The three-day Public Relations Workshop recently sponsored in New York by the American Council of Race Relations brought into sharp…
The three-day Public Relations Workshop recently sponsored in New York by the American Council of Race Relations brought into sharp focus the quandary in which workers in the field of combating group prejudice find themselves today. Three groups were represented in the meetings: experts in the general field of public relations, including advertising, direct mail, film, radio, and press; professional workers on the staff of national and local agencies specifically concerned with fighting group discrimination; and social scientists from the universities and national defense agencies.
Here is the background of the dilemma as the Council sessions revealed it: aroused to the menace of race hatred, people of good will have joined with representatives of minority groups in a whole spate of activities, locally, nationally, and even internationally. Depending on the time, the place, and the people, this activity ranges all the way from folk festivals and community sings to plastering the landscape with billboard posters. Prompting their work is the desire to “do good,” to spread brotherhood and unity, to secure fair and just treatment for all men regardless of the color of their skins, countries of birth, or forms of worship. And permeating it is an unmistakable pressure of dread, an urgent sense of the need for immediate action against an enemy endangering the wellbeing and future of America.
But increasingly in recent months, uncertainty and self-questioning have begun to gnaw at their minds: are their feverish activities actually accomplishing the purpose of diminishing prejudice? Granted that these activities constitute a source of gratification and comfort, at least to the participants on the side of right. But that is not enough. When a good-will meeting is followed—as has happened more than once—by a school strike, a street-corner beating, a lynching, or the burning of a cross, then the clouds of doubt gather.
Public Relations and the Social Scientist
The core of the dilemma might be summarized as follows: should we act now, today, continuing to take on trust the efficacy of our methods? Or should we subject what we do to scientific analysis, even at the risk of slowing up the work? For haunting the conference was the feeling of many of the participants that many prevalent methods were proving ineffective, might even be doing as much harm as good. The problem was highlighted in the discussions of speakers of the most diverse backgrounds and in practically every subject area covered. More than once the issue was sharply joined. The workshop heard Henry Hoke, direct-mail authority and author of It’s a Secret, advocate direct-mail advertising to “sell” everything from fish to good human relations, and it heard Drs. Bruno Bettelheim and Sol Ginsburg, after describing the psychological dynamics of prejudice, challenge such advertising approaches as superficial.
It is after all not surprising in our industrialcommercial culture that group-relations practitioners should resort to advertising techniques, that the methods used to boost the sales volume of famous-brand toothpastes or soaps should be taken out of their commercial context and used in the battle against prejudice. It is characteristic of human intelligence, and its limitations, that man uses modes of problem-solving he has learned in one situation to meet the demands and emergencies of new situations.
But the inadequacy of such habitual patterns of response is easily demonstrated. Take literally, for example, the very symbol which the activists-at-all-costs so often use in expressing the urgency of their fight against discrimination: putting out a fire. The age-old precept, water puts out fire, failed when used in the London blitz; the fire of oil and phosphorus bombs blazed anew when water was played on the flames. It took tragic experience to prove that not all fires can be fought with identical means.
The better way toward useful techniques would seem to be found in cooperation between those who act and those who do research. One approach in that direction was reported by Stuart Cook of the Commission on Community Interrelations, who made a case for the scientist doing his work while actually participating in community action.
However, the vague and undefined use during the meetings of such terms as “workshop,” “public relations,” and “community relations” is in itself a subtle sign that such cooperation between the practitioner and the social researcher is as yet in its infancy.
“Workshop” should mean not merely an aggregate of individuals who are exposed in common to lectures and discussions; such proceedings should more properly be called an “institute” or “conference” and, actually, the American Council’s meetings were nearer these. The term “workshop” would have been more appropriate if it had been possible for the meetings’ participants to live and work together, learning to speak the same language, and to use their emergent understanding and acceptance of each other for the solution of clearly recognized and mutually defined problems. Such a workshop would be a sign of an advanced state of cooperation between social scientists and practitioners. (Its vocabulary would probably have no term like “public relations,” with all its commercial connotations, using “community relations” instead.)
How Many Do We Reach?
What then emerged from the conference? Foremost, a healthy admission of the inadequacies in existing practice and research; and second, the beginning of the formulation of problems for combined operations.
The negative aspect of the first result makes it not a whit less important. Putting aside for the moment the question of the potential effectiveness of current public-relations techniques, those who use them (and most strongly believe in their efficacy) readily agree that they are neither exploiting all possible media of communication, nor reaching their proclaimed target-audiences. In a survey conducted by Arnold Rose (Bennington College), and reported by June Blythe of the American Council of Race Relations, it was shown that pro-democratic messages were being disseminated principally through pamphlets and public speakers. The press is used only intermittently, and films and radio only spasmodically. Radio appeals, even on the rare occasions of their use, too often take the form of unattractive speeches, forums, and spot announcements rather than dramatic presentations. About go per cent of all pro-democratic material is produced by the three largest organizations in the field of intergroup relations.
And who is reached by pamphleteering? Chiefly religious and educational leaders. Community groups, such as parent-teachers associations, are reached less often.
The survey showed that most pamphlets distributed contain rather broad general appeals that do not refer or apply to highly specific or local problems, and that the same appeals are monotonously used over and over again.
The use of speakers to address political organizations or other groups face to face on problems of group tension is rare. And veterans, foreign-language groups, and rural populations are hardly touched.
Finally, it was conceded that in turning out educational material, there was a marked lack of cooperation among producing organizations and, in consequence, material was sometimes conflicting, and very often certain segments of the population were reached over and over again, while other large segments were altogether untouched.
Does Propaganda Work?
About these facts—and the need to improve distribution—there could be no argument; but when the problem of the validity or appropriateness of public-relations approaches was raised, the issue between practitioners and social scientists was squarely joined. The consensus of the remarks of participating social scientists constituted a fundamental challenge to the practitioners: How do you know that what you are doing—assuming you are doing it well—is effective? Justifiably, this evoked from the practitioners a counter-challenge as to whether the social scientists had succeeded in developing techniques for reliably determining the effectiveness of any social action at all.
This challenge was taken up on two levels. Dr. Ginsburg, a practising psychiatrist who based his remarks on Freudian concepts, substantiated the social scientists’ fundamental doubt about the effect of material distributed through mass-communications media. Citing examples from his analytical experience, he showed that prejudice is often so deeply embedded in crucial personality conflicts that nothing but the resolution of the conflicts themselves could possibly alter an attitude of prejudice.
In answer to the question: how can you measure the impact of any social action? the social scientists presented a variety of procedures which they believed could demonstrate the efficacy—or inefficacy—of public relations and other techniques. Arnold Rose summarized the work in this field, and speakers followed him with detailed discussions of public-opinion polls (Leo Crespi, Princeton University), propaganda-testing techniques (S. H. Flowerman), and the use of the program analyzer—a mechanism that enables individuals to record their flow of likes and dislikes during a film or broadcast (Hertha Herzog, radio research director of McCann-Erickson, Inc.).
It would appear that in their attempts to measure the effectiveness of social action—propaganda, for instance—some social scientists have at least caught up with common sense, and have perhaps even advanced beyond it. They have done so despite the peculiar position in which they find themselves, a position that makes difficult every step beyond common sense. (Of common sense, Abram Kardiner in the last issue of COMMENTARY said that it is a “supremely prejudiced and culturally conditioned implement that is standard equipment for every human being—an adaptive, not an analytical tool, and hence useless for searching out the sources of disruptive social tensions.”) Both hampering and stimulating the social scientist is the fact that every man is his own social scientist; the matrix of social science is the stuff of everyday life experience. This denies to the social scientist the position of authority enjoyed by the physical scientist. (Yet it is interesting to note that when refuting the social scientist, the practitioners oddly enough fell back on scientific arguments about the adequacy of the sample, the possibility of generalizing from experimental results, methodology, etc.) But on the other hand, every man’s right to draw upon his own life experience serves to keep the social scientist out of the ivory tower.
The contemporary social scientist readily acknowledges that the nature of his findings does not constitute incontrovertible proof, but rather supporting or refuting evidence for a hypothesis. It is up to the practitioner, for his part, to accept the findings of the social scientist at least as evidence. Thus, when the scientist’s results indicate that a certain appeal is likely to be misunderstood, this should carry greater weight than the “common sense” judgment of any single individual. Those who insist upon maintaining their rule-of-thumb practices until such time as the social scientist shall have furnished them with absolute and undeniable proof will wait in vain. We cannot expect ultimate proof even from physical scientists, toward whom we are more timid in making demands, largely because their theoretical domain is far removed from everyday life experience.
Directives for Research
One of the constructive contributions of the conference was a realization that a more profitable undertaking for the practitioner than his defensive counter-attacks upon the reliability of the findings of social science is to make intelligent use of the researcher’s cooperation by posing vital questions for research. To some extent, such new formulations were made by activists at the conference.
For example, what seemed to stir the practical worker most were findings on the genesis of prejudice and its meaning for the individual, as revealed by techniques of analysis in depth. Faced with a view that related prejudice to deep-rooted emotional conflicts, the practitioner felt his work more than ever challenged. At this point, research found itself in turn challenged by this fundamental question: how—and to what extent—can insights derived from psychological study of the individual be applied to techniques aimed at masses?
The social scientists’ answer to this problem was tentative. Obviously, they put little stock in rational arguments alone to convert the prejudiced. However, war and postwar experience with methods of group therapy have suggested possible ways to achieve for greater numbers, and in shorter time, what psychotherapy has done for individuals treated singly. Julius Schreiber of the National Institute of Social Relations described the group-discussion technique developed in the Army’s wartime orientation program, and recommended its application on the community level to the problem of discrimination. Morris Janowitz (University of Chicago), also referring to Army experience, emphasized another aspect of the group-discustion technique: it inevitably means a decentralized and differentiated approach adapted to the specific experiences of group members rather than wholesale mass spraying, so to speak.
Even when the common mass media are used, setting up a group situation was advocated by Alice Keliher (New York University), who maintained that an educational film plus discussion was better than one without discussion; and that the showing of two films, even if one was “prejudiced,” was better than the showing of just one film. The merit in attacking the prejudiced attitudes of individuals while they are together in groups in factory or office or at social affairs rather than in isolation is that this harnesses the powerful sanction of group approval or disapproval for changing attitudes. Obviously, this sanction cannot operate in quite the same way on a single individual reading a pamphlet or listening to the radio in privacy.
At the same time, the rational approach—directed toward the individual or the group—may not be without significance, it was suggested. To be sure, the intended targets for mass appeals are surely not those who have managed to escape the powerful psychological and cultural forces that produce prejudice in individuals. Yet those who are already on “our side” may gain from reasoned arguments more strength and new stimulation to hold steadfast in their position; they may even be impelled to undertake work toward influencing the prejudiced.
Here the question was raised as to whether such current appeals as “good will and understanding,” “divide and conquer,” “brotherhood and unity,” “Americans all—immigrants all,” etc., are really effective in producing the desired changes of heart. The very raising of this question implies a partly negative answer. It does not seem likely that such appeals will prove strong enough to overcome deep-rooted personality trends; yet for the man who is on our side, and for him who is still neutral, they may be useful. Whether or not spending much energy and money on the propagation of such appeals to those already converted is justified, however, can only be decided after more study.
Two Streams in Mass Media
Emotional conflicts in the individual are, however, not the only hindrance to success of propaganda for good human relations. There are those broad cultural trends—above and beyond the individual—which permeate the vast stream of mass communications—radio, press, mass-circulation magazines, movies—to which everybody is daily exposed. The combined activities of all good-will agencies contribute only a tiny fraction to this vast stream. Is it, therefore, not more important to study the main stream rather than its tributaries? Of what value, for instance, is a 16-mm educational film designed to promote tolerance when a commercial film produced by Hollywood and seen by tens of millions of people can undo what little effect it may have had?
The same doubts were expressed in the field of radio. What good is it to laboriously develop a skillfully organized radio forum reaching only a small audience when such commercially-sponsored programs as “Can You Top This?” may that same evening be stamping into the minds of millions the negative stereotypes of minorities that the forum tries to erase?
This problem was raised by S. H. Flowerman, who suggested that if we could collect solid research evidence of the harm done by certain movies and radio programs, we could then bring pressure to bear upon producers. At least two other speakers dealt with this same problem by implication in discussing concepts and techniques appropriate for the study of the stream of mass communication. Paul Lazarsfeld of the Bureau of Applied Social Research at Columbia University introduced the notion of “social bookkeeping,” a systematic service that would note and evaluate—in terms of its bias or lack of bias—any material appearing in mass media of communications. Joseph Goldsen (Nejelski Company) described the techniques of content-analysis (such as those used in the study of enemy propaganda) on which such “social bookkeeping” would have to be based.
However, no easy answer to this question seemed possible. Some thought that the quantitative aspect was not decisive: possibly the small contribution made by material directed against prejudice, just because it moves in a direction different from what the public is used to, may attract more than its proportionate share of attention.
Obviously, the relative impact of the two main streams—the great volume of implicitly prejudiced mass-communications and the trickle of material explicitly directed against prejudice—needs to be investigated on a large scale.
The Need for Coordination
Again and again during the conferences, community and agency workers with neither the funds nor the facilities for research asked how the research techniques and findings of the social scientists might be made available for them. From this came a suggestion that had the whole-hearted support of most of the participants at the conference: the establishment of a central organization for research in the field of discrimination, which would start as an information center and which might develop into a coordinating body, directing the choice of subject matter in discrimination research. In this way, a solid structure of knowledge could be developed instead of a haphazard collection of data. In such a master plan, there would be a place for basic research as well as for evaluation of programatic activities. And at the same time, the researcher could be closely acquainted—sometimes even directly associated—with the situations which confront the practitioner in his daily work, so that his studies could be geared to ultimate usefulness.
The conference’s chief contributions were its sharpening of the dilemma in “public relations,” and providing the impetus and a possible blueprint for its resolution.
On the immediate practical side, the importance of evaluating and pre-testing propaganda method and material was forcefully brought out. As Alfred McClung Lee of Wayne University puts it: no modem industrial plant would consider going into production of a consumer commodity without first pretesting the need for it and the public’s response to it. Human-relations programs ought not to fall short of similar standards of efficiency.
For the social scientist, the conference broadened his perspective and his understanding of the community realities with which the practical worker must deal, and it opened up for him new avenues of research.
The need for coordination and cooperation among community practitioners and social scientists was dramatically shown. It became crystal clear that only through such joint work can action be undertaken that is not action for mere action’s sake, but a decisive and tested step towards improving man’s relations to man.
Indeed, the meeting itself may be considered a memorable demonstration of the high potential of a partnership between practitioners and social scientists, and the growing recognition of that fact by both.
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The Study of Man: Can We Fight Prejudice Scientifically?
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Banality and evil.
A week ago, I wondered what was going on in Sunspot, New Mexico. The FBI had swept into this mountain-top solar observatory, complete with Black Hawk helicopters, evacuated everyone, and closed the place down with no explanation whatever. Local police were politely told to butt out. It was like the first scene in a 1950’s Hollywood sci-fi movie, probably starring Walter Pidgeon.
Well, now we know, at least according to the New York Post.
If you’re hoping for little green men saying, “Take me to your leader,” you’re in for a disappointment. It seems the observatory head had discovered a laptop with child pornography on it that belonged to the janitor. The janitor then made veiled threats and in came the Black Hawks.
In sum, an all-too-earthly explanation with a little law-enforcement overkill thrown in.
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The demands of the politicized life.
John Cheney-Lippold, an associate professor of American Culture at the University of Michigan, has been the subject of withering criticism of late, but I’m grateful to him. Yes, he shouldn’t have refused to write a recommendation for a student merely because the semester abroad program she was applying to was in Israel. But at least he exposed what the boycott movement is about, aspects of which I suspect some of its blither endorsers are unaware.
We are routinely told, as we were by the American Studies Association, that boycott actions against Israel are “limited to institutions and their official representatives.” But Cheney-Lippold reminds us that the boycott, even if read in this narrow way, obligates professors to refuse to assist their own students when those students seek to participate in study abroad programs in Israel. Dan Avnon, an Israeli academic, learned years ago that the same goes for Israel faculty members seeking to participate in exchange programs sponsored by Israeli universities. They, too, must be turned away regardless of their position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
When the American Studies Association boycott of Israel was announced, over two hundred college presidents or provosts properly and publicly rejected it. But even they might not have imagined that the boycott was more than a symbolic gesture. Thanks to Professor Cheney-Lippold, they now know that it involves actions that disserve their students. Yes, Cheney-Lippold now says he was mistaken when he wrote that “many university departments have pledged an academic boycott against Israel.” But he is hardly a lone wolf in hyper-politicized disciplines like American Studies, Asian-American Studies, and Women’s Studies, whose professional associations have taken stands in favor of boycotting Israel. Administrators looking at bids to expand such programs should take note of their admirably open opposition to the exchange of ideas.
Cheney-Lippold, like other boycott defenders, points to the supposed 2005 “call of Palestinian civil society” to justify his singling out of Israel. “I support,” he says in comments to the student newspaper, “communities who organize themselves and ask for international support to achieve equal rights, freedom and to prevent violations of international law.” Set aside the absurdity of this reasoning (“Why am I not boycotting China on behalf of Tibet? Because China has been much more effective in stifling civil society!”). Focus instead on what Cheney- Lippold could have found out by Googling. The first endorser of the call of “civil society” is the Council of National and Islamic Forces (NIF) in Palestine, which includes Hamas, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, and other groups that trade not only in violent resistance but in violence that directly targets noncombatants.
That’s remained par for the course for the boycott movement. In October 2015, in the midst of the series of stabbings deemed “the knife intifada,” the U.S. Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel shared a call for an International Day with the “new generation of Palestinians” then “rising up against Israel’s brutal, decades-old system of occupation.” To be sure, they did not directly endorse attacks on civilians, but they did issue their statement of solidarity with “Palestinian popular resistance” one day after four attacks that left three Israelis–all civilians–dead.
The boycott movement, in other words, can sign on to a solidarity movement that includes the targeting of civilians for death, but cannot sign letters of recommendation for their own undergraduates if those undergraduates seek to learn in Israel. That tells us all we need to know about the boycott movement. It was nice of Cheney-Lippold to tell us.
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Convenience, wrote Columbia University law professor Tim Wu, is a tyrant. It makes our lives easier and more enjoyable, but everything comes with a price tag. We may not recognize that which we are sacrificing in the pursuit of convenience, but we are sacrificing nonetheless.
The instant gratification associated with on-demand society has made America’s shared cultural moments a thing of the past. The explosion of online shopping has eliminated the time consumers wasted traveling from store to store, but physical retail is dying as a result. The modern public square and the daily human interactions that it encouraged will disappear along with it. Machine learning has the power to introduce a “more compassionate social contract” and reduce physical risk associated with workplace hazards or lifestyle choices. But risk is just another word for freedom and, in the pursuit of convenience, we risk sacrificing our independence along with our hardships.
“We’re really reinventing the traditional insurance model with our vitality program,” said Marianne Harrison, the CEO of one of North America’s largest life insurers, John Hancock, in a recent appearance on CNBC. The beaming insurance executive boasted of her firm’s effort to marry a “technology-based wellness program” with an “insurance product.” That’s a loaded way of saying that this American insurer is soon going to charge based on the real-time monitoring of your daily activities. Behavior-based insurance will track the health data of policyholders through wearable devices or smartphones and distribute rewards based on individual choices. You don’t have to wear a tracking device to participate in this program—at least, not yet. Harrison assured skeptics that they could also dole out rewards to policyholders who take simple steps like reading preapproved literature, the consumption of which they presumably track.
This innovation is optional today, but the savings it yields for both consumer and insurer guarantee that it will soon become a standard feature of the insurance landscape. Your freedom to eat poorly, use tobacco products, drink alcohol, or perform any number of physical activities that include varying levels of risk are not limited. You’ll just have to pay for them. And if Democratic policymakers succeed in nationalizing the private health insurance industry under the auspices of Medicare-for-all or single-payer or whatever other euphemisms they apply to the public confiscation of private property, these “tools” will only become more pervasive.
A similar rationale—the primacy of collective health—can be applied to any number of activities that invite unnecessary risk that technology can mitigate. Foremost among these is the terribly dangerous American habit of driving a car.
In 2017, there were over 40,000 automobile-related fatalities. This was the second consecutive year in which the roads were that deadly and, if observers who attribute this rate of fatal traffic accidents to an increase in smartphone ownership are correct, there will not be a decline anytime soon. A 2015 study purported to show that replacing manual vehicles with autonomous cars or vehicles with advanced driver-assistance systems could eliminate up to 90 percent of all fatal accidents and save as many as 300,000 American lives each decade. It is perhaps only a matter of time before the option to own a driverless vehicle becomes a mandate with a hefty financial penalty imposed on those who opt out.
“[T]he threat to individual freedom that the driverless car is set to pose is at this stage hard to comprehend,” wrote National Review’s Charles C.W. Cooke. Presently, the car transports its diver to wherever they’d like to go, whether there are roads to facilitate the journey or not. In a driverless world, as Cooke noted, the driver becomes a mere occupant. They must essentially ask the car for permission to transit from point A to point B, and the whole process is monitored and logged by some unseen authorities. Furthermore, that transit could ostensibly be subject to the veto of state or federal authorities with the push of a button. That seems a steep price to pay for a little convenience and the promise of safety.
The pursuit of convenience, as Professor Wu explained, has resulted in remarkable social leveling. We enjoy more time today for “self-cultivation,” once only the province of the wealthy and aristocratic, than at any point in history. And yet, we cannot know true liberty without hardship. “The constellation of inconvenient choices may be all that stands between us and a life of total, efficient conformity,” Wu concluded.
There is more to celebrate in the technological revolutions of the last quarter-century than there is to lament. But in the pursuit of convenience, we’ve begun to make spontaneity irrational. In life, the rewards associated with experience are commensurate with that which is ventured. In a future in which the world’s sharp edges are bubble-wrapped, your life may exceed today’s average statistical length. But can you really call it living?