The Risk-Monger

Last month’s Paris Climate Conference (COP 21) was an exemplary moment in the history of stupid. A dismal failure, the much anticipated climate event did not produce any binding treaty, any strategy to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and its toothless “non-adversarial and non-punitive” accord essentially put climate decisions on the back-burner until after 2050. Rather than facing another humiliating defeat, the NGOs put their PR machines into overdrive, dancing in the streets celebrating what they called the beginning of the end of fossil fuels! This is a prime illustration of what I call “commonality” – the deceitful manufacturing of reality to create a perception that everyone agrees with your strategic message. Previously it was called brainwashing or propaganda; in the activist Age of Stupid, it is considered as “advocacy”.

“Commonality” is the fifth chapter in this serial on How to Deal with Stupid that started with a definition of stupid as a self-contained belief system based on an erroneous paradigm, but through manipulation on social media, has created a religious fervour that allows its tenets to withstand logic and rational discourse. The last chapter looked at how very clever consultants have designed an Activist Playbook that allows stupid to dominate policy debates in Brussels and Washington.

Today we are “sold” ideas like they are products, marketed to us under a certain form of perception-moulding – manipulative tricks to make you think that everyone agrees. This is commonality and with the rise of personalised communications tools like social media, the malleability of intellectual influence has never been so easy. Commonality involves telling a lie and repeating it widely through a variety of channels until its veracity is no longer challenged and its ridiculousness assumes an aire of common knowledge. Part of the skill behind commonality is limiting dialogue and debate (after all, we all agree!) to preserve stupid by keeping it unchallenged.

As a communications posturing, commonality allows stupid to seem the norm, ubiquitous and coming across as common sense; but make no mistake: well-constructed wordsmithing aside, commonality can be very far from common sense. In fabricating a belief that something is obvious and unavoidable, universally supported and in dire need of urgent action, the goal of commonality is to snuff out any further dialogue, research or rational debate. The goal of commonality is to nip common sense in the bud and persuade people to accept things that can defy rationality.

Some of the main features of commonality:

  • Built around a central fear: In Parts 3 and 4 of this series, we saw how fear of some Armageddon event would mobilise people to seek urgent solutions (ie, rush to a decision because the alternative is just too unthinkable). Climate change, widespread cancers, mass sterilisation, vaccine poisoning, GMO-bred diseases … fear creates the glue for commonality to thrive. Often these fears are built on a strange neo-scapegoatism – that science, technology, progress and industry greed are to blame for these problems (and hence the simplistic solutions).
  • On which we all agree: Part of manufacturing an impression of agreement is the formulation of the collective “We”. We, who love the planet, good health, children … all agree that this is the way forward. The activist wordsmithing is brilliant PR (see any web-page): the collective “we” is always in the right, and the deep, dark “they” refers to the polluters or ill-motivated. The answers are simplified and the alternatives vilified. Some examples: We all want to preserve the planet for future generations! We all want to preserve health and a better quality of life! We all agree that we need to stop all pesticide use to save the bees! In all these cases, only a paid industry shill would argue otherwise.
  • That we must act now: Since we all agree that something must be done is, in itself, inadequate to motivate action (everyone in my home agrees that I should clean my desk), a sense of urgency must be created. This stands behind the Armageddon theory. If we all agree that climate change threatens our ability to survive on the planet, then we must act immediately to abandon fossil fuels (even if renewables are not yet viable alternatives).
  • The time for dialogue is over: If we all agree, then there is no further need for discussion or research. Anyone who would question the results of some activist-funded study or consider other studies will be shamed as an idiot, a corporate shill or someone who needs to just be made quiet. Dialogue is not welcome in a policy framework where activists are pushing for action. Shutting down further discourse is a flanking measure to avoid potential threats or challenging evidence, and the more decisions are delayed (as in the case of endocrine disruption regulations in the EU) the more offensive the activists get.
  • Together, we are a force for good: There is a normative undertone to commonality: that the strategic action is the right thing to do (implying that those resisting it are wrong, morally). A community united as a force for good battling evil gives comfort to the commonality rhetoric. Fighting to ban GMOs is associated with the good fight (protecting human health and even the potential for humans to exist) and a moral righteousness in defending the common good. Biotech companies have been vilified and, like most other industries, likened to Big Tobacco.

We see commonality at work on debates over climate change, endocrine disruption and public health concerns (vaccines, e-cigarettes, pharmaceuticals and food additives), as well as campaigns against certain chemicals, GMOs, plastics and pesticides where the need to get people to believe perceptions when evidence may be weak is essential to propagating a campaign. Of course, as a manipulative communications tool, commonality is also at work in socio-political debates like abortion, gun control and human rights as well as international political theories, global crises, religious conflicts and, of course, the propaganda during the build-up of war preparations. To get to the roots of commonality, we should study its founder.

Telling really big lies: Goebbels 101

The master of commonality was the German Nazi Minister of Propaganda, Joseph Goebbels. I shudder to think what Goebbels would have been able to have achieved if he had opened a Facebook account for Adolf Hitler! Probably the same level of perception domination (propaganda), just much faster and more efficiently. Goebbels had used commonality in the 1930s to get the German population to unite out of fear and a perception of imminent crisis and then willingly participate in a fanatic, devotional absurdity. This provides the best case study for commonality not only as the most efficient communications and PR manager of the 20th century, but also because Goebbels had so openly spoken about the value of communications (then referred to as “propaganda”) to mould spirit and character, control the media and rally the simple-minded. In today’s vernacular: he unleashed stupid on a scale never seen before.

Cinema was the emerging communications technology of the day and Goebbels saw how to manipulate this tool to impress a core socio-political religion on the population. His diaries regularly criticised films that had either missed opportunities to persuade, or had gone over the top. The general public had not yet understood how cinema could be used to exploit emotions or tell fictional stories (much like many today do not yet realise the malleability of facts that social media confers). When one watches propaganda films like Triumph des Willens, there is a sense of a greater “we” all supporting a call to action (commonality). Again, from his diaries, Goebbels marvelled at how, with the right clips from Hitler’s speeches showing the perfect gestures, he could limitlessly present a perception of power and trust. This perception-moulding allowed him to create a believable impression of a short, dark-haired, beady-eyed Austrian as the leader of the German Aryan race.

Goebbels knew how to use commonality to embrace and build stupid. In January, 1928, during a speech to Nazi party members, he stated: The point of a political speech is to persuade people of what we think right. …We do not want to be a movement of a few straw brains, but rather a movement that can conquer the broad masses. Propaganda should be popular, not intellectually pleasing. It is not the task of propaganda to discover intellectual truths.” Like today’s environmental-health social media gurus, facts and truths are not important but rather, success could be found using the right emotional images to capture the simple-minded to follow your agenda. While Goebbels apparently had never said: “If you tell a big enough lie and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it”, the above quote paraphrases its essence.

In a diary entry dated 16 October 1928, Goebbels identified the need to present the key messages as a religion (much like the eco-religious agenda we looked at in Part 3 of this series):National Socialism is a religion. All we lack is a religious genius capable of uprooting outmoded religious practices and putting new ones in their place. We lack traditions and ritual. One day soon National Socialism will be the religion of all Germans.” We now have the environmental traditions and rituals and the communications tools to spread them – what Goebbels recognised as essential for establishing a new religion.

Goebbels’ contempt for intellectuals (those who questioned or challenged his propaganda) was channelled into his hatred of the Jews, identifying them as the source of corruption, lies and weakness of character. All of the seeds of commonality can be seen in this “Us” vs “Them” hysteria he had been planting in anti-Semitic speeches during the 1930s. While the horrific consequences of the Nazi campaigns against the Jewish people, gypsies, other minorities and those with special needs cannot be compared to any other atrocity in human history, Goebbels’ communications techniques have been copied and iterated and are very much in use in today’s commonality campaigns.

With social media, the ability to transform perceptions and provide untethered belief frames, false fears and an unwavering commitment to act on simplistic solutions has become far easier and more efficient than the emerging communications tools in 1930s Europe. Replacing Goebbels anti-Semitic, anti-intellectual vocabulary with terms reflecting the anti-pharmaceutical, anti-scientific rhetoric from today’s social media gurus, and we can unfortunately find horrifyingly similar Goebbelian propaganda in the texts of David “Avocado” Wolfe or “Health Ranger” Mike Adams. This is why the widespread use of commonality by such activist campaigners frightens me – it diminishes academic and intellectual discussion, removes the need for evidence and undermines dialogue.

Goebbels used communications tools that submitted stupid to horrendous consequences. We need to stop being intellectually polite about historical taboos and study his techniques in order to learn how to prevent commonality from exploiting public understanding, dialogue and rational decision-making. With social media tools allowing a far greater ease of perception fabrication, we cannot pretend that history would not repeat itself. To be excessively blunt: Commonality is a fascist communications tool of deception, widely implemented today by environmental activist campaigners.

How to break the chain of commonality

How did Goebbels get away with such audacity? How are Wolfe and Adams succeeding today, and what can be done about it? One of the challenges with commonality is that by painting an impression that we all agree, standing up and disagreeing becomes a courageous act. Most people don’t care and don’t bother to stand up to rhetorical communications campaigns, branding them as stupid and walking away. The small vocal minority can then create a perception of inevitability – an unintellectual confidence to challenge the status quo. When Vani Hari unleashes her “Food Babe Army” on frightened corporate brand managers, giving in seems to be the easiest solution. Commonality is thus reinforced and invigorated for the next attack.

What if the silent majority stands up, pops the bubble of commonality and challenges the rhetoric and lies postured by these communications gurus? What if these armies of activists had a light shone on their stupidity? What if policy-makers were less afraid and more genuine, rather than merely expedient and hiding behind cowardly policy props like precaution? Those who have had courage to stand up to the moronic marauders have been isolated and pay the price of relentless personal attacks (Kevin Folta’s character assassination comes to mind here).

There needs to be a coordinated evidence-based reaction to the propagandists (there are some signs of that forming in the US but nothing of significance in Europe). Often these reactionaries resort to mocking or insulting the activist gurus (which could be associated with a form of defeatism) until they are inevitably banned from such sites (a commonality self-preservation reflex). More than that, there needs to be a widespread reaction from the silent majority against stupid. I know I often see friends of mine on Facebook sharing activist or ridiculous claims from the social media gurus, and I ask myself: “Should I correct them?” Often I decide not to, to be polite, and let stupid be content with itself – battling a personal belief of a naïve individual is just too hard. I myself recognise that I have to be more courageous since my offensiveness is nothing compared to the danger of those propagating such lies.

Commonality’s strength is its ability to deceive. It presents the view of a few as a force of the many, aware that most people are placid and uninterested. Revolutions are led, not by majorities, but by the impassioned. There were no large armies arriving with Lenin at the Finland Station or with Daesh mercenaries attacking Mosul, just opportunists able to manipulate perceptions and exploit commonality. In environmental health debates, the manipulation involves a moralistic sanctimony (saving lives and saving the planet), giving the guru campaigners a benevolent transcendence. This allows for an irrational tolerance for half-truths and emotional anecdotes. Such commonality is very hard to unravel with a few courageous scientists.

A good part of this ten-part series has been motivated on the need to find the right tools to break the chain of commonality. I have been writing and speaking on this over the last five years and am aware of how challenging this is – stupid is not only cunning, it is also tenacious.

Over the last decade, following the financial crises and the deepest global recession since the 1930s, perhaps the greatest commonality perception has only recently been propagated: that industry, science and business are the chief sources of the problems we face today and do not deserve to be treated as legitimate. This neo-scapegoatism started as a ragtag group of anti-globalisation cranks throwing stones at WTO and G7 meetings, but then found their opportunity to mainstream following the Occupy Wall Street movement and today are using this leverage to denormalise industry and have the voice of innovation and job creation removed from civic dialogue. Stupid thrives in a vacuum where rational voices are excluded.

The denormalisation of industry and science is the next chapter in this series on How to Deal with Stupid.

Table of contents

  1. Defining Stupid
  2. Social Media: Where stupid learns to fly
  3. The New Religion: Eco-fundamentalists and the natural bias
  4. The Activist Playbook: Understanding how clever stupid can be
  5. Commonality: Shutting down dialogue and engagement
  6. The Denormalisation of Industry: The challenge of eco-topian idealism
  7. Post-normal Science: Inviting stupid to the policy table
  8. Nudging: The dangers of a sanctimonious choice architecture
  9. Passivists: Waking up the non-involved majority
  10. How to Deal with Stupid


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