It’s A War Of Words And The Truth Doesn’t Matter – OpEd

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Manufactured consent is always a threat to truth–and that makes it a threat to freedom. It can make us think and do things we ordinarily would not.

It is a war of words these days, and it is no longer important who has the last word. What does carry import is how effective one’s words are in convincing others that what you say has greater merit than another’s. 

After commenting on the recent difficult years involving escalating disputes between Beijing and Washington, outspoken Chinese Professor and President of the China Institutes of Contemporary Relations, Yuan Peng, in the article, “The Coronavirus Pandemic and a Once-in-a-Century Change,”(June 17, 2020) writes caustically: 

It no longer matters what is true or false – what matters is who controls the discourse.”

The Chinese academic was generally alluding to the West’s modern liberal media campaign to undermine the “Asian Giant.” But, there is a deeper meaning to Pengs warning. He had inadvertently pointed to something patently characteristic of today and much more invidious. Today we live in what scholars call the “postmodern era” of public opinion. It is a time when what people accept as “the truth” is in large measure shaped and molded not by facts or truth, but rather by governments and the modern liberal media colluding to manufacture consent in the minds of the populace through hyperbole, exaggeration and deception. And this is done using emotional appeal, fear and even hysteria delivered to the populace by accepted authority figures in the government and the media.

Essentially, it is what Walter Lippman in his seminal work (Public Opinion-1922) and Edward Hermann and Noam Chomsky called in their book (Manufacturing Consent-1988). It is simply government propaganda aided in its distribution by a press willing to advance the same political agenda as the ruling elite. It is an insidious process because people are not aware it is happening to them. But it can also be invidious when it undermines truth and places “official” limits on what media sources people are allowed to hear or read, or what they are willing to accept as an alternative to what the government tells them is “the truth.” The latter circumstance prevails today in the EU and Britain–it is censorship by any other name. Fear and insecurity will do that to a government afraid that its people will hear a different “truth.”

Governments and mass media which can guide and manipulate these feelings with a particular bias are what shapes an “information agenda” and essentially manufactures consent in the minds of the people. The emotions and feelings generated about some issue, country or person, expressed or otherwise, essentially become the “discourse.” One need only consider the vilification of Russia today or its current president to understand its impact.

This concept was first considered by Sigmund Freud in his work, Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego, which explored the extent to which instinctive group psychology could affect rational thinking. Ironically, Freud’s ideas were further developed by his nephew, Edward Bernays, who, perhaps unfortunately for all of us, became the father of modern political propaganda. In the mid-twentieth century, the concept was further developed by French post-structuralist philosophers (primarily Michel Foucault), and continues to have a major impact on a global basis today, as nation-states compete for political and economic dominance employing its principles.

Post-structuralism is merely another way of referring to postmodernism. Advocates of this concept (Ferdinand de Saussure, Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault), hold that there are no absolute realities or truths; all such elements (statements, ideas, narratives, initiatives etc.) must be understood as mere constructions of human beings. With postmodernism everything is a function of the human psyche–all truth and reality is subjective and thus relative. Countries therefore compete on a global basis to have their ideas prevail amongst a populace to a greater degree than another’s. It’s a not too subtle form of propaganda in which all countries engage. 

Over the last several years turbulent events have escalated the global information war raging between the US and China and, of course, Russia. The diplomatic boycott of the Beijing Olympics, the escalation of the Ukraine war, the extraordinary sanctions against Russia, the continued expansion of what some are now calling a Western effort to create a “global NATO”–each contributed to stoke the already fiery discourse between these superpowers.

There is little basis in assuming anything different will manifest between the behemoths this year. In fact, there is more at stake now than before. China, although late to the “game” of discursive capital, understands the salient issues and is now fully engaged in building up what scholars term discursive power (capital).

Beijing and Russia both became concerned about this issue in the last decade, when it became evident that their “soft power” initiatives vis-a-vis the US were having minimal results. It became apparent that in the face of substantial investment in promoting their image (e.g. Belt and Road Initiative from China and Russia’s Nord Stream pipelines to Europe etc.) neither nation experienced anything remotely resembling anything other than a blank stare from the West.

As China and Russia’s economic development burgeoned, the degree of Sinophobia and Russophobia increased in direct proportion to that growth. Efforts made by China to increase cross culture exchange of ideas with the West were less than successful. Its Confucius Institutes, for example, came under severe scrutiny from the US government and media sourced allies. In particular they were collectively perceived as breeding grounds for Chinese influence and propaganda. International public relations events as discernibly successful as the 2008 Summer Olympics in China and Russia’s in 2014 were countered with relentless accusations of human rights violations.

It did not take Beijing long to realize that  “the truth” is no longer important globally, but rather, how it is made to appear to the general public by media sources–how it is reported on the internet.

The concern for China was that much online content in today’s world is mostly generated, controlled and distributed by Westerners and in the English language.  China’s problem was the pervasive “cultural lens” of the West, through which not only the West but also China’s neighbors experienced content–and the narrative of that lens was biased against anything advantageous to Sino-Russian interests. 

Thus, the primary issue for China was a loss of control of the narrative, and the solution to the problem was found in the concept of “discourse.” Chinese scholars commenced a concerted effort to adapt and adopt postmodern concepts, effectively altering Foucault’s ideas to accommodate China’s own political needs.

Whoever controls the discourse controls the power

Based on the above premise, theoretical findings quickly emerged from scholars and became the informational basis of Beijing’s new foreign policy initiative–one focused on the “Great Renaissance of the Chinese Nation” a concept introduced by Chinese President Xi Jinping in 2013, which aims to revitalize China’s economy, politics, and culture, and to achieve the “Chinese Dream” of national rejuvenation.

An overtly demonstrated foreign policy position from China began to emerge. The Chinese diplomatic hierarchy and those on social media developed what is termed “wolf warrior diplomacy,” and the promotion of their terminology on various international platforms is now evident. This is what Beijing describes as its “discursive power,” and now pursues it globally.

The phenomenon of “discursive power” in China has not remained unnoticed by think-tank scholars and academics specializing on China and Chinese culture. The Institute of International Studies of the Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO) has also published an analytical report titled “From Soft Power to Discursive Power: The New Ideology of China’s Foreign Policy.”And from the Valdai Discussion Club, “Chinese Transfer: From Soft to Discursive Power” by Yana Leksyutina (2-15-2023). Both provide a comprehensive assessment of this phenomenon and make predictions for the future success of China’s efforts.

According to its findings, China’s main goal is to counter the “discursive hegemony” of the West, but without overthrowing it.  Beijing as well as Russia need the structure to build constructive relations with other countries not ensconced in the social, economic and political vise of the West (e.g. the BRICS+Algeria,Iran, UAE, Egypt, Ethiopia, Saudi Arabia). As a result, an alternative discursive reality to the West is gradually being created and most countries of the world will find themselves caught on the horns of a dilemma in determining which point of view to adopt.

Most importantly, “discursive power” via Chinese and Russian interpretations is not limited to the written or spoken word generally–technological, financial and managerial standards are also being employed embracing multipolar centers of trade, currency and finance. What this means, of course, is that a new divide is taking shape beyond the unipolar political hegemony of the West where EastAsian and countries of the heretofore neglected South have considerably more voice.

Such is the “brave new world” of the twenty-first century on planet earth. It is a world in transition, where “discursive power” from China and Russia and “multipolarity” through the BRICS+ are enabling voices previously stifled by the West to be heard. And these voices seek to provide a countervailing force to American unipolar foreign policy initiatives in particular and Western political hegemony in general. Postmodern chatter is ubiquitous today, but if one listens closely, the truth is out there to be heard.

He who controls the media controls the minds of the public.” — Avram Noam Chomsky

F. Andrew Wolf, Jr.

F. Andrew Wolf, Jr. is a retired USAF Lt. Col. and retired university professor of the Humanities, Philosophy of Religion and Philosophy. His education includes a PhD in philosophy from Univ. of Wales, two masters degrees (MTh-Texas Christian Univ.), (MA-Univ. South Africa) and an abiding passion for what is in America's best interest.

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