Nuclear Weapons: Out of Sight, Out of Mind?
National Security and (a lack of) Media Discourse.
The world-wide implications of nuclear war, the side-effects of building nuclear weapons and the need for upmost security regarding these weapons means that undoubtedly, the discourse surrounding nuclear weapons is a controversial, heated and secretive one. The following will take The Women’s Anti-Nuclear Peace Camp[aign] (AWPC) at Aldermaston as a case study for the opposition encountered by nuclear weaponry sites. We will examine the discourse surrounding media coverage, feminism and protest movements such as AWPC as well as issues of national security in an attempt to outline and understand why nuclear weaponry is going unnoticed in this 21st century, media-centric society.
Foucault’s term discourse divides into two types; linguistics discourse where the focus is analysis of language and the structure of dialogue, and cultural discourse, which relates to our topic of nuclear weaponry and how it is discussed. Cultural discourse analyses the factors of knowledge and power as key components in shaping what becomes part of the general mainstream discourse (Foucault, 1972). In relation to nuclear power, discourse can be applied to both the media and the public. What the media reports upon creates a discourse for the public. Therefore a lack of media focus leads to a lack of public discourse regarding nuclear weaponry. Gamson (1989) argues that within discussions surrounding nuclear issues the public and media discourse is comprised of different discourses combined. The ‘voice’ of the professionals and academics surrounding the issue, their expertise carries what Foucault deems more power and knowledge as they are specialized in the subject. The media discourse delivers this to the general public who in turn combine this with their own social experiences and knowledge, creating the overall cultural discourse. Gurevitch and Levy (1985) describe the role of the media as “a site on which various social groups, institutions, and ideologies struggle over the definition and construction of social reality”, the media is both the facilitator of knowledge for the general public and a sphere of expansion for protest movements wanting the support of the general public. It is important for protest movements to have interaction with the media as they rely upon mainstream support and political action in order to be successful.
Gamson and Modigliani (1989) characterize a key issue in regards to public opinion and discourse surrounding nuclear issues: a lack of experience. As afore mentioned, the public discourse is shaped by personal experience, however, few people have firsthand experience with nuclear weapons. Therefore the knowledge most people have is constructed through past and present media discourses surrounding nuclear weapons. This demonstrates the power held by media discourses and therefore begs the question as to why nuclear weapons are featured so rarely in modern media discourses.
The Women’s Anti-Nuclear Peace Camp[aign] (AWPC) at Aldermaston takes non-violent direct forms of violent action such as marches, demonstrations and workshops in order to raise awareness about the Trident Nuclear War-Heads built in rural areas of the UK. However, it seems that relative to issues such as government benefits or immigration, their plight goes mostly unseen by even those in the local area at Aldermaston. Speaking to two residents of the nearby area of Tilehurst, they explained that prior to our conversation they were unaware of AWPC and their protest. This was particularly surprising as one of the residents husband had suffered from cancer. The supporters of AWPC had explained to us that studies had been carried out that scientifically showed an increased risk of cancer and leukemia in the area surrounding the nuclear site. The lack of media coverage of AWPC is arguably to blame for this. AWPC is a relatively small protest movement therefore media coverage would benefit their campaign greatly to bring the attention of the masses to the building of nuclear weaponry.
Conversely, it could be another form of discourse that is to blame for the lack of support or awareness regarding AWPC: the media discourse surrounding feminism. An interesting aspect of the Aldermaston peace camp is that it is a feminist peace movement. Speaking to the women there it seemed this stemmed from the 60’s rights for women movement combined with the anti-nuclear campaigns of the time. One woman at AWPC who was present at that time described the support that the anti-nuclear feminist peace movement gained from other women throughout the UK as “in the same way the men left their homes to go to war, the women left their homes to campaign for peace”. This description of unity and dedication to a feminist cause is arguably different to the general discourse surrounding feminism today. Buschman and Lenart (1996) found that many women today have a “…limited support for feminism and an unwillingness to identify with feminism.” Furthermore they highlight the use of the negative term “feminazi” in regards to feminists arguing for the Women’s Liberation movement (Buschman and Lenart, 1996). Moreover, The AWPC website states that no men are allowed overnight yet during our visit it was unclear whether it was indeed overnight or after-dark. This could be a deterrent for possible supporters of AWPC who may be men or women who have male friends or relatives that wish to support the cause but may not want to infringe on the camps’ rules.
Lastly, it may be a third form of discourse: issues of national security, which limits AWPC as well as the media in what information can be made available to the public and therefore limit both public awareness of nuclear weapons and support of protest groups. Alvarez (2006) describes the “rise of the modern State and as the perpetual threat to which peoples would be led if they do not comply with security policies, measures or restrictions.” This summarises the issues also raised to us by the women at AWPC: a lack of freedom to explore nuclear weaponry discourses due to the limitations of security. It could be argued that the general population may not support protest movements against nuclear weapons due to the fear of ‘asking too many questions’. Foucault not only described how discourses shape and change what and how we consider subjects but also the idea that we can be limited by ‘governmentality’. This applies to issues of national security as ‘governmentality’ according to Foucault is how the state controls the population through social control; taught practices and belief systems. Therefore, arguably, the state has taught the general population not to question secretive government establishments such as nuclear weaponry sites as it is both classified and under control. Foucault would argue that we are trained to avoid resistance against issues of national security (Foucault, 1991).
Due to the increase in national security and decrease in media discourse surrounding nuclear weapons it could be fair to ask: are we ignorant of what is happening around us? The lack of media discourse may be due to the increasing limitations on information regarding nuclear weapons that is imposed by the government for fears of national security. Albeit a positive that the government is protecting important and delicate issues, if the popular discourse is ignorant of what is happening in the UK today how can informed decisions or beliefs be created. Moreover, it may be negative connotations associated with feminism that deter both men and women from supporting groups such as AWPC or it may be a fundamental lack of interest from the media itself that limit the discourse surrounding nuclear weapons. What is certain is that protest movements are both defined and recreated by their relations with media discourses and information regarding serious, topical subjects such as nuclear weapons is arguably a something we should have a diverse and prevalent discourse on.
Alvarez, J. (2006). Re-thinking (in) security discourses from a critical perspective. asteriskos, 1(2), pp.61-82.
Buschman, J. and Lenart, S. (1996). ” I am not a feminist, but…”: College women, feminism, and negative experiences. Political Psychology, pp.59–75.
Foucault, M., Burchell, G., Gordon, C. and Miller, P. (1991). The Foucault effect. 1st ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Foucault, M., Sheridan, A. and Foucault, M. (1972). The archaeology of knowledge. 1st ed. New York: Pantheon Books.
Gamson, W. and Modigliani, A. (1989). Media discourse and public opinion on nuclear power: A constructionist approach. American journal of sociology, pp.1–37.
Gurevitch, M. and Levy, M. (1985). Mass communication review yearbook. 1st ed. Beverly Hills: Sage Publications.