America’s Palestine: Popular and Official Perceptions from Balfour to Israeli Statehood; and Islamic Fundamentalism.

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