Monday, May 16, 2011

Studies in Prejudice: Prophets of Deceit (3 of 6)

Leo Löwenthal and Norbert Guterman, Prophets of Deceit: A Study of the Techniques of the American Agitator (1949)
Radio demagogue Father Charles Coughlin (1897-1979)

Löwenthal and Guterman devote a chapter to "what the listener heard," in which they attempt to interpret how the listeners receive the massages from the agitator. When one is dealing with fringe groups such as extremist political sects or with cult groups (not at all mutually exclusive categories!), interpreting the vocabulary can be a challenge. Because they often give words and phrases a very different meaning that the larger society assumes them to have, such as anti-Semites using "New York City" as a synonym for "the Jews." Or, another anti-Semitic usage, referring to "German bankers" to mean Jewish bankers. Those not initiated into the particular vocabulary can literally be hearing a whole different message than the agitator’s loyal followers understand.

Löwenthal and Guterman refer to the agitator messaging as employing "a kind of secret psychological language," "a psychological Morse Code tapped out by the agitator and picked up by the followers." For the groups they studied, this coding was so key that they argue, "The themes cannot be understood in terms of their manifest content":

... the distinction between the manifest and latent meaning of an agitational text must be seen as crucial. Taken at their face value, agitational texts seem merely as indulgence in futile furies about vague disturbances. Translated into their psychological equivalents, agitational texts are seen as consistent, meaningful, and significantly related to the social world. (p. 140)
Does this mean that they are saying that the followers are being manipulated by the agitators? Of course. There are all kinds of scamsters in the world, certainly including political ones. And the kinds of agitators they describe are among them:

In all his output, the agitator engages in an essentially ambiguous activity. He never merely says; he always hints. His suggestions manage to slip through the nets of rational meaning - those nets that seem unable to contain so many contemporary utterances. To know what he is and what he says, we have to follow him into the underground of meaning—the unexpressed or half-expressed content of his hints, allusions, doubletalk.

Always, then, the agitator appeals to those elements of the contemporary malaise that involve a rejection of traditional western values. As we have seen in the previous chapter, he directs all of his themes to one ultimate aim: his followers are to place all their faith in his person— a new, externalized, and brutal superego. Except through translation into their psychological referents, it is impossible to understand modern agitational themes.
Legal pressure and social stigma can also contribute to this devious use of language. Even in cases where such a fringe group may be perfectly free to meet and advocate for their cause, and are socially ignored rather than actively stigmatized, they may still perceive themselves to be facing such threats.

Continued in Part 4

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