Saturday, 14 December 2013

Symptoms of a Disease: Mass Suggestion and Arguments of Sign in Robert Welch's Conspiracy Theory

Conspiracy theories are everywhere today, in entertainment, politics, economics. You can even sense their shadows in organizations which are supposedly as far from the fringe as you can get. Democrats believe Republicans are accomplices in the great conspiracy of the rich financiers against the poor and the middle class, and Republicans accuse Democrats of supporting a statist agenda towards control and tyranny over the American people. Both sides assume the others are alligned with a small cabal of powerful elites who are silently dictating the development of the world towards a hellish future. There is plenty that could be said about these theories and their effect on public discourse (for example creating the assumption that everyone but you has a sinister hidden agenda for what they do). But why do these arguments work in the first place? Why are some audiences so eager or ready to accept arguments often based on the most flimsy evidence? Here is one prevalent conspiracy theory (which has recently had quite a Renaissance of interest on the web) which I analyzed using Toulmin's The Uses of Argumentation.

In "If You Want It Straight," Robert Welch, the founder of the John Birch Society, sets forth his theory about how the United States of America is threatened to its core by an almost ubiquitous Communist conspiracy. Welch relates a fantastical foundation myth for this conspiracy and interweaves its history with almost every significant political event of the last two hundred years. Then he gives what I think is a central clue to the construct of his argument and its potential appeal to an audience: "As we move down the years . . . and you find these items from the past meshing so neatly into a total design with the present pattern which you already recognize, most of your doubts about the earlier history will probably disappear." 1968, the time when he is broadcasting this message for the first time, is a very disorienting time in America. There are riots, protests, assassinations, and a great amount of civil unrest. In the middle of such disorientation, people often seek explanations. Welch offers one in this broadcast. In doing so, he uses mainly what Toulmin calls substantive arguments of sign to prove the "fact" of the Communist conspiracy, and relies on an implicit motivational argument to encourage Americans to resist the Communist campaigns.

"In arguments from sign, the data consist of clues or symptoms" (49). It is an inductive process where certain clues are interpreted as symptoms of an attribute possessed by a "person, object, event, or condition." By themselves, the data do not give a clear meaning, but the warrant "interprets the meaning or significance of these symbols" (49). As such, it works well with methods of mass suggestion such as those used by Welch. Welch claims he is displaying a complex mosaic, and does so by suggesting that just about every progressive initiative in the entire USA is a part of a Communist conspiracy. My model shows how his techniques may play out with his contemporary audience, focusing on the backing they fill in for him. (Key: D=Data or information which is already accepted, C=Claim or what the arguer wants to get accepted as truth, W=Warrant or the qualifying element which interprets the data and connects it with the claim, B=Backing or the support the argument find in existing attitudes, documents, laws, established values, etc.)

The first argument builds upon an assumption about the international Communist movement. Earlier in the broadcast, Welch provides a history of Communism and how it has spread through social protest, agitation, and armed revolution. He claims that this past is symptomatic of the Communist modus operandi and predicts that they will attempt the same in the US. With this claim, he is not doing much more than repeating the warnings of the US government and educational institutions from propaganda like Red Nightmare. Linking his arguments to this background provides him with all the backing he needs to proceed. 

In a second argument from sign, Welch mentions all the social upheaval and unrest in the 60s, including race riots, protests, the hippie movement, the sexual revolution, as well as black rights, Hispanic rights, and women's rights, and reads it as clear evidence of a Communist conspiracy to take over the US. The data is probably on most people's minds in this turbulent period, so it makes sense that he would have resonance with some people. The logical "leap of faith" it takes to see all these movements as symptoms of a Communist master plan makes this argument one that is less likely to be accepted. However, it does fit with the narrative established by the government about the Communist conspiracy, and it resonates with the impression perpetuated about Communists as devious and stealthy. This may be a field-dependent argument, which can only work with people who believe in the Communist plot and have reactionary sentiments towards the rapid change which is occurring in the US.

The third argument is an implicit motivational argument about how undesirable such Communist rule would be for Americans. Welch states from early on that this conspiracy threatens "your liberty and the very lives of you and your family in the near and quite foreseeable future," and keeps referring to the results of the Communist plot which will "destroy American civilization so they can rule over the ruins that will be left." The data says here that "US citizens need to resist progressive efforts to remain safe from Communism," and it builds upon the "fact" established previously about the nature of international Communism and the Communist origin of the social upheaval currently taking place in the US. This motivational argument is an evaluation of those facts based on the emotions of fear and anger, and the value of self-preservation. As shown in my model, all of these arguments can only work if the audience can supply the backing of an established attitude and belief about Communism and Communists. Without this backing, the model falls apart and the argument deteriorates to incomprehensible mass suggestion and threats.