More from Stuart Green’s thesis, The Problem of Cognitive Warfare, this time from chapter 3.
The Discourse and the Cognitive Offensive
Any discussion of the cognitive offensive must begin with a discussion of the discourse, for it is the accepted discourse cognitive warriors see as the strategic target. Limited to the issue or conflict at hand, the discourse may be considered a relatively small memeplex that finds its anchor in larger environmental memeplexes such as culture, religion, prevailing academic paradigms, economic traditions etc. It can, however, be manipulated by outside influences through transparent, open debate, or a protracted information campaign that makes skillful use of propaganda, violence, and knowledge of the adversary’s environmental vulnerabilities. The degree to which the accepted discourse is vulnerable to destruction from the outside depends on the nature of the contributing environmental factors.
Information and “Information”—The Accepted Discourse. It is important here to discuss the transformation of information into “information.” There must be a careful distinction between information meant to persuade and “information” meant to persuade. That is, there must be a way to differentiate between “information” cynically distributed for effect and information—less the quotation marks—distributed for effect but believed by its propagators to be true and free of exaggeration, regardless of the reality.
One could argue, for instance, that the Palestinians’ uttered beliefs are no more propaganda than those of many Jewish settlers who feel a strong emotional and historical connection to the land. Nonetheless, in the context of cognitive warfare and the pressing need for persuasion, there comes a point at which information ceases to be the heartfelt, honest articulation of one’s views. Disconnected from the desire for expression or articulation and no longer parallel to the propagator’s perception of the truth, it emulates propaganda in the traditional, pejorative sense and may be considered an engineered, infectious meme.
As time wears on and the conflict’s rhetoric intensifies, propaganda may pull away from empirical and perceived truths. Its propagators, seeking to shift the intellectual locus of legitimacy, attempt to obscure empirical truth by supplanting it with a “new” truth—in other words, manipulation and deception. Brodie offered the Trojan horse and repetition—discussed briefly in chapter three—as just two means by which minds may be deceptively changed. The more successful the campaign, the more acceptable debate peels off the empirical truth, hopefully, from the propagator’s perspective, without the constituents knowing.
The passage of time and the growing intensity of propaganda increase the gap between the acceptable discourse and the empirical truth, which gradually becomes lost or obscured. In the most extreme scenarios, the gap between the empirical truth and acceptable discourse grows so large that the former is perceived as extreme or unlikely.
Figure 1: Changing the Accepted Discourse 1
In their campaign to expose “alternative” points of view, for instance, Holocaust deniers have benefited from time’s passage and the death of most survivors. As the evidence literally dies off and memories fade, the idea that far fewer Jews died during World War II seems less extreme and therefore more acceptable, particularly when that idea is pitched as a moderate alternative to the notion that the Holocaust never happened. In fact, Holocaust denial is a common theme in the Muslim world (see chapter seven). It presents a major memetic threat to Israel’s legitimacy in international eyes, as much support for the state’s existence is predicated on the Holocaust and the perceived, tenuous survivability of the Jewish race.
The different types of information do not always begin in unison, however. It may be that “information” exists apart from the empirical truth and accepted discourse in the beginning, but historical events or the independent evolution of the accepted discourse draw the public debate closer to propaganda. Some have argued, for instance, that Israel’s astounding 1967 victory marked the beginning of the end for Israel’s positive press coverage. Stephanie Gutmann describes a Life magazine special edition celebrating that victory:
The color photo on the cover was a close-up of a young IDF soldier, still in uniform and holding his rifle, who has just emerged dripping from a dip in the Suez Canal—which is where Israeli troops ended a ninety-hour drive across the Sinai Peninsula. It is an exhilarating picture…. Any photographic close-up is an invitation to identify with the subject of the picture, and this is a picture that invites the viewer to savor this IDF victory.
The text of the magazine seemed “to be crowing with aesthetic appreciation for [the Israelis’] great soldiering…” and more significantly, assigned responsibility for the Arabs’ and Palestinians’ plight to the Arabs and Palestinians themselves.
Gutmann argues that such positive coverage is comparatively scarce today. By selectively using passive voice, journalists have eliminated the Arabs as actors and transferred responsibility for the ongoing strife to Israel. Headlines such as, “Car bomb near Israeli bus kills at least 14,” and, “Suicide bombing kills 14 in Jerusalem,” contrast with, “Israeli strike kills at least 12 in Gaza,” and, “Israeli tank fire kills 4 in Jenin.” Gutmann states:
In one set of headlines, ‘bombs’ seem to explode themselves and kill Israelis, while in the second set, “Israelis” very clearly kill Palestinians…. Throughout the second intifada, Israel just kept doing things—firing guns, imposing checkpoints, making laws, adjudicating cases, and so on. But in response to what? …a map based on news coverage would have shown the state of Israel drawn in speed-addict obsessive detail sitting next to a mostly empty blob titled “Terra Incognita” or maybe “Here Be Palestinians.”
The paradigm assigning moral legitimacy to the weaker power remains relatively unchanged. But in the ensuing decades after 1967, particularly after the 1982 war, Israel’s strength and the West Bank and Gaza occupations deprived the fledgling state of its favored underdog status. Pundits hotly debate the consequences of Israeli actions and the state’s degree of responsibility for strife, but these questions probably entered the public discourse because of the change in historical positions, not because of an increase in Israeli transgressions.
Figure 2: Changing the Accepted Discourse 2
The cognitive dissonance caused by historical shifts cast doubt onto the acceptance of Israel’s favored status. The psychological disorientation ultimately dislodged the discourse and made it more susceptible to the efforts of propagandists, who advertised revolutionary ideals and the valiant, morally righteous struggle of the underdog. That is, they offered cognitions that were psychologically comfortable and did not require the radical deconstruction of an old paradigm, which Israel’s newfound strength and continued moral legitimacy might have done.
It should be noted, however, that this process is never clean or simple. The change in Israel’s favored status likely stemmed from several factors, not the least of which is the natural, independent evolution of public discourse. The politically correct intellectual environment, for instance, has played a major role in the Israel’s evolving moral stature, but it did not develop because of events specific to Israel. Because political correctness has only gained prominence within the last few decades, its influence on the public discourse is coincidental with post 1967 events. Historical events, therefore, do not occur in a vacuum, but the context of environmental paradigms that are also changing.
In the end, a variety of factors will determine how the entrepreneur attempts to alter the accepted discourse, either his own or the enemy’s. The factors include, but are not limited to the target group’s literacy rate, proclivity for conspiracy theories, preexisting sympathy for the cause, the level of group fervor, and the effectiveness of enemy counter-propaganda campaigns. The campaign must be properly framed, of course. Arab-Muslims in general, for instance, are not particularly predisposed to believing Israeli sources, thus Arab Muslim identity entrepreneurs have a freer hand in being “creative” with their own material without fear of repercussion or repudiation.