Archive for April, 2011

Propagandists and the Road to Serfdom

April 18, 2011

In 1938 the short-lived Institute for Propaganda Analysis (IPA) listed techniques used in propaganda campaigns, namely “Assertion”, “Bandwagon”, “Card Stacking”, “Glittering Generalities”, “Lesser of Two Evils”, “Name Calling”, “Pinpointing the Enemy”, “Plain Folks”, “Simplification/Stereotyping”, “Testimonials” and “Transfer”. A few years later, in his book The Road to Serfdom, Hayek wrote the following, “We are ready to accept almost any explanation of the present crisis of our civilization except one: that the present state of the world may be the result of genuine error on our own part and that the pursuit of some of our most cherished ideals has apparently produced results utterly different from those which we expected”.  Although Hayek was writing at the time of the fight against fascism, it is not at all difficult to relate this quote to what is happening today and how the sorts of propaganda techniques listed by the IPA are being shamelessly used in our society as “explanations” of crises and for promoting and attacking individuals, as well as their beliefs.

So what is propaganda? What it is not is the endless repetition of lies. Rather, it’s the selective use of information delivered with skillful use of rhetoric designed for a targeted, manipulatable audience; the relationship between propagandists and his or her propagandees is of paramount importance to its success. Civil discourse becomes replaced with pandering invective, often transitioning into paranoia inducing hysteria. A great many propagandists seem to also be propagandees themselves, spiraling into an ever more delusional fantasyland.

So going back to the IPA’s list, it is useful to just consider what each technique involves. With “Assertion” we’d have statements that should be unquestionably accepted as fact. “Bandwagon” would imply that everyone believes/supports x, y or z, so you should, too. “Card Stacking” is the presentation of only one part of the story, selective omission. “Glittering Generalities” are the use of words associated with what individuals prize, or reject, and their linkage to whatever the propagandist is spouting. “Lesser of Two Evils” would be the presentation of, say, two options with the least offensive one pushed the hardest, with no mention of other possible scenarios. “Name Calling” would involve using (perceived to be) negative labels to describe those that oppose you; or using (perceived to be) positive labels to describe those in support. “Pinpointing the Enemy” would inevitably involve scapegoating a particular group. “Plain Folks” would be using accents and idioms in combination with appeals to populism. “Simplification/Stereotyping” constitutes the presentation of complex issues as simple black and white choices, rather than in shades of grey. “Testimonials” correspond to linkage of popular individuals to particular politicians or issues. “Transfer” is linkage between something the propagandist is spouting and what the propagandee holds dear, this may be as simple as association with a symbol and can be used positively or negatively. Note that in all of the above cases the success of the propagandist is dependent on the compliance of the propagandee, that he or she will accept whatever they are told without delving further.

It would be easy to give example after example of propaganda from media outlets, pundits and politicians on a daily basis, after all, their motivations are to pander to their (potential) audience, thus adding to the bottom line, or to get elected. This, after all, is part of our First Amendment rights. However, it is the responsibility of the potential propagandees – ALL OF US – to be aware that we are being bombarded by snake oil sellers every day. Be it through the print media, television, radio or the internet. It is through our collective complicity that propagandists successfully spew their bile. We need to be critical of what we are being told, rather than gullible when it comes to those that seek to propagandize.

Of course, a reader may say that by this piece of writing I am making my own propaganda, and maybe I am, too. Maybe I am tailoring it to my intended propagandees? In quoting Hayek, the great libertarian economist, am I guilty of assertion, card stacking, glittering generalities, testimonial and transfer, myself? But Hayek did live through a terrible period of European history and, also in the Road to Serfdom, wrote the following, “Yet, although history never quite repeats itself, and just because no development is inevitable, we can in a measure learn from the past to avoid a repetition of the same process. One need not be a prophet to be aware of impending dangers”. A good place to start would be to exercise caution with those that use demonizing invective; the odds are that they are being most economic with the truth. The repetition of history need not be our destiny, it is our choice.