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.
What is it
Governments and other political institutions employ propaganda to sway public opinion, instill ideas, and exert a degree of control over people. While totalitarian regimes have been known to do this explicitly, democratic governments often disguise their propaganda with persuasive rhetoric. So what exactly constitutes propaganda and how does it work? Does it always involve lies or falsehoods? Can propaganda ever be morally justified or is it a pernicious form of communication? John and Ken trade slogans with Jason Stanley from Yale University, author of How Propaganda Works.
John starts the show by commenting on how propaganda is like pornography—in that he doesn't know how to define it, but he knows it when he sees it. Ken answers with a definition from the dictionary, which characterizes it as being of false or exaggerated nature and spread for ulterior motives. John and Ken continue on to discuss some of the difficulties of defining where to draw the line between persuasive language and propaganda.
James Stanley, professor of philosophy and author of How Propaganda Works, joins this conversation. Stanley clarifies between two different forms of propaganda: one directly appeals to ideals without rational argument, while the other uses a cherished ideal to back a cause that will actually undermine that ideal. He explains several examples of propagandist vocabularies in modern debates, stemming from both sides of the aisle. Ken then questions what kind of political discourse is not considered propaganda, and if classifying something as propaganda is a matter of fact or something swayed by opinion. John and James then examine an debatable example from presidential candidate Bernie Sanders.
A listener's question brings up the relation between advertising and propaganda, and whether they are one and the same. The conversation then steers to why propaganda is effective, and Stanley explains how it exploits positions of authority to forward its agenda. When a caller suggests that John and Ken are coloring propaganda too negatively, Jason replies that propaganda can indeed also be used to undermine immoral ideals—effectively fighting propaganda with propaganda. Branching off from this, they end with a discussion on what marks the difference between good and bad propaganda.
Roving Philosophical Report (Seek to 7:13): Shuka Kalantari examines the use of propaganda use in today's news media and how it is shaped through deliberate language.
60-Second Philosopher (Seek to 46:05): Ian Shoales discusses the life of Edward Bernays and his many contributions to propaganda’s place in the history of the United States.