The Institute For Propaganda Analysis, A Precursor and a Warning

by [anonymous]5 min read29th Mar 201210 comments

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Years ago, I stumbled upon this most interesting segment while reading Aldous Huxley's Brave New World Revisited, of which I have finally found an online version that enables me to share its contents with you: 

 

In their anti-rational propaganda the enemies of freedom systematically pervert the resources of lang­uage in order to wheedle or stampede their victims into thinking, feeling and acting as they, the mind-manipulators, want them to think, feel and act. An education for freedom (and for the love and intelli­gence which are at once the conditions and the results of freedom) must be, among other things, an educa­tion in the proper uses of language. For the last two or three generations philosophers have devoted a great deal of time and thought to the analysis of symbols and the meaning of meaning. How are the words and sentences which we speak related to the things, per­sons and events, with which we have to deal in our day-to-day living? To discuss this problem would take too long and lead us too far afield. Suffice it to say that all the intellectual materials for a sound education in the proper use of language — an education on every level from the kindergarten to the postgraduate school — are now available. Such an education in the art of distinguishing between the proper and the improper use of symbols could be inaugurated immediately. In­deed it might have been inaugurated at any time during the last thirty or forty years. And yet children are nowhere taught, in any systematic way, to distinguish true from false, or meaningful from meaningless, state­ments. Why is this so? Because their elders, even in the democratic countries, do not want them to be given this kind of education. In this context the brief, sad history of the Institute for Propaganda Analysis is highly significant. The Institute was founded in 1937, when Nazi propaganda was at its noisiest and most effective, by Mr. Filene, the New England philanthro­pist. Under its auspices analyses of non-rational propa­ganda were made and several texts for the instruction of high school and university students were prepared. Then came the war — a total war on all the fronts, the mental no less than the physical. With all the Allied governments engaging in "psychological warfare, " an insistence upon the desirability of analyzing propa­ganda seemed a bit tactless. The Institute was closed in 1941. But even before the outbreak of hostilities, there were many persons to whom its activities seemed profoundly objectionable. Certain educators, for exam­ple, disapproved of the teaching of propaganda anal­ysis on the grounds that it would make adolescents unduly cynical. Nor was it welcomed by the military authorities, who were afraid that recruits might start to analyze the utterances of drill sergeants. And then there were the clergymen and the advertisers. The clergymen were against propaganda analysis as tend­ing to undermine belief and diminish churchgoing; the advertisers objected on the grounds that it might undermine brand loyalty and reduce sales.


These fears and dislikes were not unfounded. Too searching a scrutiny by too many of the common folk of what is said by their pastors and masters might prove to be profoundly subversive. In its present form, the social order depends for its continued existence on the acceptance, without too many embarrassing questions, of the propaganda put forth by those in author­ity and the propaganda hallowed by the local tradi­tions. The problem, once more, is to find the happy mean. Individuals must be suggestible enough to be willing and able to make their society work, but not so suggestible as to fall helplessly under the spell of pro­fessional mind-manipulators. Similarly, they should be taught enough about propaganda analysis to preserve them from an uncritical belief in sheer nonsense, but not so much as to make them reject outright the not always rational outpourings of the well-meaning guardians of tradition. Probably the happy mean be­tween gullibility and a total skepticism can never be discovered and maintained by analysis alone. This rather negative approach to the problem will have to be supplemented by something more positive — the enunciation of a set of generally acceptable values based upon a solid foundation of facts. The value, first of all, of individual freedom, based upon the facts of human diversity and genetic uniqueness; the value of charity and compassion, based upon the old familiar fact, lately rediscovered by modern psychiatry — the fact that, whatever their mental and physical di­versity, love is as necessary to human beings as food and shelter; and finally the value of intelligence, with­out which love is impotent and freedom unattainable. This set of values will provide us with a criterion by which propaganda may be judged. The propaganda that is found to be both nonsensical and immoral may be rejected out of hand. That which is merely irra­tional, but compatible with love and freedom, and not on principle opposed to the exercise of intelligence, may be provisionally accepted for what it is worth.

 

Obviously I most fervently recommend this book as something a rationalist and humanist would probably greatly enjoy. In fact, if there is enough demand, an entire thread to discuss said book's contents, the facts that it relates and the insights that it brings, would be a wonderful undertaking. This thread, however, has the significantly narrower objective of bringing to the fore the history of the defunct Institute For Rational Analysis (which has an heir in the Propaganda Critic, a website which analyses current propaganda with the help of the tool set the institute developed), and look at its history for insights on how to conduct our own, oddly similar, philanthropic endeavors, especially the newly-created Centre For Modern Rationality, and especially on the obstacles and opposition we should expect to meet, and speculate on how to navigate them, if and when they should arise. 

I have included the second paragraph because, while it not directly relevant to the the external difficulties the Institute had to face, it highlights a very important topic: our responsibility towards these youth. We will, most probably, be tearing apart all the morality infrastructure, all the adaptations of which they would be executers. And we might also hurt their chances of integrating in a society where clear thinking and mental hygiene are not in the mainstream. What are the measures we should take to help young rationalists be able to win, if they decide one of the games they want to win at is " live happily with non-rationalist people, befriend them, and perhaps even spread our message further"? Or, for that matter "make decisions quickly and efficiently on what's the right thing and the wrong thing to do in a given situation"?

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Thank you. It strikes me as quite useful to pay attention to the history of rationality movements, especially their failures.

High points partial transcript of a lecture about polarizing political rhetoric. There's a link to the lecture, and I'll finish the partial transcript next week.

This is very careful analysis by a linguist-- relevent to your first paragraph, not the second.

[-][anonymous]10y -1

This is very interesting indeed. A fascinating read, to be sure. While we here seem to take an instantaneous view of the political climate surrounding us, it is refreshing to see a historical perspective. Now that this Kathryn has highlighted the tendency, an explanation should, I think, be needed. Why is political discourse turning more harsh and irrational than it used to, and starting to turn out oddly similar to Nazi rhetoric?

Some possibilities:

  1. It isn't. It always was this bad (Hearst's yellow journalism; Father Coughlin; the John Birch Society; Red Scares).
  2. Political discourse in the mass media is harsher not because of more divergent actual views, but because of reduced censorship / greater freedom of speech. Saying some of these things a few decades back would have attracted charges of libel, obscenity, or incitement to riot.
  3. Overt political violence is rarer than before (e.g. the Ku Klux Klan; or partisan thugs working for local machines); thus on the one hand rabble-rousers are free to make cruder attacks without fear of physical reprisals; and on the other hand, rhetorical violence acts as a substitute for real violence.
  4. Substitution of political group rivalries for religious or ethnic group rivalries, e.g. Protestant vs. Catholic, or overt antisemitism.
  5. Substitution of political values for religious values: equating having the right political views with being a good person; and having the wrong ones with being a heretic or infidel.
  6. Fascism is fun! Being part of a big bright-eyed movement that believes the right things, relies on one another's strength, has awesome leaders, and is obviously fated to triumph over those wimp-ass traitor motherfuckers over there, is a thrill a minute.
  7. It sells ads. Which reduces to asking: Why does it sell so well?

Most of that is excellent, but #6 can't be an answer to "why is political discourse getting fascist-ish now?" unless fascism has become more fun recently. Is there any reason to think it has? (It's not impossible. If part of the fun is the feeling of being part of something big, that may be easier to achieve in our more highly connected age. But then, that goes for other non-fascist ways to be part of something big, too.)

It's at least plausible that 9/11 made a good many Americans want simple forceful solutions.

Point one doesn't work-- there are names and eras which are remembered when it was unusually bad.

It's possible that political hostility are more visible in the US because we have periods of relative civility.

In its present form, the social order depends for its continued existence on the acceptance, without too many embarrassing questions, of the propaganda put forth by those in author­ity and the propaganda hallowed by the local tradi­tions. The problem, once more, is to find the happy mean. Individuals must be suggestible enough to be willing and able to make their society work, but not so suggestible as to fall helplessly under the spell of pro­fessional mind-manipulators.

Sometimes the "happy" is not the "mean"; sometimes the optimum is an extremum. It may well be true that the present form of the social order depends on acceptance of propaganda, but then so much the worse for the present form.

Note that there are ways of being "suggestible" in the sense of being pro-social, other than being "suggestible" in the sense of buying whatever arguments or assertions are made to you. For example, when some colleagues suggest "let's go to the pizza place" I might go along even though pizza might not be my favorite food at that moment. I simply like their company, and I go along. I also recognize that in the future the roles may reverse, with everyone going to my favorite place. No unreason is required for this kind of social cohesion.

I still love Aldous Huxley, but that snippet was an embarrassment.

META: Anyone know why this post isn't showing up in the list of recent posts?

The novel Brave New World looks more prescient with the passage of time, not less. The novel's main female character Lenina Crowne has jumped off its pages and into our lives. It wouldn't take much of a stretch to imagine that a real life Lenina in our world would carry a smart phone on her contraceptive-loaded Malthusian belt (or perhaps we should now call them "Fluke Belts"?) , have Facebook & Twitter accounts, go to "feelies" based on Twilight & Hunger Games novels, and even sport tattoos.