What I found was a thoughtful exploration of exactly what propaganda is and (not surprisingly) how it works. Stanley pulls from several different academic fields to craft his thesis, including social psychology, feminist theory, philosophy of race, analytic philosophy, and both classical and modern political philosophy. From Aristotle to Wittgenstein, Rousseau to W.E.B. DuBois, Stanley does a great job summarizing and analyzing the relevant positions within each work to show how propaganda works.
The first three-quarters of the book are surprisingly non-technical and accessible, so even the armchair philosopher or engaged voter can get a brief history of political philosophy as it relates to liberal democracy, along with Stanley’s own ideas. The last few chapters necessarily have a few areas of technical terms and logical propositions and syllogisms, but even this is not overwhelmingly technical.
Another strength of this work are the clear examples of propaganda cited throughout. Deliberate deception and misinformation are presented in recent real-world terms. These illustrations strengthen the validity of his argument, though his goal is not one of providing an easy way to identify propaganda. Instead Stanley focuses on peeling back the layers that surround the metaphysics of propaganda. More specifically, he is focusing on what propaganda is and how it works within liberal democracies like the United States of America.
What is Propaganda?
Stanley challenges two popularly held views of propaganda. These popular views are that 1) propagandistic claims are false and 2) propagandistic claims are insincere. He argues that neither of these are true, even of the paradigm examples of propaganda. For example, he proposes the very realistic position that a U.S. politician says during a political speech “There are Muslims among us.” That statement is true, there are Muslims among us. However, it is a propagandistic statement because it takes advantage of an ideology that Muslims are an outgroup, not included in the ‘us.’ It also has an implicit assumption that Muslims are in some way not equal to ‘us,’ and are in some way inherently dangerous. The statement is true, but what the statement expresses via a flawed ideology, namely that Muslims are dangerous and do not belong, is false.
Some propaganda claims are also not insincere. Hitler’s statement that Jews are like “maggots in a rotting corpse” is one such example. In retrospect, we know that this statement is likely a sincere analogy used to express Hitler’s flawed anti-Semitic ideology. Having challenged these traditional views, Stanley moves on to identify specific types of propaganda.
In the second chapter, “Propaganda Defined,” Stanley distinguishes several important types of propaganda which include: supporting propaganda, undermining propaganda, and demagoguery. Here are some quick definitions and examples of each type.
Supporting propaganda is a contribution (speech, essay, art, imagery, etc.) to public discourse which helps to increase the realization of an ideal by “emotional or other non-rational means.” The use of supportive propaganda can forcibly evoke emotions or other non-rational motivators within the individual to lead them to reasons to embrace a political ideal that may or may not be in an individual’s interest.
Undermining propaganda is a contribution to public discourse which presents itself as embodying a political ideal, but ultimately erodes the very same ideal it purportedly represents. Stanley’s study of propaganda focuses primarily on undermining propaganda and how it is used to manipulate the rational will of public discourse.
Demagoguery is “propaganda in the service of unworthy political ideals.” The primary form of demagoguery is undermining demagoguery. This distinguishing type of demagoguery poses as a contribution to public discourse which is presented as a worthy political, social, economic, or rational ideal, while working in service of a goal that undermines that very ideal. Unlike supporting and undermining propaganda, demagoguery focuses on furthering an unworthy ideal. The line between undermining propaganda and demagoguery is often a matter of debate over the worthiness of the ideal in question.
Why is Propaganda a Problem?
Within democracy, however, there is not a single state-sponsored ideology. The very presence of such an ideology would undermine the concept of liberal democracy, which is based on open public discourse and freedom of speech. Given the freedom of speech within a liberal democracy, one of the more intriguing questions is how to identify propaganda within a system with free political speech. What differentiates regular freedom of speech from propaganda? This requires understanding what propaganda is and how it functions, specifically within a liberal democracy.
Flawed Ideologies and Negatively Privileged Groups
The dehumanization and loss of empathy for negatively privileged individuals is a dangerous prerequisite to political polarization, racism, sexism, and especially genocide. Stanley lays out how dehumanization and misinformation develop and thrive through the language of democracy. He also uses an entire chapter to lay out how beliefs, even apparently false and contradictory beliefs, are resistant to evidence and change. The chapter on ideology held the fruit of Stanley’s labor, in my opinion, as this section draws heavily on several noteworthy social psychology experiments that validate the arguments proposed in the first half of the book.
Another chapter, entitled ‘Political Ideologies,’ focuses on a single question; why do the privileged believe in their (unjustified) superiority and why do the oppressed accept an (unjustified) ideology of inferiority? Understanding how propaganda reinforces a dominant narrative within oppressed or negatively privileged groups is key to Stanley’s argument as to why there is a sustained unequal, unjust distribution of resources within society. This chapter also relies heavily on social psychology, especially famous cognitive biases such as the fundamental attribution error and the role of group identification in belief formation. In this chapter, Stanley also argues how the majority of negatively privileged individuals “will fling themselves against the high barriers erected against them, only to blame themselves for their failure to scale them.” In other words, when oppressed groups try to work within the unjust system with a flawed ideology, they are likely doomed to fail. Those who do pass over the barriers will be applauded and used to justify the flawed ideology of a meritocratic belief system.
President Obama might be the most notable example of such a figure. Through his success, the myth that there is no longer racial inequality in America is perpetuated and reinforced by those who hold meritocratic values (less so now than previously, in my experience). According to this flawed ideology, anyone, regardless of birth or circumstance, can pick themselves up by their bootstraps and do anything they wish. This ideology will lead groups to blame negatively privileged groups for their own plight, perhaps blaming it on culture or specific flaws in a group, rather than taking into account a potentially corrupt system and unfair barriers to achievement, resources, and opportunity.