‘The Psychology of Politics’ is a course I’m currently enrolled in as part of my media psychology doctoral program. In this course, we cover a gamut of topics as they relate to political strategies and their influence and impact on culture, society at large, as well as on the human mind. This writing, in particular, is an essay in response to the idea (and practice) of censorship, which was a class forum discussion topic inspired by news headlines touting President Donald Trump’s deployment of ‘disloyalty lists.’ Please note that in sharing this with you, my intention is NOT to compose a partisan piece of writing but rather to underscore and highlight the media’s role, impacts to the human mind, and/or historic and societal significance(s) of said topic(s).
At the time of this political psychology writing, the United States is facing important questions about censorship, free speech, and political power.
These questions aren’t unique to the USA, where a form of political censorship — the firing of non-Trump loyalists — is unfolding; but also abroad, most notably in China where political censorship against the Chinese government’s handling of the Coronavirus backdrop is unsettling and troubling.
Hong Kong-based writer, Verna Yu, and Guardian correspondent Emma Graham-Harrison authored a Guardian piece, entitled This may be the last piece I write, inspired by a robust and rare critique of Chinese President Xi Jinping. According to the article, the critique was reportedly made by a Chinese professor, Xu Zhangrun.
In their article, the authors kick off their writing with this stark lead-in:
“The Chinese professor Xu Zhangrun, who published a rare public critique of President Xi Jinping over China’s coronavirus crisis, was placed under house arrest for days, barred from social media and is now cut off from the internet, his friends have told the Guardian.”
(Yu & Graham-Harrison, 2020)
Xu’s opening line, “This may be the last piece I write,” says it all: it seeps with unsurmountable risk, powerful censorship, and an uncertain fate for the retained Chinese professor.
The Guardian article goes on to explain how the Chinese Communist Party has been working to control the national conversation for decades.
A nonpartisan word
In the US (and at the time of this writing), the current Trump administration is the one both in place and in charge, so while the following comments are specific to Trump’s administration, the issues of censorship and narrative control practices described or referenced here are not unique to the current president and his staff alone.
As this is not intended to be a partisan piece of writing, this is an important point to make.
That said, and as countless headlines attest, we do see censorship-inspired actions gaining both traction and increasing spotlight here in the US; it’s the Trump version of attempted narrative control whereby the information coming out of the White House is consistently (and often, dramatically) different from non-partisan narratives disseminated on the ground.
Narrative control: American (politics) style
When I think about Yu’s (2020) reference to the Chinese party’s efforts to control the national conversation, coupled with the Trump administration’s version of that same effort, I can’t help but think about commercially-driven brand narratives.
Corporations and brands do the exact same thing as political systems; they attempt to control narratives (as much as they can).
Moreover, if you put aside industry-backed lobbying efforts, then it’s safe to broadly say that the main difference between commercial entities and political systems controlling narratives is that commercial enterprises do not typically have the breadth and the backing of political power.
And when I say that corporations and brands do “the exact same thing” in relation to narrative control, you must remember that narrative control is at the very crux of the public relations field; a field primarily known for shaping (usually commercial) narratives and specific talking points on behalf of organizations.
One must also keep in mind that the field of public relations dates back to the late 1800s, and even then, there are facets of narrative control dating as far back to medieval times when the Catholic Church launched its propaganda arm in 1622 (Bernays, 2014).
Therefore, humans’ efforts to control the narrative date back several millennia. Consequently, narrative control — and all attempts to harness it — are NOT NEW.
What appears to be more novel than not, however, is when a political party (or someone in political power) leverages facets of narrative control in an openly flamboyant way.
At least in the US, one could generally say American society is “not used to” this political twist on narrative control. While most of us do know narrative control happens or is happening to some degree, its dramatic, unilateral escalation by Trump and his administration feels “new” to our society.
Complicating the idea of novelty is the onset of social media, which has loosened up messaging control: now the conversations are both peer to peer AND top-down, versus only top-down.
Back to China, for a moment
In China, as The Guardian article highlights (Yu & Graham-Harrison, 2020), the government can censor or punish you if your narrative is different or if you question the details of the government’s narrative.
Despite such risks, Xu still forged ahead and published his piece, “Viral Alarm: When Fury Overcomes Fear” (Zhangrun, 2020), translated by Geremie R. Barmé.
In his scathing writings, Xu (Zhangrun, 2020) wrote he will “not go gentle into that good night,” a 1952-poem phrase borrowed from Welsch poet Dylan Thomas’s “Do not go gentle into that good night.” In his fiery conclusion, Xu further pleads for his fellow citizens to “rage against this injustice; let your lives burn with a flame of decency; break through the stultifying darkness and welcome the dawn” (Zhangrun, 2020).
Xu’s disparaging writings resulted in house arrests and IP blocking from the Chinese government (Yu & Graham-Harrison, 2020), thus spotlighting a real-world example of politically-powered censorship.
Are the Trump administration’s ‘disloyalty lists’ a form of censorship?
A Washington Post article from February 21, 2020, begins as follows:
“President Trump has instructed his White House to identify and force out officials across his administration who are not seen as sufficiently loyal, a post-impeachment escalation that administration officials say reflects a new phase of a campaign of retribution and restructuring ahead of the November election.”
(Olorunnipa, Parker, & Dawsey, 2020)
The Oxford dictionary defines censorship as “the suppression or prohibition of any parts of books, films, news, etc. that are considered obscene, politically unacceptable, or a threat to security” (Censorship, 2020).
In this sense, then, it could be argued that identifying non-loyalists from a political administration for the purposes of expungement and messaging non-alignment is a form of censorship.
While identifying aides and political appointees to be ousted or sidelined for their lack of loyalty may seem new, it’s not to most of the world.
Beyond the adoption of such practices during the McCarthy era here in the US, such practices are generally not the norm in American political systems, at least not outwardly.
Moreover, while disloyalty lists are specific (for now) to the Trump administration, the practice speaks to a much broader issue:
an era or culture of accusations and blame gaming before any investigation or evidence is presented.
Delving into these subjects with more detailed examples and scholarly references is beyond the scope of this writing, but it’s both a noteworthy and alarming observation. And if this truly speaks to a cultural issue, then social media seems to enable the political finger-pointing, the blame-shaming, and the calling out by politicians.
These broad contexts merit further exploration to identify where and when did a blaming culture begin and what has propelled it.
Or are we, as humans, just built this way?
Are we dealing with a human nature issue instead of a societal culture issue?
Just food for (much) political psychology thought.
Bernays, E. L. (2004). Propaganda. United States: Ig Publishing.
Censorship. (2020). In Oxford Online Dictionary. https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/censorship.
Olorunnipa, T., Parker, A., & Dawsey, J. (2020, February 21). Trump embarks on expansive search for disloyalty as administration-wide purge escalates. The Washington Post. https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/were-cleaning-it-out-trump-embarks-on-expansive-search-for-disloyalty-as-administration-wide-purge-escalates/2020/02/21/870e6c56-54c1-11ea-b119-4faabac6674f_story.html.
Yu, V., Graham-Harrison, E. (2020, February 16). ‘This may be the last piece I write’: prominent Xi critic has internet cut after house arrest. the Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/feb/15/xi-critic-professor-this-may-be-last-piece-i-write-words-ring-true.
Zhangrun, X. (2020, March 4). Viral alarm: When fury overcomes fear. ChinaFile.
Please share any questions or feedback in the comments below.