5. Propaganda
Clear Thinking by R W Jepson

IN the course of its history, and more especially during the last fifty years, there has been a good deal of confused thinking about the word PROPAGANDA and what it stands for. If we are to dispel this confusion, we must try to remove the prejudice surrounding the word. I propose therefore to try to look objectively at some of the manifestations of propaganda, and to draw up a neutral definition in terms of its purpose or function. Such a definition I suggest should be:

"Propaganda is a term applied to the matter disseminated, or the methods of dissemination used, by people whose deliberate aim is to persuade others to think or do something which they would not otherwise have done or thought."

Let us look at some of the implications of this definition. It should be noted first that propaganda is primarily concerned, not with the spreading of facts or information, but with persuasion. If facts are given, it is with the idea of inducing people to draw such conclusions from them as will make them act in the way the propagandist wants them to act. There are indeed few resources of the propagandist that could not be paralleled by those of the persuasive orator or platform-speaker. It may be taken for granted that neither orator nor propagandist, private or public, will ever attempt to present the pros and cons of any controversial question with judicial impartiality. At the best, we can scarcely expect propagandists to be much more than 'special pleaders', selecting and presenting facts in such a way as to put their point of view in a favourable light. No serious harm can come from this as long as the way is left open for people to exercise their rational judgment, i.e. as long as criticism is not silenced and there are facilities for the other side to be heard—when the rational approach would be to weigh and consider the rival claims, and to refuse to be 'bounced' one way or the other.

At the same time, we may concede that there may be occasions, during periods of national emergency, when it may be in the general interest for the government of the day to induce people to act before they think, and when there is no time to explain the rational basis for such action. Even the most fervent believers in 'government by discussion' would admit that, when immediate action is imperative, methods other than rational persuasion, but preferably falling short of physical compulsion, are permissible—and this is an end that propaganda can be made to serve. But though they might reluctantly approve of the use of such propaganda as a temporary expedient, they would emphatically repudiate it as a permanent instrument of policy, for it would be far too dangerous a tool in the hands of the unscrupulous.

Propaganda does tend to trade upon the intellectual inertia which besets so many people, and to secure its ends by appealing to their emotions. There is nothing inherently wrong or reprehensible in appealing to people's emotions. Few would object to the stimulation of feelings of kindliness and tolerance; and to bring about the removal of some abuse or injustice, the rousing of indignation and compassion may be necessary. But appeals to people's baser feelings, such as fear, greed or selfish pride, which bring their brutish instincts into play, are another matter; these and attempts to play on any feelings in such a way as to make rational thinking impossible—i.e. to induce the sort of mob hysteria which makes people incapable of seeing reason—would find few defenders on moral grounds. Nevertheless it does appear that the propagandist acts on the assumption that the non-rational appeal has greater chances of success than inviting people to make rational judgments. Not that he may not pretend to invite people to exercise their reasoning powers: this is one of the weapons in the armoury of advertisers, and the propagandist makes use of this and of other devices familiar in advertising technique. Indeed, perhaps the close association in the public mind between the propagandist and the advertiser may account for some of the distrust with which propaganda is often viewed. As no one suspected advertisers of altruistic motives, people began to wonder whether the motives of propagandists were not similarly tainted. The early years of the twentieth century saw a tremendous development in advertising technique, more especially in America; and in the competitive scramble for business and in the struggle to break down sales-resistance, advertisers were tempted to use devices which took full advantage of human susceptibility to suggestion and to irrational and instinctive reactions to certain stimuli. They realised that in the majority of their fellow-men civilisation was only superficial and that they had only to be scratched to reveal the superstitious savage hiding beneath the thin veneer. Schools of advertising sprang up, and their pupils studied the workings of the human mind—that crude jumble of prejudices and instinctive and habitual responses, in which reason plays a minor part—with the object of exploiting its vulnerability. It was a pity, but perhaps inevitable, that propaganda for objects not inspired by self-interest or cupidity, in order to commend itself to people used to having their ears and eyes assaulted by advertising devices, should have taken its cue from some of these devices. And it was little wonder that when similar devices were used both by propagandists and advertisers, people failed to distinguish between their motives.

Most propaganda could be classed as 'spoon-feeding', but there is no particular point in decrying it on that account. One could hardly expect propaganda, if it is to be effective, to be pitched much above the average level of intelligence of the people whose behaviour it is designed to influence. Hence one must not be surprised to find a close resemblance between the methods of propaganda and those used in the early stages of the training of children. Teachers and parents often have to inculcate good habits in children by inducing them to act before they are able to reason; and in making intellectual fare suitable to tender digestions, they have to select and to simplify facts in much the same way as the propagandist. But in a society organised so as to give the citizen the fullest opportunity to develop his individuality, there should be this radical difference between the propagandist and the educator: whereas the propagandist attempts to influence thought and behaviour so that the people influenced act and think without searching for the reasons why they do so, the educator should attempt to influence thought and behaviour in such a way that the people influenced will be stimulated to seek to understand why they think and act as they do. Whereas the propagandist hopes to keep people at the spoon-fed stage, the educator should prepare them for emerging from it to a stage when they have the courage and initiative to think for themselves.

It must be confessed that in this country education has not only failed to bring the great mass of the people nearer to this stage of comparative maturity, but has also contributed in a great degree to make them more susceptible to the influences of propaganda. As I said in Chapter One, our mental progress has not kept pace without material progress; and for this failure our educational system must bear a good part of the blame. True, it has had to contend with the deep-seated prejudice in these islands against schooling in general and more especially against the idea of continuing that painful process—painful in both its obsolete and its current senses—beyond the early years of adolescence. Now its task is even more formidable, for it has to contend with unfavourable conditions largely the consequences of its former neglect.

It is an ironical fact that scientific and technical advances of the last fifty years have not only put within the reach of almost everybody the cheap newspaper, the radio and the cinema, but also helped to create the conditions most favourable for the passive reception of propaganda through these mediums, and indeed to increase the public appetite for it. Mechanisation in workshops, factories and offices has made the daily task of wage-earners shorter no doubt, but more repetitive and monotonous. It has given them more leisure, but at the same time deprived them of the interest and joy the old-time craftsman used to extract from creative and inventive effort. A few indeed do turn in their spare time to some manual or mental activity as a natural outlet for the creative instinct. But the vast majority are too tired or too lazy at the end of their working day to make the effort, and are content to let themselves be passively entertained at the expense of no more exertion than that necessary to turn on a knob, or to skim the pages of a thriller, or to walk to the nearest picture-house. The machine has banished colour, adventure and emotion from their daily work, turning it into a dull routine; and they satisfy their natural longings for these experiences by entering vicariously into the colourful, adventurous and emotional lives of fictitious characters glamorously or sensationally recorded in cheap print or in Hollywood studios. Many of them who are compelled to use tram, bus or train to take them to and from their daily work fill in the idle minutes of travel at the beginning and the end of each working day by reading the headlines and snippets of news in their morning or evening newspapers.

It is not surprising that such people soon make all this passive entertainment and substitute-living into a regular daily routine, and so unconsciously drug or (lope themselves into a condition in which they are unable to think for themselves on any subject outside their own immediate and restricted orbit. Such thinking demands effort—effort they are reluctant to make when the propagandist is ready and anxious to do it for them, using the same media to which they look for ways of filling in time, at moments when they are particularly receptive.

Propaganda, in fact, has its best chances of success when those to whom it is addressed are in a passively receptive and uncritical mood, or when their will or power to resist is weak. If the propagandist has reason to suspect that these conditions are not present, he may try to create them artificially, and so predispose his hearers to listen. Here again he has profited by the example of the persuasive orator. It is a well-known device for a speaker, before introducing a subject that he fears will be unpalatable to his audience, to put them in a good humour first by telling them something he knows they will like (i.e. by administering some 'jam') and thus to predispose them to swallow, with less resistance, the 'pill' or the 'powder' that follows. This technique will be familiar to those who have listened to commercially-sponsored radio programmes from the Continent, in which recommendations of some commercial product are sandwiched between turns by well-known variety artists or popular dance-bands.

But similar conditions of receptivity may also be brought about by methods comparable to those of the hypnotist when he sends his patients to sleep and makes them amenable to the belief or impulse he is about to insinuate. This process of insinuating a belief or impulse into a hypnotic patient is technically termed suggestion. and when the patient is ready to receive suggestion he is said to be suggestible.

The state of suggestibility is not as remote from ordinary waking life as might be thought. In his efforts to obtain from those he is trying to influence a quicker response than would be possible by a rational approach through facts and closely-reasoned argument, the propagandist tends, consciously or unconsciously, to take advantage of human proneness to it. For in certain circumstances we are all apt to reveal involuntarily something of that blind, unquestioning obedience to suggestion which the hypnotist induces in his patient.

There are indeed three ways in which people are apt to derive their opinions from non-rational sources: they tend to think what they wish to think; they allow their feelings to interfere with their interpretation of facts; and they tend to believe what they are told by way of suggestion. The propagandist is usually ready to exploit all three of these tendencies. I have already referred to the first two: let us look for a moment at the third.

The circumstances in which people are most readily suggestible are:

(1) when they are told something by someone to whom they ascribe prestige;

(2) when they are told something in a confident and assured tone and in an authoritative manner;

(3) when a statement is repeated again and again;

and the more ignorant they are about something, the more suggestible they are likely to be in any one of these circumstances.

For evidence of the number of people who are susceptible to the claims of real or assumed prestige, we have only to look at the many advertisements which presumably tempt people to buy toilet preparations mainly on the strength of the prestige attaching to stage and cinema artists or athletic aces whose incomparable complexions and coiffures splash the pages of picture papers.

The source of a statement or opinion is without doubt an important clue to its truth or tenability. But it is irrational to accept the statement or adopt the opinion solely because it is derived from a source to which we pay unquestioning deference.

Those arch-propagandists Hitler and Mussolini worked up sufficient prestige about themselves to make their followers accept them as the sole and infallible source of truth and authority. People may pour scorn and ridicule on the idea of basing prestige upon such false and hollow pretensions; but how many of the same people still believe implicitly in the truth of anything they see in print, especially newspaper print? And if there are fewer of these than there used to be, how many of them are content to quote as sufficient authority for a statement or opinion something they heard on the wireless? The prestige of the newspaper may be on the wane, but that of the radio waxes strong.

The Press and the Radio are two of the most powerful instruments of propaganda. I shall have more to say about the Press of this country; but a word here about British Broadcasting would not be out of place. The B.B.C., although ultimately subject to parliamentary control, is a quasi-independent, public service monopoly. It has built up a world-wide reputation for presenting news 'accurately, fairly, soberly and impersonally'. It is also tacitly committed to the task of trying to raise the standard of knowledge. judgment, and taste in the general public. For these reasons, everything broadcast has come to acquire for most people an amplified significance and a high measure of prestige; the mere fact of broadcasting an opinion enhances the authority and weight it may already possess; and when an opinion with little or no authority behind it is broadcast, it thereby acquires some. For the B.B.C. also aims at mirroring the life of the day and at 'presenting the people to the people', and thus, while its choice of material is not wholly indiscriminate, the material it presents is bound to vary greatly in quality, and the greater part of the listening public can hardly be expected to exercise reasoned discrimination between the good and the indifferent. The result is that the importance of the indifferent is apt to be magnified out of all proportion. The very fact of being chosen to broadcast endows a person with prestige; and because in sound broadcasting the speaker cannot be seen and is represented solely by a voice over the air, he enjoys a semi-anonymity which itself confers a mysteriously authoritative quality on anything he happens to say. It is ironical that the well-intentioned efforts of the B.B.C. to be impartial should ultimately have the possible effect of 'making the worse appear the better reason'; but when suggestibility to prestige is at work in the minds of listeners, this effect is not unlikely.

An authoritative manner on the part of a speaker will often confer, temporarily, sufficient prestige to induce in many people a readiness to accept what he says as true or credible, without questioning whether he is in fact entitled by his credentials to speak with authority on the topic in hand or the question at issue. If he is so qualified, then they may reasonably give him a respectful and attentive hearing. But without satisfying themselves on this point, they betray their suggestibility if they allow his confident and assured tone by itself to bewitch them into believing him. Furthermore, even if his credentials will bear close investigation, it is what he says, not how he says it, that is important, and his hearers ought still to reserve judgment on his utterances until they have examined them on their merits.

When Lewis Carroll, in The Hunting of the Snark, put into the mouth of the Bellman the remark: "What I say three times is true", he was drawing attention to the common human failing which makes people believe in the truth of a statement provided it is repeated often enough; and the more confidently and dogmatically the statement is made, the more credibility it seems to acquire. Constant reiteration is a familiar advertising device which propagandists freely borrow. They are also fond of coining catch-phrases and slogans to serve as rallying cries for their supporters. These may have their legitimate uses in arousing interest and stimulating enthusiasm. But when constantly repeated, they may have a hypnotic effect: they tend to provoke strong emotional reactions in both supporters and opponents, and may induce conditions in which the voice of reason has little chance of being heard or heeded. They are dangerous too when repeated mechanically and parrot-wise as substitutes for argument, and encourage mental laziness by suggesting over-simplified solutions for complex problems.

From what has been said about the nature and working of propaganda, it should be clear first that, whether we like it or not, propaganda is exerting a powerful influence on the moulding of contemporary life. We cannot get away from it in one form or another; and it is in times like the present, when conditions are unstable and changing, that propagandists find most scope and encouragement.

Secondly, it should be clear that if all the instruments of propaganda in this country were allowed to fall exclusively into the hands of the government of the day, or of one political party, or of an irresponsible minority, it would be the first step towards a totalitarian tyranny and would lead to the gradual extinction of our traditional freedoms. As long as these freedoms are preserved, and until we return to more settled times, we must expect the propaganda 'war' to go on; and we must continue, if we wish to retain our self-respect as individual, thinking beings, with minds and souls of our own, to pick our way through the welter of conflicting opinions as best we can according to our lights, to guard against our susceptibility to suggestion and other natural weaknesses and failings, and to make decisions boldly and as rationally as possible. By doing so, we deliberately choose the more difficult path: it would be easier, but supine, to be complacently acquiescent and let things run their course; it would be easier, but futile and cowardly, to withdraw from the conflict altogether and take up a position of detachment; and it would be easier, but evasive and timid, merely to be suspicious and vaguely apprehensive about the way things are going, and to shirk the responsibility of making decisions.

A parliamentary democratic government like our own cannot work properly unless the channels of communication for news and ideas are comparatively free and unrestricted. If electors are to take an active and intelligent interest in politics, they must have access to the material and relevant information on which to base their opinions and form their judgments; and they must have opportunities to express and to examine divergent views. Freedom of expression, freedom of discussion, freedom to criticise, and knowledge of the facts are essential if electors are to take their proper part in forming collective decisions on matters of public policy.

The organs of communication in Great Britain still enjoy comparative degrees of freedom: they are all—Press, Radio and Cinema—free from extreme forms of state control or censorship. The censoring of films is done by the British Board of Film Censors—a body controlled by the film industry itself, although a Local Authority may ban the public showing of a film in its own area. Broadcasting in this country is not free in the sense that it is in the U.S.A., i.e. left to private enterprise under licence from the government; nor is it merely a state mouthpiece, as it is in totalitarian countries. The charter under which the B.B.C. acts is a typically British example of compromise: it is a monopoly, but a public service monopoly it is ultimately responsible to a minister of state, who is in turn responsible to parliament, but it is administered by an independent board of governors, which has very wide powers of discretion. In practice, it is, in its presentation of news and opinion, as nearly impartial as it is humanly possible to be in this imperfect world; and if there are any unfortunate repercussions from its general policy, it is, as I have pointed out, the fallibility of listeners themselves that is perhaps mainly responsible. The Press is restrained by the laws of blasphemy, libel and sedition; but there is no official censorship and the government has no monopoly of news. The newspapers are privately owned; but modern economic conditions have resulted in concentrating most of the popular Press in the control of one or other of the great newspaper combines. There are dangers inherent in concentrating the Press in the hands of an irresponsible few; but it is as easy to exaggerate these dangers, as it is to exaggerate the power exerted by the Press in shaping public opinion; and the corrective remedies are in the hands of the intelligent and careful reader. ( A short article on 'Reading the Newspaper' is at the end of this book.)

« NEXT » « Clear Thinking » « Library » « Home »