Fighting Climate Propaganda in the Age of Inequality

What George Orwell's insistence on clarity has to say about fighting modern-day propaganda.

By Nathan Pippenger

Tagged Climate

It is as unlikely as Laudato Si to inspire an aggressive climate change policy, but the EPA’s new peer-reviewed report is just as sweeping, and—in its grim, detailed vision of the near future—far more terrifying. Without an aggressive global agreement on carbon emissions, the U.S. faces about 70,000 more premature deaths every year for the rest of the century, plus hundreds of billions in economic cost from the loss of fragile ecosystems, droughts, agricultural damage, and more. (And that’s just this country.) If policymaking were a more rational process, this report, or one of its many predecessors, would stun citizens and policymakers into swift action. But the struggle to inspire a sense of urgency around climate issues suggests that something around this debate has gone very wrong.

One obvious candidate for blame is the misinformation spread by the energy industry around climate change—a propaganda campaign of considerable scope and sophistication. In a review of the philosopher Jason Stanley’s new book on propaganda, David Johnson contemplates the cycle of misinformation in an unequal society:

Stanley persuasively argues that propaganda in liberal democracies is in fact symptomatic of material inequality—and that, insofar as material inequality enables propagandistic tendencies, it epistemically undermines liberal democracy. The rich command cultural and intellectual resources that allow them to articulate and voice their interests and views more effectively than the poor. And the rich and powerful will also tend, ineluctably, to construct flawed ideologies that endorse their privilege and the policies that maintain it. From there, it’s but a short step to persuading captive politicians, media outlets, and the public at large to adopt these slanted views, which in turn blind everyone to the very problem of how material inequality leads to epistemic inequality.

I think Orwell—in his own way one of the great theorists of propaganda—would find compelling the link between inequality and epistemic failure that Stanley identifies. I mention Orwell because of Enda O’Doherty’s recent piece, which casts a semi-skeptical eye on his “rather concocted plain man’s irritation at pretension, the ‘come-off-it’ commonsensical mode” that eventually became “the ‘‘no bullshit’ bullshit’ style of Orwell’s disciple Christopher Hitchens and others.” This is true but incomplete. Orwell’s emphasis on clarity was a stylistic maneuver, but it was also part of a lived commitment, as Michael Walzer has written, to his goal of a “lively, open, frank, and plain-spoken politics.” Ever the democrat, Orwell loved argument and hated hierarchy; he wanted no part of a politics, even a left-wing politics, led by a vanguard or technocracy that would master knowledge and justify its actions through obfuscation or euphemism. There is a vision of politics at work in his distinctive stylistic choices.

Put together, Orwell’s commitments to democratic politics and linguistic clarity underscore a key point that is largely absent from our current discussion about inequality: that it is not simply a matter of some people having more money than others. It spreads, it metastasizes, corrupting diverse elements of political life, including the dissemination of knowledge and ideas. Many of the bad ideas currently plaguing political discourse would lose quickly if they ever faced off in a fair competition, but that’s not likely to happen anytime soon. Propaganda loves inequality.

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Nathan Pippenger is a contributing editor at Democracy. Follow him on Twitter at @NathanPip.

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