Deep Underground with Raul Groom

Monday, January 10, 2005

The Doctrinal System

Bring up Noam Chomsky with an educated person and you will soon have a freak-out on your hands. If the person with whom you are trying to discuss Noam's work is to the right of center, the freak-out will begin when you utter the words "Noam Chomsky" and will include much screeching and rending of garments. This can be enjoyable to witness, but it's not a good starting point for an interesting conversation.

If, on the other hand, your victim is to the left of center, you'll be able to travel pretty far down Noam Avenue without inducing a freak-out. In fact, mainstream lefty types will generally tolerate a little Noam, as long as you stick to safe topics like why the Iraq war was an enormous idiocy perpetrated my an enormous idiot.

The trouble begins when you begin to venture toward Noam's ideas about what he calls the "doctrinal system" (not his term), that is, the acceptable boundaries of mainstream debate and the mechanism of their enforcement.

The reason this is a sore subject is that most people are very attached to certain ideas about how they form their own opinions. It is painful to be confronted with evidence that the underpinnings of so-called "rational" debate might come from somewhere other than our culture, our values, or free thought based on dispassionate evaluation of the available evidence.

The discussion of indoctrination is difficult, because we are all implicated. Even radical leftists, who are well acquainted at least with the concept of indoctrination, have trouble with this idea. I remember once having a heated discussion with a friend in the antiwar movement who had just held forth at length about the importance in overcoming indoctrination. Unfortunately his rememdy, which to his credit he described in detail right alongside his description of the problem, was essentially to re-indoctrinate people with the "right" beliefs. In the activist community this propaganda activity (which has its place) is commonly called "outreach."

Eventually I was able to get this friend to admit that what he was recommending was not de-indoctrination but re-indoctrination. The part that I couldn't convince him of, that he indeed appeared willing to start a fistfight over in the little Adams Morgan Salvadoran place where we were eating, was that we ourselves also hold indoctrinated beliefs, and cling to a certain doctrinal system from which we find it difficult to escape.

In normal life, one's own indoctrination is, by definition, invisible. It is the set of assumptions we use to evaluate the universe, what Robert Anton Wilson and others call our "reality-tunnel." But the analysis and investigation of one's own doctrinal system is the very essence of the evolution of human thought, both within a particular individual and through the generations. However difficult it is to examine the underpinnings of our thought systems, we MUST do it. On this all depends.

Reading Leonard Peltier's letters in bed last night, I was struck by his simple and essentially irrefutable description of a major portion of the United States' doctrinal system. I paraphrase it below, but I will warn you in advance - you will not like it. It reveals a part of our reality-tunnel that is something approaching psychotic, and yet I would be surprised to find a single editorial or news article in the Washington Post or New York Times that did not adhere very closely to this convention:

When the United States military slaughters essentialy defenseless people, this is called "intervention."
When those people resist to the best of their limited ability, inflicting nominal casualties on the United States (compared to massive casualties on the side of the people on whose behalf we are intervening) this is called "war."
The soldiers who fight on the side of the United States are called "heroes." It is universally accepted that no matter what our feelings about the motivations or justifications for the war (that is, whether the war is right or wrong), we owe these people a great debt. Those who fight on the side of the people being slaughtered are called "terrorists." It is universally accepted that no matter what our feelings about the motivations or justifications for the resistance, we owe these people nothing but death.

What is to be done about this? The very question is a trap. Nothing can be done about it, at least not directly. It is easy to see the indoctrination of others. It is also useless. The psychotic bleating of those withing the doctrinal system should serve only to remind us that if we could see ourselves as we truly are, we would realize that this is also what we are like.

What is frightening about this is that to most people, the above implies that there must be some sort of top-down conspiracy to indoctrinate people into these insane beliefs and conceal the reality of the situation. This is considered (correctly, in my view) to be absurd.

Indeed, if Chomsky himself has a weakness, it is that he seems to cling to a few tattered pieces of the idea that there is someone or some group of someones at the top of the doctrinal system beaming these ideas down consciously to the population through the educated classes. This model cannot easily be refuted (though as many have found, it is blissfully easy to dismiss it out of hand) but it has long been my belief that this model is unnecessary. There are certainly those who capitalize on the doctrinal system, and even encourage it. But this tyranny is primarily a conspiracy of ignorance that we perpetrate against ourselves. It comes from inside us.

At one point in human history, belief was a means to a laudable end. Thus it was considered virtuous to say "I believe X because X is true." A tautology, to be sure, but it was once a useful one. It allowed us to build the world we find ourselves in today, with its endless possibilities and endless peril.

In this time, and in this place, belief had become a cancer. Instead of a stepping-stone to knowledge, it has become a stone around our necks, drowning us. And yet still your mind wanders to those you disdain, the easy targets. Religious people. Fools. No, friends. I mean us. What do we believe? Why do we believe it? How are we to pass beyond belief towards certainty?

On this all depends.

4 Comments:

  • I have a few things I'm wondering about, and hopefully they'll be taken in the right way, because I don't intend these comments to be combatitive.

    First, if just about any perspective is just indoctrination, how is Chomsky's different? If what we're interested in is objective truth, and not just a new form of indoctrination, why would Chomsky's perspective be of any use? It seems that if you accept the dismal view of humanity as being manipulated in various skillful ways from every angle, just about any opinion sinks into hopelessly subjective, unverifiable terms. And if there isn't any light of truth to be seen, what's the point of even talking about it?

    Second, the comment "the idea that there is someone or some group of someones at the top of the doctrinal system beaming these ideas down consciously to the population through the educated classes. This model cannot easily be refuted (...)" Granted, I haven't read all of Chomsky's work, but does he provide any evidence to support this? I suppose there's the "Occam's evidence" (i.e. something like "the behavior benefits someone, someone is in a position so that if they wanted to do this, they might be able to, therefore that's probably what's happening") but that's not very satisfying.

    I would be very interested in the evidence of a conscious effort to indoctrinate people. Simply claiming that it's so (or that any other aspect of politics is so) doesn't do much. There is a very wide range of assertions that are essentially impossible to disprove, but that are very likely bogus. Examples would range from the absurd (aliens seeding human life on earth) to the conventional. The underlying principle is that burden of proof lies with the person putting an idea forward, not those who might want to disprove it. That something is "not easily refuted" (as a comment by itself, without further support) doesn't really say much about its truth content.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at January 10, 2005 at 7:57 PM  

  • Good, clear writing. I wish I knew who on earth you were.

    Anyway, here goes:

    Anon: "First, if just about any perspective is just indoctrination, how is Chomsky's different?"

    Two assumptions here - first, that I believe that "just about any perspective is just indoctrination," and two, that I'm asserting that Chomsky's point of view is somehow different than other points of view. I'm not sure either of these assumptions is justified by my post. The first is particularly difficult because it's a little unclear, logically. Indoctrination is a process, not a point of view. You could fix the statement by saying that any attempt to inculcate your own point of view in someone else is indoctrination, and I would probably agree, though I would not include simply describing a point of view as an attempt to inculcate it in someone.

    For a clear explanation of what indoctrination is and how it works, try Sargent's Battle for the Mind or Winn's The Manipulated Mind. If you're someone I know you're welcome to borrow a copy of either.

    Anon: If what we're interested in is objective truth, and not just a new form of indoctrination, why would Chomsky's perspective be of any use?

    Another assumption - that we are interested in "objective truth," a complicated idea. If I stipulate that's what we are interested in, the question is why Chomsky's perspective would be of any use. The obvious answer is that any point of view is of use because it might be correct, or partially correct, or lead us to a perspective that is correct. But even that answer leads to extreme complications, such as what exactly a "correct" perspective is, and how we would identify one.

    Anon: It seems that if you accept the dismal view of humanity as being manipulated in various skillful ways from every angle, just about any opinion sinks into hopelessly subjective, unverifiable terms.

    Ah, now I think maybe I know who you are. This is the consequentialist argument, basically saying "to think in this way would wreck my established beliefs with regard to cause and effect." That may be, but this fact has no logical implications with regard to the idea itself.

    Anon: And if there isn't any light of truth to be seen, what's the point of even talking about it?

    I might or might not agree with this statement as written, but you got to this point (that there is no light of truth to be seen) all by yourself. You didn't find it in my post, and you certainly didn't find it in Chomsky, who is unconcerned with such things.

    To expand on this question only in the most limited way, you seem to be asking me what is the point of talking about anything if we cannot escape out own subjectivity. An interesting question, but the answer seems clear - subjective perceptions are useful. Batters were able to hit curveballs for years before the "objective" scientific community had even confirmed that a curveball actually curves. For the batter, such questions were not at issue - he saw the ball, he hit the ball. The raging debate over whether the ball's weird arc was a real phenomenon or an optical illusion had no impact on the batter's attempts to hit the ball - he was concerned only with the result.

    The wider question of whether subjectivity can be overcome, well, I think we both believe that it can. What we differ is on the mechanism - I submit that in order to achieve certainty, we must overcome indoctrination and conditioned thinking. You seem to reject the idea that you are indoctrinated at all, or that you suffer from the problem of conditioned thought. On this we can safely differ, and pursue our disparate courses of action. Your ability to trust logic is not impeded by my attempts to overcome my indoctrination, no vice-versa.

    Anon: Second, the comment "the idea that there is someone or some group of someones at the top of the doctrinal system beaming these ideas down consciously to the population through the educated classes. This model cannot easily be refuted (...)"

    Clearly I'm a poor choice to defend this particular aspect of Chomsky's thought (which I may be mischaracterizing besides), since I myself do not agree with it. There is ample evidence that there has been an overt conspiracy to manipulate the public into believing certain things - indeed, that is what propaganda (now called Public Relations) is for. Whether that evidence is conclusive is for us to decide. A good place to start is by reading Walter Lippmann, who was one of the earliest pioneers of the kind of thinking that eventually spawned the PR industry (Lippmann coined the phrase "Manufacturing Consent.") Then you could ask yourself to what degree what Lippmann recommended has come to pass, and whether the efforts of powerful elites are primarily responsible.

    Anon: I would be very interested in the evidence of a conscious effort to indoctrinate people.

    The range of available literature on the subject is massive. Battle for the Mind and The Manipulated Mind are both excellent for an understanding of what indoctrination is (and they're also just fascinating to read, especially Battle for the Mind, which was written in the 1950's when academics in the West were just starting to explore the idea of indoctrination and conditioning.) If you are impatient to get to the proof that it's happening, at least somehow, you want Manufacturing Consent, by Herman and Chomsky. The best book on the doctrinal system I've ever seen.

    Of course, your question is a bit vague, as I'm sure you are aware of efforts to indoctrinate people. For example, you and I were both subjected to a concerted campaign of indoctrination, unprecedented in history, to make us believe in the overarching evilness of illegal drugs. However, I could also hold up another aspect of this effort to support my own position, which is that it is very difficult to indoctrinate people into beliefs they truly do not want to accept.

    Anon: That something is "not easily refuted" (as a comment by itself, without further support) doesn't really say much about its truth content.

    A careful reading of my post confirms that I agree with this statement, since I myself do not subscribe to the view.

    By Blogger RaulGroom, at January 10, 2005 at 9:31 PM  

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