Monday, August 01, 2011

Why Are We So Vulnerable to Propaganda?

The best defense against the deliberately cloaked propaganda in the mass media is recognizing our susceptibility to it. If we refuse to believe that we are vulnerable, we are much more likely to succumb to propaganda's compelling force. And, it's not always the ignorant and uneducated masses who succumb most easily. Very often, the arrogance of the educated and/or "privileged" class renders them defenseless to its insidious pressure; thus, allowing the propaganda to inform and permeate their psyche.

Jacques Ellul on propaganda:

The average citizen wants to have opinions on domestic and foreign issues. But in reality, he can’t. He is caught between his desire and his inability, which he refuses to accept. For no citizen will believe that he is unable to have opinions. Public opinion surveys always reveal that people have opinions even on the most complicated questions, except for a small minority (usually the better informed and those who have reflected the most). The majority prefers expressing stupidities to not expressing any opinion.

For this they need simple thoughts, elementary explanations, a “key” that will permit them to take a position, and even ready-made opinions. As most people have the desire and at the same time the incapacity to participate, they are ready to accept a propaganda that will permit them to participate, and which hides their incapacity beneath explanations, judgments, and news, enabling them to satisfy their desire without eliminating their incompetence.

The individual does not want information, but only value judgments and preconceived positions. Here one must also take into account the individual’s laziness, which plays a decisive role in the entire propaganda phenomenon, and the impossibility of transmitting all information fast enough to keep up with developments in the modern world.

Besides, the developments are not only beyond man’s intellectual scope; they are also beyond him in volume and intensity; he simply cannot grasp the world’s economic and political problems.

Faced with such matters, he feels his weakness, his inconsistency, his lack of effectiveness. He realizes that he depends on decisions over which he has no control, and that realization drives him to despair. Man cannot stay in this situation too long. He needs an ideological veil to cover the harsh reality, some consolation, a purpose, a sense of values. Only propaganda offers him a remedy for a basically intolerable situation …

If we look at the average man, and not at those few intellectuals whose special business it is to be informed, what do we actually mean when we say this man is informed? It means that, aside from spending eight hours at work and two more commuting, this man reads a newspaper or, more precisely, looks at the headlines and glances at a few stories. He may also listen to news broadcasts, or watch it on TV; and once a week, he will look at the pictures in some kind of news magazine (Time, Newsweek, etc.). This is the case of the reasonably well-informed man, that is, of 98% of all people.

Now, what happens next to a man who wishes to be informed and receives a great deal of news each day? First, straight news reporting never gives him anything but factual details; the event of the day is only always a part, for news can never deal with the whole. Theoretically, the reporter could relate these details to other details, put them into context and even provide certain interpretations–but that would no longer be pure information. Besides, this could only be done for the most important events, whereas most news items deal with less important matters.

But if you shower the public with the thousands of items that occur in the course of a day or week, the average person, even if he tries hard, will simply retain thousands of items which mean nothing to him. He would need a remarkable memory to tie some event to another that happened three weeks or three months ago.

Moreover, the array of categories is bewildering — economics, politics, geography, and so on — and topics and categories change every day. To be sure, certain major stories occasionally become the subject of continuous reporting for several weeks or months, but that is not typical.

Ordinarily, a follow-up story on a previous news item appears two weeks to a month later. To obtain a rounded picture, one would have to do research, but the average person has neither the time or desire for it. As a result, he finds himself in a kaleidoscope in which thousands of unconnected images follow each other rapidly. His attention is continually diverted to new matters, new centers of interest, and is dissipated on a thousand things, which disappear from one day to the next.

The world becomes remarkably changeable and uncertain; he feels as though he is at the hub of a merry-go-round, and can find no fixed point or continuity; this is the effect information has on him. Even with major events, an immense effort is required to get a proper broad view from the thousand little strokes, the variations of color, intensity, and dimension the paper gives him. The world thus looks like a pointilliste canvas — a thousand details make a thousand points. Moreover, blank spots on the canvas also prevent a coherent view.

Our reader would then have to be able to stand back and get a panoramic view from a distance; but the law of news is that it is a daily affair. Man can never stand back to get a broad view because he immediately receives a new batch of news, which supersedes the old and demands a new point of focus, for which our reader has no time.

To the average man who tries to keep informed, a world emerges that is astonishingly incoherent, absurd, and irrational, which changes rapidly and constantly for reasons that he cannot understand. And as the most frequent news story is about an accident or calamity, our reader takes a catastrophic view of the world around him. What he learns from the paper is inevitably the event that disturbs the order of things. He is not told about the ordinary — and uninteresting — course of events, but only of unusual disasters and crime, etc., that disturb that course. He does not read about the thousands of trains that every day arrive normally at their destination, but he learns all the details of a train accident.

In the world of politics and economies, the same holds true. The news is only about trouble, danger and problems. This gives man the notion that he lives in a terrible and frightening era. Man cannot stand this; he cannot live in an absurd and incoherent world (for this, he would have to be heroic, and even Camus, who considered this the only honest posture, was not really able to stick it to it); nor can he accept the idea that the problems, which sprout all around him, cannot be solved, or that he himself has no value as an individual and is subject to the turn of events.

The man who keeps himself informed needs a framework in which all this information can be put in order; he needs explanations and comprehensive answers to general problems; he needs coherence. And he needs an affirmation of his own worth. All this is the immediate effect of information.

And the more complicated the problems are, the more simple the explanations must be; the more fragmented the canvas, the simpler the pattern; the more difficult the question, the more all-embracing the solution; the more menacing the reduction of his worth, the greater the need for boosting his ego.

All this propaganda — and only propaganda — can give him.

… An analysis of propaganda therefore shows that it succeeds primarily because it corresponds exactly to a need of the masses. Effective propaganda needs to give man an all-embracing view of the world, a view rather than a doctrine. Such a view will first of all encompass a general panorama of history, economics and politics. That panorama allows the individual to give proper classification to all the news items he receives; to exercise a “critical” judgment, to sharply accentuate certain facts and suppress others, depending on well they fit into the framework.

News therefore loses its frightening character when it offers information for which the listener already has a ready explanation in his mind, or for which he can easily find one. Man is doubly reassured by propaganda: first, because it tells him the reasons behind the developments which unfold, and second, because it promises a solution for all the problems that arise, which would otherwise seem insoluble.

Propaganda is the true remedy for loneliness. It also corresponds to deep and constant needs, more developed today, perhaps, than ever before; the need to believe and obey, to create and hear fables, to communicate in the language of myths. It also responds to man’s intellectual and desire for security–intrinsic characteristics of the real man as opposed to the theoretical man of the Existentialists.

This situation has another aspect. In our society, man is being pushed more and more into passivity. He is thrust into vast organizations which function collectively and in which each man has his own small part to play. But he cannot act on his own; he can act only as the result of somebody else’s decision. He is more and more trained to participate in group movements and to act only on signal and in the way he has been taught.

The individual becomes less and less capable of acting by himself; he needs the collective signals which integrate his actions into the complete mechanism. Modern life induces us to wait until we are told to act.

At the same time, the individual feels himself diminished. For one thing, he gets the feeling that he is under constant supervision and can never exercise his independent initiative; for another, he thinks he is always being pushed down to a lower level. To be sure, we’re talking of the average man; obviously a corporate president, high-level administrator, or professional man does not feel diminished, but that fact does not change the general situation.

The feeling of being unimportant stems from

•general working conditions, such as mechanization and regimentation
•from housing conditions, with small rooms, noise, and lack of privacy
•from family conditions, with loss of authority over children
•from submission to an ever-growing number of authorities (no one will ever be able to assess fully the disastrous effect on the human soul of all the bureaus and agencies)
– in short, from participation in mass society.

But man cannot stand being unimportant; he cannot accept the status of a cipher. He needs to assert himself, to see himself as a hero. He needs to feel he is somebody and to be considered as such. He needs to express his authority, the drive for power and domination that is in every man.

Under our present conditions, that instinct is completely frustrated. Only propaganda provides the individual with a fully satisfactory response to his profound need.

The more his needs increase in the collective society, the more propaganda must give man the feeling that he is a free individual. Propaganda alone can create this feeling, which, in turn, will integrate the individual into collective movements.

Though a mass instrument, propaganda addresses itself to each individual. It appeals to me. It appeals to my common sense, desires, and provokes my wrath and my indignation. It evokes my feelings of justice and my desire for freedom. It gives me violent feelings, and lift me out of the daily grind.

As soon as I have been politicized by propaganda, I can from my heights look down on my daily trifles. My boss, who does not share my convictions, is merely a poor fool, a prey to the illusions of an evil world. I take my revenge upon him by being enlightened; I have understood the situation and know what ought to be done. Thanks to propaganda, the diminished individual obtains the very satisfaction he needs.

In addition, to the extent that modern man is diminished, he finds himself faced with the almost constant need for repression. Most of his natural tendencies are suppressed by social constraints.

We live in an increasingly organized and ordered society which permits less and less free and spontaneous expression of man’s profound drives (which, it must be admitted, would be largely anti-social if completely unleashed). But it is impossible to keep the individual in such a situation for long.

The individual who feels himself in conflict with the group, whose personal values are different from those of his milieu, who feels tension toward his society and even toward the group in which he participates–that individual is in a tragic position in modern society.

To seal all outlets and suppress man in all areas is dangerous. Man needs to express his passions and his desires; collective social repression can have the same effect as individual repression. Either sublimation or release is necessary.

Propaganda offers release on a grand scale. For example, propaganda will permit what so far was prohibited, such as hatred, which is a dangerous and destructive feeling and fought by society. But man always has a certain need to hate, just as he hides in heart the urge to kill. Propaganda offers him an object of hatred [think of the giant pictures of Goldstein in 1984, shown during the Five Minutes of Hate], for all propaganda is aimed at an enemy. And the hatred it offers him is not shameful, evil hatred that he must hide, but a legitimate hatred, which he can justly feel.

Moreover, propaganda points out enemies that must be slain, transforming crime into a praise-worthy act [the Ritual Crime between citizen and state]. Almost every man feels a desire to kill his neighbor, but this is forbidden, and in most cases the individual will refrain from it for fear of the consequences. But propaganda opens the door and allows him to kill the Jews, the bourgeois, the Communists, and so on, and such murder even becomes an achievement.

Authoritarian regimes know that people held very firmly in hand need some decompression, some safety valves. The government offers these itself. This role is played by satirical journals attacking the authorities, yet tolerated by the dictator, or by a wild holiday set aside for ridiculing the regime, yet paid for by the dictator (Friday of Sorrows in Guatemala) Clearly, such instruments are controlled by the regime.

These instruments of criticism serve to consolidate power and make people cling even more to the regime by providing artificial release of tendencies that the state must keep in check. In such situations, propaganda has an almost therapeutic and compensatory function.

This role is even more prominent in the presence of another phenomenon: anxiety. Anxiety is perhaps the most widespread psychological trait in our society. On the one hand, the number of dangers is increasing and, because of the news media, man is more aware of them; on the other hand, religious beliefs, which allowed men to face fear, have disappeared almost entirely.

Finally, as a result of all the threats and contradictions in contemporary society, man feels accused, guilty. He cannot feel that he is right and good as long as he is exposed to contradictions, which place him in conflict with one of his group’s imperatives no matter which solution he adopts.

But one of man’s greatest inner needs is to feel that he is right. First, man needs to be right in his own eyes. He must be able to assert that he is right, that he does what he should, that he is worthy of his own respect. Then, man needs to be right in the eyes of those around him, his family, his milieu, his coworkers, his friends, his country.

Finally, he feels the need to belong to a group, which he considers right and which he can proclaim as noble, just and good. But that righteousness is not absolute righteousness, true and authentic justice.

For what matters is not to be just, or to act just, or that the group to which one belongs is just — but to seem just, to find reasons for asserting that one is just, and to have these reasons shared by one’s audience. [The rallying cries of "multiculturalism" and "diversity" come to mind here.]

This corresponds to man’s refusal to see reality — his own reality first of all — as it is, for that would be intolerable; it also corresponds to his refusal to acknowledge that he may be wrong. Before himself and others, man is constantly pleading his own case and working to find good reasons for what he does or has done. Of course, the whole process is unconscious. Relevant here is the tendency of the individual to reconstruct his past to demonstrate that his conduct was right. But this is justification rather than explanation of behavior. Man thus lives in a seemingly reasonable fiction.

On the collective level one can say that most ideologies and political or economic theories are justifications. A study by M. Rubel has shown that Marx’s rigid and seemingly uncompromising doctrine was one gigantic intellectual justification for sentimental and spontaneous positions taken by him in his youth.

It is difficult, if not impossible, to accept reality as it is and acknowledge the true reasons for our behavior, or to see clearly the motivations of a group to which we belong. If we practice a profession, we cannot limit ourselves to its financial rewards; we must also invest it with idealistic or moral justification. It becomes our “calling,” and we will not tolerate its being questioned.

Obviously, the prodigious universality of justification makes it so effective: the man who justifies himself and unconsciously plays this farce not only believes it himself but also has the need for others to believe it. And, in fact, the others do believe it, because they use the rationalizations and become accomplices of the play in which they themselves are actors.

Justification really attains its effectiveness only on the basis of this complicity, which is so all-pervasive that even those who are victims of justification go along with it.

Propaganda appeases tensions and resolves conflicts. It offers facile, ready-made justifications, which are transmitted by society and easily believed. At the same time, propaganda has the freshness and novelty which correspond to new situations and give men the impression of having invented new ideals. It provides man with a high ideal that permits him to give into his passions while seeing to accomplish a great mission.

Propaganda dissolves contradictions and restores man to unitary world in which the demands are in accord with the facts. Here, propaganda plays an idealistic role, by involving a man caught in the world of reality and making him live by anticipation in a world based on principle.

In conclusion: For all these reasons contemporary man needs propaganda; he asks for it; in fact, he almost instigates it. The development of propaganda is no accident. The politician who uses it is not a monster; he fills a social demand. The propagandee is a close accomplice of the propagandist. Only with the propagandee’s unconscious complicity can propaganda fulfill its function; and because propaganda satisfies him — even if he protests against propaganda in abstracto, or considers himself immune to it — he follows its route.

Propaganda is the inevitable result of the various components of technological society, and plays so central a role in the life of society that no economic or political development can take place without the influence of its great power.

Social work, Human Relations in social relationships, advertising (Human Engineering in the economy) propaganda in the strictest sense in the field of politics — the need for psychological influence is everywhere the decisive factor, which progress demands and which the individual seeks in order to be delivered from his own self.


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