This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.

Controlling the Narrative and Cultural Hegemony
Jeff Marshall 9/15/2021 7:01 AM

The flip side of renaming an object (see part 2 of this series) is to control the narrative to prevent others from reasserting the object's original name and meaning or creating a different one. Institutions and organizations help to enforce and control the narrative through sanctions and punishment through the use of negative reinforcement aspect of Operant Conditioning (see part 4 of the Citizen Resilience series). Sanctions range from censure to employment termination.

Freedom of speech is under direct attack. People have even fired for saying “All lives matter” rather than Black Lives Matter (BLM). There are many documented cases of academic speech suppression and several universities canceled conservative speakers because they did not conform to the accepted narrative. There are also documented cases of employers firing people for expressing opinions contrary to the accepted social narrative. The federal and several governments have also accepted the Critical Race Theory (CRT) narrative and mandate CRT training and censure employees that oppose it.

During my doctoral studies, there was a distinct accepted narrative that reflected Diversity, Inclusion, and Equity. There was also direct support for BLM and CRT. The university did not tolerate deviation from this line of thought. I learned this the hard way when a lecturer severely censured for expressing my thoughts and asked why I was even in the program and suggested I drop out in my first course. Later in the program, I watched a group of students attack a lecturer over grades twice. They received low grades on two assignments. During the second attack, they accused her of “acting white”. When she explained we were in a doctoral program and high standards are required, she was shouted down. She canceled the rest of the class and left the program. The university apologized to the class for her behavior.

These actions, be they from academia, government or industry, attack the counter-narrative and protect the desired narrative by suppressing free speech through fear and intimidation. They are direct violations of both the First Amendment and academic freedom. They have a chilling effect on any rational debate of ideas and run completely counter to a free society.

So why do academia, industry, and interest groups vehemently suppress free speech and reasoned debate of ideas? Perhaps for one or more of three broad motivations.

  • Our government and society suppressed Black voices through at least the 1950s and the start of the Civil Rights Era. Even then, there was still virulent discrimination and suppression through the 1960s and into the 1970s. So perhaps some advocates say it is time to suppress the conservative side of the argument and give voice to the Black and liberal side. 
  • Perhaps others feel their desired goals are so good and so pure the end justifies the means. 
  • And, I suspect, others are interested in fundamentally reshaping American society and will use any means necessary to do so. Liberty may mean little to them and they may see the suppression of liberty as part of their objectives.

Whatever the motivation, they seem to use Antonio Gramsci’s cultural hegemony concept, although they turn it on its head. Gramsci was a Marxist writer in the pre-World War II years who rebelled against Mussolini’s fascist government. His writings put a kinder, gentler face to Marxism that appeals to modern Marxist to sugarcoat their message.

Nicki Lisa Cole, in What is Cultural Hegemony?, wrote, “Cultural hegemony refers to domination or rule maintained through ideological or cultural means. It is usually achieved through social institutions, which allow those in power to strongly influence the values, norms, ideas, expectations, worldview, and behavior of the rest of society.” She notes this done through consent and “common sense”, but “This form of "common sense" fosters the belief that success and social mobility are strictly the responsibility of the individual, and in doing so obscures the real class, racial, and gender inequalities that are built into the capitalist system.” Racquel Nicdao, Concept of Cultural Hegemony According to Antonio Gramsci, notes this “common sense” is forms of persuasion delivered through institutions such as schools, social groups, and churches.

T.J. Jackson Lears, in The Concept of Cultural Hegemony: Problems and Possibilities, notes that cultural hegemony rests on the dynamics of consent and domination. Hegemony in Gramsci notes, “Gramsci’s “hegemony” refers to a process of moral and intellectual leadership through which dominated or subordinate classes of post-1870 industrial Western European nations consent to their own domination by ruling classes, as opposed to being simply forced or coerced into accepting inferior positions.”

What we see today turns Gramsci’s concept on its head. The smaller groups are now imposing their concepts on the traditionally dominant group. Perhaps that explains why there is more compulsion and coercion than traditionally noted in cultural hegemony. The institutions promulgating the new ideology and culture to supersede the traditional one must be able to coerce if they cannot persuade. 

Throughout much of American history, culture hegemony took the form of cultural assimilation and the American Dream. America was the Melting Pot. Come to America, assimilate into the culture, work hard, and you will succeed and do well. Most of America thrived with this process. 

My family is a good example. On my mother’s side, I am third generation born. Her family came from Eastern Europe and quickly assimilated. Several first generation born sons fought in WWII, one earning a Silver Star for valor. My grandfather left the coal mines of Pennsylvania for Baltimore and a better life. The first three generations had it hard. They faced discrimination and life in the coal mines, but they were determined to be Americans. They maintained the family cultural traditions but assimilated into Americans. On my father’s side, parts of the family go back before the Revolution. They were poor farmers in the hills of Virginia. My grandfather left the farm to seek a better future, eventually working blast furnaces at Sparrows Point in Baltimore. My father and uncle were the first to go to college. We now have three doctors in the family.

But with reverse cultural hegemony, cultural assimilation is now despised as cultural imperialism. The Melting Pot is now cold and the social engineers attack the culture that built it as racist and sexist. But the only offer on the table seems to be more conflict and coercion through the same institutions that once transmitted the values of the Melting Pot and the American Dream.

And that is perhaps the weakness of the new ideology. Can it really persuade and stand on its own or is it part of a maskirovka for something else? 

Search:  Narratives

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Jeff Marshall
Dr. Jeffery Marshall has a doctorate from Vanderbilt's Leadership and Learning in Organizations Ed.D. program. He is currently the President and founder of Morgan Works, a small company that helps organizations understand their environments and develop and execute effective plans. He is a retired Army Brigadier General and former Vice President, Consulting Services with a global consulting company. He commanded the US brigade during peacekeeping operations in Bosnia, led the first multinational team that designed and built the Afghan National Secuity Forces, and was the first Director of US European Command J7 (Analysis and Assessments). In civilian life, he has led teams ranging from small project teams to large, critical programs. He has a batchelor's degree from the United States Military Academy and masters' degrees from Johns Hopkins University and the US Army War College. He is a Chartered Financial Analyst, Certified Management Accountant, and has numerous certificates in Information Technology. Dr Marshall and his wife have four sons, two of which served multiple combat tours in Afghanistan and Iraq. He is a life long student of history, political science and the factors and philosophy that shape them.

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