Totalitarian Communications

Kecskemeti, Paul 1950. Totalitarian Communications as a Means of Control: A Note on the Sociology of Propaganda. The Public Opinion Quarterly 14(2): 224-234.

Although a public opinion as we understand it cannot exist in totalitarian states, its place is taken by an official image of the world expressed through the media of mass communications. The individual may not believe this image to be true, and indeed often tries to look beyond it, since he sees it as an effort of the bureaucracy to control him. Nevertheless, he usually is forced to accept it, partly for want of something better and partly because of the power he knows stands behind it. For in the totalitarian state both safety and advancement depend upon conformity, and the mass media provide the model with which the individual has to conform. (Kecskemeti 1950: 224)
Wise words. Image of the world - reality. Force to accept this reality - coercion (the act of compelling by force of authority). Conformity - Compliance with standards, rules, or laws.
The mass media of communication in the totalitarian state reflect, instead, a controlled and carefully fashioned body of opinion. This constitutes the only kind of opinion that can and does become public in such states; and we are concerned in this article with the nature and function of this kind of "public opinion." What is the purpose and effect of maintaining a steady flow of severely expurgated and uniformly angled opinion? The term "opinion" is understood, in this context, in a very wide sense; we mean by it the total content of the public communication stream, including fact statements and explanatory, evaluative, speculative and hortatory statements, as well as the messages conveyed by non-verbal sound and imagery. (Kecskemeti 1950: 225)
Today this doesn't seem to apply anymore, as the intrnet enables anyone to express their opinions "publicly" on the world wide web. It has rather become a matter of which opinions the state apparatus or government espouses or supports. It is relevant that in 1950 the nonverbal sphere was already considered.
After power has been consolidated, a new phenomenon sets in: the control of the total public flow of communication, the manipulation of the entire content of publicly transmitted symbols. This includes factual information and authoritative orders to the citizenry, sometimes that is more than mere propaganda. Our subject is the monopolistically controlled field of mass communication as a whole, a speficically totalitarian phenomenon which is inseparable from propaganda but reaches beyond it. (Kecskemeti 1950: 226)
Yup, in the age of information technology it is certainly much more difficult to control the "total public flow of communication".
The image of the world, publicly created day in and day out in the mass communication media, represents an ideal of conformist thinking. The image itself is not wholly controlled by the image-makers; it is partly controlled by reality, in that many facts must be acknowledged whether they be favorable, unfavorable, or neutral from the point of view of the rulers. (Kecskemeti 1950: 226)
What I call "dystopian consciousness" is exactly the opposite - a doubt in the prevailing image of the world. That is, nonconformist thinking thrives on doubt and suspicion.
What is the social function performed by this canonic, official image of the world? It is rather generally believed, I think, that this tailored world image is presented for the sake of its suggestive effect. According to this theory, the important thing in public opinion control is the suggestive effect of constantly repeated stimuli: what you say often enough will in the end come to be believed. Thus, according to this view, the main function of the control of mass communications is the administrating of stimuli automatically evoking the desired responses, that is, conforming attitudes and beliefs. (Kecskemeti 1950: 226)
Sounds like Huxley's hypnopædia.
Repetition may generate assent, but it also may generate frustration, boredom and rebelliousness. Whatever stimuli is repeated without letup gradually becomes devalued. The prescribed phrases and arguments thus may become meaningless; the individual dismisses them from attention and looks instead for what is new and significant, for some minute departure from the norm, for anything that disturbs the pattern. (Kecskemeti 1950: 227)
In the first instance I'm reminded of the psycholinguistic study of semantic saturation: when a word is repeated very fast it becomes meaningless; and secondly of dystopian nonverbalism: looking out for any irregularity and unorthodoxy to discern thoughcriminals and the like.
This phenomenon will become more understandable if we reflect on the psychology of the communication process. A communication cannot be viewed as an isolated stimulus automatically evoking a certain response. The surrounding circumstances [context] make an enormous difference insofar as the response is concerned. It we want to predict the response, we have to consider not only the content of the stimulus (what the communication asserts), but also the predispositions of the recipient and the perceived role and nature of the source. One of the most important questions, in connection with this last-named variable, is whether the source of a communication to me is perceived as a person whom I know and trust, or as somebody having no person-to-person tie with me. In the former case, I shall very probably accept the communication as truth; in the latter, belief will depend on my image of the basic motivation of the source. if the source's perceived role is that of a mere purveyor of information who has otherwise no axe to grind, I am likely to accept the content of his communication matter-of-factly, without an urge to look beyond. If I see the source as a human being expressing a spontaneous opinion, I shall take that opinion simply as something with which I agree or do not agree, and if I wish I can freely acknowledge the source as an authority whose views, as views, carry weight for me. But if the role of the source includes elements extraneous [outside power] to the supplying of facts or views - e.g. if I see him as interested in maintaining a power position in which I do not share - then a barrier will be set up between him and me, and I cannot spontaneously internalize his message. (Kecskemeti 1950: 227-228)
Important stuff, although mostly concerned with the verbal.
The totalitarian communication alone is part of the public world [of a totalitarian society], while rumors, personal thoughts, and person-to-person communications are private, atomized and fleeting. As far as the individual citizen knows, he may be the only one who has "seen through" some official report. Where all facts are more or less uncertain, the official version, which is ubiquitous, is the only thing that can be accepted as a substitute for certainty. (Kecskemeti 1950: 231)
This is a near-perfect description of Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four, with the exception of personal thoughts and person-to-person communication being constantly monitored by the telescreens.
The end effect is often something like this: since it is obviously impossible to contradict, I had better not struggle against this all-powerful stream of communication; I shall accept it just for the record. (Kecskemeti 1950: 231)
This is exactly what one can feel at a university lecture. Because the lecture is a "totalitarian situation" (in the sense that everyone is accorded a role and the interaction is rigidly structured) it is difficult if not impossible to contradict the lecture-giver. Even if your argument is good and others see that you're making a valid point, it is ultimately the lecturers truth that prevails and going against it merely ruptures the normal course of the lecture. It is much simples to just taken in whatever bullshit the lecturer is spewing rather than contradicting him or her and killing your own grade. All too often this is why I receive average grades where I would deserve better. Oh how I wish academic courses could be more like working group discussions instead of monologues (yet many tries have shown that Estonians are not very fond of group discussions).
It has often been remarked that totalitarian propaganda was effective because it was backed by power. The fact that a unique, standard image of the world is constantly maintained without the possibility of contradiction is itself sign of an immense concentration of power. Apart from this, the individual citizen has many other cues indicating that the state apparatus can crush him if he antagonizes it in any way. Conformism is the only way to maximize safety (unless one belongs to ostracized groups which are doomed anyway), and one of the most important ways of showing conformism consists in echoing the official line and living up to it in every respect. (Kecskemeti 1950: 232)
Goothinkful duckspeak.
Thus, every citizen is vitally interested in keeping abreast of the official line laid down in mass communications; nobody can afford to ignore it. It seems to me that providing information about what utterances and actions are considered "loyal" and "disloyal" respectively is the most important function of the totalitarian, standardized stream of communications. It does, after all, satisfy a vital need. This is not, to be sure, the need to "know the facts," or to hear opinions with which one can spontaneously agree, but the need to know what words and acts are supposed to be loyal. This public image functions as a sort of objectivized, de-privatized conscience. As such, it becomes an integral part of the motivation pattern of the individual. (Kecskemeti 1950: 232)
The facial expressions of "quiet optimism" and "grim enjoyment" are part of this "vital interest", as it is a nonverbal display of loyalty and serves the important function of not appearing to be a thoughtcriminal.
By acting as a public conscience, the standard image of the world does, in the end, influence intimate attitudes. The mechanism by which it does this is not, as I have tried to show, simple suggestion, but a more complex play upon motives and expectations. Since there is every possible inducement to be loyal, the individual wishes to be loyal, and combats his own disbelief and disgruntlement. This leads ot the suppression of experiences contrasting with the public image and to an acceptance of all those aspects of the public image which can be squared with the individual's own intimate values. (Kecskemeti 1950: 233)
E.g. doublethink.
The anti-highbrow content of both Nazy and Soviet "public opinion" is an instance of this. Whenever possible, the totalitarian exponents of this public opinion present themselves as mouthpieces of the general will, and of the general taste. (Kecskemeti 1950: 233)
I am reminded of how in Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 the burning of the books is explained away as the public's will - because smokers didn't like books about cancer, they were destroyed, etc.
Where the gap between public and private conscience is too wide, the individual can perform publicly as an automaton and take refuge in apathy or in rebellious thoughts. Otherwise, he will adjust himself to his public conscience as well as he can. (Kecskemeti 1950: 233)
This is what Winston does.


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