How Not to Be Bamboozled
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Propaganda: How Not To Be Bamboozled By Donna Woolfolk Cross Propaganda. If an opinion poll were taken tomorrow, we can be sure that nearly everyone would be against it because it sounds so bad. When we say, “Oh, that’s just propaganda,” it means, to most people, “That’s a pack of lies.” But really, propaganda is simply a means of persuasion and so it can be put to work for good causes as well as bad—to persuade people to give to charity, for example, or to love their neighbors, or to stop polluting the environment. For good or evil, propaganda pervades our daily lives, helping to shape our attitudes on a thousand subjects. Propaganda probably determines the brand of toothpaste you use, the movies you see, the candidates you elect when you go to the polls. Propaganda works by tricking us, by momentarily distracting the eye while the rabbit pops out from beneath the cloth. Propaganda works best with an uncritical audience. Joseph Goebbels, Propaganda Minister in Nazi Germany, once defined his work as “conquest of the masses.” The masses would not have been conquered, however, if they had known how to challenge and to question, how to make distinctions between propaganda and reasonable arguments. People are bamboozled mainly because they don’t recognize propaganda when they see it.
They need to be informed about the various devices that can be used to mislead and deceive—about the propagandists’ overflowing bag of tricks. The following, then, are some common pitfalls for the unwary. 1. Name Calling As its title suggests, this device consists of labeling people or ideas with words of bad connotation, literally, “calling them names.” Here the propagandist tries to arouse our contempt so we will dismiss the “bad name” person or idea without examining its merits. Bad names have played a tremendously important role in the history of the world. They have ruined reputations and ended lives, sent people to prison and to war, and just generally made us mad at each other for centuries. Name-calling can be used against policies, practices, beliefs and ideals, as well as against individuals, groups, races, nations.
Name-calling is at work when we hear a candidate for office described as a “foolish idealist” or a “two-faced liar” or when an incumbent’s policies are denounced as “reckless,” “reactionary,” or just plain “stupid.” Some of the most effective names a public figure can be called are ones that may not denote anything specific: “Congresswoman Jane Doe is a bleeding heart!” (Did she vote for funds to help paraplegics?) or “The Senator is a tool of Washington!” (Did he happen to agree with the President?) Senator Yakalot uses name-calling when he denounces his opponent’s “radical policies” and calls them (and him) “socialist,” “pinko,” and part of a “heartless plot.” He also uses it when he calls small cars “puddle-jumpers,” “can openers,” and “motorized baby buggies.” The point here is that when the propagandist uses name-calling, he doesn’t want us to think—merely to react, blindly, unquestioningly. So the best defense against being taken in by name-calling is to stop and ask, “Forgetting the bad name attached to it, what are the merits of the idea itself? What does this really mean anyway?”
2. Glittering Generalities Glittering generalities are really name-calling in reverse. Name-calling uses words with bad connotations; glittering generalities are words with good connotations—“virtue words,” as the Institute for Propaganda Analysis has called them. The institute explains that while name-calling tries to get us to reject and condemn someone or something without examining the evidence, glittering generalities try to get us to accept and agree without examining the evidence. We believe in, fight for, live by “virtue words” which we feel deeply about: “justice,” “motherhood,” “the American way,” “our Constitutional rights,” “our Christian heritage.” These sound good, but when we examine them closely, they turn out to have no specific, definable meaning. They just make us feel good. Senator Yakalot uses glittering generalities when he says, “I stand for all that is good in America, for our American way and our American birthright.” But what exactly is “good for America”?
How can we define our “American birthright”? Just what part of the American society and culture does “our American way” refer to? We often make the mistake of assuming we are personally unaffected by glittering generalities. The next time you fine yourself assuming that, listen to a political candidate’s speech on TV and see how often the use of glittering generalities elicits cheers and applause. That’s the danger of propaganda; it works. Once again, our defense against it is to ask questions: Forgetting the virtue words attached to it, what are the merits of the idea itself? What does “Americanism” (or “freedom” or “truth”) really mean here?… Both name-calling and glittering generalities work by stirring our emotions in the hope that this will cloud our thinking. Another approach that propaganda uses is to create a distraction, a “red herring,” that will make people forget or ignore the real issues. There are several kinds of “red herrings” that can be used to distract attention. 3. Plain Folks Appeal “Plain folks” is the device by which a speaker tries to win our confidence and support by appearing to be a person like ourselves—“just one of the plain folks.”
The plain-folks appeal is at work when candidates go around shaking hands with factory workers, kissing babies in supermarkets, and sampling pasta with Italians, fried chicken with Southerners, bagels and blintzes with Jews. “Now I’m a businessman like yourselves” is a plain-folks appeal, as is, “I’ve been a farm boy all my life.” Senator Yakalot tries the plain-folks appeal when he says, “I’m just a small-town boy like you fine people.” The use of such expressions once prompted Lyndon Johnson to quip, “Whenever I hear someone say, ‘I’m just an old country lawyer,’ the first thing I reach for is my wallet to make sure it’s still there.” The irrelevancy of the plain-folks appeal is obvious: even if the man is “one of us” (which may not be true at all), that doesn’t mean that his ideas and programs are sound—or even that he honestly has our best interests at heart. As with glittering generalities, the danger here is that we may mistakenly assume we are immune to this appeal. But propagandists wouldn’t use it unless it had been proven to work. You can protect yourself by asking, “Aside from his ‘nice guy next door’ image, what does this man stand for? Are his ideas and his past record really supportive of my best interests?”
4. Argumentum Ad Populum (Stroking) Argumentum ad populum means “argument to the people” or “telling the people what they want to hear.” The colloquial term from the Watergate era is “stroking,” which conjures up pictures of small animals or children being stroked or soothed with compliments until they come to like the person doing the complimenting—and, by extension, his or her ideas. We all like to hear nice things about ourselves and the group we belong to—we like to be liked—so it stands to reason that we will respond warmly to a person who tells us we are “hard-working taxpayers” or “the most generous, free-spirited nation in the world.” Politicians tell farmers they are the “backbone of the American economy” and college students that they are the “leaders and policy makers of tomorrow.” Commercial advertisers use stroking more insidiously by asking a question which invites a flattering answer: “What kind of man reads Playboy?” (Does he really drive a Porsche and own $10,000 worth of sound equipment?)
Senator Yakalot is stoking his audience when he calls them the “decent law-abiding citizens that are the great pulsing heart and the life blood of this, our beloved country,” and when he repeatedly refers to them as “you fine people,” “you wonderful folks.” Obviously, the intent here is to sidetrack us from thinking critically about the man and his ideas. Our own good qualities have nothing to do with the issue at hand. Ask yourself, “Apart from the nice things he has to say about me (and my church, my nation, my ethnic group, my neighbors), what does the candidate stand for? Are his or her ideas in my best interests? 5. Argumentum Ad Hominem Argumentum ad hominem means “argument to the man” and that’s exactly what it is. When a propagandist uses argumentum ad hominem, he wants to distract our attention from the issue under consideration with personal attacks on the people involved. For example, when Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, some people responded by calling him the “baboon.” But Lincoln’s long arms and awkward carriage had nothing to do with the merits of the Proclamation or the question of whether or not slavery should be abolished.
Today argumentum ad hominem is still widely used and very effective. You may or may not support the Equal Rights Amendment, but you should be sure your judgment is based on the merits of the idea itself, and not the attacks on the groups or individuals supporting or rejecting the amendment. Senator Yakalot is using argumentum ad hominem when he dismisses the idea of using smaller automobiles with a reference to the personal appearance of one of its supporters, Congresswoman Doris Schlepp. Refuse to be waylaid by argumentum ad hominem and ask, “Do the personal qualities of the person being discussed have anything to do with the issue at hand? Leaving him or her aside, how good is the idea itself?” 6. Transfer (Guilt Or Glory By Association) In argumentum ad hominem, an attempt is made to associate negative aspects of a person’s character or personal appearance with an issue of idea he supports. The transfer device uses this same process of association to make us accept or condemn a given person or idea.
A better name for the transfer device is guilt (or glory) by association. In glory by association, the propagandist tries to transfer the positive feelings of something we love and respect to the group or idea he wants us to accept. “This bill for a new dam is in the best tradition of this country, the land of Lincoln, Jefferson, and Washington,” is glory by association at work. Lincoln, Jefferson, and Washington were great leaders that most of us revere and respect, but they have no logical connection to the proposal under consideration—the bill to build a new dam. Senator Yakalot uses glory by association when he says full-sized cars “have always been as American as Mom’s apple pie or a Sunday drive in the country.” The process works equally well in reverse, when guilt by association is used to transfer our dislike or disapproval of one idea or group to some other idea or group that the propagandist wants us to reject and condemn. “John Doe says we need to make some changes in the way our government operates; well, that’s exactly what the Ku Klux Klan has said, so there’s a meeting of great minds!”
That’s guilt by association for you; there’s no logical connection between John Doe and the Ku Klux Klan apart from the one the propagandist is trying to create in our minds. He wants to distract our attention from John Doe and get us thinking (and worrying) about the Ku Klux Klan and its politics of violence. (Of course, there are sometimes legitimate associations between the two things; if John Doe had been a member of the Ku Klux Klan, it would be reasonable and fair to draw a connection between the man and his group.) Senator Yakalot tries to trick his audience with guilt by association when he remarks that “the words ‘Community’ and ‘Communism’ look an awful lot alike!” He does it again when he mentions that Mr. Stu Pott “sports a Fidel Castro beard.” How can we learn to spot the transfer device and distinguish between the transfer device (our feelings for one thing) and the ideas being promoted or panned? Ask yourself: “Is there any connection between the idea under discussion and the thing it is associated with? Leaving the transfer device out of the picture, what are the merits of the idea by itself?” 7. Bandwagon Ever hear of the small, ratlike animal called the lemming?
Lemmings are artic rodents with a very odd habit: periodically, for reasons no one entirely knows, they mass together in a large herd and commit suicide by rushing into deep water and drowning themselves. They all run in together, blindly, and not one of them ever seems to stop and ask, “Why am I doing this? Is this really what I want to do?” and thus save itself from destruction. Obviously, lemmings are driven to perform their strange mass suicide rites by common instinct. People choose to “follow the herd” for more complex reasons, yet we are still all too often the unwitting victims of the bandwagon appeal. Essentially, the bandwagon urges us to support an action or an opinion because it is popular—because “everyone else is doing it.”
This call to “get on the bandwagon” appeals to the strong desire in most of us to be one of the crowd, not to be left out or alone. Advertising makes extensive use of the bandwagon appeal. (“join the Pepsi people”), but so do politicians (“Let us join together in this great cause”). Senator Yakalot uses the bandwagon appeal when he says that “More and more citizens are rallying to my cause every day,” and asks his audience to “join them—and me—in our fight for America.” One of the ways we can see the bandwagon appeal at work is in the overwhelming success of various fashions and trends which capture the interest (and the money) of thousands of people for a short time, then disappear suddenly and completely. For a year or two in the fifties, every child in North America wanted a coonskin cap so they could be like Davy Crockett; no one wanted to be left out. After that there was the hula-hoop craze that helped to dislocate the hips of thousands of Americans. More recently, what made millions of people rush out to buy their very own “pet rocks”? The problem here is obvious: just because everyone’s doing it doesn’t meant that we should too.
Group approval does not prove that something is true or is worth doing. Large numbers of people have supported actions we now condemn. Just a generation ago, Hitler and Mussolini rose to absolute and catastrophically repressive rule in two of the most sophisticated and cultured countries in Europe. When they came into power they were welled up by massive popular support from millions of people who didn’t want to be “left out” at a great historical moment. Once the mass begins to move—on the bandwagon—it becomes harder and harder to perceive the leader riding the bandwagon. So don’t be a lemming, rushing blindly on to destruction because “everyone is doing it.” Stop and ask, “Where is this bandwagon headed? Never mind about everybody else, is this what is best for me?” As we have seen, propaganda can appeal to us by arousing our emotions or distracting our attention from the real issues at hand. But there’s a third way that propaganda can be put to work against us—by the use of faulty logic. This approach is really more insidious than the other two because it gives the appearance of reasonable, fair argument. It is only when we look more closely that the holes in the logical fiber show up.
The following are some of the devices that make use of faulty logic to distort and mislead. 8. Faulty Cause and Effect As the name suggests, this device sets up a cause-and-effect relationship that may not be true. The Latin name for this logical fallacy is post hoc ergo propter hoc, which means “after this, therefore because of this.” But just because one thing happened after another doesn’t mean that one caused the other. An example of false cause-and-effect reasoning is offered by the story (probably invented) of the woman aboard the ship Titanic. She woke up from a nap and, feeling seasick, looked around for a call button to summon the steward to bring her some medication. She finally located a small button on one of the walls of her cabin and pushed it. A split second later, the Titanic grazed an iceberg in the terrible crash that was to send the entire ship to its destruction.
The woman screamed and said, “Oh, God, what have I done? What have I done?” The humor of that anecdote comes from the absurdity of the woman’s assumption that pushing the small red button resulted in the destruction of a ship weighing several hundred tons: “It happened after I pushed it, therefore it must be because I pushed it”—post hoc ergo propter hoc reasoning. There is, of course, no cause and effect relationship there. The false cause-and-effect fallacy is used very often by political candidates. “After I came to office, the rate of inflation dropped to 6 percent.” But did the person do anything to cause the lower rate of inflation or was it the result of other conditions? Would the rate of inflation have dropped anyway, even if he hadn’t come to office? Senator Yakalot uses false cause and effect when he says “our forefathers who made this country great never had free hot meal handouts! And look what they did for our country!” He does it again when he concludes that “driving full-sized cars means a better car safety record on our American roads today.” False cause-and-effect reasoning is terribly persuasive because it seems so logical. Its appeal is apparently to experience.
We swallowed X product—and the headache went away. We elected Y official and unemployment went down. Many people think, “There must be a connection.” But causality is an immensely complex phenomenon; you need a good deal of evidence to prove that an event that follows another in time was “therefore” caused by the first event. Don’t be taken in by false cause and effect; be sure to ask, “Is there enough evidence to prove that this cause led to that effect? Could there have been any other causes?” 9. False Analogy An analogy is a comparison between two ideas, events or things. But comparisons can be fairly made only when the things being compared are alike in significant ways. When they are not, false analogy is the result. A famous example of this is the old proverb “Don’t change horses in the middle of a stream,” often used as an analogy to convince voters not to change administrations in the middle of a war or other crises. But the analogy is misleading because there are so many differences between the things compared.
In what ways is a war or political crisis like a stream? Is the President or head of state really very much like a horse? And is a nation of millions of people comparable to a man trying to get across a stream? Analogy is false and unfair when it compares two things that have little in common and assumes that they are identical. Senator Yakalot tries to hoodwink his listeners with false analogy when he says, “Trying to take Americans out of the kind of cars they love is as undemocratic as trying to deprive them of the right to vote.” Of course, analogies can be drawn that are reasonable and fair. It would be reasonable, for example, to compare the results of busing in one small Southern city with the possible results in another, if the towns have the same kind of history, population, and school policy. We can decide for ourselves whether an analogy is false or fair by asking, “Are the things being compared truly alike in significant ways? Do the differences between them affect the comparison?”
10. Begging the Question Actually, the name of this device is rather misleading, because it does not appear in the form of a question. Begging the question occurs when, in discussing a questionable or debatable point, a person assumes as already established the very point that he is trying to prove. For example, “No thinking citizen could approve such a completely unacceptable policy as this one.” But isn’t the question of whether or not the policy is acceptable the very point to be established? Senator Yakalot begs the question when he announces that his opponent’s plan won’t work “because it is unworkable.” We can protect ourselves against this kind of faulty logic by asking, “What is assumed in this statement? Is the assumption reasonable, or does it need more proof?”
11. The Two Extremes Fallacy (False Dilemma) Linguists have long noted that the English language tends to view reality in sets of two extremes or polar opposites. In English, things are either black or white, tall or short, up or down, front or back, left or right, good or bad, guilty or not guilty. We can ask for a “straightforward yes-or-no answer” to a question, the understanding being that we will not accept or consider anything in between. In fact, reality cannot always be dissected along such strict lines. There may be (usually are) more than just two possibilities or extremes to consider. We are often told to “listen to both sides of the argument.” But who’s to say that every argument has only two sides? Can’t there be a third-even a fourth or fifth-point of view? The two-extremes fallacy is at work in this statement by Lenin, the great Marxist leader: “You cannot eliminate one basic assumption, one substantial part of this philosophy of Marxism (it is as if it were a block of steel), without abandoning truth, without falling into the arms of bourgeois-reactionary falsehood.”
In other words, if we don’t agree 100 percent with every premise of Marxism, we must be placed at the opposite end of the political-economic spectrum-for Lenin, “bourgeois-reactionary falsehood.” If we are not entirely with him, we must be against him; those are the only two possibilities open to us. Of course, this is a logical fallacy; in real life there are any number of political positions one can maintain between the two extremes of Marxism and capitalism. Senor Yakalot uses the two-extremes fallacy in the same way as Lenin when he tells his audience that “in this world a man’s either for private enterprise or he’s for socialism”. One of the most famous examples of the two-extremes fallacy in recent history is the slogan, “America: Love it or leave it,” with its implicit suggestion that we either accept everything just as it is in America today without complaint-or get out.
Again, it should be obvious that there is a whole range of action and belief between those two extremes. Don’t be duped; stop and ask, “Are those really the only two options I can choose from? Are there other alternatives not mentioned that deserve consideration?” 12. Card Stacking Some questions are so multifaceted and complex that no one can make an intelligent decision about them without considering a wide variety of evidence. One selection of facts could make us feel one way and another selection could make us feel just the opposite. Card stacking is a device of propaganda which selects only the facts that support the propagandist’s point of view, and ignores all the others. For example, a candidate could be made to look like a legislative dynamo if you say, “Representative McNerd introduced more new bills than any other member of the Congress,” and neglect to mention that most of them were so preposterous that they were laughed off the floor. Senator Yakalot engages in card stacking when he talks about the proposal to use smaller cars.
He talks only about jobs without mentioning the cost to the taxpapers or the very real-though still denied-threat of depletion of resources. He says he wants to help his countrymen keep their jobs, but doesn’t mention that the corporations that offer the jobs will also make large profits. He praises the “American chrome industry,” overlooking the fact that most chrome is imported; and so on. The best protection against card stacking is to take the “Yes, but…” attitude. This device of propaganda is not untrue, but then again it is not the whole truth. So ask yourself, “Is this person leaving something out that I should know about? Is there some other information that should be brought to bear on this question?”… So far, we have considered three approaches that the propagandist can use to influence our thinking: appealing to our emotions, distracting our attention, and misleading us with logic that may appear to be reasonable but is in fact faulty and deceiving. But there is a fourth approach that is probably the most common propaganda trick of them all.
13. Testimonial The testimonial device consists in having some loved or respected person give a statement of support (testimonial) for a given product or idea. The problem is that the person being quoted may not be an expert in the field; in fact, he may know nothing at all about it. Using the name of a man who is skilled and famous in one field to give a testimonial for something in another field is unfair and unreasonable. Senator Yakalot tries to mislead his audience with testimonial when he tells them that “full-sized cars have been praised by great Americans like John Wayne and Jack Jones, as well as by leading experts on car safety and comfort.” Testimonial is used extensively in TV ads, where it often appears in such bizarre forms as Joe Namath’s endorsement of a pantyhose brand. Here, of course, the “authority” giving the testimonial not only is no expert about pantyhose, but obviously stands to gain something (money!) by making the testimonial. When celebrities endorse a political candidate, they may not be making money by doing so, but we should still question whether they are in any better position to judge than we ourselves.
Too often we are willing to let others we like or respect make our decisions for us, while we follow along acquiescently. And this is the purpose of testimonial-to get us to agree and accept without stopping to think. Be sure to ask, “Is there any reason to believe that this person (or organization or publication or whatever) has any more knowledge or information than I do on this subject? What does the idea amount to on its own merits, without the benefit of testimonial?” The cornerstone of democratic society is reliance upon an informed and educated electorate. To be fully effective citizens we need to be able to challenge and to question wisely. A dangerous feeling of indifference toward our political processes exists today. We often abandon our right, our duty, to criticize and evaluate by dismissing all politicians as “crooked,” all new bills and proposals as “just more government bureaucracy.” But there are important distinctions to be made, and this kind of apathy can be fatal to democracy. If we are to be led, let us not be led blindly, but critically, intelligently, with our eyes open. If we are to continue to be a government “by the people,” let us become informed about the methods and purposes of propaganda, so we can be the masters, not the salves of our destiny.