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Tuesday, 2 June 2015

IDS: Ignorance, Agnotology and Gas Lighting?

It is well known that Iain Duncan Smith has a limited patience for reality.
He has faith in a calamitous policy of Universal Credit, he believes that unemployment has no structural causes and that the unemployed can be sanctioned into work. The evidence, at every turn, shows he is wrong (see Donkey passim). But evidence long since passed being relevant.

I’ve been party to conversations about IDS. I’ve spoken to high profile anti-poverty campaigners who ally an intimate grasp of his damaging policies with a surprising forbearance for his desire to be seen as a sympathetic social reformer. (Incredibly some really do see IDS as a social reformer, see this Spectator piece by Isabel Hardman).

Other people, while not necessarily ruling out his good intentions, think him a bungling idiot. Surely this was behind the media’s wrongly held belief, last year, that he was due to be sacked. In the event neither reshuffle, nor a subsequent general election left a mark on this most shambolic of ministers.

This tells us a lot about mainstream journalists and commentators, but precious little about IDS.

George Osborne, according to right wing commentator, Matthew D’Ancona, thinks IDS an intellectual lightweight, an observation that, if true, is especially interesting if added to D’Ancona’s other revelation that IDS was shocked, upon entering government, at just how jealously the Treasury guards its power over public spending (how can a politician be unaware of this?).

Still, IDS survives concurrently with a reputation as a deeply ignorant politician.

It was with this in mind that I read an interesting paper by Edinburgh University academic, Tom Slater. It enjoins us to pay closer attention to something that IDS is very good at: agnotology, or the promotion of ignorance.

And we should pay attention to Slater’s thesis. Because if we are to stand a chance of fighting the drip of poison aimed against society’s most vulnerable, then we need to confront the reality that a formally ‘liberal’ or reason-based politics has long since ceased to operate in this country. We need to confront the fact of a deliberate campaign of ignorance-inducing propaganda, honed by neoliberalism during countless skirmishes against practical reason (think climate change denial, big tobacco, Greece or austerity more generally).

It’s a thesis (unwittingly?) echoed by Adam Curtis, whose last documentary tackled a similar project of political ignorance, but this time at the level of culture.

Agnotology is the process of sowing doubt with the aim of keeping people sufficiently unsure about reality, such that they are dissuaded from acting to change it. Philip Mirowski in his book ‘Never Let a Good Crisis Go To Waste’ recounts how this process ran its course in the run up to 2008 crisis and in its subsequent fallout.

Mirowski painstakingly depicts what sometimes feels like a conspiracy theory-sized account of how reasonable, rational positions (on issues as varied as climate change, tax and macro economics) were systematically undermined with the sole aim of preventing change contra to the interests of the wealthy.  A further collection of articles on this burgeoning area of academic inquiry is contained in the book ‘Agnotology: the making and unmaking of ignorance,’ including research which uncovered the famous tobacco industry memo declaring ‘Ignorance is our product'.

Students of agnotology say it is qualitatively different from simple propaganda, in that it’s object is the social and cultural production of ignorance.

I’m often struck by the similarity agnotology bares to the phenomenon of ‘gas lighting’. Gas lighting is a form of psychological abuse, diagnosed by feminist thinkers, that convinces its object (usually a female spouse, but also children) to doubt their memory, perception, reality and, ultimately, their sanity (the term ‘gas lighting’ is from the 1944 film ‘Gas Light’). Feminists have noted the way abusive men routinely enact the technique through a combination of lies, deceit, rumour (and just enough truth) to keep their victimised partner or family, unsure, unbalanced, emotionally drained, isolated and thus easier to control. The technique is an acknowledged favourite of the narcissist and the psychopath, also the torturer (Read this blog for a delicious example of how a woman turned the tables on a gas lighting partner, by making him watch the film ‘Gas Light’. As an aside, the Greek film ‘Dog Tooth,’ while fictional, seems to me to come close to depicting the workaday horror of a family marked by this kind of abuse.)

For me there is something uncannily familiar about the gas lighting favoured by the domestic abuser and the deceitful propaganda about benefit scroungers, skivers and foreigners spouted by our media and political class. The ‘look over there’ smears parroted by the likes of Osborne, Farage and others in our political class. The hatred whipped up against the poor by programmes like Benefits Street.  The sense that the BBC may not have crossed the Rubicon in the public’s mind with its idea of making poor people compete against each other for the title of ‘Britain’s Best Grafter.’

In IDS’s favour, I can’t find a single example of him ever having uttered the word ‘scrounger’.  Indeed he denies ever saying it (George Osborne came close in his infamous‘shirkers versus skivers’ budget speech). But to chase around looking for a verbatim record of what IDS or Osborne did or didn’t say is to miss the point entirely, indeed it is to fall victim to the self-same mind games so beloved of the gas lighting, agnotological abuser.

Some advice

The best defence against narcissism is to run. 

Unfortunately, the poor, the disabled, the young, the sick and the unemployed cannot just up sticks to Bermuda to spend time with their offshore accounts.

The second best defence is to be prepared to count everything as a lie, to judge these people by what they do, and allow no mitigation in their endless fork tonguery. It is a sign of weakness, like blood in the water, to engage a narcissist in a discussion about reasons. Similarly it is a proper defence mechanism against the crazy-making barbs of politicians to dismiss everything they say, offhand.
Forget about the lies. Fixating on the lie is their trick, a means to an end. Insanity and anomie lie at the end of any attempt to reason with such people.

Condemning all politicians is no new thing. Indeed from the comfort of the commentariat it is a position often sneered at. Well, it may be ‘unsophisticated,’ it may be uncouth to them, but what difference should that make?

We have the right, to treat as lies, every word from the mouth of IDS and his ilk.

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