Effacing Solidarity I: Their Language Is Absurd, Composing, 08/08/2018

Four years ago, when I trained in corporate communications, there was a brief introductory lecture in one class about the history of public relations. One discussion that seemed very anachronistic at the time was distinguishing between public relations and propaganda.

It went over strangely because propaganda seemed quaint, something no longer done. A horror of the past.

I wish that had stayed true.

Anyway, the definitions of propaganda and public relations that we discussed in that lecture were ultimately a little flaccid. It ended up amounting to “You know it when you see it.” Let me illustrate this with a hard case.

When the powerful laugh, they're usually mocking ordinary folks.
When we laugh at the powerful, it's a means of self-defense.
In our Ethics of Public Relations class, one of the main presentations we covered was the contract between the Hill & Knowlton PR agency with the American government to help convince United Nations leaders and other international influencers to go along with the war against Iraq in 1991, after Iraq invaded Kuwait.

The Hill & Knowlton team developed a comprehensive public relations plan. They regularly monitored the American public through opinion surveys to test the strength of their messaging. They helped dress the Kuwaiti ambassador for his public appearances in styles that Americans would find charismatic. Those public relations techniques are ethically reasonable.

Where things get freaky is in the most harrowing message. Testimony from a young Kuwaiti woman, presented to the US Congress as a hospital nurse, that Iraqi soldiers occupied a hospital and killed an entire ward of infants in a maternity ward by throwing them out of their incubators.

None of it was true. Iraqi troops never committed massacres in Kuwaiti hospitals during the occupation. The woman who testified to Congress that they did was actually a daughter of the Kuwaiti ambassador. Members of the Hill & Knowlton team had done a great job of training her in acting.

Would you call it propaganda? I’m not sure that’s quite appropriate. I’m looking for a conception of propaganda that’s a little thicker than “public relations actions that I don’t like.” It works fine as a designation, an insult, a way to tell people my own feelings. But it isn’t actually useful to learn anything about the world.

Some speculations. I think I could characterize the stupidity of United
States geopolitical strategy this way: They rely on alliances with
ruthless people, groups, and factions around the world to do their
dirty work for them, so United States leaders can continue to defend
the country's international and domestic image as virtuous guardians
of democracy and freedom. Since the Reagan era and with
increasing frequency, this strategy has backfired, causing spirals
of cascading political violence as ruthlessness compounds on
ruthlessness.
In that way, I appreciate Trump for his honesty. He never
pretends to be anything other than ruthless.
See, while Hill & Knowlton’s incubator strategy was built on lies, there was still one aspect of respect for truth in their strategy. They wanted you to believe in the truth of what they said. They were trying to convince you to support a military action by convincing you to believe a set of propositions. They maintained respect for the logic of reason.

Doesn’t propaganda try to do this too? Well, it doesn’t if we’re going to make a useful distinction between public relations and propaganda. Why make the distinction? So we can use our new conception of propaganda to understand a real difference

That’s a key part of what philosophical creativity is – developing concepts to understand real differences.

Propaganda looks like public relations but differs because it doesn’t concern truth or whether the content of its propositions and messaging is believed as fact. I’ll offer two quotes from a pair of French thinkers of the last century. First, from Gilles Deleuze, discussing a kind of language he calls “order-words.”
 “Language is made not to be believed but to be obeyed, and to compel obedience.”
Propaganda messaging isn’t about encouraging people to believe what’s said as fact, or truth. It’s about transmitting orders and how to give signs to your leaders that you’re following their orders.

That’s why Trumpists continue to repeat Donald’s blatantly false statements, even when you physically demonstrate their falsity in front of them. They don’t believe and follow Trump because they think what he says is right. They repeat what he tells them to repeat and believe what he tells them to believe because he is their leader.

You know what my problem is with Sartre scholarship in the
university sector? They rarely, if ever, discuss Sartre as a fundamentally
political thinker. I think that would clear away a lot of the confusion
that I see about his own flavour of existentialism.
Now for a longer quote. It’s going to lock down for sure the kind of communications I’m talking about with the term propaganda. It’s from Jean-Paul Sartre, and I’ve seen it floating around my Twitter circles lately.
“Never believe that [propagandists] are completely unaware of the absurdity of their replies. They know that their remarks are frivolous, open to challenge. But they are amusing themselves, for it is their adversary who is obliged to use words responsibly, since he believes in words.
“The [propagandists] have the right to play. They even like to play with discourse for, by giving ridiculous reasons, they discredit the seriousness of their interlocutors.
“They delight in acting in bad faith, since they seek not to persuade by sound argument but to intimidate and disconcert. If you press them too closely, they will abruptly fall silent, loftily indicating by some phrase that the time for argument is past.”
He was talking about the anti-Semites of Europe in the days and years laying the conditions for the Shoah. At the time he wrote it, within months of France’s liberation from German occupation, Sartre – as well as most of the everyday population of France – didn’t know that the Shoah had happened.

Today, we call it by the silly, defanged name of trolling. But these words describe the bullying indifference to truth and amusement at others’ pain and confusion that freed people’s minds to create the Shoah.

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