It’s only natural that we humans make sense of the world by placing things into categories. Action movies vs. comedies. The “Fruits and Vegetables food group vs. “Breads and Cereals.” Conservative vs. liberal.
Mental shortcuts that help us streamline our thinking are called “heuristics,” and while they can be an asset when trying to figure out the new and unexpected, they can also be a source of vulnerability, creating openings for those who understand heuristics to manipulate us.
Often such manipulation is innocent. For example, the “Four Food Groups” of my youth referenced in the first paragraph has been replaced by different structures over time, such as the “Food Pyramid” or “My Plate.” All of these were designed to accomplish a public good (getting Americans to eat a healthy, balanced diet) by tapping into the general human desire to make complex information simple through easy-to-grasp categorization.
More sinister manipulation takes place when communication, particularly political communication, takes advantage of heuristics-driven vulnerabilities in our mental makeup.
For example, the common practice of defining your opponent in a political campaign (by endlessly repeating he or she is a plutocrat or elitist – regardless of the subject allegedly being discussed) is an effort to get the public to make the quick and permanent association between the opposing candidate and the adjective chosen to define them (plutocrat, elitist, etc.). For once such an association is in place, appeals to understand the defined candidate as a complex human being become nearly impossible.
Similarly, an accusation that aligns with intuition (ideally delivered via a catchy slogan) is an easy way to get people to believe a crisis or problem exists, without having to do any research (or thinking) on their own. What is the scope and nature of America’s current problems vis-à-vis immigration, race relations and sexual harassment, for example? No need to think about the details if we simply embrace the #MAGA, #BlackLivesMatter or #MeToo hashtags thoughtfully provided to us by people we have never met.
In the realm of BDS, the most well-known example of manipulative, heuristics-based politics is the “Apartheid” slur which anti-Israel activists pepper spray at audiences, regardless of what topic is being debated. Some have even gone so far as to replace “Israel” (already in scare quotes) with “Apartheid Israel” in written communication. The point of such efforts is clear: to cement the idea that Israel is the successor to Apartheid South Africa in people’s minds to the point where no amount of factual information can shake that notion loose.
While there is always a certain contempt for the audience built into political activism based on simplification and manipulation, the communication accompanying recent clashes at the Gaza border raises this contempt to the level of a dare.
There has always been a certain amount of objective reality Israel-haters insist their allies reject, from the Jenin “massacre” that never was, to the notion that Israel deliberately targets civilians whenever Hamas or Hezbollah decide to heat up a border. But the storyline that poured forth from Hamas’ news sources, amplified by that organization’s Amen Corner in the West (that the clash was a peaceful protest fired upon indiscriminately by brutal Israeli soldiers), is so divorced from the information and images before our eyes that it can only be seen as testimony to the contempt Hamas has for not just the public, but for their own supporters.
For example, what would make an organization scream that everyone killed at the border was an innocent civilian, while also proudly announcing the death of martyrs associated with terrorist groups (along with photos of those martyrs clad in camo)?
To a certain extent, such behavior assumes propaganda storylines developed during previous clashes (ones featuring Israeli brutality visited exclusively upon Palestinian innocents) will take hold immediately once new violence breaks out. But it also assumes the public to be made up of unbelievably ignorant suckers, as well as assuming full ownership over the minds of friends and allies who are being asked to scream at the top of their lungs that 2 + 2 = 5.