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One of the central tenets of Conflict Theory is that those in power are able to control or manipulate the media and the public at large so that they can escape criticism. Subsequently those in power can do or say things that if a less powerful person exhibted the same behavior they would be ridiculed or possibly be committing a crime (As you can see there is some overlap with Labeling Theory here as well).

To illustrate this I ask my students what the difference is between a social policy or program that affects the poor versus a similar program/policy that affects the rich. So for example, many students are critical of “government handouts” in the form of welfare, but the same students are off put when I ask if welfare is akin to the tax write offs home owners receive. Aren’t these both government handouts? Some students will say that homeownership stimulates the economy, but I counter that food stamps, WIC, and many other welfare programs stimulate the economies of the communities where these monies are spent.

This last tax season Jon Stewart demonstrated this tenant of conflict theory by lampooning the network coverage of the finding that 47% of American households didn’t pay anything in taxes or even made a profit. Many of those who were in an uproar over this finding suggested that something was wrong with our tax system or, as Glenn Beck suggested, they should be forced to serve in the military if they were not going to contribute in some other way. None of the critics suggested that growing economic inequality was the cause, but rather blamed the poor for taking advantage of the system.

At the same time this story was running, only one US network covered the fact that Exxon Mobile, who made $35 billion in profits, didn’t pay a cent in taxes to the US government. To compound this, Exxon Mobile did pay $15 billion in taxes to other nations around the world. Instead of being critical of their tax evasion, US news networks celebrated Exxon’s profits.

I have shown this video in my classes and Stewart explains this aspect of Conflict theory better than I ever could in only 6 minutes. My students loved this video and were laughing out loud, but I do have to caution you that at one moment ( 3:26 into the video) Stewarts comedy is a tad inappropriate. I always ask my students if they are okay with a little blue humor before I show this clip.