Trent had the pleasure of hosting a published author and Yale philosophy professor at Gzowski last week. Dr. Jason Stanley has published several books, his most recent titled “How Propaganda Works” which won the 2016 PROSE Award in Philosophy. His lecture series, “How Fascism Works” is a prelude to his next book. He was invited by the Kenneth Mark Drain Chair Dr. Kathryn Norlock who was aware of Stanley’s online presence and influence on budding philosophical minds. The lectures were a three-day long event divided into two-hour sessions on the 26th, 27th and 28th of September. Each had a healthy turn-out filling three quarters of the lecture hall. Each lecture opened with some snacks and drinks and a short intro of Stanley and his work given by a different Trent Philosophy professor each night, after which he immediately delved into the topic of fascism.
It seems a bit of a jump at first, to have a speaker set his sights on such a heavy and complicated topic as fascism, and some may even ask where the relevance lies. I was a bit curious as well. First, a little background on Dr. Jason Stanley. His father was a sociology professor and Stanley himself is an expert in the philosophy language and epistemology, but what probably influenced his ideas and topics the most is where he lives. The U.S. (and by extension, the world as a whole), is knee-deep in odd and troubling times. The swearing in of Donald J. Trump into office, all the months leading up to it, and the subsequent time afterwards has brought a much-needed awareness to the topics of censorship, freedom of speech and expression, the role of the media, propaganda, and an even larger picture: fascism.
The first lecture covered the structure of fascist propaganda; the second focused on why fascism opposes liberalism, and probably the most relevant to the world today was the third lecture where he detailed the tactics of fascist regimes. It was appropriately titled “Us and Them- and the destruction of reality.”
As Stanley continually emphasized throughout, fascism is the undermining of equality, the developing and alienating of a group of people as “other”. This “us vs. them” mentality creates barriers, and promotes a dangerous sense of nationalism, all fuelled by political propaganda. More interestingly, it is an ideal that is easily identifiable in present day. Fascism, by principle, sees equality and liberalism as the enemy. A nation state that promotes fascist ideals needs a targeted ‘enemy’, a group of people that are demonized and dehumanized to further create the illusion of a dangerous other. National unity around a common enemy is the basis of fascism and the way to form a national identity as a nation state is to form a friend-enemy distinction.
“Such a distinction gives the chosen members of a nation an identity around which to form, keeping them united by fear and a desire to seek revenge for the perceived insult or damages the enemy has brought including, crucially, the causing of the fear itself.”
Incidentally, it is often the fear that people want revenge for: hysterical fear that they are made to feel by their own government.
Historically, the ‘other’ is often portrayed as a criminal or thug or another representation of a negative outsider. The meaning of the words themselves are less important compared to the weight they carry as a label against an individual or a collective group’s character.
“The word criminal has a literal meaning, but it also has a resonant meaning. [Criminals are] people who by their nature are insensitive to society’s norms, drawn to violate the law for self-interest or malice.”
Words such as ‘criminal’ and ‘thug’, label the ‘enemy’ and imply that they are irredeemable; they suggest permanent qualities of people with the intention of creating distance and thereby promoting indifference or even hatred. “A criminal is someone who regularly commits crime, who, by their nature, has something in them to commit crimes. When you call people criminals, on the basis of one act, your demonizing their characters.”
When you label people thugs, criminals or prostitutes, you eliminate them from empathy and as Stanley accurately concluded: “How can you empathize with a criminal?”
It seemed there were innumerable similarities between what Stanley was highlighting as fascist and the current U.S. administration under Trump. Then, as if to cement my musings, he continued, “Fascism aims to destroy all opposing meanings of value and purpose in order to reduce people to their ethnicity, religion, cultural identity.”
With the destruction of labour unions (which is characteristic of fascist structures), the immigrant worker becomes an immediate threat because workers no longer have protections that guarantee their jobs. This immigrant worker archetype, because they have now been reduced only to their ethnicity, origin, or religion, is now harder to sympathize with. They are stripped of all human qualities and are therefore rendered alien.
“Donald Trump rose to presidency with the call to expel criminal aliens. Since he has taken to office, he has harshly targeted immigrants in the United States. Both he and his administration regularly stoke the fear of immigrants.”
It was an interesting experience having my eyes slowly opened over the three-day period, finding many parallels between fascist ideals and that of the current U.S. president. However, as Stanley had pointed out numerous times, it is always much easier to point fingers at others. While the U.S. and its political struggles might seem far away, fascism and the ideas it promotes are unfortunately, alive and well in our own backyard. The Head of Trent weekend, was exactly that to most, especially students. But to some, it was the day for a gathering of white nationalists, ironically, only two days after Stanley concluded his lectures.
Having someone like Trump elected into power showed that he wasn’t unique in his thinking; Trump is only the earthquake that revealed the fault line. I asked Dr. Stanley’s opinion and he said, “Propaganda that divides us will only work when there’s already existing division. Nevertheless, propaganda can add to and worsen the division.”
Other questions followed and I listened attentively to the back and forth, and while reflecting on Stanley’s descriptions of fascist tactics, I sullenly raised my hand and asked, “So are we stuck in a loop; having history repeat itself?”
“Yes, but – we need to have a zero-tolerance policy for politicians who seek office by talking about thugs and criminals.” A zero-tolerance policy for those who promote harmful propaganda.
Dr. Norlock, who happened to be seating only a few seats away, silently passed me a folded note: “History gets repeated – but YOUNG people, NEW generations, make it difficult to repeat every time”, and that restored my fast-dwindling faith in humanity – at least until Trump makes headlines again.