Having re-engaged my inner thespian in 2014 I’ve been going to the theatre more often and had the pleasure of seeing some fun and thought provoking productions. Most recently I went to see Tangram Theatre’s production of The Dragon at the Southwark Playhouse, a vibrant and creatively updated version of an old Russian Soviet era play and parable about totalitarianism and political control. Throughout I was struggling to figure out the parallels with modern Britain, looking out for comment on the lack of choice between parties in democratic elections, and the propaganda we receive regarding foreign policy and acts of war. Yet while there are many timeless truths regarding the corruption of souls and methods of political manoeuvring, if we just take the nature of propaganda alone, there are also major differences. These are wrapped up in the times as well as the political system and this makes it hard for such a parable to be taken out of its historic and political context. Take Soviet era prop art for example. Today it might feel aesthetically pleasing and is popular precisely because it offers a clarity of message that is missing in the confusing mess of contemporary propaganda. Unlike the simple, bold and singularly objective huge fisted hammer wielding farm hand – arguably something that in a more open democracy can be all too easily dismantled – we are presented with a vast array of messages. Things are different now.
On Charlie Brooker’s recent annual review of the year he offered us a brief from renowned documentary maker Adam Curtis entitled ‘Oh Dear’. The ‘Oh Dear’ referencing our general apathetic and resigned state of mind in response to the multitude of news sources and the information we receive through them. Endless injustices and fear inducing stories and a sea of responses, opinions and differing streams of information to accompany them. The documentary also referenced Russia, albeit the modern day version, where a man known as Vladislav Surkov has apparently been pulling some very sophisticated propaganda strings on behalf of Vladimir Putin. This involves purposely creating an array of political voices and polarisations, even supporting dissent and political protest. This is done to lead people into a state of mind that is incapable of making head or tale of the negativities we hear of in the news and unable or unwilling to form meaningful opposition to them. They are left resigned and weary. Supplying one or two alternative positions to the mainstream would not do, it’s the leap from one to many, and then more, that gets us. What is fascinating is the idea that such a state of affairs could be manipulated from a single body. When Curtis jumped to the West, he presented a similar scenario but without the clear identification as to who was behind this confusion, just a hint that somebody probably was.
There was a scene in the production of ‘The Dragon’ where a war is taking place, represented by a knight, Lancelot, fighting the Dragon of the story. Rather than an enemy The Dragon in this play is a tool of control for the ruling powers, represented by the village Mayor, over its pliable villagers. Wanting to reassure the villagers of a Dragon victory, propaganda is fed to the people about the ‘reality‘ of what is happening in opposition to what they are viewing in the sky above them. Each time one of it’s fire breathing heads is lost concerns are tempered by ridiculously contrived reports on why this represents an entirely positive development in proceedings. It is a simple game of dominance between two narratives, the experienced and the reported. But when I think of wars today, the messages about ‘what is really happening‘ are endlessly multiple.
In the UK at least, propaganda and information does not come from a single news source, it comes from many, and it comes via the internet and social media, through individual sources, endless links to articles and blogs, ones that go viral and ones that maybe three people at most read – like this one (though I guess I still contribute in my humble way toward the multitude.) And of course comment threads, from the crass to the considered, adding inevitable and incorrigible seeds of doubt and dismissal to the most convincing and seemingly straightforward of arguments. In a way this should be welcomed, dialogue is what it’s all about right? Right – but as always it’s about the form dialogue takes. This led me to consider some ways that scene in the play might have panned out in the modern information age.
Whose side are we on/ who is on our side?
Today rather than receiving just the single reportage in an unfolding situation, the villagers might be receiving not one but thousands of alternative narratives. Checking their iPhones and lap tops, TVs and newspapers, they might be sent memes, pithy quotes, articles and links that send them into a polarised vortex of discussion. “Why Lancelot is a man for our times”. “Why Lancelot is a hypocritical, self obsessed fool”. “He may be crass and arrogant, but the Dragon has done far more good than we give him credit for”, “12 things you didn’t know about Dragons” and so forth – but also including some balanced and reasonable assessments that nobody takes much notice of. This would be a very different scenario to the singular propaganda of the play, but is the outcome – political passivity – the same, and is a mayor of some kind behind it in the same way? Adam Curtis suggests that in today’s Russia at least, someone almost certainly is.
Beyond warfare, let’s take the example of Russell Brand. Personally I think he’s a good guy with his heart in the right place who is creating some valuable discussion about the state of politics and assisting valuable campaigns. I also think he contributes to the cult of celebrity and can say things that over simplify or get it horribly wrong. Those that dismiss him however, generally don’t dismiss his views or statements, they dismiss the man entirely – his intentions, his motivations, his intelligence. They reduce him to an absolute zero, someone they are, and we should be diametrically opposed to. On the other hand some that revere him will hear nothing bad said about him at all. What happens? We end up squabbling. Bickering. Doing nothing. Adding nothing.
Another example is prominent activist, Peter Tatchell, who does some amazing campaigning but also, inevitably, gets it wrong sometimes and rubs people up the wrong way. In doing so I’ve seen him slammed as an Islamophobe, and egoist and a racist on Twitter. Solidarities are lost. We must be in full agreement or be enemies. But we need to raise objections and talk about them, not create new battle grounds away from the battle ground. In a sense, through social media, we have entered a space where we engage in a virtual and incorrigible factionalisation along the lines of the Judea People’s Front et al, where we end up in these floating nodes of endless oppositionality and difference none of which leads us anywhere.
The Sun’s hysterical and desperate campaign against Brand tried to make the New Era Estate campaign all about him. He was then accused of doing just that himself, which then made it more about him. Which made us talk about him more. Which made us divert our attention from the campaign itself. A campaign that very few Londoners, myself included, actually actively supported bar posting a few links to some good articles – ‘worth a read’. Despite the best efforts of distraction, while we bickered over Brand, the campaign was a success. Maybe all is not lost.
Social media and the clash of propagandas:
But the scenario of a singular state narrative being made available to the villagers in the play is still a reality that exists in much of the world, albeit with the threat posed by the internet that those ‘villagers’ might access alternative perspectives and information. The propaganda thrown at one set of villagers may come face to face with that thrown at another village in another part of the world. Perhaps the village the Lancelot character hails from. Alternatively it may be prevented from doing so altogether – as seen with the Firewall in China. But if, as Curtis suggests, mass information works as well or better than singular messages as a tool of political pacification and control, does China they really need it? Rather than challenge the line of their own masters via alternative info, the villagers in the play might instead become convinced, in viewing and hearing other perspectives, that everyone but them is being misled. In doing so they might then endorse and rally around their own propaganda even more than before.
Someone I know recently moved to Israel. Since this move a firm and clear narrative, stemming form direct experience coupled with reception to the standard Israeli government line, has been asserted via social media. As a consequence the experience via that same media of the narratives we are receiving in the UK, via the BBC and the left leaning press, juxtaposed to the Israeli position, has led to a perspective that ‘we’ UK residents are all the victims of a all pervasive propaganda ourselves. In this way what the social media space provides is one that invites a clash of propagandas via our regurgitation of them beyond the boundaries in which they are received more directly. The internal Israeli position is forced to confront viewpoints formed via other media in other locations and with different lived experiences. This inevitably led to a fair few Facebook blow ups with everyone being accused of being victims of misinformation and lies. As a space for discussion, more often than not, rather than using social media to share and combine information, we are using it to smash it against each other and losing the benefits in process.
Who is to blame? The villagers or the Majors?
With all this information, are we really being manipulated into this state or is it just an unplanned evolution? In the case of Israeli propaganda it seems that, via the resulting polarisation and rage, exposure to oppositional voices and propagandas via the internet and social media can strengthen rather than diminish the endorsement of the state line. And of course many of the strongest oppositions come from the Israeli press. But is that outcome a strategy by the Israeli state in the same way the China fire wall is used to achieve a similar outcome? Who knows. Personally though, I welcome the opportunity to hear the other side, to see how it plays with someone else’s lived experience in another part of the world – not least knowing more often then not I myself am the receptor of a particular bias. This is a tool to challenge my own position and if not agree, at least understand why others feel so strongly about theirs. It’s just the raging, the bickering and the endless arguments I find exhausting and demotivating. Moreover it seems such forms of engagement can lead people to question their own narratives less rather than more.
Dialogue as a tool to unpack, critique and act:
So it can feel like we are destined to play the role of pliable villagers in any political context. Yet regardless of whether the nature of the mass information age is organic or controlled, we are always the receptors of it. It is our souls that are affected. We can become demotivated, angry, defensive or confused. But surely much of that is the consequence of the way in which we talk and respond to these differences. More so than ever we need to find new ways to talk and listen and in doing so to sift through everything we are presented with. In doing so we might better locate who it is we really want to side with or oppose and be more, not less motivated to act. As it is as we bicker and polarise ourselves from those we disagree with, even on only a relatively small number of things. Or we just give up in the sea of arguments, and actual power holders remain unchallenged. Polarisations are constantly occurring between feminists, anti racists and social justice movements. Differences are inevitable and normal but all the talk is exacerbating and stagnating. Rather than working through these differences usefully we seem to be using them to reduce our capacity for dissent.
We need to keep talking, but maybe somewhere else, maybe face to face, maybe with a new form of on line conversation, maybe by fundamentally changing the way we approach and manage the myriad of information, view points, activists and campaigns we are presented with. Good dialogue may be one way we can make the best, not the worst, of the information age. To use it as a tool to respond and challenge – campaigners, celebrities, knights, villagers and all.
The Dragon runs until the 10th at the Southwark Playhouse: http://southwarkplayhouse.co.uk/the-little/the-dragon/
“Oh Dear” Curtis Doc can be viewed here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8moePxHpvok