Governments and other political institutions employ propaganda to sway public opinion, instill ideas, and exert a degree of control over people.
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.