“Stop, smell the rose”, Dorcol, Belgrade, 2010
Update November 2016:
Two new pieces to add to this article:
Agnotology. It’s a term worth knowing, since it is going global. The word was coined by Stanford University professor Robert N. Proctor, who described it as “culturally constructed ignorance, created by special interest groups to create confusion and suppress the truth in a societally important issue.” It is especially useful to sow seeds of doubt in complex scientific issues by publicizing inaccurate or misleading data. – Bloomberg.com
And this great piece on nested debunking from FiveThirtyEight called “Who will debunk the debunkers?”
When people think of knowledge, they generally think of two sorts of facts: facts that don’t change, like the height of Mount Everest or the capital of the United States, and facts that fluctuate constantly, like the temperature or the stock market close.
But in between there is a third kind: facts that change slowly. These are facts which we tend to view as fixed, but which shift over the course of a lifetime. For example: What is Earth’s population? I remember learning 6 billion, and some of you might even have learned 5 billion. Well, it turns out it’s about 6.8 billion.
Or, imagine you are considering relocating to another city. Not recognizing the slow change in the economic fortunes of various metropolitan areas, you immediately dismiss certain cities. For example, Pittsburgh, a city in the core of the historic Rust Belt of the United States, was for a long time considered to be something of a city to avoid. But recently, its economic fortunes have changed, swapping steel mills for technology, with its job growth ranked sixth in the entire United States.
These slow-changing facts are what I term “mesofacts.” Mesofacts are the facts that change neither too quickly nor too slowly, that lie in this difficult-to-comprehend middle, or meso-, scale.
This got me thinking about how this plays out in human affairs.
I thought of how 10 years since the end of the last Balkan war (Kosovo 1998-1999) and the establishment of a liberal democracy in Serbia, Serbs are still thought of as the “bad guys” in the Kosovo story, even though we have seen over a decade of exemplary Serb behaviour (economic and social liberalisation, reconciliation with neighbours, apologies for crimes committed by Serbs, cooperation with international authorities, use of diplomacy not aggression) and yet during the same period in Kosovo we saw of ongoing political and violent oppression of of Serbs (and other minorities), massacres, ethnic cleansing, rampant corruption and organised crime penetrating all levels of government and society to operate the vilest practices of human slavery, drug and weapons smuggling.
The same is true of the Afrikaner people of South Africa. Fifteen years since the end of Apartheid, one third of Afrikaners are living below the poverty line. Rural Afrikaans farmers are being subjected to what some describe as a genocidal campaign of murder and intimidation. Three thousand people have been killed, many of whom tortured and mutilated in acts of near incomprehensible cruelty and sadism. Despite this, both at home and abroad they are still seen as a strongly, privileged group, even though they are politically and economically disenfranchised, and subject to violent oppression.
Outdated mesofacts about the Serbs and Afrikaners dominate the public discourse, and these “facts” strongly influence the fortunes of these people.
When you combine the phenomenon of the mesofact, with disinformation and the confirmation bias, you have entire nations trapped in a negative stereotype deliberately maintained by special interest groups for political purposes.
In fact the mesofact can be established over time by relentless propaganda and other disinformation. Once the “facts” about the target group are established – they become Flat Earth News – all it takes is an occasional “top up” to refresh the stereotype. Reporting the anniversaries of massacres is a good excuse.
In the Serbian example, the media focusses on the trials of notorious Serbs over crimes committed in the 1990’s whilst ignoring the daily attacks on Serbs in Kosovo today.
Similarly, in South Africa a case where a white farmer murdered one of his workers then fed his remains to lions made front page news across the world, yet the 11 gruesome murders committed against white farmers that month were never reported, and continue to be largely ignored to this day.
Nebojsa Malic of Gray Falcon explores this in relation to the recent Gaza Flotilla incident, where he observes that the Israel’s were “Serbed”:
It should be obvious by now that the “Gaza flotilla” was a trap. Israel walked right into it. Fortunately for the Israelis, they too were filming the whole thing, and knew how to use blogs and YouTube, so they may have even come out ahead in the propaganda skirmish that followed. But there is no doubt in my mind whatsoever that the whole flotilla operation was designed from the start to be a propaganda stunt. The “activists” (is that what they are called these days?) aboard those ships were armed and ready. They wanted to be stopped and boarded, so they could scream to high heaven about being abused by the Israeli “pirates” on the high seas. It almost worked, too.
…the entire strategy employed by Hamas seems to be a reprise of Sarajevo. So the Israeli presence on its borders becomes a “siege”, the legitimate blockade of a hostile polity becomes “strangling”, and Israeli raids in response to missiles fired from Gaza become “terror.” Israel is dubbed an occupying power even though it unilaterally retreated from Gaza in 2005, leaving it as a de facto independent city-state. And Israeli inspections in international waters, though legal, become “piracy.”
Hamas routinely fires missiles from Gaza at Israeli civilians across the border. They see nothing wrong with this – remember, to Hamas, Israel has no right to exist, and needs to be obliterated. But if Israel retaliates, whether by assassinating Hamas leaders or sending tanks into Gaza to destroy missile launchers, or by enforcing a perfectly legal blockade to deny Hamas weapons and ammunition, while allowing food and other civilian supplies in – ah, that’s nothing short of “genocide,” then!
Israel has a powerful conventional army, navy, air force, and most likely even nuclear weapons (though not officially acknowledged). It has defeated Arab armies on numerous occasions in open warfare, and has successfully fought terrorism and insurgency through special operations. So those who wish it destroyed came up with a way of turning that strength into a weakness: cast themselves as innocent, unarmed, helpless victims and howl as loud as possible about being abused by that very Israel whose strength no one can dispute.
We can now chance a definition of the verb “To Serb”:
To Serb (verb): To place a country, ethnic group or people in a situation where their designated victims can literally get away with murder yet be portrayed as innocent and virtuous, while they, the designated culprit, can be slandered with impunity, and anything they do is portrayed as as purely evil and motivated by malice.
The mechanisms is simple and effective. It is a staple of 4th Generation warfare, which is conducted mostly as a pantomime for the global mediated masses (public opinion). Perceived weakness is an asset, and perceived strength is a liability. One side is cartoonishly evil, the other saintly and beyond reproach. Simple tropes and characters for a simple media landscape.
So, in summary, the way to defeat your enemy in the 21st Century:
- “Serb” your enemy so that their evil become Flat Earth News
- Maintain a steady stream of propaganda, disinformation and selective reporting to “top up” the myth of evil applied to your enemy
- Attack and otherwise provoke your enemy, relying on your friends in the media to ignore your violence and provocations
- When your enemy counter-attacks or resists your violence, cry foul and rely on your friends on the media to portray them as evil and depraved.
- Continue to exploit your enemy’s vile reputation in the post-conflict era to cover up and distract attention from your own crimes against them and corruption.