Truth and trust are essential ingredients of all co-operation, be it family, friends, neighbours, communities, business, commerce right up to governments and world trade. In a free society many of us take for granted that the information we receive as being true and fair. It’s a human right not available to all and it is a precious but often taken for granted privilege.
Along with our breakfast, many of us ‘eat’ the information we receive from mainstream media almost without question.
But the impartiality of our mainstream media is no longer guaranteed in a populist world where people are busy and may only consume catchy headlines and miss the detail / nuance of the story.
Processes familiar to practitioners of the branch of psychology known as Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP) are at the heart of our populist media and journalistic hacks.
Nigel Farage, Boris Johnson, Donald Trump and the bosses of our gutterpress media knew this all too well with their populist headlines “Take back control”, “Build the wall”, “Swarms of migrants” and “Get Brexit done”.
Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP) can be used to do immense good or harm, depending on who is wielding the discipline. Just as a screwdriver can be used to fix things or as a weapon.
Here are some of the more perverted uses of NLP, in terms of how language can be used to twist minds
Distortion: This is the art of bending the facts out of shape in a minor or major way. For example “I hate immigrants coming over here and taking our jobs and they’re not even working”. Clearly it cannot be true that people who are not allowed to work are taking jobs.
The recent suggestion that the Bibby Stockholm prison ship will solve the problem of migration in Britain distorts the fact that it only holds 220 people safely, when there is a backlog of 170 000 migrants. We would need something like 800 prison ships to hold all the people our Government is unwilling to process.
Deletion: This is the art of missing out key pieces of information that introduce bias. For example “The Northern Ireland Protocol is making trade more difficult”. This piece of information, often mentioned on the BBC, deletes the question of where trade is more difficult.
It cleverly deletes the fact that trade between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland is booming as a result Northern Ireland’s dual membership of the EU. All the while trade between mainland Britain and Northern Ireland is suffering.
This is exactly what Britain signed up for when Boris Johnson presented us with his so-called ‘oven-ready’ Brexit deal. In fact, Brexit is slowly burning Britain to a crisp. This is a salutary lesson for anyone in Europe considering their own self-isolation in a global world.
Boris Johnson’s catchphrase “Taking back control” cleverly missed out the object of that control, i.e. who the control was for? In hindsight it seems that it was for a few people who wished to avoid paying taxes rather than for the huddled masses who believed in the dream.
Generalisation: This is taking something specific, often out of context and making it applicable to all. Jacob Rees-Mogg, our Minister for the 18th Century, is prone to saying things like “because a small needlecraft shop in a tiny village in England is thriving under Brexit, that this means that all needlecraft shops, all businesses and all people are thriving under Brexit”.
I wrote a book called “Private eyelines” to confront our populist media and the hacks that feed us daily disinformation such as The Daily Express, The Sun and The Daily Mail.
The book’s main purpose was to parody these populist media, the lies they promulgate and show them up for what they are, using the satirical devices of exaggeration, contrast and, of course, pure fantasy.
I discovered that some people could not tell the differences between fact and fantasy within my initial trial of this artform, via the front pages of ‘The Son’, ‘The Maul’, ‘The Excess’ and ‘The Telegravda’.
I was forced to install a fact and fiction decoder into the book. This somewhat spoiled my satirical ambitions, but perhaps this tells us something about the age we live in. where there is no gap between comedy and tragedy in some 21st Century media. It has dark consequences for serious matters such as asylum seeking, the ‘othering of foreigners’, the way that conflicts and other human rights issues are presented and so on.
It would be all too easy to suppose that these linguistic tricks can only be used for manipulation. Like all tools, they can be used for good or bad.
Much creative writing, comedy and other artforms benefit from the use of distortion, deletion and generalisation. It is a mistake to assume that these language patterns are solely the realm of evil people. But it is also wise to be prepared to defend yourself against what I call the dark media arts. Here I offer a few tips to protect yourself.
Defence against the dark media arts
In a busy world where time is an important commodity, we must find ways to educate people in what is called critical thinking. There’s plenty we can do to raise people’s levels of critical thinking in society, in polite conversation with friends and colleagues who repeat lies spouted by politicians, when speaking with MPs or when dealing with mainstream media:
- Don’t subscribe to populist media, full stop. Cut off their supply of oxygen.
- Challenge deletions, distortions and generalisations. We need high level skills to hold these difficult conversations. I adapted the work of the therapist John Heron in my books to help people do this. We must become better at encouraging curiosity, deeper thinking and a questioning mindset.
- If sourcing information from the internet, learn to triangulate. In other words, cross check information by examining material from different sources and perspectives. For example some people source information on Covid from one single polarised you tube source.
- Dig deeper. Never accept headlines at face value. Rather than reading lots of headlines, read fewer full articles. Take your time to study the details.
- Make your own voice heard in mainstream and social media. Write letters to the press, call in on Radio and TV programmes, write an article, etc.