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Category Manipulation in Global Dialogue

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It may be fruitful to explore the different contexts in which category manipulation is practiced in relation to social change intiatives. Such "manipulation", whatever it may be taken to mean, may be conscious and deliberate, casual or unintentional, or completely unconscious. It may also be difficult to detect and a challenge to comprehend, since obviously we think and communicate through categories that may well be subject to such manipulation.

"Manipulation" may also be taken to be a pejorative label for a process that may be undertaken with good intentions -- although those intentions and the process may be considered questionable by those subjected to them, or a witness to them.

Varieties or arenas of category manipulation

Ideological propaganda (totalitarian style): This has been well-documented in relation to Communist regimes, especially with regard to educational processes and constant reinforcement of political education (notably in China).

Psychological operations (military and covert style): This has become standard practice in relation to modern military operations, both in the field and in relation to external media protrayal of a conflict. Variants are also extensively practiced as "covert operations" by intelligence agencies, whether within their own country (to undermine support for unwelcome perspectives) or as a means of undermining support for unwelcome factions in other countries.

Behaviour modification (interrogation style): This has been well-documented in relation to interrogation techniques, originally in Communist countries, but increasingly as a recognized interrogation practice in sensitive security situations (Northern Ireland, Middle East, Latin America).

News management (political style): This is now considered a virtual necessity for any political campaign and to ensure day-to-day popular appreciation of the process of governance. The role of "spin-doctors" is increasingly acknowledged.

News management (corporate style): Corporations engaged in practices that may receive bad publicity that undermines their capacity to do business or to maintain share values increasingly require extensive public relations support. The process has been recently redefined as "reputation management". The response in the USA to "food disparagement" is one example.

Indoctrination (religious style): Belief systems, however institutionalized, have long devoted attention to the manner in which their believers can be be reinforced in that belief. Believers are encouraged to affirm those beliefs and to recognize their merits over those of alternative belief systems (which may well be demonized).

Education and training (parental): The process of education of a child is naturally one in which the child tends to brought up to see things in the manner of the parents (or in direct opposition to them).

Education and training (peer group style): Children, students and adults are subjected to contextual pressures, often severe, that encourage them to perceive in particular ways. This may be considered a normal process of socialization.

Advertising and concept promotion (media style): Immense resources are devoted to promotion of products, services and "concepts". The techniques involved are well-documented. The packaging of those techniques into targeted campaigns have been extensively explored. Market research has successively segmented society into potential markets. Data gathering in support of this has now become continuous.

Prosyletizing and conversion (religious style): The commitment of many religions has long been  to disseminate their essential message and to engage people in such a way that they are persuaded to change their attitudes and lifestyles.

Language inculcation (jargon acquisition): Whilst a language or jargon may be voluntarily acquired, this is often closely associated with pressures towards socialization and socio-economic survival. It may also be associated with psycho-social survival and development of identity. Acquisition of a language, a jargon or an accent, is not a neutral process. It encourages certain patterns of thought and inhibits others.

Role modelling (personality cult): In many situations individuals are effectively encouraged to model themselves on the behaviour and attitudes of others.

Issue framing (advocacy style): Advocacy groups are obliged to find ways to frame "positively" the issues they support, and those that represent them, whilst framing "negatively" alternative perspectives and their supporters.

Community development: This process, often perceived as essential to social change, may be framed in terms of the need to change attitudes, abandoning acquired attitudes that are defined as ill-adapted to modernity or simply dysfunctional.

Entertainment: Essential to much entertainment is offering a suspension of reality, persuading people for a time of some other reality. Much humour derives from recognition of the contrast between the engendered abnormal reality and that of daily life. Entertaining ourselves to death...

Interpersonal relationships: Many interpersonal relationships are based on persuading another of the validity of a particular perspective or course of action. Courtship behaviour is but the most obvious example. Encouragement to subtance abuse is another.

Personal rationalization: The ways in which people can reframe situations for themselves, to justify a course of action, has been extensively explored. This is especially the case with respect to justification of substance abuse or any form of what might otherwise be termed "indulgence".

Conventionally recognized forms of category manipulation

It could be said that it is philosophy that has been most active in identifying what is here termed "category manipulation". This has of course been done under other labels, notably relating to style of argument. Some of the questionable processes identified include:

Ad hominem

Eastern logics...

Why category manipulation succeeds so readily

People want to believe (and want to believe in someone)
Need for instructions
Need for simplicity now
- simplest is best (Occam)
- pressure for simplicity (in texts, media, 12-year olds)
Need for a basis for action
Need for certainty -- avoidance of ambiguity
Limited attention time -- quick -- sound bite

De-demonizing category manipulation

We all do it
Orgy of...
Dancing with...spinning each other around...
Jon's perspective

Conspiracy, paranoia and unseen riders?

Beyond the acceptable (for whom), are there higher orders of manipulation?
Bilderberg note...deluded can fool all some of the time,....
By whom is one ridden? Sexual sense! Shadow

The art of explaining with great clarity in order to disguise another reality -- using greater dimensional freedom

Atkin and entrapping people in dimensional prisons whose existence they deny

Are domesticated animals imprisoned? Unhappy?

Wage slaves?

Category ecosystems

It is useful to distinguish between emphases in the use of categories in terms of:

 - content identified (as in information systems, varying from simplistic on-line category menus to complex retrieval profiles)

 - structure of category system (as in classification and knowledge organization theoretical concerns)

 - rigour and/or explanatory power (notably scientific versus didactic or illustrative uses)

 - cultural or personal preferences in distinguishing categories (as in the case of illnesses only recognized within certain cultures, or categories favoured in particular popular sub-cultures, including gang jargons)

 - historical, developmental or learning emphases (which may favour "obsolete" or "naive" categories, or those appropriate to different educational and research levels)

 - category systems integral to particular belief systems or philosophies

For the unsuspecting, each of these offers particular kinds of trap in that the categories emphasized are readily treated as a "reality". It is of course possible to move from one approach to another, reducing the constraints imposed by any one of them. Use of alternative search engines on Internet, or of the many menus of categories offered on home-pages, is an example.

But, whether taken in apparent isolation, or as part of a system, categories imply an often unrecognized challenge to those who use them. This may be usefully clarified by using an optical lens as a metaphoric description of a category. Within this metaphor, individuals (and institutions) are visually challenged to the point of blindness unless they make use of a category to provide conceptual focus through which to view and comprehend the world. But the question is how to select the category to use and the adequacy of the category that is selected. As with the poorly sighted, people can make do with extremely inadequate corrective lenses (even the bottom of a bottle may be used!). Either vanity or economics may lead to tolerance of a fuzzy perception of the world -- people cannot repeatedly afford to invest in acquisition of the newest and sharpest category definitions through refresher courses and retraining programmes. People may choose not to switch between lenses for close-up and distant viewing; dark glasses may be worn as a fashion accessory even at night. And it may be virtually impossible to correct for some inherent conceptual deficiencies, as illustrated by the visual challenge for the colour blind.

The unwary may also be easily led to believe that the world of categories is inherently stable if not static. Ways in which this is less than true include:

 - disciplines generate new categories as part of the development of new theories; others are abandoned through the same process;

 - political processes, notably at the international level, give credence to new categories, if only as as a political fashion to signal policy renewal and a fresh approach ("sustainability" is a current example);

 - individuals, whether as scholars or consultants, aspire to have their names associated with new "models" that capture reality in new ways, and are often based on a particular pattern or combination of categories; there is a high degree of competitive pressure to ensure that these are adequately copyrighted for marketing purposes;

 - the dynamics of the relationship between schools of thought, belief systems or political factions is characterized by efforts to reframe categories so that those favoured emerge in a better light as more adequate to capturing reality; in a media-oriented society, the status of categories then becomes closely associated with image-building or destruction (whether through rumour or negative advertising);

 - in a society in constant search for new stimuli, categories can easily go out of fashion; boredom with old category frameworks can render them meaningless, especially for the young;

Underlying these dynamic processes is a tendency for people and groups to "play" with categories -- possibly seen as a pursuit that requires no justification. Such play, as game-playing, usually involves elements of deception. This may be for purposes of innocent humour, to distinguish the player in academic, literary or other circles, or as a part of a complex covert exercise in disinformation (involving propaganda and image-building, whether for political, economic or religious purposes).

It is possible to assume that any focus on "categories" is so abstract as to be of little relevance in practice. To do so is to lose sight of the many ways in which categories are used to structure and manipulate social reality -- usually to the advantage of the privileged. The apartheid era categories of "white" and "non-white" are an example. The arguments for political correctness are another. Often it is as much a case of the excluded categories in any discourse as of those that are included. It should not be forgotten that the many ongoing religious conflicts have their origin in differences over categories and their interpretation.

In the following paragraphs the concern is neither with particular content nor with particular category systems, but rather with the ways in which both content and pattern can be used in a repertoire articulating interaction and dialogue. The concern is both with deliberate and inadvertent misuse, as well as with coming to an understanding of richer and more appropriate modes of dialogue -- and their implication for future knowledge organization.

Consider a space of discourse, whether a discourse community, a roundtable or some other context. Participants are each free to place in this space various categories and may well order them through some category system. If the space is understood to be convexly curved (a table top such that items on it tend to roll off the edge), this helps to understand how only by participants constantly pushing categories back into the middle is it possible to avoid them being gradually forgotten (and falling out of the discourse space). Continuous mapping of the space reduces this tendency, but some discourse spaces are so curved that it is virtually impossible to prevent categories from being rapidly forgotten.

Categories are of course positioned by participants to compete most effectively for collective attention. But participants, like gardeners, may be quite cold-blooded in discarding particular categories in favour of others with greater chance of success. Rather than discard them, they may be reframed ("pruned") to improve their status -- although such reframing tends to bear more resemblance to the software technique of "morphing" images into forms that bear little apparent relationship to their initial form. Skilled participants will not necessarily rely on a few major categories, rather they may use strategies typical of the game of go to position advantageously many minor categories.

The rich interplay of categories in a space of discourse can perhaps best be compared to the many forms of interplay within and between species in a coral reef. Examples include:

 - squid
 - silversides

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