Shaping The Public Good

A popular view today – that is to say, the prevailing view held by those in positions of power and influence – is ‘that contemporary Western society and more especially, the “American way of life” corresponds to the deepest needs of human nature and that adjustment to this way means mental health and maturity.’ Thus warned the psychologist and social critic Erich Fromm in his classic 1955 book, The Sane Society. A cursory examination of the popular media today reveals that the same prevailing wisdom reigns supreme. Immediately following September 11, the public were being urged by Bush and Blair to get out into the malls and high streets and consume like never before.

All of this is no accident. The current BBC2 series, The Century of the Self, examines how the bending of social psychology to state-corporate imperatives has disciplined the public mind rather effectively. Edward Bernays, the father of what is euphemistically termed the ‘public relations’ industry – in reality, a powerful engine generating propaganda that enables the ‘engineering of consent’ – put it bluntly: ‘intelligent minorities’ should ‘mold the mind of the masses’, thus ‘regimenting the public mind every bit as much as an army regiments the bodies of its soldiers.’ And the result? As Erich Fromm warned, our perceptions have thereby been moulded to regard the world as ‘one great object for our appetite, a big apple, a big bottle, a big breast; we are the sucklers, the eternally expectant ones, the hopeful ones – and the eternally disappointed ones.’ Therein lies the necessary basis for the rampant success of global consumer capitalism. The myth that capitalism and democracy are interlinked is again a success of the power of propaganda. The liberal journalist Walter Lippman – along with Bernays, a member of the US Committee on Public Information in the 1920s – revealed his true colours when he wrote that the general public are ‘ignorant and meddlesome outsiders’ who should be mere ‘spectators of action’, apart from periodic choice among the ‘responsible men’. The dangerous tendency of participatory democracy, in which ‘the masses promised to become king’, could thus be overcome by a system of representative democracy, in which ‘responsible men’ take the important decisions for us.

The humanist theologian Albert Schweitzer once warned that what passes for public opinion ‘is maintained by the press, by propaganda, by organization, and by financial and other influences which are at its disposal.’ Any debate that purports to address the ‘public good’ but that does not recognise the factors that shape how the public good is defined, has so skewed the terms of discussion that it runs the risk of rattling around in a vacuum. This was the fate that befell the Royal Society-sponsored public debate that took place this March at the Tate Modern in London on ‘Art, Science and the Public Good’. Perhaps unsurprisingly, no one on the panel was able to define satisfactorily what was meant by ‘art’ or ‘science’ or ‘the public good’, far less elucidate the links between them. The destructive role of the mass media, shaped by elite state-corporate interests and thus characterised by a systemic incapacity for informing the public of the true state of society, was completely overlooked.

Some sharp points were nonetheless made. One of the panellists, Guardian columnist and environmental campaigner George Monbiot, reminded us of the controversial decision by Nottingham University in December 2000 to accept £3.8m from British and American Tobacco (BAT) to open a centre for ‘corporate social responsibility’. It was a classic example, he pointed out, of the systemic corruption of corporate funding. Science and society are in crisis. A gradual narrowing in the scope of scientific research could render science as the ‘guard dogs at the gates of perception’, warned Monbiot. ‘Scientific research could be the quest for seeing “what we might be”, rather than just “what we are”. It could be the casting of a line into the abyss, where lots of different bait must be used simply because there is no knowing what kind of fish are out there.’ Monbiot concluded: ‘An open quest for knowledge would need research to be free of preconceptions and constraints.’ The influence of funding – attached strings, expectations, social context – inevitably causes a bias, sometimes even a corruption, in research priorities. US historian Howard Zinn explains it thus: ‘To work on a real problem (like how to eliminate poverty in a nation producing eight hundred billion dollars’ worth of wealth each year) one would have to follow that problem across many disciplinary lines without qualm, dealing with historical materials, economic theories, political obstacles’. Zinn continues: ‘Specialisation ensures that one cannot follow a problem through from start to finish. It ensures the functioning in the academy of the system’s dictum: divide and rule.’ He provides a potent example: ‘Note how little work is done in political science on the tactics of social change. Both students and teacher deal with theory and reality in separate courses; the compartmentalisation safely neutralises them.’ In biology, political ideology has played a part in directing research agendas away from key concepts such as symbiosis, or even whole subjects such as ecology, towards a narrower vision of research into the ‘vital processes’ of life – those relating to genes. In a new book, Liaisons of Life, biologist Tom Wakeford shows how the powerful influence of the world’s biggest funder of biological research, the New York-based Rockefeller Foundation, ‘has created a generation of senior bio-scientists most of whom have little idea of the organismical, ecological, social and political contexts in which genes work.’ On the same day as the Royal Society debate at the Tate, The Times (London) usefully revealed that ‘smokers enjoy their cigarettes more, with a drink’. The report entitled ‘Nicotine plus drink a double pleasure’, described new research at Howard University in Washington DC showing that when alcohol and nicotine are taken together, the amount of the pleasure-inducing chemical, dopamine (released by the brain when stimulated by alcohol or nicotine) is released in enhanced quantities, more than would be expected simply from their cumulative effect.

It is thus now a scientific ‘fact’ that smokers enjoy double the pleasure when having a cigarette with a drink. But what is the funding public to make of this? Should we feel secure in the knowledge that combined drinking and smoking is a synergistic phenomenon, in which the whole is greater than the sum of the parts? Do the research findings somehow ‘legitimise’ smoking and drinking (how convenient for the manufacturers concerned). Or should we relegate them to an amusing fact to tell our mates down the pub only for them to retort: ‘They didn’t need to fund scientists to the tune of thousands of pounds just to tell me something I knew already!’ In other words, how does such research benefit society if it is neither of practical use nor intrinsic interest? And why waste valuable newspaper space to tell us? Is it not all a distraction from the real issues that a newspaper would routinely cover in a healthy and dynamic society?

If the mission of biological research is ‘to improve human and animal health’, as Clare Matheson of the Wellcome Trust put it in the Tate debate, then why are animals still being tortured on factory farms, when research has shown that they do indeed feel intense pain? A defining feature of modern farming methods, according to campaigning group Compassion in World Farming (CiWF), is ‘intensive husbandry systems [which] frustrate animals’ behavioural needs and often lead to serious physical disorders and pain’. For example, battery-farm chickens are typically kept five to a cage, unable to walk around, build a nest or even spread their wings. They often suffer broken bones in the cramped conditions. Pig rearing is little better: most pigs never see the light of day nor have access to fresh air, and are packed together in barren, concrete-floored pens. One of the most distressing examples of cruelty to farm animals is the selective breeding for faster or larger growth, which ‘has led to painful leg problems in chickens and degenerative hip disorders in turkeys and to cows carrying such huge udders that their back legs are forced outwards, causing lameness’. According to John Webster, Professor of Animal Husbandry at the University of Bristol, ‘the chronic pain suffered by millions of broiler chickens [reared for their meat] must constitute the most severe example of man’s inhumanity to another sentient creature’. CiWF summarises with an understatement: ‘It is difficult to give general approval to any system of husbandry that relies on painful mutilations to sustain the system’. As George Monbiot once wrote: ‘Agony is the resting state of the modern dairy cow.’

And why in the west is there more and more human suffering from stress, anxiety, depression and ill health? Is it not our mission – as scientists, artists, indeed as members of ‘the public’ – to change the world for the better, to reduce human and animal suffering? If the answer is ‘yes’ – as it surely must be in a truly thriving, mature culture – why are so few people seriously addressing the pressing issues of global climate change, social injustice, exploitation and death by curable diseases (to name but just a few key topics)? The hint of an answer can be found every day in the newspapers. Consider another article in The Times on the same day as the debate at the Tate; a ‘news’ item that tempted the reader with the headline: ‘Isle of Wight find is a monster clue to Europe’s past’. The report described a bird-like predatory dinosaur (accompanied by artist’s impression) ‘which lived 120 million years ago; its presence in Europe was unknown until now’. This is intrinsically interesting, even fascinating. But there are surely more urgent findings that should be addressed in a daily newspaper. Even to raise this topic – of why particular stories make the headlines, while others don’t – is to lift the lid on our ‘free press’: our valiant ‘watchdogs of democracy’.

Take the UN economic sanctions, maintained at the vigorous behest of US and UK politicians, that have resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of children in Iraq. This is a matter of pressing urgency, and something that ought to be addressed prominently in the daily press. The media’s role, editors and journalists would have us believe, is to serve the public and provide information that allows individuals to make up their own minds about world events. As Richard Sambrook, the BBC’s director of news, puts it: ‘we believe that the provision of independent and impartial news is a fundamental part of a free society and the democratic process.’ Would that the BBC performed its publicly-declared aim! The public deserves to be trusted with uncomfortable findings, especially where such findings reveal our own government’s complicity in mass abuses of human rights. And what about the art component of ‘Art, science and the public good’? Art, claimed one member of the audience at the Tate Modern, can be described as a depiction of the world in which we live, with a philosophical reflection upon that world. This links art with science, as in both there are preconceptions that are likely to determine the result: indeed, quantum physics teaches us that the experimenter is part of the experiment. How might publicly-funded science and art better ‘serve’ the public? What is the ‘value’ of scientific research and art, to the public? Don’t both offer a valuable means of expanding perceptions amongst all of us: scientists and non-scientists, artists and non-artists: namely, everyone in society? Doesn’t contemplating both the Crab Nebula and Vincent van Gogh’s paintings of a corn field excite the same sense of wonder and exhilaration that expand the sense of what it feels to be human? As Monbiot noted correctly, both experiences pluck the same ‘heart strings’. Instead, too much art today is self-knowing, sneering and superficial, with one eye on the marketplace and the other on fickle trends. David Rodway, a lecturer in art and philosophy who was in the audience at the Tate debate, is one of a group of artists and academics ‘protesting against the shallow and facile nature of contemporary art fashions, which, far from being challenging and cutting-edge, unknowingly recycle the flawed values and assumptions of capitalism and commercialism’. The group, known as Action to Transform Art & Culture (ATAC), point to ‘discoveries stemming from the 20th century modernist revolution and its forebears [that] provide the means to develop the language-like potential of visual statement, and hence to express sophisticated ideas and comment absent from present art styles’. These radical artists and academics cogently point out that the ‘success’ of the global capitalism project contains, via endless growth on a finite planet, the seeds of its own destruction: ‘nothing fails like success’. As Rodway sums up: ‘Only a fundamental paradigm change to an ecological way of seeing, based on interdependence, not [Cartesian] division, can avert global catastrophe, and achieve a sustainable, emancipated and enlightened world’.

Although the Tate discussion of ‘the public good’ was woefully inadequate, for the reasons mentioned earlier, there was a useful exchange on the need to link art and science to social science and philosophy: to utilise challenging concepts from all these fields in an attempt to expand the hermeneutic horizon, rather than accepting passivity, compliance and inaction through commercially directed art and research. Such ideas have a long and venerable history. Johann Amos Comenius (1592-1670), the Czech theologian and educational reformer, emphasised that cultural life in any community is, or should be, a continuous path of learning. Art and science can undoubtedly teach us a great number of things about ourselves and our relationship with the wider cosmos, and have the potential to expand our horizons to new concepts and paths of perception. This has to be part of the definition of genuine ‘public good’.

Comenius believed in a ‘Universal College’ for the advancement of the whole of humankind. To recognise that behind the mask which every one of us bears is a unique human being, is a fundamental lesson for everyone. Comenius hoped that wisdom and learning would bring peace and mutual understanding, and would ensure that all the members of a community have the freedom and opportunity to realise his or her intrinsic human potential. It’s a message that bears repeating in this modern era of ‘pragmatism’, cynicism and saturation consumerist propaganda.

Mia Jarlov is a freelance writer and a student of journalism. David Cromwell is the co-editor of Media Lens (sign up for free media alerts at http://www.MediaLens.org) and the author of ‘Private Planet’ ( http://www.private-planet.com )

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