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How Persuasion Has Become A New Source Of State Power

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Many years ago, Noam Chomsky wrote a book called “Manufacturing Consent”, dissecting the propaganda machine of the US government to create domestic public support for its military adventures abroad. While public awareness about governments has definitely increased since then, the propaganda machinery seems to have only become more sophisticated and even subtler—not just in the US, but all around the world. And India is no exception.

Writer and political thinker Noam Chomsky. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

With social media echo chambers and information bubbles, it is easier now to manipulate, control, and assert narratives that the state wants. The sheer volume, repetition, and ubiquity of false information, hate speech, and divisive narratives that flood the web today is unparalleled. It is not just the governments that are engaged in this. Certain people and groups have also realised a new means to threaten others with divergent views, with impunity. A new type of consent is sought to be created, what may be called ‘manufacturing fanatic consent’.

The tensions of democracy–divided opinion, confusion, pulls of varied interest groups–appear too much of a burden to bear, especially in times of economic downturn. Democracy only appears to result in a superficial unity of the country while uncertainties abound regarding all kinds of issues–social, economic, and political. In such times, passionate belief in a cause or a person can be a source of both solace and hope for the future. This can easily be achieved under the garb of democratic politics, when people are fed up with corruption, dysfunction and change, and crave some order and structure.

When the individual has not much hope in the immediate time and space, the lure of surrender to the will of a larger group, for example, the ‘nation’, or an idea of it, can be high. This surrender of the will of the individual to another’s, often as defined by a few persons, can easily be achieved by social media. Those who oppose it can easily be tagged as anti-national traitors trying to withhold the nation from achieving its potential. The manipulators rarely surrender their comfort but they project an austere lifestyle of discipline.

This makeover of a ‘nation’ in the mold of its leader, fueled by the passion to reach a higher purpose, was earlier achieved by press censorship and state propaganda with arrests, persecution or execution of dissenters. Today, while arrest is still a weapon of the State, it has outsourced other means to a fanatic and aggressive public–impatient to pronounce its assent to and align with the State, while too defensive to allow any dissent. A ‘progressive’ alternative to press censorship has been found in the form of misinformation by proxy, to exploit modern targeted advertising in order to arouse passion and foster fear. This decentralised yet organised means has proved to so effective that execution of dissenters is no longer the burden of the State but the ‘will of the people’.

To be successful, propaganda has to be complete. It should reach every person at all points. Social media easily provides for this. It appeals to the brain’s seat of violent emotions. That does not mean it causes violence, just that it can increase the possibility of it. It makes it easier to apply the brand of treason to those who even appear to oppose the leader, or who differ with the objectives of the nation being sought. So complete is the identification of the individual to the State, so complete is the manufacturing of fanatic assent.

What does this mean for the public discourse? Does it get any better than it already is? The complexities of the world–the issues, policies and solutions–are widely divergent from the simplistic narratives–stereotypes, myths, and traditions–that people use to make sense of them. This includes the most ignorant person to the most enlightened one.

The capacity for independent thought is overestimated in today’s world of many ‘isms’. We are forced to choose between two manufactured alternatives, like people had to choose in Britain, in the US, and will do so soon in India–alternatives that compete not for substance but for being the first to reach you and do so as often as possible.

What we seek today, it seems, is not enlightenment, but a sort of ‘enlightened manipulation’. Attention is neither shared nor saved, it is a zero-sum game. So is mass manipulation, whether centralised or decentralised. In a democratic setup, based mainly on elections, this manipulation has no room for half-measures which can be doubted. The State seeks complete consent, not by changing its ways, but by arousing passions of some to bring the rest in line. It does, today, by ‘persuasion’ what it used to do by legal coercion. This use of people and technology as ‘instruments of persuasion’, backed by total impunity, is its new expression of power.

Author’s Note: Some ideas in this piece are inspired by Tim Wu’s “The Attention Merchants”.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

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Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

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A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

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A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

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A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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