on propanganda

photoOn Tuesday I went (finally) to see The British Library’s Propaganda: Power and Persuasion exhibition.

As a point of order, the exhibit is open till 8pm on Tuesdays (oh, if only the Reading Room was too…) so you can actually go after work and not have to find a free weekend – places like, say, the Natural History Museum could learn from this.

It’s really a very good exhibition – and if you have any budding historians and politicians in your teenage circle you should absolutely take them along before it ends. What was particularly interesting to me was the exhibition’s determination to argue that ‘propaganda’ is a neutral term, to try and counter a couple of decades of British school children being introduced to this material by studying Nazi Propaganda in their history lessons. So they spend a lot of time taking you through various forms of persuasion, giving examples from nations, campaigns and historical periods that are generally seen as ‘good’ as well as those seen as ‘bad’ in British common knowledge, and exploring the way that this intent to influence works.

And, in the abstract, the exhibition is right, because ‘propaganda’ comes from the Latin verb ‘propagare’ – to set forward, spread, increase, propagate… (in fact it’s a gerundive, for those of you who are (a) grammar nerds, or (b) fans of Molesworth).

One of their talking heads (I can’t remember which) explains this very carefully – though without reference to Latin – and he is right. And also wrong. Because he so wants to reclaim the idea that propaganda is, basically, the art of persuasion in support of a particular vision/policy/belief/goal that he forgets that the meaning of words evolves through usage – and the use of ‘propaganda’ is so prevalently used in relation to influence or manipulation for negative ends that are for someone else’s self interest (i.e not that of the person being influenced), particularly because of its association to propaganda in Nazi Germany in the 1930s, which I think probably about 97% of the history-GCSE level population have studied, and the rest have absorbed at the cinema, that it’s at the impossible end of the difficulty scale to reverse and neutralise the negative understanding of propaganda.

But I wonder if it’s not so nigh-on impossible to reverse this negative understanding of propaganda more because of this assumption of it as influence for someone else’s end, and because we’re more deeply suspicious, in the western hemisphere, than perhaps ever before, of influence generally. We’re so terribly concerned with our independence, individuality, and authenticity, and with our rights, especially our right to choose that any attempt to influence is seen as manipulation, ‘spin’ or salemanship, as something that wants to take our freedom and turn it for someone else’s gain. Yes, influence seeks to change the body of knowledge we use when we engage with the world around us – but this is everything from our choice of breakfast cereal to our choice of political candidate to our whole orientation towards the world. Advertising is as much propaganda as the presentation of the next political party manifesto will be.

We seem to fear that anything we don’t deliberately accept and own as representative of us (clothes, cultural choices, politics…) is something malignant and damaging to our selves and self-interest. I recently read the first section of Nudge, Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler’s book about how people make choices and ways of helping people to make choices that ware in their own best interest, and they have to spend a goodly number of words on justifying ’libertarian paternalism’ as a valid and positive philosophy, because they know this. But I’ve also been reading a bunch of stuff on liturgy and practice and how our common knowledge and interaction with our worlds is shaped, and the way that pretty much every story we’re ever told wants us to associate ourselves with it, shaping us to fit. We can’t get away from it – so a lot of me wants to jump up and down and yell at us all to stop being scared of and angry at propaganda (and then influenced by it anyway), and to learn to read it and decide how much we want to be influenced by it.

As ever, there is a David Foster Wallace passage that sums up this preferred response… This, from This is Water.

Twenty years after my own graduation, I have come gradually to understand that the liberal-arts cliché about “teaching you how to think” is actually shorthand for a much deeper, more serious idea: “Learning how to think” really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience. Because if you cannot exercise this kind of choice in adult life, you will be totally hosed… You get to consciously decide what has meaning and what doesn’t. You get to decide what to worship…

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