I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. A show designed specifically for the education of preschoolers had created a “Pride Parade Sing-a-Long” complete with drag queens, transgendered beavers, and lesbian alligators. It was clearly an example of activist indoctrination. The hope, I’m sure, was that very young children (who typically watch these shows without their parents present) would watch this episode and become more open-minded and affirming to the anything-goes presumption of sexuality in our culture today. It is apparently more urgent for a 3-year-old to learn about a pansexual dolphin (Or is that a shark? I suppose it depends on how they understand themself) than their alphabet, but I know, I’m old fashioned. The video is outrageous in a way that makes you laugh at the absurdity of it all. The video is a sort of gallows humor for a culture already dead inside. My thought upon seeing the video is that this is pure propaganda.
But then I spent a moment reflecting on how I had come to see the video. The video was splashed across my Twitter timeline by several very conservative commentators and provocateurs. Why did they share the video? Did they possess a genuine concern for the propagandizing efforts of Nickelodeon, or were they actually guilty of propaganda themselves? Weren’t they simply attempting to manipulate me by appealing to my sense of righteous outrage and even hatred? If Nickelodeon was guilty of propaganda, weren’t the ones sharing the video also guilty?
We live in a culture that is absolutely thick with propaganda. It feels like we are never not in the process of being manipulated and played. We are surrounded by grifters, ad men, outrage peddlers, cynics, and showmen all competing for our souls. Honestly, it’s dizzying. It’s also confusing. It’s hard to identify motivations and goals to all this propaganda. It just seems like some sort of twisted reality game show where we are the unwitting contestants.
I’ve been thinking a lot about propaganda lately especially since reading Jacques Ellul’s critical book on the topic from the 1960s. Writing at the height of the Cold War, Ellul was astonishingly insightful in how he analyzed propaganda in his day, and what he said has proven to be a remarkably prescient description of our own day. I recognize that a post like this isn’t for everyone, but I thought it might be helpful to share some of his insights. It might help us to understand how we are being manipulated every single day.
Ellul defines propaganda this way: Propaganda is a set of methods employed by an organized group that wants to bring about the active or passive participation in its actions of a mass of individuals, psychologically unified through psychological manipulations and incorporated in an organization (61). It’s a good definition. Propaganda is a set of methods aimed at manipulating individuals in a mass society to participate in a desired action. It uses psychology and sociology as well as the tools of technology. I have two critiques of this definition. First of all the “set of methods” has changed as the technology has changed. Ellul was fascinated with the use of technology like the television to manipulate the masses. Digital technologies like social media are propaganda technologies that are exponentially more powerful than old technologies like television. Ellul believed that effective propaganda never leaves us alone. It is easier to be left alone by the television – especially in an era of very limited programming. Social media, on the other hand, is never silent. We are always on and always connected, and thus we are always susceptible to messages of propaganda. My second critique is related to the first. Ellul believed that propaganda was deployed by organized groups, especially governments. Given the era that he lived, this is an understandable assumption. I’m not convinced that this is how propaganda works today. I don’t believe that propaganda is organized and spread by powerful groups. Sure, both political parties engage in propaganda. Large corporations, especially in the technology sector, are also guilty of propaganda. But we are also propagandizing each other through our digital habits. We didn’t need Russia to manipulate us during the 2016 election. We did it to ourselves. And we keep doing it to ourselves as social media keeps fragmenting us and reconsolidating us into different groups and tribes.
Some of you will stop reading here, which is fine, but I wanted to share some of Ellul’s key insights about the way propaganda works. I challenge you to read these descriptions and then think about how they perfectly describe our society – particularly our society online.
- Propaganda requires a mass society of disconnected individuals. A point that Ellul makes over and over again is that in order for propaganda to work, small groups, especially the family unit, must be undermined or obliterated. Instead, the individual is set adrift in a mass culture. The individual has no identity separate from the masses. Only when very small groups are thus annihilated, when the individual finds no more defenses, no equilibrium, no resistance exercised by the group to which he belongs, does total action by propaganda become possible (9). Ellul expands on this idea later on in the book. We fancy ourselves an individualist society, when in reality, our individualism provides an open door to be manipulated by very powerful forces because we lack the grounding that can only happen in smaller groups and institutions. In individualist theory the individual has eminent value, man himself is the master of his life; in individualist reality each human being is subject to innumerable forces and influences, and is not at all master of his own life (91). He continues, The most favorable moment to seize a man and influence him is when he is alone in the mass: it is at this point that propaganda can be most effective (92). Ellul argues convincingly that mass society has created an unquenchable sense of loneliness bordering on despair. Propaganda gives individuals that opportunity to belong to something bigger than themselves. Thus, propaganda corresponds to the need to share, to be a member of a community, to love oneself in a group, to embrace a collective ideology that will end loneliness. Propaganda is the true remedy for loneliness (148). One of Ellul’s points throughout the book is that propaganda only works when it satisfies true needs in a population. The propagandist and the propagandee are co-conspirators. Well, our society has created lonely, unimportant, and ineffectual individuals. Into this “marketplace,” the propagandist sells heroism. “Be a part of a movement.” “Make a difference.” “Be the resistance.” Man cannot stand being unimportant; he cannot accept the status of a cipher. He needs to assert himself, to see himself as a hero…Only propaganda provides the individual with a fully satisfactory response to his profound need (149).
- Propaganda capitalizes upon and exaggerates stereotypes and hatreds. Ellul argues that propaganda takes the path of least resistance. Individuals are more inclined to indulge their basest tendencies and paranoias than to cultivate social virtues. Finally, it is obvious that propaganda must not concern itself with what is best in man – the highest goals humanity sets for itself, its noblest and most precious feelings. Propaganda does not aim to elevate man, but to make him serve. It must therefore utilize the most common feelings, the most widespread ideas, the crudest patterns, and in so doing place itself on a very low level with regard to what it wants man to do and to what end. Hate, hunger, and pride make better levers of propaganda than do love or impartiality (38). Propaganda gives an individual “permission” to indulge in their hatreds and resentments by creating classes of enemies who must be resisted. In other words, propaganda turns hatred into a public virtue. But whereas these possibilities of release are very limited, propaganda offers release on a grand scale. For example, propaganda will permit what so far was prohibited, such as hatred, which is a dangerous and destructive feeling and fought by society. But man always has a certain need to hate, just as he hides in his heart the urge to kill. Propaganda offers him an object of hatred, for all propaganda is aimed at an enemy (152). Propaganda manipulates individuals through the use of stereotypes and symbols. Ellul argues that the more stereotypes a culture has, the more susceptible they are to propaganda. By manipulating a person’s hatreds, propaganda gives an individual no opportunity for compromise or reconciliation. The enemy must simply be defeated. Propaganda drives behavior by creating enemies of the Other. As a result, people ignore each other more and more. They cease altogether to be open to an exchange of reason, arguments, points of view…But this diversity of levels and objectives in no way changes the basic law, according to which the more propaganda there is, the more partitioning there is. For propaganda suppresses conversation; the man opposite is no longer an interlocutor but an enemy (213). In this way, propaganda makes us even more isolated since the very notion of reconciliation is withheld. Propaganda, and the tribalism that results, has closed our minds to others. Thus, we see before our eyes how a world of closed minds establishes itself, a world in which everybody talks to himself, everybody constantly reviews his own certainty about himself and the wrongs done him by the Others–a world in which nobody listens to anybody else, everybody talks, and nobody listens. And the more one talks, the more one isolates oneself, because the more one accuses others and justifies oneself (214).
- Propaganda is concerned with creating action based upon feelings. Ellul argues that proper thinking is not important for propaganda. In fact, thinking is the enemy of propaganda. Remember that propaganda seeks to induce actions, adherence, and participation–with as little thoughts as possible (180). Against the notion that propaganda is about thought-control, Ellul says, The aim of modern propaganda is no longer to modify ideas, but to provoke action. It is no longer to change adherence to a doctrine, but to make the individual cling irrationally to a process of action. It is no longer to lead to a choice, but to loosen the reflexes. It is no longer to transform an opinion, but to arouse an active and mythical belief (25). Propaganda leaves man complete freedom of thought, except in his political or social action where we find him channeled and engaged in actions that do not necessarily conform to his private beliefs. He even can have political convictions, and still be led to act in a manner apparently contradictory to them…It does not seek to create wise or reasonable men, but proselytes and militants (28). So what could lead an individual to act in ways that run counter to his personal convictions? One powerful cause is the need to be justified especially in the eyes of others. Propaganda makes us performers of virtue rather than actually virtuous people. What matters is not to be just, or to act just, or that the group to which one belongs is just–but to seem just, to find reasons for asserting that one is just, and to have these reasons shared by one’s audience. This corresponds to man’s refusal to see reality–his own reality first of all–as it is, for that would be intolerable; it also corresponds to his refusal to acknowledge that he may be wrong. Before himself and others, man is constantly pleading his own case and working to find good reasons for what he does or has done. Of course, the whole process is unconscious (155). But this performative virtue is not only for the benefit of others. Propaganda also provides an individual with the opportunity for self-justification. He continues, In every situation propaganda hands him the proof that he, personally, is in the right, that the action demanded of him is just, even if he has the dark, strong feeling that it is not…Man, eager for self-justification, throws himself in the direction of a propaganda that justifies him and thus eliminates one of the sources of his anxiety (158-9).
- Propaganda is especially effective among the educated middle-class. Propaganda is relatively ineffective amongst the poor. More advanced propaganda can influence only a man who is not completely haunted by poverty, a man who can view things from a certain distance and be reasonably unconcerned about his daily bread, and who therefore can take an interest in more general matters and mobilize his actions for purposes other than merely earning a living (105). Ellul also points out that propaganda is generally most effective among the educated. In fact, the most effective propaganda comes under the guise of “political education.” On a related note, propaganda is only effective among those who consider themselves to be well informed especially about current events. Everywhere we find men who pronounce as highly personal truths what they have read in the papers only an hour before, and whose beliefs are merely the result of a powerful propaganda (173). We’ve seen that loneliness, anxiety, material comfort, and a desire to be informed leave a person especially vulnerable to propaganda.
- Propaganda provides a totalizing narrative making sense of a chaotic world. Ellul insists that the best propaganda is that which meets our needs and is based on at least partial truth. Lies are ineffective propaganda because, once exposed, the spell of propaganda is completely broken. It is best to rely on partial and warped truths. These partial truths become a totalizing narrative explaining all of life where disagreement is not considered or allowed. Effective propaganda needs to give man an all-embracing view of the world, a view rather than a doctrine (146). Propaganda creates what Ellul calls a “crystallization” effect on the mind. The individual now has a set of prejudices and beliefs, as well as objective justifications. His entire personality now revolves around those elements. Every new idea will therefore be troublesome to his entire being. He will defend himself against it because it threatens to destroy his certainties. He thus actually comes to hate everything opposed to what propaganda has made him acquire. Propaganda has created in him a system of opinions and tendencies which may not be subjected to criticism. That system leaves no room for ambiguity or mitigation of feelings; the individual has received irrational certainties from propaganda, and precisely because they are irrational, they seem to him part of his personality. He feels personally attacked when these certainties are attacked. There is a feeling here akin to that of something sacred. And this genuine taboo prevents the individual from entertaining any new ideas that might create ambiguity within him (166). The problem that we face is that in our effort to be informed, we have too much information available to us. To the average man who tries to keep informed, a world emerges that is astonishingly incoherent, absurd, and irrational, which changes rapidly and constantly for reasons he cannot understand (145). We are drowning in information. Too much information actually makes us think and reflect less leaving us open to the suggestions of good propaganda. To the extent that propaganda is based on current news, it cannot permit time for thought or reflection. A man caught up in the news must remain on the surface of the event; he is carried along in the current, and can at no time take a respite to judge and appreciate; he can never stop to reflect. There is never any awareness–of himself, of his condition, of his society–for the man who lives by current events. Such a man never stops to investigate any one point, any more than he will tie together a series of news events. We already have mentioned man’s inability to consider several facts or events simultaneously and to make a synthesis of them in order to face or to oppose them. One thought drives away another; old facts are chased by new ones. Under these conditions there can be no thought. And, in fact, modern man does not think about current problems; he feels them. He reacts, but he does not understand them any more than he takes responsibility for them (46-7). Propaganda becomes our life preserver offering us comforting narratives that seem to make the chaos of modern life coherent. The man who keeps himself informed needs a framework in which all this information can be put in order, he needs explanations and comprehensive answers to general problems; he needs coherence. And he needs an affirmation of his own worth. All this is the immediate effect of information. And the more complicated the problems are, the more simple the explanations must be; the more fragmented the canvas, the simpler the pattern; the more difficult the question, the more all-embracing the solution; the more menacing the reduction of his own worth, the greater the need for boosting his ego. All this propaganda–and only propaganda–can give him (146).