Propaganda is one of the preoccupations of the modern age. Reams and reams have been written about propaganda. Most of this writing seems to come in the form of one party accusing their opponents of propaganda.
Having read numerous books on propaganda, I've come to the conclusion that the preoccupation with propaganda is actually doing more harm than good.
I believe that our are better served by asking the question of "what is truth?" to the question of "what is propaganda?"
Although there is a page on my site called propaganda, I really don't think it is a promising avenue for inquiry.
What is Propaganda?
There is no objective definition of what is or what is not propaganda. Unlike logical fallacies, where you can point to the structure of an argument to make the case that it is a fallacy, you cannot detect propaganda from the structure of an argument.
One cannot detect propaganda by the tone of the debate. We tend to thing of propaganda as strongly worded opinions, when in actuality the most effective propaganda is spoken in whispers.
I would think that this is extremely problematic for anyone who claims objectivity as their forte while labeling their opposition as propagandists.
Definition of Propaganda
The current Wiktionary definition of propaganda is "A concerted set of messages aimed at influencing the opinions or behavior of large numbers of people."
This definition would include things like the posted speed limit, or the people begging for food after the Myanmar typhoon. (After the typhoon, there were people people making a concerted effort to say that people were starving and in need. They wished to influence others into giving them food and medical. Hence, calling for help after a disaster is propoganda by the definition.
The functional definitions of propaganda on Webster's dictionary are: "2: the spreading of ideas, information, or rumor for the purpose of helping or injuring an institution, a cause, or a person; 3: ideas, facts, or allegations spread deliberately to further one's cause or to damage an opposing cause; also : a public action having such an effect"
Since all ideas either help or hurt institutions, this definition pretty much includes all efforts at communicating ideas including education, all newspapers and all media.
Sadly, many definitions of propaganda can be expanded to the point where all attempts at communication are propaganda.
A sentence from the Propaganda article on Britannica (Retrieved May 19, 2008) seems to fit my concepts of the term a bit better: "Propaganda is the more or less systematic effort to manipulate other people's beliefs, attitudes, or actions by means of symbols."
Definitions of propaganda aside. The key element I associate with propaganda is "studied manipulation."
By studied, I mean a group a group has analyzed its message specifically for the message's ability to manipulate others.
Unfortunately, it is still difficult to derive an objective test to separate propaganda from non propaganda. You might find a group that produces a highly polished message after extensive polling. However, the polling may have been the result of an authentic interest in public opinion and the polished message the result of good writers.
Before openly making the accusation that the group is engaged in propaganda requires divining the group's motivation. It is impossible to look inside other people's minds to see their motivations.
There are cases where people openly state that they are engaged in a studied effort to influece opinion, like religious apologetics. Most the times, people keep their motivations to themselves.
Objectivity as Propaganda
Running with the theme that propaganda is studied manipulationm ... People who have studied manipulation have found that one of the most effective means of propaganda is to make their side appear objective, while projecting "propaganda" on their opponents.
These studied efforts to create an air of objectivity to spread propaganda is one of the little paradoxes that fascinates the modern mind.
This is a bit counter-intuitive, but a strongly worded statement is less likely to be propaganda, than a softly spoken purr word.
Propaganda is a modern preoccupation. I think the classical world had a healthier approach to the issues currently discussed in terms of propaganda.
Classical education was based on a thing called thing called The Trivium. Rhetoric (the art of persuasion) is the third leg of The Trivium.
In other words, the classical world actually held persuasive arguments in high esteem.
It appears that classical thinkers hated their opponents every bit as much as modern thinkers hate the opposition.
I think we would be in a better position if, instead of denouncing the opposition as propagandist, we learned to accepting the persuasive arguments of one's opponents and holding discourse on a liminal, as opposed to the subliminal level.
Unfortunately, when the Rational Style of the day is dominated by a preoccupation with subliminal styles of argumentation, everyone must share the preoccupation or be pushed to the side.
What Links Here
The following list shows "internal" pages that link to this page.
The following lists shows links to external articles that link to this page.
- Preoccupied with Propaganda (added 2008-05-22 by kd) I responded to an accusation that my blog is an offensive display of propaganda that is directly putting US soldiers in harms way. I think the preoccupation with propaganda is negative.
- What Happened (added 2008-05-29 by kd) I predict that "What Happened" by Scott McCellan will be the most quoted book of the year.
- Partisan Analysis of Propaganda (added 2008-05-31 by kd) I simply state that the partisan analysis of propaganda is a form of propaganda.
- Propaganda v. Reasoning (added 2008-06-03 by kd) I argue that people's complaints about propaganda are really driven by the broken system of reasoning in the halls of power.
- Myth in the Making (added 2008-06-21 by kd) One aspect of propaganda is an attempt to manipulate people by creating and or shifting myths.
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