La Propagande (Médium Large) à Ici Radio-Canada
J’attendrai. On s’en reparle.
Pour ceux qui parlent fraçais, retournez écouter l’émission, parce qu’elle se passe de commentaires.
For the french-speaking impaired…
Médium-Large is a french-canadian public radio show in which there is once in a while a small gem of a show, like this one.
This time, they talked about Propaganda, how it originated, (it was invented by the french catholic church in the wake of the catholic-protestant massacres and perfected by Freud’s nephew), what it looks like, what does it aim too, how to spot it and how to defeat it. Me, I’ll talk about the last two, and especially the last one.
Propaganda is trying to make a message spread by addressing crowds rather than individuals. An individual can think critically, but a crowd can’t. It’s important to note that the content of the message is irrelevant – both pro-social and anti-social messages can be the subject of a propaganda campaign, both oil companies and ecologist movement do it, both patriarchy and feminism use propaganda, and so on. It’s effective at spreading all messages, and all interest groups, politicians, lobbyists and civil-rights activists use it. Depending on your stance on morality, it may mean that using propaganda is morally equivalent to using a blow-torch : innocent in some contexts, dangerous in others, and only ever evil if you’re actively trying to melt someone’s brain with it. Or maybe you’re the sort of person who feels that the end doesn’t justify the means and some acts are inherently wrong. It’s your call, I’m not judging you. Not today.
Spotting Propaganda is hard, because it is, by design, something that appeals to our instincts to follow the group rather than think individually, and breaking out of the crowd is so hard that, in any given situation, only a small percentage can manage it. However, when a message emphasize emotive response, when it claims to speak to real people (as opposed to fake people, I guess ?) when it encourages action rather than reason, when it claims to be a middle-ground, when it claims that it offers practical solutions to practical problems, when it claims to be no-nonsense without being burdened by any of this useless cloud shoveling intellectual mumbo-jumbo, when it tries to incite anger against the opposition or fear of the consequences of not doing as the messenger says – we might be having a propagandist on our hands. Some of these patterns (the middle ground, appealing to “real people”, being “no-nonsense”) are, in fact, so common, that we can easily get the illusion that they are normal way to make an argument out of the sheer habit of seeing them all the time.
So… how does one confirm that a certain message is actually propaganda, and how does one protects oneself against it ? Pretty much the same way, actually, because the best defense against propaganda is knowing it for what it is. Look out for vague and undefined words. Using vague words is the surest sign of propaganda. Meaningless words such as « “A fraction of” (1/2 is a fraction, and 2/1 is also a fraction) “contributes to” or “is part of” (as it doesn’t specify how nor if it’s any significant, and some maliciously clever interpretation of propositional logic technically means it being winter is derivable from me farting as long as we’re in January, therefore, my farts contribute to it being winter as long as it’s already winter (“a true proposition is validly entailed by any proposition”)
Next, search for nodal (words that come up frequently and are used in arguments to derive conclusions) words of which you know the meaning, but that lack any proper definitions. It doesn’t matter if you know what those words mean. If a piece of communication doesn’t take the time to define the word they use, then you can’t know if they use those words right. When it’s done purposefully, it must aim to confuse and make thinking harder, which makes it easier for emotions to influence us – it’s propaganda.
Look for the stakes! A propagandist message will usually identify some noble goal, and propose ways to achieve it, but it will usually forego to explain how will the actions they propose achieve the goal, nor will they compare the efficiency of alternate ways to reach the same goal. Find what’s at stakes, and try to form some original or novel way of your own to reach that goal. Then, try to get other people to do the same. Reveal your ideas once every one has written down at least one. Then look at what the relevant experts on this subject have to say. Is the course of action suggested still the only advisable course ? What other alternative are there ?
How many ways are there to interpret the words in this message? Does this message have an understanding of words that is the same as me ? Do other people who listen to this message understand it the same way as me ? What’s at stake ? What are we talking about ? What do we want ? and Why ?
Why, why, why why. Kids keep asking «why» and they are annoying, because their incessant inquisitiveness leads us to think that we may have been lied to or lead to do things we shouldn’t have done or had no particular good reason to do. This is, sometimes, hard for the pride, and we feel lesser for it.
But resisting propaganda is hard, and, by accepting our vulnerability to it, we take the first step in taking countermeasures against it.
Most importantly, don’t ever ever blame yourself for falling for it.
After all, most people do.