We all hate bureaucracy, right? Don't answer that. I know you do, even you, the bureaucrat. When it doesn't suit you.

The people conducting it will all insist there is a very good reason for the bureaucracy, and maybe even sometimes there is, but undeniably at other times it's just to provide resistance to a process that would otherwise work counter to the bureaucrat's interests.

For example, the other day I recieved a train fine. I'd made a mistake, but in the past it was easy to correct the mistake at the other end of the line. This time, with money in hand, prepared to pay the fare I missed, I was instead given a fine, and the only way to appeal was in writing - yes, on paper and everything, mailing it out to an authority within a certain time and including particular documentation. I assume that the process is so inconvenient so that many people will just give up and pay rather than mess about photocopying things and posting letters.

And so it is with intellectual bureaucracy. In order to hold a discussion respectfully between two human beings, we make certain assumptions. We agree, wordlessly, that certain facts about the world hold, and don't require ample documentation to back them up before we can proceed with the discussion. 

When the conversation moves to more speculative or controversial affairs, people are then generally expected to come to the table with a bit more substance. This is to be applauded; it's generally a good thing to apply intellectual rigour to one's thoughts.

But this also provides people who don't genuinely have any interest in having a discussion with a weapon. If they can superficially paint a topic as something that needs vast amount of data before it can proceed, then they can delay ever having to get to the point by bombarding with increasingly granular demands for proof.

Lately, a prominent internet figure claimed that the idea that "media affects people" was meaningless without qualification, and perhaps to some extent he was right. As a statement on it's own it's pretty vapid, but given that it's usually made in some kind of context, maybe it's not quite so vapid as all that.

So, in a social context, what does "media affects people" really mean? Well, it means that media has some sort of influence on social attitudes. 

To me, this seems like a remarkably uncontroversial statement. After all, in these debates we only usually think about the negative effects, but what about the positive ones? People are willing to admit media affects them in a good way all the time:

"This game really informed my sense of humour."

"This film really changed made me understand racism better."

"This book made me feel better about myself."

We hear these sorts of things all the time, because of course these are all things that people readily admit. It makes them look good, or at least doesn't make them look bad. It's not something they would ever deny about themselves.

So if we freely admit we are frequently positively affected by media then surely it would be the height of absurdity to claim that we aren't negatively affected in any way. 

There are legitimate questions about in what ways people can be affected - one example given in the piece I refer to is violence, where violent games do not at least appear to have a strong influence on violent behaviour. But denying a game about murder will make you into a murderer isn't quite on the same level as denying that constant exposure to negative gay stereotypes might encourage homophobic attitudes. 

One only need look at the history of 20th century propoganda to understand how frighteningly easy it is to influence social attitudes.

The point is that while we may pontificate on exactly which media affects what and in what way, the idea that media influences attitudes (not even actions - just attitudes) in both a positive and negative way is highly uncontroversial.

The only motivation of a call to questioning, then (Which media exactly? Where are the studies? Show me the concrete link! What percentage do they affect attitudes by?) is not out of a genuine appeal to intellectual rigour, but as a way of tying the whole argument in so much pointless red tape that hopefully the person forgets what point they were trying to make in the first place or gives up.

And then the intellectual bureaucrat claims superiority because the person trying to have a conversation wasn't willing to go through Social Studies 101 before getting to the bloody point. 

It is, in short, no less than a distraction.

AuthorPeter Silk