Why Propaganda Matters

01 June 2015


This week, we're thinking about Propaganda – how it works, why it matters.  I feel about propaganda sort of the way I feel about pornography  -- I’m not exactly sure how to define it, but I definitely know it when I see it.   Turn to any good dictionary and you will find a definition of propaganda.   Here is how the Merriam Webster online dictionary defines it.  “Propaganda  -- ideas that are often false or exaggerated and that are spread in order to help a cause, a political leader, a government, etc.”   But this strikes me as a pretty lousy definition.    First, not every false or exaggerated statement is propaganda.   If I were to exaggerate for effect  – something, by the way,   I would absolutely NEVER do, not in a million years  – that wouldn’t make my statement propaganda.   Would it?   Thus I refute  Merriam Webster.

One thing the definition gets sort of right is that propagandistic statements are “often”  false or misleading.    But it’s also important to see that propagandistic statements  can sometimes be true.   Indeed, I suspect that propaganda may be more effective when it’s true or at least contains a kernel of truth.   Suppose, for example, a politician, speaking at a rally, says, in a dark and foreboding tone,  “There are Muslims among us!”   What says may be literally true.  But the combination of his tone and the context lends his statement the feel of propaganda, at least to my ear.   

 There’s a lot going on in that little utterance,  but it’s a little hard to isolate exactly what makes statement propagandistic.   Start with the fact that what he is most obviously doing is making a statement – perhaps true, perhaps false  -- about Muslims.  Clearly not every statement about Muslims is a bit of propaganda.   But, someone might say,  he isn’t just making a statement.  He’s also doing something else in making that statement – he’s expressing his fear and disapproval of Muslims.   This seems to be getting us closer to isolating what’s propagandistic in his utterance. But we still haven’t hit the target.  After all, certainly not every statement that expresses fear or disapproval counts as propaganda.   A monster is climbing through the window.   I express my fear and disapproval of the monster by running and screaming.  I am not for that reason speaking propagandistically. 

Ah, but, there’s a difference, you might think, between our politician and me running and screaming.  There’s a manipulative element to the politician’s speech that missing in my spontaneous screaming.   The politician is trying to manipulate his audience.  He’s trying to get his audience to share his fears and prejudices.  But we have to be careful.  It’s not the mere fact that he’s trying to induce certain attitudes and emotions into his audience that marks the politician’s utterance as propaganda.   That is, after all, something that we all do all the time – not just politicians but poet and priests too.   Even ordinary people do it.   We all use language to induce attitudes and feelings in others.   That’s one the things language is designed to enable us to do.

What makes the politician’s utterance propaganda, I think, is that it attempts to induce attitudes and feelings in the audience in a particularly insidious and surreptitious way.  When poets and priests talk or write in ways that stir emotion and attitudes they are mostly upfront about what they’re doing.   Propaganda is more insidious, more indirect.    But propaganda is often not at all upfront about what it is doing.    It often parades as one thing, while doing something else entirely.    It pretends to be just stating cold hard facts   -- there are Muslims among us -- while it’s really trying to covertly manipulate our thoughts and emotions  -- fear them, shun them.

Not all propaganda is indirect in this way, I admit.   So I’m not offering this as a definition, necessarily. Think, for example, of Nazi propaganda.  There was nothing very covert or indirect about that!    That’s because when the state reserves the right to bludgeon you into belief, if you don’t go along willingly, propaganda doesn’t have to be subtle and insidious.  It can be much more upfront and in your face.   And this, I think, is where the widespread thought that propaganda is often false comes from.   People who think that are thinking about propaganda backed by authoritarian power.   In an authoritarian state the official propaganda is often full of falsehoods  -- sometimes even obvious falsehoods that no reasonable person could sincerely accept or believe.   But because it’s backed by the state’s iron fist, nobody questions it – at least not openly. 

Of course, you can’t get away with that sort of thing in a free and open society.    And that might lead you to think that propaganda can’t thrive because it can’t “propagate” where information flows freely and opinion is un-coerced.  Free thought as the antidote to propaganda!

Unfortunately, it’s not that simple.  Think of Fox News --   “Fair and Balanced.”  “We Report.  You decide.”   This is really a brilliant – not to mention extraordinarily lucrative piece of pure propaganda in action.     Fox gets millions of eager listeners tune in every single day.  Now if you are anti-Fox, you’re going to think that that’s because there’s a sucker born ever minute, while if you are pro-Fox, you think that’s a good thing.   But I don’t really want to focus on the people tuning in,  I want to focus on who Fox gets them to tune in.   Fox represent itself as what every independent new organization really ought to be -- willing to consider all sides of a debate, devoid of a partisan agenda, relentless seekers of truth wherever it leads, the antidote to one-sided, biased reporting.    But whether you like or hate Fox, it would be hard to deny that in reality they’re pretty much the opposite of that in every respect.   Objectively speaking, they are, in fact,  an extraordinarily partisan network.   But that’s not how their most avid listeners think of them, I don’t think.    They don't think they’re being fed a one-sided diet of spin.  They think they’re getting a fair and balanced diet of truth.   

Now if Fox was upfront and honest about what they were actually doing, I doubt they would be nearly as successful.   In a supposedly free and open society,  when you can’t bludgeon people into thinking and feeling what you want them to think and feel, you have to catch them unawares.  You have to seduce them with democratic seeming ideals, and then gently lead them where you want them to go.   Fox is, I think, extraordinarily skilled at doing just that.    But they are not alone.  The propagandistic arts have been honed to very high level in our supposedly democratic society, so much so that that thy threaten to undermine our deepest democratic values.   

Comments (5)

Gary M Washburn's picture

Gary M Washburn

Monday, June 1, 2015 -- 5:00 PM

Don't confuse rhetoric with

Don't confuse rhetoric with propaganda. It's one thing to speak with the intention of effecting the views of others to favor one's own, it is entirely different to effect the ability of opponents to have such an effect. It has to do with how we are able to understand each other at all. There is nothing interesting can we say to each other that cannot be misconstrued. The way language grows is a matter of a growing grasp and response to this reality in such a way as to set our interlocutors free to construe us as they will. Rhetoric tries to manipulate this process, propaganda tries to short-circuit it entirely. Imagine this, that every word we utter alters the meaning of all words and terms, so that the lexicon is being eternally revised. Propaganda undermines this by setting the lexical frame into which any effort to engage it must enter. It amounts to an effort to buy a spam-free lunch at the "spam-spam-spam-spam, spam-spam-spam-spam, wonderful spam!" restaurant in Monty Python.  

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Monday, June 1, 2015 -- 5:00 PM

In a comment on Laura McGuire

In a comment on Laura McGuire's blog posting regarding fiction, I remarked that propaganda and fiction were related---at least in some contexts. When the new pope referred to Mahmoud Abbas as an angel of peace, I had an epiphany of sorts: If the holy father truly believes his own pronouncement, where then does he get such a notion? And, if he does not believe his own words, what was his true motive for saying such a thing? Were his words merely intended to elicit some renewal of effort towards middle east peace---a shift away from decades-old enmity? Or was he simply engaging in rhetorical fiction with propagandistic syrup poured over the top? Lots of folks want to change the middle eastern equation; recast a sordid history and heal time-worn animosities. Lots of others have seen their professional legacies pummeled into mush when deal after brokered deal have disintegrated. The most astounding thing (to me) about all of this is that no one seems to accept the fact that some people just don't and won't get along with each other. And no amount of propaganda, fiction or rhetoric is likely to change that. So, we have the little man trying to push his rock up the hill. But try as he might, he cannot get it done.

Edwards's picture


Tuesday, June 2, 2015 -- 5:00 PM

One thing the definition gets

One thing the definition gets kind of right is that propagandistic proclamations are "regularly"  false or deluding. But at the same time its essential to see that propagandistic proclamations  can at times be valid. To be sure, I think that promulgation may be more powerful when its actual or possibly contains a bit of truth. unique groomsmen gift

MJA's picture


Wednesday, June 3, 2015 -- 5:00 PM

We are what we are taught, so

We are what we are taught, so if the propaganda was truth mankind would unite and become just One. =

Edwards's picture


Wednesday, June 3, 2015 -- 5:00 PM

Fox gets a huge number of

Fox gets a huge number of avid audience members tune in each and every day. Presently on the off chance that you are against Fox, you're going to believe that that is on account of there's a sucker conceived ever moment, while on the off chance that you are genius Fox, you feel that is something worth being thankful for. couples bridal shower invitations