Propaganda is defined by the tactic, not the target

Recently I read two seemingly very different posts. One was forwarded in an email from a relative. It’s a 1200-word rephrasing of the now-famous question, “Why are we having all these people from shithole countries come here?” The other, linked from a Facebook site, urged liberals to stop trying to understand rural white Christians, whom it portrayed as irredeemable bigots.

The emailed essay was written for an intensely conservative online “magazine” with a stable of 4,228 writers (this particular author has contributed 178 posts). It came out a few days after the “shithole” remark went public, and is based on the writer’s one-year experience as a Peace Corps volunteer in Senegal nearly 50 years ago. She starts out by describing widespread public defecation, and ends by echoing the President’s question, why would we want people from there to come here? (Her answer is that “liberals” are “pushing the lie that Western civilization is no better than a third-world country” because they want to “destroy America as we know it.”) In between, she describes Senegal as a place of universal endemic corruption, where duty to one’s own family overrides all other ethical or humanitarian considerations—so that it is culturally “normal” to ignore suffering strangers, or to rob and neglect those one is hired to care for.

The other piece has been circulating on liberal sites since it was written, shortly before the 2016 election, by an anonymous blogger who says he grew up in conservative rural America. He asserts that rural white Christians are irremediably racist and anti-intellectual by virtue of their religious teachings, their suspicion of education, and their heavy reliance on in-group messaging. Their economic and social problems are the result of their own shortcomings. He passionately urges members of the open-minded, educated, intelligent “liberal coastal elites” to stop trying to understand rural Christians: it’s futile.

These superficially opposite messages use the same playbook.

  • The writer claims personal experience of a group most readers won’t know well, and proposes himself/herself as a uniquely qualified interpreter of that group (“THEM”).
  • THEY are defined by a triad of religion, race, and region. Rural, white, and Christian are synonymous. Senegalese is synonymous with Muslim and villager. Each package is monolithic. If you know one thing about them, you know all you need, because the rest ineluctably follows.
  • THEY are bad. (Bigoted, closed-minded, stupid, filthy, corrupt, casually cruel… the specific charges are based on whatever stereotypes of that group prevail within the writer’s target audience.)
  • THEIR badness is baked into THEIR culture. THEY have chosen to be this way. In no way is any of it OUR fault, and there is nothing at all WE can do about it.
  • WE, on the other hand, are good. (Open-minded, educated, clean, honorable, humane…) Goodness is baked into OUR culture. WE don’t have to work at it or change anything. In fact, WE’d better not! That’s enemy talk!
  • THEIR badness menaces OUR goodness.
  • Fear THEM! Stay far away from THEM!

This is propaganda.

It’s easy to spot the destructive fallacies in views we disapprove of. We need to recognize logically and ethically indefensible arguments even when they come from those who claim to share our own views.

Propaganda rejects groups of people—not actions or beliefs. It does not fight tyranny, ignorance, disease, bigotry, or cruelty; it pins those labels onto a specific demographic, and then tells us to fight that entire group as if we were fighting evil itself.

Propaganda claims to defend grand values, but it is merely a manipulative technique, not a message. Just as a hammer’s purpose is to pound nails, the purpose of propaganda is to urge its audience to distrust as many other human beings as possible. Recognize it not by the group it targets, but by how it affects its listeners.

A road paved with stones that say things like “fear others” and “understanding is futile” and “outreach is dangerous” leads to no place I want to go.





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