Most people are conscious of propaganda and authoritarianism as tools to control thought and action. People, when subjected to overt threats to their life and liberty, threatened with imprisonment or worse, will as a survival tool pretend to believe what those in power want them to believe. But at some basic level, they will understand they are being coerced. And, while they may not succeed in escaping this system, they will often try.
There are more effective ways to control thought and action, and to restrict freedom. And they can be a little harder to see, especially when you are part of them. But 2020 has been a raw year, and these things are less polished.
Recursive Social Inclusion: Hypothetically, if were to speak or write now of the importance of wearing a mask, I would be rewarded with agreement, likes, and other positive reinforcement. If anyone did not agree with me, other people would immediately give them the outgroup treatment, or simply attack them. Taking the accepted side of an issue is rewarded in ways that make you feel wise, informed, thoughtful and generally helpful. Taking the not-approved side of an issue results in isolation.
The reward loop and social “graph” results in a large number of people converging on a thought pattern quickly. Once stable, that group tends to reject new information quickly, and without thought.
A curious quality of this effect is that it is obvious when observed in others when they are an outgroup, but nearly invisible when you agree and bond with an ingroup. Those on left see Christians doing this, but not themselves on the issues of sex change operations, gun control, global warming, public health care, the pay gap between men and women, and many other issues. It’s pretty obvious when the Branch Davidians or Scientologists do it. Less so when Muslims do. Steve Jobs did it. Microsoft HR does it. Entire societies do this during times of war, and right now, with Covid 19
Note that the underlying belief being echoed around isn’t subject to much actual debate, scientific testing, or individual reasoning. The reward cycle drives these things out. And, in time, strongly held beliefs are often proven to be incorrect. Remember the Population Bomb / Global Famine, the Oil Crisis, the coming Ice Age, Repressed Satanic Abuse Memories, 20 foot sea rise, choking deadly pollution, acid rain, DDT, and many others. But formerly strongly held beliefs are forgotten easily, and replaced with new strongly held beliefs.
Another counter-intuitive quality of Recursive Social Inclusion is that highly educated, intelligent people are generally more vulnerable to it.
This is not all just random. The elites of society and the media seed these ideas, and reinforce them, until they become self-sustaining.
Social Patriotism: Patriotism, or tribalism, is powerful on its own. And often a defensive and offensive tool in wartime. But when combined with Recursive Social Inclusion, as most social democracies have successfully done in support of the established government power structure, it becomes even more powerful. The public health system in Canada is not just a fair, efficient, well run system – indeed over the long term that message would be difficult to defend against actual experience – it is a component of the very essence of being a Canadian. The belief here is different than the rational “fair, efficient, well run system” – it is the belief in the essential goals of the system, and it is robust even as these goals are not met. Social democracies use this often to sustain the regime even as the actual results fail to meet expectations.
Economic Jail: There is an enduring implicit and explicit promise in the social democracies, that in exchange for giving up some of your income, the state will provide for you in times of need or hardship. And there’s lots of debate about if this does or doesn’t work. But folks often fail to notice that once you’re a few generations into this deal, it can’t in practice be reversed. What generation would decide that after paying so much in taxes life to date that they could not save for retirement, that they will now defer benefits because the system is broke.