Today in Professor Haines’ Senior Seminar in Propaganda, somebody posed the question: “Is propaganda inherently negative?” What followed were several students stating they believe that it is not. Professor Haines told us that this is the instrumentalist opinion: propaganda can be used for “good” reasons such as public health, and everyone agreed. Except me.
So I did some research. This BBC video includes interviews from historians at the British Library as they discuss their exhibit on propaganda in history. For the purpose of their installation, they defined propaganda as any communication that is “designed to influence, persuade, or reinforce opinion.”
In researching this topic, I’ve discovered that people define propaganda differently. Some believe it to be any manipulative communication, similar or equal to advertising, and others give it a more specific qualification, like an imbalance of pathos, logos, and ethos.
I posed this question to my friends via a group chat. My friend who is infamous for his controversial opinions wrote this hot take all in one text:
“If you understand that inherently humans have different cognitive abilities, then you could reason propaganda is a necessity in order for the survival of the society. Those who control the propaganda thereby steer the society towards a better future. Obviously that is not always true, the Nazi party, Venezuela, the Crusades. The moral question comes up when those who control the propaganda become self aware.”
Or simply put, propaganda is a necessary evil. But what the is condition of the surviving society? Who decides what is necessary? Is this really a society we want to live in?
The BBC video argues that propaganda can be used to “save us from ourselves.” They cite a campaign ad for AIDS awareness, calling it the “most successful public health film ever made.” The ad works to persuade audiences to not ignore AIDS, for ignoring it could have deadly consequences. Today, propaganda is used to persuade Americans to get vaccinated. So naturally to us, this seems positive.
Hence, everyone seems to agree that propaganda is not inherently negative. Yet in class I couldn’t help but think the opposite. If the purpose of propaganda is to manufacture consent, or to motivate action (or inaction), how is this ever positive? I do agree that public health is important and that propaganda may be necessary for the success of the greater good, but I still believe manipulation of any form to be ethically wrong. No matter what the message is, someone will always be unhappy with it. There is no unbiased propaganda, just like there is no advertising that isn’t trying to sell you something.
What do you think? Leave me a comment below.
Living Media is authored by Liv Grasso, C+MRC intern and Montclair State University senior.