The capture of the minds of intellectuals under Stalinism is portrayed by the Polish author Czeslaw Milosz in The Captive Mind published in 1951. In our erstwhile “free” democracies we are suffering from a capture of the mind that shares some of the same intellectual roots as the totalitarian system under which Misosz had lived until his exile in Paris.
This new captivity of the mind affects mostly, although not exclusively, what we can describe as the cognitive elite, the movers and shakers, the leaders of thought and of the various institutions of society, and including our politicians and journalists. Because of their influence, the majority that are not part of the cognitive elite also live under a captivity, although not always a captivity of the mind. Apart from the occasional expression of popular will, Brexit being a prime example, the elite hold sway, but it is a hold that is both fragile and powerful.
In entitling this piece “The Captive Mind of the Media” I am not referring to us poor consumers of the kind of low grade journalism we have become used to. I am referring to the minds of journalists that in large part are now captive to a kind of soft totalitarianism. It is this captivity of mind, that ironically given Jordan Peterson’s lifelong study of totalitarianism, is displayed in the latest version of the “Jordan Peterson hatchet job” published by the Sunday Times.
The obvious evidence of the captivity of mind is the lazy co-opting of the pre-processed prejudices of those that take exception to Peterson’s thought, the very social set that the author belongs to.The hostility this set holds towards Peterson is one that the author was unable able to conceal with her frequent sarcastic comments. But there is more telling evidence of this captivity of mind later.
I listened to the entire interview (it can be found here) and it is clear that the article is not a fair reflection of that interview. Parts are cherry picked in order to further the hatchet job on Peterson: allusions to Trump constituting a comparison with the former US President; implying that Peterson supports male dominance; that his fans fete him as “a psychological authority in possession of all the answers — busy dispensing advice to fans about their mental health”. The language is consistently hostile, and the method is to find every way possible to twist what she heard in order to further the narrative she has already adopted without question.
This is not journalism. What is so very sad is that she had an opportunity to present an honest account of Peterson and his extraordinary influence. Instead, it is too easy to dismiss those that watch his videos, or read his books. A fascinating question would have been what it is about his message that has struck a chord with so many people (and not only men). But this would have been to risk the cognitive dissonance of allowing her preconceptions to be challenged. And this is something for which journalists have almost entirely lost the ability. Intellectual curiosity has become a rarity.
Another angle would have been to explore the relationship between his message and his appalling experience over recent times. The author instead took the low tactic of inserting words his critics would use as if they were true in order to frame and undermine what Peterson actually said.
There were snide comments too about the way his daughter dealt with the medical establishment, comments that could be taken as being quite offensive. The author seems to assume that the medical scientists are always right. Regarding Peterson’s daughter Mikhaila, who, it is hinted, regards “YouTube as a viable substitute for medical school”, the author scathingly remarks “this is not the person I would entrust with saving my life”. Now those of us that have serious conditions know through first hand experience that the medics are not always right. Their knowledge is limited. This is so even with fairly common illnesses, but it is even more so with the kind of rare condition suffered by Peterson. Of course it is a risk to go contrary to the advice of a medical practitioner, and in this case it was also most courageous.
And it is here that we find the most telling evidence of the captive mind.The author’s attitude fits rather too well into the world view that the elite, the experts, the scientists, etc, etc, know best, and the rest of us should just shut up and do as we are told. Perhaps this attitude also underlies the low journalistic standards of The Times in general. They seem not to regard their readers as being up to the task of making up their own minds based on the facts uncovered by the journalist and presented to us. Instead, we need to be told what to think. I’m sorry, but those of us that think for ourselves see through the shallowness of much of what now passes for journalism.
In these days when we hear so much about following “the science”, it is useful to be reminded of some of the damage inflicted on whole populations by supposed experts. It is only now that we are escaping from the myth of the low fat diet inflicted in the 1960’s by the fraudulent Ancel Keys and US politicians looking for an easy answer to heart disease. The enormous damage done by a high sugar and high carbohydrate diet is slowly gaining traction, but in the intervening years there are some that have ignored the experts, and now science is catching up.
One of the antidotes to such errors is curiosity combined with intellectual honesty. This is where the media could return to making a socially useful contribution. Instead it has sold out to an authoritarian mindset that defines what it is permissible to think.
It is not our minds, the minds of those that read the output of the media, that are captive. It is the minds of those that think of themselves as our thought leaders. And it is a captivity of mind that now pervades the entirety of the main stream media. Milosz provides us with an apt description of this kind of thought leader: “His chief characteristic is his fear of thinking for himself”.