Pandemic Diary: Principles of Propaganda, a FREE primer for the Government of Alberta + Random Acts of Kindness, a FREE primer for the rest of us

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Sometimes, I teach propaganda, and today, I want to teach our political leaders how to use propaganda, because, while reprehensible and usually unethical, it is a very effective communications tool, and their COVID-19 communication strategy at this moment, to use a highly technical public relations term, sucks ass.

Principle 1: Effective propaganda (like all effective opinion writing, btw), has a single, clearly articulated position.

Therefore, “COVID-19 can be effectively mitigated by washing hands, not touching your face, wearing a mask and keeping six feet apart—OMG—why aren’t you people just doing that—it’s so simple and the virus is so deadly—the numbers are spiking—you’re killing the elderly—you’re all going to die—don’t stress, just wash your hands—stay home but only if you really want to—why isn’t everyone doing their part to stop the spread?” is not effective propaganda.

Principle 2: Effective propaganda identifies a common enemy. A scape goat. This is sad but effective, because the concept of “enemy” is pretty primal. If you don’t give the people a common enemy to focus on and hate, they turn on each other. And while they might say they hate the WHO, say, or the CDC, or the Chief Medical Officer—who they actually hate is the guy next door and the woman ahead of them in the  grocery store line-up.

The common enemy is COVID-19. Repeat after me: the common enemy is COVID-19. Dr. Hinshaw actually said this in today’s briefing, brilliant woman. Let’s say it again: The common enemy is the fucking virus. Not your neighbour who’s just hosted a birthday party, and not your co-worker who made you feel like shit for going on a date.

THE COMMON ENEMY IS COVID-19.

Frustrated and angry? Me too, sister, me too. The approved mantra is, “Fuck you, COVID-19.”

Not “Why are people so stupid and selfish!”

They are not the enemy. Your neighbours are not the enemy. They are doing a shitty job of following the rules because their leaders are doing a shitty job of leading them—and really failing at the effectuve propaganda thing.

Who’s the enemy?

That’s right. The virus. Not your disempowered, frustrated, frightened neighbours.

Principle 3: Effective propaganda empowers. This is key: effective propaganda tells people what they can do to win the war, preferably in slogans. Loose lips sink ships. Put that light out! Make do and mend! Do your part—stay six feet apart.

See what’s happening there? It gives people a determined, simple, non-negotiable action item. Giving them this action item—giving them instructions vests them with power. This is kinda paradoxical on the face of it, but modern psychologists can explain to you in great detail why this is true (shorthand: we’re really just very articulate monkeys; we’re not that great with freedom and choice, tbh). So—want people to feel empowered by your propaganda? Tell them what to do.

Put that light out!

Not—We encourage everyone, if they think they’re capable of it and it doesn’t conflict with their self of what they’re entitled to or comfortable with, to put out their lights. It would really help. We’re not going to infringe on this, because we really don’t want to infringe on personal liberties. But, like. Please? Because otherwise, things will get worse.

Got it? Effective propaganda empowers by being commanding. Imperative.

It does not plead: Please, please stay home—but if you do go out to frequent the businesses that we’re keeping open, because nobody wants another lockdown, make sure you’re safe and do all the things we’re asking you to do, okay? Yes? Will you?

It declares: Stay home. Save lives.

Go back to principle 1 now. Can’t remember what it is? It’s ok—all of us have impaired, shitty memories right now. Pandemic stress. I’ll repeat it: Effective propaganda has a single clearly articulated position.

It’s not journalism or a reasoned argument. THE OTHER SIDE DOES NOT EXIST.

So. You cannot simultaneously tell people, “Stay home. Save Lives!” and “Schools are safe though and please, go shopping LOTS and keep the economy going—restaurants and bars are totally okay too, if you stop drinking by 10 pm and are home and in bed—alone—by 11.”

It doesn’t actually matter if restaurants and bars are totally okay, by the way. You just can’t sell it like that. “We’re in a crisis way worse than when we implemented the lockdown back in the spring. But we’re not closing anything down. Restaurants are not the problem. Entertaining your friends at home is.”

The stressed, strained monkey brain does not compute. At all.

It needs a Single. Clearly. Articulated. Position.

An empowering, clear and direct Call to Action.

And a common enemy—that, in this case, is the virus.

Not the people next door.

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So there you go. These are the three essential principles of effective propaganda, all of which are missing from Alberta’s and Canada’s COVID-19 communications strategy right now. There is a fourth one that kind of runs through all three of these: propaganda makes the complex simple. That’s what makes it intellectually suspect and also dangerous. And that’s why if you want to wield its power for the benefit of the great social good, you’ve gotta thread carefully.

Our government is refusing to wield this power, and it has delegated the responsibility for flattening the second wave of the pandemic to the people on the street. (Btw, notice how it has arrived right on schedule? I mean, in March, we could at least claim we didn’t know what was coming—Bob and Bob’s uncle, not to mention the WHO and Health Canada and the CDC were all warning of a November spike since… April.)

This quasi-libertarian delegation of responsibility and abrogation of leadership sucks. It’s very very unfair. We the people on the street cannot speak with a single voice. We do not espouse a single, clearly articulated position. We are many; we have conflicting views, beliefs, priorities. Values.

But let’s agree on this: the common enemy is COVID-19.

I think you can get behind this even if you think COVID-19 is a hoax. Your tweak on this mantra: the common enemy is the COVID-19 hoax. There. That’s the enemy. Not the bus driver. Not your neighbour. Not the retail clerk who asks you to wear a mask. Not the customer who refuses to wear a mask.

The common enemy is COVID-19.

And we’re going to kill that motherfucker’s ass by committing random acts of kindness towards our friends, neighbours and strangers.

COVID-19 sucks, people, but we don’t have to.

(That’s my propaganda mantra, btw, and I think it’s pretty effective even though it doesn’t rhyme.)

What? You’d rather just bitch about how your neighbour sucks?

Well, fuck you.

No. Sorry. I didn’t mean to say that. You are not the enemy. COVID-19 is the enemy. So what you’re going to do, is you’re going to go buy your favourite chocolate bar—yes, you can just steal it from your kids’ candy stash if there’s anything left over from Halloweeen. Write a note.

“COVID-19 sucks, but we don’t have to” is my suggestion. But feel free to elaborate and be gushy. Or trashy.

Pop it in your neighbour’s mailbox instead of glaring at them for not responding to the government’s lack of response to the pandemic in the same way you do.

It’s not the vaccine (but hey, there’s good news on that front this week, right?). But random acts of kindness—I recommend gifts of chocolate, although Scotch, wine, weed and pizza will also do the trick, and flowers are nice too, although you can’t eat or drink them—will get us through this while governments fail us with mixed messages.

xoxo

“Jane”

PS Disinfect the chocolate bar wrapper, by all means, or wear latex gloves. You know the drill. Also, if you’re engaging in personal propaganda—remember our three principles. A single, clearly articulated message. A common enemy (the virus, not the mayor, not the premier—I know we want to make it the premier, but no, it’s the virus—not the snotty senior on the C-train). An empowering, clear call to action.

“COVID-19 sucks, but we don’t have to.”

Now, go give people some weed, wine, and chocolate.

(I’m also accepting cigars, because, fuck it, I’ve given up on shepherding my lungs through this. But that’s another story.)

A narcissist, a psychopath, and a hypocrite walk into a bar…

I.

Put in a position where I must act either like a social hypocrite or a ruthless bitch without feelings, I don’t even choose the latter—I am the latter because I can’t be the former—and by the way, this convention, this use of latter and former, is so fucking pretentious, I can’t believe I’m using it. Confession: when I encounter it when reading, I always have to scrunch up my forehead, and look carefully—ok, latter refers to… ok, got it… I think… or did I screw it up? Is former before? Former’s before, right? And latter is later? Why didn’t they just say first point, second point? Or parse the sentence differently?

Anyway. My point: I don’t choose to be the ruthless bitch without feelings. I just am one.

Except, of course I’m not. Well. I can be ruthless. But ruthlessness is a characteristic that’s rooted in pretty intense emotions. For me, anyway. And acting ruthless involves looking at the intensity of those emotions… and then cutting a straight ruthless path through them… to the right thing.

The right thing, being, of course, an entirely subjective thing, so let us qualify it as… the right thing for me, the right thing as perceived by me, the important thing in that moment.

The right thing, for short.

II.

Sometimes, I coach Flora on how to do the kind thing instead of the right thing. Because, you know, I want her to do better than me.

Flora: But don’t you think ruthless people are more efficient?

Fucking nailed it, baby. But I don’t think… efficiency… is the thing that’s supposed to make the world go round.

III.

I’m taking lessons in social hypocrisy from a psychopath.

No, seriously. He’s been tested. Not even a borderline psychopath. We’re talking, off-the-charts scores. But, he had a really good mother, who taught him how to… fake it.

Except he doesn’t call it that. He calls it analyzing a social situation and acting appropriately.

Jane: Ok, for the last time, I don’t have that gene.

Psychopath: Neither do I. It’s a socially learned behaviour. Let’s try again.

The lessons are not going well. I think, at least in part… because I’m proud of my INability to engage in that type of behaviour. You know?

Although I do know… white lies make the world go round.

IV.

Ender has that gene. In spades.

Cinder: He’s lying!

Ender: I’m not!

He is… except in his head, he’s just saying the thing everyone wants to hear. Well, not everyone. His parents.

Cinder: Stinking little liar!

Jane: He’s not lying, sweetie, he’s just…

What? Protecting himself? Protecting me. Something like that. It’s not a bad thing, you know. As someone who doesn’t have that ability, I do appreciate it in others.

V.

Except when I don’t.

Jane: And for fuck’s sake, next time? Just tell me—‘I don’t want to—I just really need to be alone.’ Don’t come up with excuses. False excuses have no place between friends.

Her: You’re telling me you wouldn’t have been mad if I had told you the real reason?

Jane: I would have been fucking livid. For five minutes. Then I would have moved on.

Her: You are very scary when you are livid.

Truth.

Jane: I would have been livid in the privacy of my head.

Her: …

Jane: I would have tried to be livid in the privacy of my head.

Her: …

Jane: Ok, I would have probably freaked out at you. For five minutes. Then I would have moved on, and apologized.

Her: …

Jane: What? I am really good at apologizing.

I’m just not that good at social lying.

Which is actually hilarious, because I’m really good at story telling. And you’d think the two would be related.

But they’re not.

VI.

Something else that’s ironic: the psychopath occasionally calls me a hypocrite.

Jane: What the hell? Seriously?

Psychopath: You have completely different expectations of other people than you have of yourself.

Jane: That’s not hypocrisy. That’s common sense. I’m not like other people, so of course I have different expectations of myself.

Psychopath: You might also be a narcissist.

Note to self: when a psychopath calls you a narcissist, it’s even odds whether he’s being casually analytical or coolly manipulative.

In either case, there’s only one right response.

Psychopath: OMFG, why are you crying?

Jane: Because you upset me!

See? I am not a ruthless bitch without feelings.

Just… ruthless.

xoxo

“Jane”

You: WTF?

Jane: I’m experimenting and practicing.

You: What? Incomprehensibility?

Jane: …

You: OMFG, why are you crying?

Jane: Because you just don’t understand me!

;P

PS New here? Catch up on the first three series of Postcards from Cuba. Or just browse.

A conversation, a reading assignment, a writing exercise, and a re-run #10

A conversation:

Jane: I don’t understand. I don’t understand how two people who love each other as much as I know you two do can fight so much!

Flora: Oh, Mom. Don’t worry. We’re just like Sadie and Carter. (Sadie and Carter Kane, from The Kane Chronicles.)

Cinder: Yeah, we fight all the time…

Flora: … but we cooperate when it matters.

Cinder: Yeah, we’d totally work together to save the world. Right, Flora?

Flora: Right… Ouch! Why’d you punch me?

Cinder: The world is not in peril right now.

June 15, 2012

A reading assignment that will change your life:

On Kindness by Adam Phillips and Barbara Taylor.

Screen Shot 2016-01-05 at 7.08.45 PM

Preview the book’s insights on BrainPickings: How kindness became our guilty pleasure.

 

A writing exercise (that is also a secret discipline tool) to do instead of breaking up the latest fight between your kids:

Script the next fight between your kids. Then have them act it out. Present the play to your partner when s/he gets home.

Variant: the next time your kids are fighting, whip out your notebook or laptop and start transcribing

 

An explanation:

This is the tenth week of my 12-week unplugged AWOL (don’t tell my clients… um or too many of my friends 😉 ). No phones, no wifi… also, no winter! I’m going to be documenting things old school via journals and postcards (if you want a postcard from… well, that place where I’m hiding… email your snail mail address to nothingbythebook@gmail.com).

The blog’s on auto-pilot with a conversation from the archives, a reading recommendation, a writing assignment (cause I can’t nag any of you in person), and unsolicited advice… er, that is, a re-run post of the kind I don’t write very often anymore.

Enjoy.

 

A re-run:

The 2 a.m. phone call: why sleeping through the night is irrelevant

First published July 30, 2013

It’s 2 a.m. The telephone rings. It’s dark and I’m groggy as I race through the house for the telephone. I don’t get there in a time and I’m in a brief moment of panic as I crouch beside it and wait for it to ring again. My Flora’s sleeping out of the house this night and this phone call can only be about her.

The phone rings again; I pick up; the panic subsides. Yes, it’s Flora. Sleep over fail. She woke up in a strange place, a strange bed and is frightened. Wants to come home.

Sean runs over to get her—and we’re both briefly grateful about the place we live, where sleepovers take place a couple of doors down instead of across the city—and a short two minutes later, she’s in my arms, face pressed against my chest. She’s whispering “the whole story”: how it was so fun, and they had a great time, and she had no trouble at all falling asleep, and then she woke up, and it was dark and strange and she didn’t want to stay…

I listen and then shush her, tell her to go back to sleep. She presses tight against me. Now that she feels perfectly safe and secure, she also feels embarrassed that she bailed. I reassure her in a sleepy voice… and shush her again. “Now sleep, Flora, sleep.”

She presses against me. On the other side of me, Ender flips over, rolls. But doesn’t wake. It’s doesn’t happen very often these days that I find myself squished between two little bodies and I take a sleepy minute to savour the moment.

And I think about how much parenting takes place in these dark hours—when, really, we’re at our worst. Exhausted. Unconscious. Still on duty, but too tired to perform.

None of that ends when the baby (toddler, preschooler, kindergartener!) “sleeps through the night.” Our Cinder actually reached that milestone relatively quickly—sometime around two years. And so what? A few weeks of blissfully uninterrupted sleep followed. Then came the night terrors. When the first wave of those subsided, he got out of diapers—and had to get up to pee in the night. Six times a night, it seemed (probably just once or twice). Then Flora arrived and being awake for Cinder became irrelevant because I was waking up for Flora. When she nightweaned, she started waking up at 3 a.m., raring to go for the day. When she’d sleep late (aka, until 5 a.m.), Cinder would have night terrors. Inevitably, on the nights both kids slept soundly, the dog would have diarrhea… Or, naturally, I would have insomnia.

As I’m cataloging the different stages of post-child sleep deprivation, Flora presses her closer against me. “I’m going to roll over; you can hug my back,” I whisper. “Can’t I roll over with you?” she whimpers. “No, stay there—Ender’s on the other side.” I readjust, so does she. “I like your soft side better,” she sighs. Her head is between my shoulder blades. But her breathing is winding down—sleep is almost there.

“Mom?”

“Sleep, Flora.”

“Does Monday come after Sunday?”

“Yes. Sleep, Flora.”

“Is tomorrow Sunday?”

“Yes. Sleep, baby.”

“And then Monday?”

“Mmmm.”

“Good. I have plans on Monday.”

And she’s asleep. Ender does another flip. But doesn’t wake up. I send a prayer to Morpheus—or should I be petitioning Ra?–that neither of them wakes up with the sunrise. It’ll probably be a four pot, not four cup, coffee day, tomorrow, I think as I feel my breathing reach the sleep rhythm. And I’m out.

I don’t  belittle or dismiss sleep deprivation. It’s tough. There’s a reason sleep deprivation is a form of torture. And each family needs to find its own unique solution to ensuring all members—especially the primary caretaker—gets enough sleep. But “sleeping through the night”? That’s irrelevant. Because kids keep on needing their parents at night, long after they wean. Sometimes just for a minute, for a quick squeeze and reassurance. Sometimes for longer. But if not exactly forever—for a long, long time.

Ender wakes up that morning, by the way, at 5:30 a.m. I curse Morpheus and tell off Ra. Then we tiptoe downstairs. I make coffee. Pull the electronic babysitter—aka Backyardiggans on Netflix—onto duty. Cuddle the Ender. Write most of this post.

Flora streaks downstairs at 7 a.m. “Hi, Mom, I’m going to Meghan’s!” she calls. “Hug? Kiss?” I holler. She backtracks. Hug. Kiss. And for Ender. And for Maggie the runt terrier. And she’s off.

I look at Ender. Hug. Kiss. Soon, I’ll roll off the couch and make the second pot of coffee. By the third pot, I’ll be ready to face the day.

Pot number four, I decide to save for the inevitable afternoon crash.

Koala sleeping on a tree top

 (N.B. For those concerned about my caffeine intake, I should clarify they’re pretty small coffee pots. It was a purchasing mistake. We thought the small press would make us drink less coffee. Nope. It just makes coffee drinking a more labour-intensive process. Live and learn. On the plus side, the cafe is always fresh.)