What we don’t hear from the mass media, and why we don’t hear it
In the years following the end of World War II, the world seemed divided into three parts. The USA with its NATO allies were one bloc; the geographically vast Soviet Union was another; and the third bloc comprised a multitude of economically and socially weak nations many of which were newly emerged from the ashes of Colonialism.
The USSR and the USA faced each other across a divide of mutual suspicion and potential lethality. World War II had dramatically advanced the business of creating new and powerful weapons and each of the two powerful blocs were racing to deploy ever-more-fearful modes of total destruction.
The Soviet Union was controlled by Russia, a nation with an unhappy history of being invaded that shaped its view of the post-war world. The USA was the only nation in history so far to use atomic bombs to kill vast numbers of unarmed civilians. Not surprisingly the USSR distrusted US intentions. The USA, meanwhile, was terrified of the very idea of communism as it threatened entrenched vested interests in its own society.
In consequence the world rapidly reached a state wherein each of the two powerful blocs had deployed sufficient nuclear capability to destroy all life on Earth many times over. Neville Chute’s novel On The Beach captures the mood of the time perfectly.
A great many people on our fragile little planet had a rational expectation of being obliterated in their near future. This fear came perilously close to being realized during the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962 when the Kennedy Administration through a series of tactical blunders and poor decision-making pushed the world to the brink of nuclear Armageddon. Global destruction was avoided only because the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev decided that his personal political survival mattered less than the survival of the entire world.
The near-obliteration of all life on Earth naturally did little to ease the worries of people living through these times. So, as is always the case, governments looked for ways to enable fearful citizens to feel as if they were doing something to protect themselves, because even pointless activities can reduce tension provided gullible citizens don’t think about the plausibility of what they’re being told to do.
And so the US government stepped up its instructions on how to survive a nuclear war (many of these instructions predated the Cuban Missile Crisis but were driven by the same need to pacify a fearful population):
· Paint your windows white to protect your family from the blinding flash emitted by a nuclear explosion.
· Hide under your desk to protect yourself from the blast.
· Construct a nuclear shelter in your back garden and stock it with enough food and water to last for a week.
Today, especially if we didn’t live through the period ourselves, we can laugh at these absurd recommendations. They are no different from instructing a small child to stop a runaway truck by standing in front of it while brandishing a cardboard sword.
Simultaneously to promoting such nonsense the US government also depicted nuclear energy as a cuddly new friend. Nuclear-powered automobiles would provide unlimited range without the need for petrol! Nuclear bombs would be used to blast huge new canals across the nation, thus improving national transportation! Nuclear airplanes would result in everyone being able to fly for a few dollars a ticket! Nuclear-powered vacuum cleaners would make each home spotless!
Obviously anyone with even grade-school math would have understood instantly that such ideas were totally impossible for a wide variety of reasons. But for the most part, the average person accepted such promises uncritically and eagerly awaited the day when they too could buy a nuclear-powered car.
Why did so many US citizens embrace such nonsense when even a child could see it was all utterly spurious?
Our hardwired need to be part of a group played its part, as did the desire to do something — anything — in order to feel less helpless. We always defer to purported authority figures because, as a group primate species, we’re hardwired to do so by hundreds of thousands of years of evolution.
But there was another powerful factor at work that strongly reinforced group norms: the mass media.
We humans aren’t adapted to reason by means of abstract data. Our brains work on anecdote. That’s why we love reading fiction and why we gawp at mindless TV soap operas. We’re hardwired to learn about and then conform to group norms in order to fit in and benefit thereby from group membership. We feel very uncomfortable when we see anything that seems to threaten group cohesion, which is why we punish anyone with the temerity to stand up and point out that the Emperor has no clothes. Our psychological discomfort over-rides any scant capacity for intellectual coherence.
What’s important, therefore, is to maintain and reinforce group norms and there’s no better way to accomplish this than by using the mass media.
Newspapers and radio and television all got “on message” very quickly and pushed the official position relentlessly. Sure, there were some awkward photographs of post-bomb Hiroshima that clearly showed the futility of duck-and-cover drills and there were some equally awkward pictures of radiation victims that clearly showed the futility of imagining that a bomb shelter would protect anyone at all. But these pictures were easily suppressed and besides, no one wants to feel bad when they’re offered the alternative of feeling good instead.
The relentless narrative continuously reinforced by the mass media, which was merely protecting its economic interests, ensured that the vast majority of US citizens passively accepted what they were told. The few that tried to point out that the information being presented was absurd and potentially lethal were not given exposure.
Only voices that collaborated in the agreed messages were heard.
The voice of reason was silenced by a combination of indifference and intentionality.
No one likes a dissenter, so this was very easy to accomplish.
So the media fed the masses with an agreed narrative and the masses obediently fell into line. Even today, some who lived through the period continue to believe their painted windows or school desks or fallout shelters would have “saved” them from annihilation. No amount of fact-based reasoning can shake unthinking belief.
Most of human history is the story of our species sleepwalking through existence, committing one appallingly stupid and unnecessary blunder after another. We repeat the same basic errors over and over and over again, and almost always because the voice of reason is not heard. We turn away, we stop our ears, we do not want to listen. It’s so much easier and so much nicer to embrace uncritically whatever nonsense we’re being fed.
After all, everyone else is believing it so it must be true! And surely those clever people in government know what they are talking about because they get advice from experts! (At least, from those experts whose advice helpfully matches the agreed narrative….)
So it is that we’ll almost always do the wrong things, utterly convinced as we do so that we’re acting wisely because purported authority figures have delivered the message and our mass media continuously reinforces it with as much sensationalism as possible.
And few among the billions so readily duped even for a moment realize they’re actively participating in self-harm.
The voice of reason is easily silenced, and thereafter flows only the babble of folly.