It was the fortuitous but timely reading of the early work of Meerloo (1956) and Ellul (1965) on propaganda that brought home to me forcefully how the total change in public morality, that has led so rapidly from sexual aberration being a criminal matter to its legally redefining marriage and the US Constitution, is essentially a text-book example of how propaganda is done. I think that must become clear to anyone who takes the trouble to compare the public discussion with the scientific evidence.
These books, particularly Ellul’s, also have some worrying general implications for the society in which we find ourselves. To put it bluntly, his worst predictions have been more than fulfilled in our day.
Ellul’s insight was that propaganda (essentially something that only became possible in the age of applied psychology and mass-media) becomes, once unleashed, as insidious and all-pervasive in a society as, say, financial corruption. Once the Nazis and, more persistently, the Eastern-bloc Communists began to use propaganda both to control their own populations and to undermine others, the only effective response for the West was counter-propaganda, because mere information is crushed underfoot by a determined manipulation of the media.
But by Ellul’s time he was able to discern how from governments, the use of propaganda had spread to political parties. He noted the (then recent) rigidity of the two-party US system, and suggested that in a democracy this shift was inevitable, because no new or minority party could hope to muster the resources for effective multi-media propaganda. Many of us have noted how, by now, that polarisation into standard positions has become almost laughably universal: ask an American’s voting habits and you’ll likely have the key to their position on gun-control, health provision, sexuality, evolution, religion and more.
Ellul’s claim is remarkably born out in England, as usual lagging the US by several decades. It was Mrs Thatcher who first enlisted PR consultants Saatchi and Saatchi to mould and market the Conservative message, and Tony Blair’s “New Labour”, famously orchestrated by “special advisers” (aka spin doctors), took it further – to three terms in office. The only possible response was propaganda escalation, and it’s intriguing that the recent election has seen our traditional “third option”, the Liberal Democrats, and other newbie parties like UKIP, effectively wiped out. Ellul’s reasoning was prophetic.
One of Ellul’s major points in relation to this is that the very concept of “public opinion” is a product of the shift to a propaganda-based society. To put it another way, public opinion is actually no-one’s opinion, but is the functional outcome of propaganda. The propagandizers themselves don’t believe in the public opinion – they are concerned to produce the desired effect, and tend (like Blair’s spin-doctors) to become increasingly contemptuous of their ideological base. Tony Blair knew what was behind the so-called “Dodgy Dossier” on Iraqi WMD, and gay activists know full well they’re cherry-picking evidence. And so propaganda tends to destroy ideologies – in Russia, communism began as the motive for propaganda, but became its malleable tool, inevitably. Democracy suffers the same fate once keeping public opinion aboard the word democracy becomes the focus – it’s then OK to torture people or change regimes by skulduggery as long as it’s kept secret or, at a pinch, attributed to the preservation of democracy.
Meanwhile propagandees are either manipulated into blanket acceptance of the public opinion or, as we see so often nowadays, are made afraid to disagree because they believe they must be wrong in the face of the ubiquitous message, or because they’re afraid of the social consequences. This is possibly why in the last UK election, many would not own up to the pollsters that they liked the Conservatives and their decisive victory was a shock. But that was just this year’s choice between the two parties: such a choice is not always offered.
The whole society, then, becomes increasingly involved in a lie. But as I said propaganda, once unleashed, becomes opposable only by counter-propaganda. Back in the sixties, Ellul showed how inter-bloc propaganda became inter-party propaganda. Half a century on, we can see that it has become the norm in moulding public morality, public taste through blanket marketing of commodities and art, and education through its increasing politicisation.
It has even become the norm in science as that, too, has become mainstream and political. A prime example is that old chestnut, climate change. I’ve said before that, as far as I can see, the evidence either way is equivocal, though it may be reasonable to err on the side of caution in framing public policy. But it has become virtually impossible to judge the question because it has been drawn from the realm of science into that of propaganda. An event like “Climategate” shows scientists buying into the manipulation game too, so that the issue (on both sides) becomes yet another battle of rival propagandas, rather than of reasoned opinion.
The same has become true of other scientific issues, like dietary advice in public health, GM crops and, of course, Darwinian evolution in which not only scientists, but commerce, educationalists, media men and politicians have all acquired a huge stake in the standard story. And the stock in trade of all these is propaganda.
Think about it: I’ve said above that “public opinion” is the cover for the suppression of all real opinion and the substitution of a ready-made package for reasons other than truth. If it be true that propaganda techniques have gained a foothold in science, the “scientific consensus” in any field contaminated by it becomes just another name for “public opinion” – the lie (or merely accidental half-truth) that everybody has to buy into, whether consciously or against their better judgement.
Another aspect of a propaganda society is how, as it matures, it becomes self-perpetuating, however much true information is available. Ellul described how, say, a communist who has bought into the package will read, watch and listen only to information that reinforces the myth, excluding all else as lies (and probably, therefore, never engaging with it). Likewise for the anti-communist. And for that reason, the “information explosion” that has happened with the Internet, though it might be thought to reduce the power of propaganda, actually does the reverse. Although good information is accessible at the touch of a mouse, the subject of propaganda will in practice simply find an intensified availability of his own prejudices – this is familiar to all of us in the world of web forums, be they skeptical, Creationist, or whatever, where “communities” are often groups bathing in their own propaganda and shouting down (or erasing) that of others. Even the advertising is targeted to our own profile now.
On a previous thread, GD raised the interesting question of how the Churches can respond to propaganda that affects the reception of their message. Ellul himself raises the same dilemma: to refuse to reply with counter-propaganda (or to use its methods and media selectively and “truthfully”) is doomed simply to fail: propaganda works only by monopolising the media – it cannot be done half-heartedly. On the other hand, to engage in propaganda full out inevitably destroys the very thing it means to be Christian – to speak the truth in love – just as it can destroy science as a truth-telling enterprise.
Ellul points to three episodes in Church history when this occurred, albeit in ages when propaganda was not fully developed: the fourth century (presumably the institutionalisation of Christianity under Constantine), the ninth century (when party-spirit more than theology led to the Great Schism) and the sixteenth century (when the Reformation triggered a propaganda war leading to bloody physical wars). In all three cases there were real issues and real Christians with true convictions involved, but what came out of them was the degrading of Christianity itself to just another vehicle for propaganda.
Ellul’s answer – which I share – is that being true to the Truth is the very core of Christianity, without which it is better off dead. The apparent self-destruction of acting counter-culturally by attempting to communicate that truth amid a chorus of ready-made lies is, actually, no more than a reminder that the strength of Christ is shown in weakness. The Kingdom of God was always the project of Christ through the Holy Spirit, and the madness of history – as the Book of Revelation graphically teaches – is simply the unfolding of the scroll that God himself has written and sealed. Our job is to seek to do truth. His is to ensure that it finally prevails, to his glory.