There are people who’re dismissive of the power of propaganda. When it’s suggested that they consider the possibility that leaders on their side of the aisle might be propagandizing them in ways they haven’t considered, they balk at the possibility. They won’t even consider it. Any attempt to point out the complex nature of propaganda is brushed off with some sort of defiantly flippant response like “I get it. I get it. I understand the propaganda OK. I get it.”
Their attitude is one of arrogance, of certainty that they can’t be fooled. They believe themselves to be intellectuals. They’re far too enlightened to be had by the simple tricks of a propagandist. Such a thing is beneath them.
It is this certainty that makes them the easiest target of a skilled propagandist. In the book, Propaganda: The Formation of Men’s Attitudes, Jacques Ellul expresses this point better than I ever could in the following passage.
“Naturally, the educated man does not believe in propaganda; he shrugs and is convinced that propaganda has no effect on him. This is, in fact, one of his great weaknesses, and propagandists are well aware that in order to reach someone, one must first convince him that propaganda is ineffectual and not very clever. Because he is convinced of his own superiority, the intellectual is much more vulnerable than anybody else to this maneuver.”
If we think we can’t be fooled, we’re no doubt being fooled. We all get fooled anyway, even when we’re paying attention. If we think the political leaders whom we identify with never propagandize us, then we’re at the mercy of their goodwill. No thanks.
When it comes to propaganda analysis, a little bit of doubt is healthy. We obviously don’t want it to cripple us from taking action, but a little bit of doubt is necessary. Otherwise we’re like that intellectual who is always so certain. We’re easy targets.
It’s OK to critically analyze our favorite sources, our trusted leaders, and even our own strongly held beliefs. In fact, it’s great. It doesn’t do us any good to critically analyze only what we disagree with. Sure, it feels great destroying a rival’s argument, but we’re better served being just as critical of ourselves as we are of others.
That’s what propaganda analysis is about. It’s not about winning, or being right. It’s about an endless pursuit of the truth, even if that means we end up being wrong about something we feel almost certain of. It’s not about discovering only truths that fit within our existing beliefs. It’s about discovering any and all truths despite our existing beliefs. This is true whether it’s a belief about a specific news story, a deeply held ideological belief, a belief about a specific candidate, or any other belief.
Our beliefs are based on a picture of reality that currently exists in our minds. New experiences, new discoveries, and new understandings transform this mental image……if we allow them to. When confronted with new truths that threaten existing beliefs, we have a choice. We can adjust the image in our minds to fit what we now know to be true. Or, we can ignore reality.
We’re psychologically compelled to seek out evidence that confirms what we already believe to be true. Instead of submitting to this tendency, we can better support our own arguments and beliefs by genuinely trying to prove ourselves wrong. If we fail to do so, we have a stronger argument. If we succeed, then we no longer believe something that proved to be false. Challenging our own beliefs and theories is not easy. It evokes some serious psychological discomfort. If truth is to be our primary objective however, we must embrace this feeling. We must embrace the cognitive dissonance.