Those of us who are aware that we should view/read with a hermeneutic of suspicion everything that comes to us via the media, know how difficult it is not to be “lured” by images, supposedly well-argued positions, and the presentation of so called “facts” and by intentionally shaped, honed and chosen voices to make us believe and desire what is presented to us. The reality, however, is that much of what we are presented with is subtle and in some cases overt forms of “propaganda”.
The recent and continuing build-up of a case to “take-out” the Syrian government and its leader has highlighted for me that the “power of propaganda” in the varying groups wanting to make us believe their ‘truth’. Being in the USA on holiday during the early part of the build-up, watching the television felt like having your brains, eyes and ears wired with electrodes, regularly “shocked” with doses of programmed information to make the viewer believe what is being communicated. It was traumatic to say the least and one had to rediscover the art of talking back to TV, much to the dismay of my family!
Propaganda is alive and its many current avatars are even harder to counter. And we would be utterly daft (though there are many of us who are) to believe everything uttered from the mouths of government officials! A year after the Iraq war, the NY times were honest enough to admit and apologise for some of its coverage on the build-up to the invasion, which included lack of its usual scrutiny of information and using of questionable and disputed information. Today, there are many reporters who in retrospect will concede that they were let down by their sources. A recent essay in the New Internationalist noted a 2010 study into the British media’s coverage of the Iraq War, found that ‘both television and press gave substantial reinforcement to the two main official justifications for war’ and ‘relied heavily on coalition sources’.
I am sure this pattern has been, and continues to be, repeated. And as we hear talks and rumours of war it would seem that some of the lessons from the recent past have been forgotten. It is true that the first casualty in the time leading up to war and during war remains “truth”!
A recent exhibition at the British Library titled Propaganda: Power and Persuasion (May 17 – September 17) captured a historical overview of some of the positive and destructive ways that Propaganda has been used over the centuries by the State to combat disease, fight wars, build unity and create division. Often difficult to identify it ranges from the monumental to the sincere, deceptive, shocking or amusing. And its users will range from governments to national institutions (including Churches!) Some of the basic techniques used over the centuries, include: appropriate symbols to establish authority; exploiting existing beliefs (playing on class, cultural, religious and national stereotypes); appealing to patriotism (playing up nationalist sentiments), creating fear (which plays on existing anxieties and prejudices), employing humour, implying that everyone agrees (appealing to the average person), disguising the source (giving the impression that the information comes from an independent source), hammering a message home (decide on a message and bombarding people with it), making false connections (using uncontested statements and linking it with something more controversial), being selective about the truth (where facts and testimony that favour the dominant group are heard), and giving agency to a leadership cult (where personal fate and that of the nation is bound up with the leader).
Mindful that there are positive roles that propaganda may serve in educating and raising awareness, and at the same time how it can be misused, we are challenged to find much more sophisticated ways to counter its misuse. Ecclesial communities are ideally located to partner with all justice oriented organisations in order to help “spin” the much needed alternative/counter story lines as we question what comes to us as “truth”. This will, however, mean that we need to hold a mirror before our own methods of sharing the faith and our life together, lest we be guilty of some of the very things we seek to expose!