I remember when I first heard the term “Agnotology” subtly thrown into conversation by my brilliant International Affairs professor during one of my Graduate seminars. Something clicked in my brain and suddenly the oppressive power tactics I’d witnessed flourishing in the Arab region had a name, and a context.
A term first coined by Stanford University Professor Robert N.Proctor and linguist Iain Boal, Agnotology is the study of the intentional actions, usually on parts of decision-makers, to spread confusion and deception, or to conceal information. In other words, Agnotology is the study of the premeditated dissemination of ignorance. Agnotology is powerful, and extensively effective: it could be utilized to maintain the status quo, defame enemies, sell products, and justify decisions that couldn’t otherwise be justified by logic or need. It is a particularly potent tool for conserving power, and its impact is so durable that it lasts centuries, permeates generations, brainwashing the elderly and their grandchildren, and compounds in dominance over time.
Agnotology is the study of the premeditated dissemination of ignorance.
The term fit like a glove in my regional context. Information was a weapon only in the arsenal of the elite and often vastly obscured to the mass public. Politicians go to war with tanks, bombs, and agnotology. Agnotology cultivates followers. Agnotology paves ideological pathways and builds allegiances. Agnotology exploits propaganda and religious fables. Agnotology taints educational systems. Agnotology shapes the underlying mechanism behind Arabs in diaspora harboring resentment in their hearts towards the intellectual illiteracy in their countries, a condition all too misunderstood.
Al-Bawsala As a Regional Success Story
Civil society’s undertaking has been the pursuit of bringing “real objective knowledge”, whatever that may mean, to the people as a means to combating ignorance- projecting an idea that the fight is one journalists and academics have to wage, raising their fists at the population with golden tidbits of numbers and exposition pieces. While these methods are vital, especially in regions where information is either concealed or made impossible to access or decipher, the success rate of these processes demands more attention and deeper scrutiny.
An ideal example of a revered regional success story is the NGO ‘Al-Bawsala’ in Tunisia; an organization that tracks and monitors the Parliament’s elected representatives and their behaviors in their sessions. Al-Bawsala launched its initiative after Tunisia’s Arab Spring revolts of 2011, or their “Jasmine Revolution” which resulted in the overthrow of Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali’s autocratic rule. Shortly afterwards, an election for a constituent assembly was announced, the first free election Tunisia witnessed since the country’s independence in 1956, as well as the first election the Arab region experienced after the start of the Arab Spring.
“With the new political context and the new constitute assembly which has a very key role for the transition for Tunisia, it was no longer acceptable that these habits of secrecy and opacity among the political elite continue,” Selim Kharrat, President of Al-Bawsala explained to Daraj. “…People were really asking to learn more about what was happening in this parliament. Especially because Tunisians do not have the culture of constitutional process and they were not used to having a democratically elected parliament working. So, we found ourselves in the position where what we offered was really accurate and adapted to the need of the people.”
Regardless of its current shortcomings, Tunisia is a country that can boast an arguably successful revolution and the overthrow of dictatorship, a country where 80% of the population has access to the internet, and a country where Al-Bawsala’s work was able to thrive. The NGO put out reports exposing parliamentarian’s behaviors in full detail, and the media and the public revered it in a vicious wave of justice. Their statements were so impactful that eventually parliamentarians themselves began to alter their behaviors so as not to be deemed ill-qualified in Al-Bawsala’s reports and lose public favor, an occurrence that in the current sea of corruption in Lebanon, sounds like a dream.
Regardless of its current shortcomings, Tunisia is a country that can boast an arguably successful revolution and the overthrow of dictatorship.
“Some MPs would call us or send us an email as a justification of absence! They don’t even send this to the Parliament! But they send it to Al-Bawsala,” Kharrat exclaimed enthusiastically. “We have MPs who call us to say ‘my mother is very ill I have to go to the hospital to see her, I cannot attend the committee meeting today.’ We were laughing! They were behaving like pupils. This was very important for us. We succeeded in forcing them to be more present, and to be more committed to their work in the parliament.”
Lebanon As Opposed to Tunisia
Agnotology in Lebanon takes on a very different form from that of Tunisia. Tactics of ignorance dissemination do not base themselves for the most part on the concealment of information, but rather on formulating a historical and deeply rooted systemic culture of ignorance. While in neighboring countries dictatorships employ tactics that dislocate intellectuals for fear of them leaking or having already exposed corruption charges, in Lebanon, scandals are the norm. It’s hard to imagine that anyone would be surprised, or that the mass public would be moved, by the process of ‘naming and shaming’ politicians, and it’s even more absurd to imagine that the politicians would alter their behavior due to being exposed. Given that Lebanon harbors an exceedingly saturated civil society network, often focusing on combating oppression through ‘information dissemination’ and NGO-brand processes of “spreading awareness”, it is worth wondering why all these mechanisms have not been successful in altering or shaking much in the system, their efforts represented by only a few movements that have unfortunately fallen short.
“The culture of ignorance is deeper than civil society,” Charbel Nahhas, Lebanese Politician and Professor, tells Daraj. “Culture means it’s not three people, it means it’s everyone. This poses many questions, Why us? How did it come to be? How does it go away?”
“This contradicts the process of ‘naming and shaming’ and civil society,” Nahhas continues. “If there is a culture of ignorance that means they have the antidote, society has an antidote to those methods. I imagine that anyone that looks at this place, everyday there’s 100 scandals, even the politician’s bodyguards can tell you stories about them that are horrifying, and it still doesn’t disturb anyone.”
Ignorance as an Institutional Phenomenon
Ignorance is an institutional phenomenon, one instilled over centuries of validation by power structures. This means combatting needs to also come institutionally, alongside resistance tactics. Without major institutional changes in the way the country is managed, and without a foundational upheaval of the systems that have been put in place for decades, it seems doubtful that the Lebanese’s customary exposure of information is going to enact any changes in an impactful manner- what a successful revolution would manage to do.
“We’ve always had a culture of naming and shaming, since the nineties. The practice of naming and shaming in Lebanon was alive way before Tunisia,” Jamil Mouawad, Political Studies professor at the American University of Beirut, tells Daraj. “The problem is when corruption becomes a question of public debate but isn’t discussed in the judiciary system.”
“Everyone knows that the politicians are corrupt in Lebanon, everyone knows that they stole money. Would they care if they stole 1 million or 2 million or 4 million?” Mouawad continues. “At some point, and this is the point where we talk about rendering politics, when you focus a lot on data as operating in a vacuum, we might be misleading the public at the same time.”
Tactics of ignorance dissemination do not base themselves for the most part on the concealment of information in Lebanon, but rather on formulating a historical and deeply rooted systemic culture of ignorance.
Often when there is a major lack in formal structures of power and governance, we see it compensated for with informal structures, and this is blatant in Lebanon’s virtual social sphere. The NERDs on Twitter replace sect-affiliated economists, feminist Instagram accounts substitute for effectual sexual harassment legal mechanisms, and activism through blogs and Facebook posts replace propaganda-based state news channels. A recent initiative launched by activist Asaad Zebian, ellira.com, is one such example of an informal activism measure combating the obscuring of Lebanon’s financial data.
In this case, the website takes governmental information that is already published to the public, but done in ways that make it almost inaccessible through formats that are confusing, buried and incomprehensible, and displays it in ways that are simplified and ideal for the researcher, journalist, or the average Lebanese citizen. Ellira was launched by the same team that had launched the Gherbal Initiative in 2018, in some ways similar to Al-Bawsala, which aimed to explain laws and monitor their applications by publishing periodic reports assessing public administrations’ performances.
“This is activism by itself, in a country where the mainstream was to hold back data and not release it, or to make the released data inaccessible to the general public or data very hard to find and navigate through,” Asaad Zebian tells Daraj. “Wikileaks is activism because they’re showing you data that wasn’t accessible and we believe that we are doing the same by giving people the tools in order to hold the people in power accountable with the numbers that they just released.”
Informal Measures Side-by-Side a Revolution
The problem that arises is the feasibility of those accountability measures. When Lebanon’s October 17 uprising sprung to life, it made known what a revolution can do for mass awareness- the kind of awareness that can succeed in completely reshaping political life. Knowledge, particularly the extremely vital kind provided by ellira and other initiatives, was no longer recycled by exclusive circles that often don’t have the interest, will, or the means to enact real change. With the support of the masses, and with garnered trust in the information being shared, the game was changed entirely.
“I would say that what the revolution has done is what we dreamt of for years now,” Zebian explains. “I remember in the last 6 months, October to January, we went and did around 15 public speaking sessions, and there were 100s of people in total who attended them and they were very thirsty to know more about access to information… We heard people in the revolution talking about access to information, talking about transparency. We’ve also seen that the political discourse and the political leaders and parties are talking more about access to information and anti-corruption. The number of administrations that replied to us have doubled since the first report in 2018 and the second report in 2019.”
The culture of ignorance that is prevalent in Lebanon is deeply-rooted, and historically based, and cannot be combatted alone with these informal measures of information liberation. These initiatives, working hand-in-hand with a revolution that overthrows those currently in power and to reshape and satiate the vacuum of checks and balances that has been in place for centuries, gives us a fighting chance. The coming months after the Corona crises runs its course, will be vital in determining our future.