Pandering to extremists

Appealing to the vanity of one’s audience is one of the standard rhetorical tricks of speakers seeking to ingratiate themselves and thus make their message more palatable. Donald Trump in the US has raised such pandering to extremists to high levels. But this kind of appeal to the tribal vanity of the audience is by no means unique to him and one does not have to look far to find other examples that are as extreme.

I posted recently how Sinhala Buddhist extremists in Sri Lanka had taken to vigilante violence against Muslims based on the most outlandish rumors that were spread via Facebook. These Buddhists militant extremists have patrons in parliament and even in the Sri Lankan cabinet and a cabinet minister had given a speech to Sinhala expatriates in Paris in 2014 that, according to this report, was full of falsehoods such as:

  • “the Sinhala are a rare race of people born to a unique island that surpasses all the world’s countries”
  • “this race is about to be wiped out by minorities that entered the island under the welcome protection of a benign host population. He particularly picks on the Muslims at conclusion.”
  • “that our island is the most ancient of all countries and that Sri Pada is more ancient than the Himalayas!” [Sri Pada is a 7,000 foot high peak that is considered sacred by Buddhists because it supposedly has an imprint of the footprint of the Buddha, another fiction. –MS]
  • “the Sinhala language is the oldest language in the world next to the Hebrew language.” [I am actually a little surprised that he was willing to concede that any language was older. –MS]

Americans will recognize echoes of the rhetoric of exceptionalism one hears all the time here, that America is the greatest country in the world, favored by their god, its white Christian people are possessed of all the virtues, everyone else is here by sufferance, etc.

What is disturbing is not only that such inflammatory absurdities were being uttered by a government minister but that the audience of Sri Lankan expatriates in Paris had responded enthusiastically. You would think that people who were residing in another country would be more aware that claims of uniqueness and exceptional virtues are inherently suspect since such claims can be found pretty much everywhere and are usually used against immigrants. But it seems like the desire to think that one’s own tribe is superior to every other tribe triggers a positive response from primal part of the brain, sufficient to overwhelm people’s ability to think rationally and separate fact from fiction.


  1. says

    to vigilante violence against Muslims based on the most outlandish rumors that were spread via Facebook

    What!? A platform designed to spread lies and propaganda is being used to spread lies and propaganda? Inconceivable!

  2. blf says

    Is it possible this was a “hand-picked” group of ex-pats, that is, individuals known or suspected to be favourable to the minister / government, or perhaps susceptible to pressure / threats ? Or, to put it another way, how representative was the audience of ex-pats? Staged events, and cherry-picked audiences, are not unknown.

  3. Pierce R. Butler says

    Marcus Ranum @ # 1: A platform designed to spread lies and propaganda …

    Not that I claim any special expertise on the origins of F’book, but I had the distinct impression it was “designed” to mine personal data and make millions for Mark Z.

    What have I missed?

  4. blf says

    Farcebork was designed to obtain a profile of each person which could be sold to advertisers & others. To convince eejits it had something to offer, it offered an extremely rapid method of publicity, including propaganda & lies.

    “‘Dumb fucks.’ That’s how Mark Zuckerberg described users of Facebook for trusting him with their personal data back in 2004”, ‘A grand illusion’: seven days that shattered Facebook’s facade (March-2018):

    Since Zuckerberg’s “dumb fucks” comment, Facebook has gone to great lengths to convince members of the public that it’s all about “connecting people” and “building a global community”. This pseudo-uplifting marketing speak is much easier for employees and users to stomach than the mission of “guzzling personal data so we can micro-target you with advertising”.

  5. Pierce R. Butler says

    blf @ # 4 -- Was that intended as an answer to my question at # 3?

    Unless you want to completely conflate “propaganda” and “advertising” (& I’ll concede their substantial overlap), I don’t agree. Facebook launched in ’04; the Citizens United Supreme Court debacle opened the election-money floodgates in ’10. No doubt the latter event drew the attention of Zuckerberg and his evil elves, but I don’t think political plottings played a major role in their business plan seven years earlier.

  6. Mano Singham says

    blf @#4,

    I do not know what the composition of the audience was or how they were selected. The fact that he spoke in Sinhala without any translation suggests that the audience consisted entirely of members of the Sinhala community.

  7. blf says

    @5, No, my@4 was not intended as an answer to @3, we simply overlapped. However, I don’t think you understood what I said. Farcebork was designed to profile people; to accomplish that, it had to get people to use it, which was done by being a platform for the very rapid dissemination of stuff. The rapidly disseminated stuff includes pictures of cats, and basically anything else. The profiling allows Farcebork to sell micro-targetted advertising.

    I did not “completely conflate ‘propaganda’ and ‘advertising'” — Cat photos, and propaganda, are from users; the advertising is one method Farcebork uses to make its money. Some of the user-originated propaganda is political, as is some of the sold advertising.

  8. Pierce R. Butler says

    blf @ # 7 -- I see nothing to disagree with in anything you say here.

    My question was directed at the mighty Marcus, whom, it seems, has already progressed to new adventures elsewhere. Given his recent blogging themes, however, I have no doubt that with a little lurking, I’ll soon find an opportunity to importune him on this assertion again.

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