Propaganda is in the eye of the beholder


What is the difference from selling truth to a population and selling propaganda? A razor’s edge so it seems. I suppose another response would be, “I know it when I see it”–the response made about pornography. But what may be truth to you is propaganda to another.

Why am I thinking about this? My recent trip to DC included a trip to the holocaust museum. There, the curator of the new propaganda exhibit took us through his amazing assemblage of Nazi propaganda. Let me give you a flavor:

Propaganda as defined in the museum is, “biased information designed to shape public opinion and behavior.” They go on to say that propaganda is identified as that which

  • plays on emotions
  • uses a combination of truths, half-truths, and lies
  • omits information that might counter its contentions
  • simplifies complex information into a slogan
  • Attacks opponents (blames them for all problems; negatively portrays them)
  • Advertises a cause and uses righteous approach to give the cause meaning
  • Targets desired audiences through contextual material

As we went through, here’s what I noticed as well. A propaganda machine works to re-write history; makes the enemy comical (caricatures of Jews evident); emphasizes oration skills; uses media, fine arts, art, color, pictures, emphasizes a logo; targets different audiences in different ways; doesn’t mind opposition but builds on it; keeps people terrified; encourages even demands grassroots involvement; gets the youth involved; portrays self as victim and minority; creates fictitious events (e.g., calls war by another name (retaliation for prior aggression); connects with known trusted and wise individuals or labels (Hitler was alluded to as the Great Physician!); encourages passivity so that the inner circle may act in their stead; and encourages skepticism and cynicism about the criticism they will receive (the Nazis told the people near the end of the war that the Allies would say evil things about them that were going to be untrue. Such activities plant seeds of doubt to encourage those to believe that the holocaust didn’t really happen).

Now, let me tell you about the reactions we had as we went though the exhibit. The Rwandans with us gasped and gaped at times. They realized that someone(s) masterminding the Rwandan genocide must have read the Nazi playbook. They reminded us that one such mastermind in Rwanda was a PhD in history and was behind the use of the Radio propaganda. They repeated over and over, “this is what happened to us.” Several of us also realized that in child sexual abuse, many of these same behaviors are used (whether consciously or not) to avoid detection. The perpetrator grooms the victim, rewrites history, tells half-truths, makes themself the victims, and even may try to plant seeds of doubt about the truth.

One more thought? Could we also say that sometimes Christian organizations use some of these tactics. Scare a population by making a caricature of the government, report only half the truth, make self as victim, excuse unchristian behavior as necessary.

While I don’t think the answer is that we ought to all become horrible skeptics in order to avoid propaganda, I do think we ought to be highly sensitive to those behaviors and attitudes that do not reflect the proper character of Christianity. We must not use tactics unbecoming of Christ–even if for a good end.

I leave you with this thought: Isn’t there a good use of propaganda? I believe so. Can you give some examples where you are getting “good” propaganda?

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Filed under Abuse, christian counseling, Cognitive biases, deception, Rwanda

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