By GENE HOWINGTON
Originally, I drafted this article with a preface about the story Michael Hastings recently broke on BuzzFeed about an amendment to the latest defense authorization bill that would “legalize the use of propaganda on American audiences.” However, as I worked on it this morning, our very own poet laureate and research librarian extraordinaire Elaine Magliaro cut me off at the pass with her own excellent article on the subject. So instead of repeating the points she makes which illustrate why understanding propaganda is important, I will refer you to her post at Res Ipsa Loquitur, “How about Some Government Propaganda for the People Paid for by the People Being Propagandized?“
Now that the kid gloves have come off regarding the governmental efforts to control your mind by controlling both your information and how you receive it, let’s discuss the nature of propaganda. Now more than ever, it is important to know the basics of how propaganda works. Since words are the basic building block of the English language, we’ll start with asking what is propaganda, look at some general history of the practice, consider the importance of meaning of words, the ideas of connotation and denotation, and the process of selecting “value loaded” words.
What is propaganda? Webster’s defines the word as follows:
propaganda \ˌprä-pə-ˈgan-də, ˌprō-\, n.,
1 capitalized : a congregation of the Roman curia having jurisdiction over missionary territories and related institutions (ed. note: Not relevant, but interesting.)
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
But that’s not exactly what people feel when they hear the word, is it? Why do most people have a negative reaction to the word “propaganda”? After all, by definition, “propaganda” is much like the verb “to persuade” in meaning.
persuade \pər-ˈswād\, v., v.t.,
1: to move by argument, entreaty, or expostulation to a belief, position, or course of action
2: to plead with : urge
Etymologically speaking, the word “propaganda” is fairly new as a political science term. “Propaganda” didn’t come into common use as a political science term until World War I. Even then it was not a pejorative in use like it is today. The word originated (some would say unsurprisingly so) as shorthand referring to the Roman Catholic Church’s Congregatio de Propaganda Fide or the “congregation for propagating the faith”. This committee of cardinals was established in 1622 by Pope Gregory XV to supervise foreign missions. The word “propaganda” is the feminine gerund of the Italian verb “propagando” which in turn is derived from the Latin verb prōpāgō, meaning “to propagate”.
propagate \ˈprä-pə-ˌgāt\, v., v.t.,
3a : to cause to spread out and affect a greater number or greater area : extend b : to foster growing knowledge of, familiarity with, or acceptance of (as an idea or belief) : publicize c : to transmit (as sound or light) through a medium
Clearly the largest distinction between persuasion and propaganda is that propaganda is a form of large scale persuasion. Persuasion isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Changing someone’s mind is a better tactic than violence. Persuasion is at the heart of society’s pillar and replacement for self-help justice and dispute resolution, the adversarial court system. Persuasion is an alternative to coercion.
So what is propaganda? It’s a tool to change people’s minds. Like any tool, it is capable of beneficial use and horrific misuse. This makes understanding how the tool works critical if you want to recognize (and possibly work to prevent) its misuse.
If that is the case the word originally had no pejorative use, then why do most people have an automatic negative reaction to the word “propaganda”? This brings us to the ideas of connotation and denotation. Plainly put, denotation is a direct specific meaning; the literal meaning of a word and nothing more. Connotation is a “something” suggested by a word or thing; an implied meaning. I suggest the negative connotation for the word “propaganda” comes from both the negative denotation built in to the word itself (part of the definition is “for the purpose of helping or injuring” and injury carries the negative notion of harm to self and/or others) and the recent historical use of propaganda to dastardly ends culminating to create an implied negative meaning beyond the definition. The denotation of a word is not the direct province of the propagandist. They have to know what the words actually mean, but that is of limited value to them. The edge of the propagandist’s knife so to speak lies in the connotation of words. More on that topic as we move along. In the 20th Century, we have seen what truly evil injury propaganda is capable of inflicting on a society. To know how we got to today, it is important to have a bit of historical perspective.
Historically, the idea of propaganda has been around as long as there have been society and governments. For example, in ancient Egypt, the Pharaoh Ramses II claimed a great victory over the Hittites in the Battles of Kadesh (possibly the largest chariot battle in history). The two most common forms of Egyptian records of the battles are known as “The Poem” and “The Bulletin”. Both are found carved into multiple sites in Egypt, all built or expanded upon by Ramses II – one of the greatest builders of ancient Egypt. “The Bulletin” is found on seven different temples or monuments and eight total sites have “The Poem”. When you add numerous other references on papyrus and in tangentially related carvings, this makes the Battles of Kadesh one of the best recorded battles of antiquity. The tale told is of an overwhelming victory for Ramses II and Egypt.
There’s only one problem with that depiction.
It is most certainly a lie at worst and an exaggeration at best.
Hittite records, although not as numerous, all tell the tale of a Hittite victory. Archaeological evidence is inconclusive. One of the two parties is lying and possibly both. Most modern historians have come to the conclusion that the battle likely ended in a draw. Given that, why did Ramses II carve his non-existent victory into stone? Propaganda is the answer. Ramses II wanted the reputation as a strong military leader even if the reality wasn’t so glorious. So he fluffed the details and spread the word that “Ramses II Kicks Ass!” Unless you were at the Battles of Kadesh, who were you to argue with a Living God? Then realizing that his chances for immediate military exploits were practically nil, Ramses II did what any respectable Pharaoh would do and a secondary exercise in propaganda: he returned to the building spree he started as a young man. Some would say the greatest building spree in the history of the ancient Egypt. Just like the Romans after him, Ramses knew that impressive buildings were a kind of psychological warfare – non-verbal propaganda geared at projecting the power of the throne to the masses, but more on this at a later date. The focus here is language and the basics of propaganda.
In the beginning, there was the word. Those with the word were limited. If they could not speak directly, they were limited by how many manual physical copies they could get out to the masses and how many of the masses could read. Then came the printing press in the 15th Century. When Guttenberg invented it, one of the early adopters of the technology was the Holy Roman Empire. By the end of the Renaissance, book making was industrialized to the point that printer/binders could produce between three and four thousand pages per day: a hundred fold increase in production compared to the most prolific of scribes. Books and written material went from rare treasures to common items. As knowledge became democratized, the use of printed propaganda grew in unison: public notices, political flyers and proto-newspapers became cheap and abundant.
The 20th Century was in some ways a Golden Age for deploying propaganda. Unlike any previous age, the 20th Century was the age of mass communications. Industrial mass printing of newspapers, radio, television, telephones and the Internet radically changed the way humans communicate. The word became King and the picture became Queen. Even illiteracy wasn’t the barrier it had posed to the ancient world as the spoken word supplemented the written and the truism that “a picture is worth a thousand words” is a truism for a reason. Even physical handicap was less of a barrier to getting the message out as those blind to the printed word and picture and deaf to the spoken word now had the channel of communication created by the 19th Century invention of Braille. As propaganda is large scale persuasion, mass media provided a natural accelerant. What had previously been a candle of propaganda became a bonfire necessarily becoming a political science term in common usage. The 20th Century saw probably the most devastating use of propaganda to date on any population. Propaganda was instrumental to both the Nazi war effort and their social engineering that allowed them to industrially murder six million Jews, Roma, homosexuals and handicapped. Propaganda was key to the crimes of the Khemer Rouge. Mao’s Cultural Revolution. Castro’s rise to power in Cuba. The wrongful, misguided and likely illegal U.S. invasion of Iraq. These are a few of many examples where propaganda has been used to either garner public support for ethically wrong actions by government or obfuscate the truth to aid the guilty from being brought to justice. This point will be addressed further in a later column, but it goes a long way to explaining how a word of neutral value became a word of negative value due to recent history.
We are still left with the word. As far as the word “propaganda” proper, we know what it means. We know where it comes from. We know the goal of propaganda in general. That leaves us with word choice and the idea of “value loaded” word and how it relates to propaganda. What are words loaded with? They are loaded with implication. This is why connotation is the edge of the propagandist’s knife. Word choice is critical. As I noted earlier, the denotation of a word is not the direct province of the propagandist. The edge of the propagandist’s knife so to speak lies in the connotation of words. However, knowing the proper denotation of words – i.e. having a large vocabulary – puts one at a tactical advantage against the propagandist. If one knows the actual meaning of words, it becomes more difficult for the propagandist to use connotation against you.
For example, consider the use of media outlets like NPR that made a public and conscious decision to refrain from reporting on “torture” – a word with extremely negative denotation and connotation – and instead choosing to use the euphemistic language “enhanced interrogation”. Everyone with a conscience thinks torture is a bad thing and torturers are ethically abhorrent people. It’s not only a Federal crime, cruel and unusual punishment is specifically barred by the 8th Amendment of the Constitution. The word choice here is designed to clearly shift public attitudes from “those guys need to be prosecuted as criminals” to “maybe they aren’t so bad after all”. NPR (aided by the Bush Administration no doubt) chose words with a neutral/positive value load compared to the word “torture”. Connotation plays to your emotional response over your rational response. When the word choice becomes more subtle, the damage of connotations can be even more insidious. Compare:
- war – limited police action
- conquest – liberation
- famine – widespread hunger
- pestilence – outbreak
- death – casualties
Be aware and suspicious of word choice, certainly. Especially when dealing with adjectives as they have by their nature a great capacity to carry connotation. However, it is equally important to consider the speaker. When evaluating something you suspect is propaganda, ask these questions:
- Who is the speaker?
- What does the speaker want from me?
- What advantage does the speaker gain from my agreement or lose from my disagreement? And vice-versa?
- Does the speaker represent other interests that may not be obvious?
- Why is the speaker giving this message now?
What is your first line of defense against propaganda?
Be aware of the meaning and choice of words. To that end, work to strengthen your vocabulary. Buy a “Word A Day” calender or download an app for your phone, use a website or download a tickler program for your computer.
Always question the message and the messenger as well as any who may have sent the messenger. Practice reading with emotional detachment and a critical eye to not only what is said, but how it is said and by whom.
Keep in mind that propaganda is a tool. It is inherently neutral. The good or evil is found in the intent of the speaker and their desired actions and/or reactions on your part.
What is your first line of defense against propaganda? You are. And that is my unhidden message to you: Wake up. Civilization calls. The world is what we make it.
The next article in this series will address methodology, strategy and tactics in deploying propaganda.
Note: This column was originally published at Res Ispa Loquitur (jonathanturley.org) on May 12, 2012. It has been re-edited for presentation here.