Guilty Pleasures: The Strategic Guilt Trip



"A Ms. Ramona Bissell of West Allison, Vermont, writes, 'What the hell is going on?' We here at WVCN think that question deserves an answer."

Two weeks ago when this story discussed in this Gleaner article by Gordon Robinson  “The Press needs to get over itself” broke I transcribed the clip of the PM’s speech and took it and the PAJ’s statement to a graduate class for a discussion on meaning-making and epistemology. I had the same visceral reaction the PAJ and MAJ had when I first heard the clip. When I transcribed it and read it – words on paper – I had to conclude that on the face of it, there was nothing wrong with the statement….and that’s the beauty of it.

Yet, Gordon seemed to miss (or ignore) context. The first is the emergence of global populism, in which leaders have been routinely undermining media they cannot control; the ‘crisis of trust’ being spoken about in media criticism circles globally. This crisis engenders mistrust of both political administrations, their detractors and the media. this leads to cultures of mistrust. The MAJ spoke to it in this instance. It occurs where media  does/do not carry the official line and prevailing narrative are accused of ‘fake news’ and ‘alternative facts’.

Herein lies the rub – the part I didn’t share with the class but will share with my friends and colleagues.  I believe, it is an emerging communication strategy. It may not have started as such but has emerged as a technique nuanced by the classic guilt-trip.  It is designed to bait, cause second-guessing, draw you out, make you respond or react and then look silly because there is nothing, on the face of it to react to… and then they call you on that, laughing publicly at the irony. Then you look fool-fool and, more importantly you feel fool-fool. And the more times you get caught, the fool-fooler you look and feel. This in turn erodes your public persona but also your self/collective esteem. The opposition keeps falling into the trap… and keeps walking out of Parliament, for example, and putting foot in mouth – looking fool-fooler each time. The ‘bad mind’ hook is another great example.

The guilt trip strategy is a backhanded one. It is sophisticated, higher order, passive aggressive, deliberate, innuendo-laced, manipulative and grounded in suggestion and irony – the good old practice of saying something and meaning the opposite woven into messaging trends.

It CAN NOT be effectively responded to traditionally. It is supremely effective until you call it. Yet even that is a catch 22… if you don’t call it, you look weak and if you do, you fall into the trap. Which is what the PAJ and MAJ did. AND they used the language of the guilt trip in the call and response which took them deeper down the rabbit hole, which left the public with a shadow of a doubt.

The government throws out – ‘of course the media has a right to free speech and expression… but…’

Then the media responds – ‘of course they are welcome to their opinion…but…’

It is like a ‘civilized’ guilt-trip standoff between man and wife. He asks, “What’s wrong?”. She replies, “NOTHING” and he responds “OK FINE!!!”. But that ‘nothing’ and the ‘fine’ are so loaded neither can focus all day. Nor can the children… and that’s the real challenge….and everybody forgets the real problems for the standoff as the real issues fester.

The only way to deal with a guilt trip is to stare ‘guiltor’ in the eye and say – ‘I know what you are doing and I will not be guilted. Here are the issues…”. But you have to ‘know’ it for what it is first – a deliberate strategy. But is it?  What do we know?

Of course the fact that traditional media is/are competing with government in content development and for audiences on their platforms; and as media audiences themselves become the media’s biggest competitors in content production on social media, this weakens their position from a messaging perspective. The government knows this. They have the means to drown the media out (to a point) and have popular support. They can starve the media in silly season, or use them as they like when expedient – like take every single spot on the front page and on the e-paper on conference day. And they have become so good at it. And if they cant guilt the individual, they guilt associated institutions, which mostly always buckle and put on the pressure on their behalf,  because of the power relationships, vested interest and economic ‘dependencies’.

There is one other thing I agree with Gordon about. I have also long since thought that the Jamaican media needs to get over itself. As a sector – in general – it is, like the country it represents and reflects, so full of contradictions. It is as guilty of many of the ills it reports on, causes embarrassment about, chooses to focus on or turns a blind eye to…and not just in content making. There are some ways in which business is done… and some of its emergent cultures and assumptions, especially about creative work, contracting trends and the respect and regard of its own, its audiences and its clients. I have lots of examples for those who care. Fixing that will require real introspection and some truth telling and listening outside of circular breathing. But whatever…that’s not gonna happen.

The media are the messages… representative and reflective of their/its nation, so this is not about individuals but about an endemic set of systems and processes that are also major blind spots, caused by blinkers that keep pesky flies from their eyes. I think it all grew out of HOW the Jamaican media was ‘socialized’ into the market – the extreme, contemptuous and almost violent way media competition emerged. That has led to and ingrained defensiveness of which Gordon speaks (but what do I know?).

And this is where it all began with these transcripts – a discussion on epistemology… what on earth do we know?). 😃 Life is so exciting!