Raw Thought

by Aaron Swartz

The False Consciousness Falsehood

American intellectual life has a large number of ways of responding to an argument without actually addressing its substance — namecalling in other words. You can say that someone is “blaming the victim” or spinning a “conspiracy theory” or “assuming people are stupid” or that they’re subject to “false consciousness”.

Most of these are kind of transparently silly, but even otherwise smart people seem to think the false consciousness charge has some heft to it. The argument is never fully spelled-out, but the argument seems to be that to think that people are systematically mistaken about their own interests is the kind of crazy idea that only vulgar Marxists would believe and, furthermore, it requires assuming that people are stupid and explaining how you’ve been able to see past the illusion.

Well, I’m personally not under any illusion that providing a rational explanation is going to stop people from leveling this charge, but I figure one ought to, if only to set the record straight.

Let’s begin with a parable — a simplified case that will at least establish whether some of these arguments are logically true. Imagine a new regime comes to power that decides to imprison everyone with red hair. They insist that there is nothing amiss about this — they were elected democratically, and furthermore, everyone imprisoned is still allowed to vote. But inside the prisons, they only permit limited contact with the outside world. Most prisoners only watch the one prison-provided news station which is systematically biased, constantly suggesting that the Purple Party is in favor of additional rights for red-haired people while their opponents, the Yellow Party, just used the red-haired issue for pandering. (Anyone who’s watched, say, Fox News discuss black issues will know how this is possible.) The result is that when election time rolls around, the majority of red-haired prisoners vote for the Purple Party candidate who gets into power and provides no new rights for them.

Call it false consciousness or not, I think it’s perfectly reasonable to look at this situation and say while the red-haired prisoners are not stupid, they are systematically mistaken, which is leading them to act against their own interests. If they knew the truth they would vote for the Yellow Party, the party which wants to take steps to get them out of prison, instead. Furthermore, it’s possible to imagine that there are some prisoners who, through one means or another, have learned this and thus are able to see this situation while the other prisoners do not. (They try to tell the other prisoners what’s going on, but they keep getting labeled conspiracy theorists.)

Now obviously vast portions of America are not imprisoned. But most people do get their news from a small number of sources and I think everyone would agree that, in one way or another, these sources are systematically biased. (You can argue about which way they’re biased or whether it makes a difference, but I think it’s pretty clear that all the major news sources share a general conception of what is “news” and what isn’t.) So why is it so implausible that something similar is going on?

The major difference between the two scenarios is that in the first, people were basically forced to watch the biased news, while in the real world they have lots of other alternatives. But I’m not sure this matters as much as it might seem at first.

First, most people have busy lives that don’t revolve around the news or politics and thus are going to get the news in the most convenient form they can. For most people, this is typically television or the newspaper. But starting a new television station or newspaper is very expensive, especially if you want it to have wide reach, and the only projects that can get funding and advertising are those that buy into at least some of the systematic biases. So for most people, there simply isn’t a better alternative when it comes to the formats they want.

Second, even if someone gets their news from the Internet or another source where getting started is less expensive, they may not know about the alternatives. If you grew up with your parents reading the New York Times you may simply live your life checking in on nytimes.com, without ever stopping to wonder whether the news you were getting was systematically biased and whether there was some more preferable alternative.

Again, just as there was no way for the prisoners to know they were being lied to, it’s not really reasonable for the average person to figure out that they’re getting biased news if the only news they read comes from biased sources.

Now I’m not arguing here that this idea is true (that would require more real-world evidence), merely that it’s possible. The fact is that we live in a world where most people get their information about what’s going on from a very small number of sources which tend to report largely the same things in the same way. This seems like a rather important fact of life and I think we ought to stop dismissing suggestions that it might have some negative effects on people out of hand.

You should follow me on twitter here.

May 19, 2008


“The argument is never fully spelled-out, but the argument seems to be that…” Sounds like a strawman. Do you have any actual examples of this argument being made?

posted by Scott Reynen on May 19, 2008 #

I think one major reluctance to accepting conspiracy theories on a large level is that, to reference a previous post, people don’t believe that the mechanism exists. If there was media bias of a malevolent sort, then there must be a conspiracy to construct and enforce that bias. Editors punish their subordinates. Editors themselves must be informed of what the accepted lines of thought are. People have proposed mechanisms for this, have documented actual processes. But it’s not clear that those form the bias, because for everyplace that has such hints of conspiracy there is a large number of places that clearly have no conspiracy (often just for lack of interestingness).

Another aspect is none of this seems new. It’s not like the media was crazy progressive and then this darn media consolidation came along and ruined it. Is this the product of a long line of conspiracies? The masons?

I’m more apt to see this as a phenomena than a conspiracy. That is, accepting that people can have false beliefs on a large scale doesn’t require a malevolent actor. There’s lots of cases of this that are rather obvious in retrospect. Flat Earth — that people have at times widely believed the Earth to be flat is not a sign of wide stupidity. Our intuitions can be reasonable while also being incorrect. Revealing the truth does not automatically convert everyone’s belief.

The mechanisms by which we come to other beliefs is probably different than something so fact-based as the nature of the surface of the Earth. But there’s obviously more involved than simple rationality, especially because many value-based beliefs are rooted in underlying motivations that can’t really be rational.

posted by Ian Bicking on May 19, 2008 #

Hope all is well, and that your health has improved after that discouraging post from a few months ago. I think what you’re talking about is what’s plausible rather than what’s “logical” or “rational.” It would be just as valid to spin a self-serving parable demonstrating how the idea of false consciousness fails to explain events, and we’d have learned as much from the exercise. I also don’t understand the point of the conclusion: that it’s merely possible the idea of false consciousness can be valid, given an impressive stack of assumptions. And…?

posted by sierra on May 20, 2008 #

With reference to a previous post: I’m not sure what counts as a mechanism. How about putting oilmen in charge of regulating the oil business and Mideast policy? How about controlling the flow of information—e.g. concealing M3 monetary levels, refusing to allow photos of troop caskets, putting the financing apparatus for an entire foreign adventure (often referred to as a war) off budget, selling off public spaces, lands, and airwaves?

Aaron, I’ve only just discovered your blog and am intrigued by it. Drop by over at http://wisdomofthewest.blogspot.com/ You might find something interesting. My latest series is on the phenomenon of crowds and swarms and I happened onto your site while searching “the stupidity of crowds”.

Best, Jim H.

posted by Jim H. on May 21, 2008 #

Reading the post again, the first couple of paragraphs strike me as confusing. The first states that saying someone is subject to false consciousness is a way of avoiding the substance of any argument he’s making — “namecalling in other words.” The second says essentially the opposite: that criticizing this assignment of false consciousness is an invalid form of namecalling, i.e., by labeling the idea of false consciousness as “crazy” or “Marxist.” (The first paragraph only makes sense in the context of the rest of the post if it ends with something like: …or assigning “false consciousness” to people.)

These opening paragraphs are amusing as well. After being told this charge constitutes “namecalling,” we learn it is “transparently silly.” Unintelligent people can of course be expected to make such a charge, but “even otherwise smart people” make it as well. Regardless, you’re “not under any illusion that providing a rational explanation is going to stop people from leveling this charge.” So: silly, stupid, and irrational. Nope, no namecalling here.

posted by sierra on May 22, 2008 #


You should check out the blog Unqualified Reservations. He makes a pretty convincing case that the biases in the media are indeed systematic. See http://unqualified-reservations.blogspot.com/2007/06/separation-of-information-and-security.html and http://unqualified-reservations.blogspot.com/2007/06/why-theres-no-such-thing-as-liberal.html

What’s interesting is that you don’t need a conspiracy theory to get the result of conspiracy theory. All you need to do is look at the selection process. Can an economics professor be fired for being wrong? Nope. But a professor can get more grants and power by justifying the prevailing political powers.

Were Bill Kristol and Tom Friedman fired for being wrong about the war in Iraq? Bill Kristol was promoted to the NY Times editorial page!

If the media and educational system do not seem to be promoting or firing people based on whether they get things right and wrong, why would we expect the process to produce accurate results?

posted by Patrick on May 23, 2008 #

You have some truly bizarre spam just above this comment.

I agree with Sierra that the first couple of paragraphs are muddled. From the rest of your essay, you’re apparently claiming that the charge of “false consciousness” should be taken seriously in a debate. But that’s not how you start off.

I think it is possible for people to be systematically mistaken about this or that, and it’s reasonable to discuss that possibility in itself, as you start to do here.

But in an ordinary discussion about some other subject, accusing your opponent of “false consciousness” is not an argument, it’s a failure to argue. It’s an example of the logical fallacy “poisoning the well”. Reasonable people are right to reject it in those cases.

posted by Matt C on June 9, 2008 #

Matt’s comment made me wonder what kind of criteria would make the idea of false consciousness valid. I think it would require a good deal of ignorance or physical coercion, and would be least likely in an information-saturated modern society. E.g., I’ve heard many women in strict Islamic cultures express strong approval for their burkas, but it’s valid to assume (if they’re not lying outright) that’s false consciousness resulting from the constant threat of beating or worse if they don’t wear a burka, or perhaps from having no accurate information on societies where women wear whatever they want. The flip-side, to use an obvious example: In this culture, women aren’t beaten for being pro-choice on abortion, and they have plenty of pro-choice information available to them, so it’s correspondingly invalid to suggest pro-life women suffer from false consciousness. Aaron’s parable is unconvincing because it involves taking great pains to limit available information, which simply is not our situation. The idea that people with huge numbers of alternative media sources available to them are going to keep reading the New York Times out of blind habit is contradicted by the latter’s stock price, and by the sudden, spontaneous popularity of sites like YouTube, Facebook, you name it.

There’s an excellent book called Sick Societies, by the anthropologist Harold Edgerton. Ostensibly it’s a critique of the idea that “primitive” cultures are peaceful and harmonious, and that all sorts of horrifying (to us) practices are “adaptive” in the evolutionary sense. But the more interesting implication is the possibility of determining whether aspects of our own culture are objectively dysfunctional, criteria he says may be borrowed from psychology. I’m skeptical how rigorous that framework would be, but it’s an interesting book that’s relevant to the question, if you care to take a look.

posted by sierra on June 15, 2008 #

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