Monday, September 14, 2009

Jacques Ellul on Propaganda

This was written some time ago (1965), by Jacques Ellul, who has been described as "a French philosopher, law professor, sociologist, theologian, and Christian anarchist." Not sure how I missed him back in the '60's and '70's when I was enamored with French philosophers, but it seems that he has some valuable insights into how most citizens respond to and filter the news:

In the world of politics and economies, the same holds true. The news is only about trouble, danger and problems. This gives man the notion that he lives in a terrible and frightening era. Man cannot stand this; he cannot live in an absurd and incoherent world (for this, he would have to be heroic, and even Camus, who considered this the only honest posture, was not really able to stick it to it); nor can he accept the idea that the problems, which sprout all around him, cannot be solved, or that he himself has no value as an individual and is subject to the turn of events.

The man who keeps himself informed needs a framework in which all this information can be put in order; he needs explanations and comprehensive answers to general problems; he needs coherence. And he needs an affirmation of his own worth. All this is the immediate effect of information.

And the more complicated the problems are, the more simple the explanations must be; the more fragmented the canvas, the simpler the pattern; the more difficult the question, the more all-embracing the solution; the more menacing the reduction of his worth, the greater the need for boosting his ego.

All this propaganda — and only propaganda — can give him.

… An analysis of propaganda therefore shows that it succeeds primarily because it corresponds exactly to a need of the masses. Effective propaganda needs to give man an all-embracing view of the world, a view rather than a doctrine. Such a view will first of all encompass a general panorama of history, economics and politics. That panorama allows the individual to give proper classification to all the news items he receives; to exercise a “critical” judgment, to sharply accentuate certain facts and suppress others, depending on well they fit into the framework.

News therefore loses its frightening character when it offers information for which the listener already has a ready explanation in his mind, or for which he can easily find one. Man is doubly reassured by propaganda: first, because it tells him the reasons behind the developments which unfold, and second, because it promises a solution for all the problems that arise, which would otherwise seem insoluble.

This and more from Jacques Ellul's Propaganda at Edge of Grace (emphases and ellipses from Edge of Grace). See also, a brief summary of Ellul's views on propaganda at Source Watch, and another excerpt from his book here.

Whether one is talking about health care in particular, politics in general, or even disputes within institutionalized religion, it seems that more and more people in the U.S. are falling into one kind of "all-embracing world view" or another. Those comprehensive views are not free of association with "doctrines," but they do seem to be the glue that holds everything together, that keeps their adherents from thinking critically about how or whether the pieces all fit, and drives the myopic quest to restrict one's news sources and relationships to those cocooned one's own "all-embracing" view.

Of course this is not limited to right-wing or conservative views. Progressives have their own mind-set and concerns that can spawn knee-jerk reactions and alliances, as well as their preferred news sources and relationships. But it seems that progressives are far less successful at integrating people into their global views and institutions that support them, perhaps because fear more often impels digging in and defending the status quo (and/or supposed Golden Ages past). How do they address these kinds of needs?
"he needs explanations and comprehensive answers to general problems; he needs coherence. And he needs an affirmation of his own worth."
Fearfulness about the end of Creation, global-warming, pollution, uncertainty, mystery, and insignificance in the face of corporate giants, do not provide the kind of comforting coherence or sense of order that most people crave. Or so it seems.........