Social institutions use a variety of tactics to shape and dominate the general public. They also have a number of specialized tactics that they use against anyone who resists.

Institutions, particularly governments and corporations, but with the clear allegiance and connivance of the media, the mass or corporate media, do their best to ridicule and demonize activists. For the first, activists are portrayed as the lunatic fringe, as radicals. But in response to this, we should consider how the definition of “radical” has changed. Thirty years ago supporting the earth – defending the environment – was considered radical: now it is accepted not only as normal, but necessary. The radicals of thirty years ago were actually visionaries. Further, activists are ignored; censored out of the public consciousness. For example, there is a media blackout in the United States on the extent to which genetic engineering is being used, particularly in food products; the possible health consequences of this; and activist attempts to get such concerns addressed. Finally, if activists succeed in getting their voices heard, against all institutional attempts to smother them, they are demonized. The public is told that activists are terrorists, and this is a use of volatility, of branding someone an enemy. But activists are not terrorists! Being terrorized means living in fear. Who, precisely, are the activists causing to live in a state of fear, such as when they protest the logging of old growth forests? Is it the timber company executives? Such executives may have a fear, that their bank accounts will not swell to match their greed, but this is not the fear of terror, which is the fear for one’s life.

Activists are treated unfairly by the press more often than any other group of people, except people of color, the poor and asylum seekers. The reasons are not hard to divine: we challenge powerful, vested interests, we are prepared to break the law and, above all, we can be discussed collectively without any fear of libel, as we do not belong to incorporated organisations. So, for example, the ‘New York Times’ could claim that ‘eco-terrorist’ tree-sitters booby-trapped buildings, attacked guards with catapaults and crossbows and dug pitfall traps full of metal stakes, safe in the knowledge that, as long as no one was named, no one could sue, even though the whole story is bullshit. But, if it makes the same allegations about security guards [who attack activists], it would get its pants sued off by the company.

- How To Spin The Media, Before It Spins You, Part II, George Monbiot, Earth First! Journal, December - January 1999, page 11

(This also shows why there are so many environmental justice crimes.)

Activists are also regularly accused of hypocrisy, and in doing so the media make use of an ingenious argument. They call us hypocrites, for such things as taking public transport to actions, or for using the Internet. The underlying idea is that you can’t criticize the system if you are part of it or if you use it some way. But, other than through being a hermit, it is impossible not to be part of the system or to use some aspects of it, at least in a small way.

This is a very clever trap:

- You cannot criticize something if you are part of it, since
- By being part of it you must effectively endorse it, so
- How can you endorse something and criticize it at the same time? That’s hypocritical!

This is spurious. Hypocrisy is saying one thing, but doing another. As activists, we stand up for our beliefs. But the media profess to search for the truth. By using such fallacious logic, they demonstrate their real character. (They are the ones who are the hypocrites.)

Also, we are forced to join the system. We have been entrapped. Our participation is not voluntary. Hence, we damn well can criticize it, and also seek to escape from it, change it, or shut it down!

Ridiculing and demonizing activists is a social defense tactic, akin to the spreading of the suspicion that we are meant to feel about solitary individuals, those people who are not part of “our group.” Unfortunately, it is also very effective. Activists have been stereotyped, and through this, marginalized. What the world needs, more than anything, is more activists. Our activism can only succeed to the extent that our numbers increase, which means we must confront this tactic. This book, for instance, is one such attempt, to educate people that activism is the logical response to modern social conditions and the need to be ethical and to have a fulfilling purpose in life. I want to encourage many more people to get involved: to read, to learn, and to act.

Institutions use a variety of other tactics against activists, and the public in general, in their efforts to quell dissent. The first of these is that they prize conformity. There is little tolerance inside any institution for internal dissent, for people who seek to shape the organization to be more in line with its stated role as a service provider. This is especially the case with whistleblowers, with people who go public with clear, even criminal, examples of institutional wrongdoing. For example, in police forces everywhere there is an unspoken code that you do not inform on bad cops, on police who are themselves criminals. Many police become aware of such individuals, but they do not bring them to justice. The code of silence is stronger than their oath to uphold the law.

The same patterns exist inside corporations. A general motivation in business is to achieve market control, and one consequence of this is that companies invariably become inflexible and rigid. They are opposed to change (to losing their control), and this regularly leads to an internal culture of intolerance and negativity. Corporations are intolerant of employees who express dissent, ranging from simply pushing for new job opportunities all the way through to being a whistleblower that publicizes company misdeeds. For the former, the corporate system is so inflexible that if you push against it in any way you will be in trouble. Employees are carefully channeled. (This is – or was – known as manpower planning.) Ambition is allowed, even encouraged, but only within the boundaries that are set for you.

But this applies to more than just trying to transcend your place; it also has significant ethical implications. If you are asked to do something unethical, e.g., to discharge pollution from a company factory, you have to do it. You have no effective recourse or appeal. (The ethical system inside a company is a variation of natural law.) If you go over your boss to object, you will likely doom your career prospects with the company, and you could easily be fired as a troublemaker.

Regarding whistleblowers, who are real troublemakers (at least to the companies), they are punished immediately, and this helps instill a climate of fear to suppress any further rebellion. Also, not only are the dissenters expelled, they are denied any form of recommendation, which they will need to secure new employment. In this way the corporate system truly is “a system.” Though competitors, different companies work together to dispel from their system any individuals who rebel against it. Together, they purify their staffs as an additional means to enforce submission.

Furthermore, all of this is being implemented through advanced techniques of surveillance. The employees of many companies must now wear special ID tags, which track their location at all times. And, every word that you speak on the phone at work, and every key that you strike on your computer, is subject to recording and review. Modern corporations, like all authoritarian organizations, are developing their own secret police, really, “thought police,” since through such surveillance they are able to track, minute-by-minute, what you think and do.

Corporations actually seek to quell all dissent, including external, and in this regard they are very successful. Corporations appropriate, they co-opt, all potential and actual sources of rebellion. In general terms, each new generation is conditioned more intensively than the last. In addition, the few real rebels, such as our modern poets, the rock and rollers, and rappers, are turned into corporate spokespeople. It seems that no one (or very few) can refuse the paycheck and stay true to their principles. They say: “Gee. For that much money I can do what I want, and buy what I want, for the rest of my life. And it’s so nice to be popular! Where do I sign?” Those people who could make a difference, don’t. They are bought out: it is high-stakes prostitution, pure and simple.

As this suggests, institutions engage in many forms of propaganda. They use public relations and institutional advertising to present a positive image of themselves to the world, even though this may be misleading or even completely false. For instance, the worst dictatorships, as well as the corporations that commit the most heinous environmental crimes, hire public relations firms and advertising agencies, and spend huge sums, to try to persuade us that they are actually responsible social citizens. (The latter is called media greenwash.) But talk, even expensive talk, is cheap, and in such cases very often lies.

Another aspect of their propaganda is that they gloss over problems, the specific ones which they create, and the more general problems of the world to which they make important but indirect contributions. They seek to divert us from discussing these problems, including their role in them, and the existence of solutions to them. They seek to divert us from any course of action that would require them to change.

In this context, they attempt to control, manipulate and if possible keep secret information about themselves. For example, if you want information about the U.S. government, you must file a request under the Freedom of Information Act, which is not an easy task, and which in any case does not ensure compliance: that you will get the information you seek.

Finally, if all else fails, institutions use the tactic of repression. Regarding political dissent, opponents are charged with dubious crimes, or imprisoned solely on the basis of “suspicion,” and then tortured to confess and to implicate others. Also, people not in custody are harassed, and attacked, and if need be, killed.

In addition, although the description of this last tactic used as an example government repression, it is by no means limited to politics. Physical force is used by other institutions as well, including corporations and schools, such as when they call in the police to deal with rebellious employees and students. And, of course, religions throughout the ages (and in the present day) have not been above advocating and imposing a little force to get their way.

(Institutional repression of activists is covered more extensively in the Activism and the Law chapter.)

© Roland O. Watson 2005