Activists: Modern Day Propagandists

We live in a time when many people seem to be proud of being “an activist.”  They think it a good thing.  There are professors who think incorporating activism into the course is a good thing. I am different.  I think critical thinking  and education is a good thing.  And I have found that in the vast majority of cases, activism and critical thinking are incompatible.  Let’s look at the definitions.

Critical Thinking: the objective analysis and evaluation of an issue in order to form a judgment.

Activism: the policy or action of using vigorous campaigning to bring about political or social change.

The activist is not someone engaged in an objective analysis.  The activist is campaigning.  The activist is not evaluating.  They are imposing.  The activist is not trying to form a judgment.  The activist is trying to turn their judgment into political and social change.

Some activists might insist that they began as critical thinkers and having reached their judgment, they seek to act on it.  But in making this distinction, the activist is admitting the incompatibility of critical thinking and activism.  What’s more, a true critical thinker will hold to judgments tentatively, being aware that new information can arise which will call for modification, or even abandonment, of a previous judgment.  But an activist cuts himself off from this dynamic.  The activist becomes deeply invested in their judgment.  Such  deep investment can come in many forms: psychological (my cause gives me meaning); moral (my cause shows how good I am); financial (my cause earns my income); and social (my cause allows me to network with likeminded people).  These investments result in the activist becoming closed minded such that the only satisfactory end point for them is the success of their campaign.  And closed-mindedness is incompatible with critical thinking.

Activism is not merely incompatible with critical thinking; it is comfortably compatible with propaganda.  It easily exists in a symbiotic union with propaganda.  So much so that it is typically accurate to think of an activist as a propagandist.

Bruce Lannes Smith is Emeritus Professor of Political Science, Michigan State University, East Lansing and coauthor of Propaganda, Communication and Public Opinion. In his article on Propganda, he explains:

Propaganda is the more or less systematic effort to manipulate other people’s beliefs, attitudes, or actions by means of symbols (words, gestures, banners, monuments, music, clothing, insignia, hairstyles, designs on coins and postage stamps, and so forth). Deliberateness and a relatively heavy emphasis on manipulation distinguish propaganda from casual conversation or the free and easy exchange of ideas. The propagandist has a specified goal or set of goals. To achieve these he deliberately selects facts, arguments, and displays of symbols and presents them in ways he thinks will have the most effect. To maximize effect, he may omit pertinent facts or distort them, and he may try to divert the attention of the reactors (the people whom he is trying to sway) from everything but his own propaganda.

Seeing how activists are committed to vigorously campaign for social and political change, it should be rather obvious why they would gravitate toward propaganda, the powerful technique for bringing about social and political change.   Activism and propaganda are a natural fit.  And once a person becomes immersed in the propagandistic approach, all traces of critical thinking have been erased.

Smith continues:

Comparatively deliberate selectivity and manipulation also distinguish propaganda from education. The educator tries to present various sides of an issue—the grounds for doubting as well as the grounds for believing the statements he makes, and the disadvantages as well as the advantages of every conceivable course of action. Education aims to induce the reactor to collect and evaluate evidence for himself and assists him in learning the techniques for doing so.

And this is critical thinking.

But now watch how the activist can delude himself into thinking he is a critical thinker:

It must be noted, however, that a given propagandist may look upon himself as an educator, may believe that he is uttering the purest truth, that he is emphasizing or distorting certain aspects of the truth only to make a valid message more persuasive, and that the courses of action that he recommends are in fact the best actions that the reactor could take. By the same token, the reactor who regards the propagandist’s message as self-evident truth may think of it as educational; this often seems to be the case with “true believers”—dogmatic reactors to dogmatic religious or social propaganda.

So the propagandist will think of himself as an educator.  After all, his Cause is True.  It is Just.  So in their minds, propaganda is not bad.  It is the crucial tool needed to implement their Truthful and Just Cause.  The problem is that the term propaganda has a negative connotation.  This was not always true, as Smith goes on to explain in his article, but only became true because of WWII and the Cold War and the way the Nazis and Communists proudly identified as propagandists.  The Nazis had an official Ministry of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda.  The Soviet Communists had a teacher’s manual entitled, “For the Propagandist of Political Economy.”  For many, being a propagandist was a noble title and cause.

No one today wants to self-identify as a propagandist because of those negative connotations.  No one goes to college thinking, “I will train to become a propagandist.”  Does that mean we no longer have propagandists among us?  Of course not.  It just means the type of people who proudly became propagandists in the past today have just chosen to self-identify in different terms.  And I propose that the chosen, modern-day term is “activist.”  In other words, an activist is a stealth propagandist; a propagandist who doesn’t want to be perceived as a propagandist.

Why does any of this matter?  If you are like me and do indeed value critical thinking, propaganda is incompatible with such thinking.  What’s more, if it is true that most activists are indeed propagandists, then you need to be aware of this fact.  It would mean that activists interact with you for one primary purpose – to manipulate you.  If you are not aware of this fact, and not very knowledgeable about their techniques, they can play and exploit you.  In many ways, interacting with a propagandist is like interacting with a used car salesman.  If you are not aware of your situation and not aware of the salesman’s techniques, you can be easily conned.

One of the things I would like to do (if, as usual, time allows) is to explore the various examples of propagandistic techniques that have been identified by scholars.  Such an education will help us all to resist the manipulative agenda of propagandists/activists.

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9 Responses to Activists: Modern Day Propagandists

  1. Dhay says:

    The weirdness of the celebrity culture at the 2016 Reason Rally, and their enrolling (an always unenthusiastic?) Johnny Depp and other celebrities, is perhaps explained by this quote from the openly atheist philosopher Julian Baggini, found in a 2005 review of a book aimed at providing intellectual arguments for atheism; intellectual arguments which Baggini finds largely pointless because, as he asks intellectual atheists to consider:

    What would happen, for example, if you read an argument by Plantinga for the existence of God that you could not find a rebuttal to? Follow the argument where it leads and start believing, until a rebuttal came along? Certainly not. Rather, you would assume there must be something wrong with the argument, even though you can’t yet see what it is. And this of course will be the mirror image of the response of the theist when confronted with an argument for the impossibility of God that he cannot refute.

    And as regards converting the much larger number of unintellectual people using intellectual arguments, forget it:

    The unintellectual will obviously have no interest in over four hundred pages of carefully argued philosophy. That may seem obvious, but it is a point rationalists often forget. We value reason and argument and obviously think others should too. But if they don’t, how are to persuade them otherwise? With reason and argument? You can see the flaw in that plan. The sad truth is that trying to enter into intellectual battle with such people is like trying to use semaphore to lead the blind. The fight against unthinking religion must be fought in terms unthinking believers can relate to. Discovering Angelina Jolie is an atheist is much more likely to make the unintellectual doubt their belief than the arguments of Patrick Grim.

    [Grim is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Stonybrook.]
    https://infidels.org/library/modern/julian_baggini/review-martin.html

    Looks like Baggini claims that what starts most atheists to deconvert from Christianity to atheism is not ‘Science, Evidence and Reason’ (ie intellectual arguments) but a wish to copy and be like a celebrity, like such as Angelina Jolie. Now we know why celebrity actors, rap stars etc fronted the 2016 Reason Rally (and why these and celebrity YouTubers nowadays front atheist conferences.)

    Being like your favourite celebrity — now we know what the Reason Rally and atheist conferences mean by ‘Science and Reason’.

    *

    When I observe the cult of celebrity, and wanting to be like them, I am minded of the islanders of the famous Cargo Cult, who apparently saw aeroplanes bringing in the wealth and technology of Western civilisation and decided that the ‘sympathetic magic’ of mocking up their own aeroplanes would reap them the same benefits. ‘Science and Reason’.

  2. Michael says:

    Looks like Baggini claims that what starts most atheists to deconvert from Christianity to atheism is not ‘Science, Evidence and Reason’ (ie intellectual arguments) but a wish to copy and be like a celebrity, like such as Angelina Jolie. Now we know why celebrity actors, rap stars etc fronted the 2016 Reason Rally (and why these and celebrity YouTubers nowadays front atheist conferences.)

    LOL

  3. Dhay says:

    > Looks like Baggini claims that what starts most atheists to deconvert from Christianity to atheism is not ‘Science, Evidence and Reason’ (ie intellectual arguments) but a wish to copy and be like a celebrity, like such as Angelina Jolie.

    Sarabeth Caplin, posting about someone called Tim Tebow on Friendly Atheist — Tebow is tipped to be the next Billy Graham, it seems — writes:

    Has the evangelical reputation sunk so low that the new standard of morality is “charisma” (which every great cult leader has, by the way), avoiding scandal (it could just mean you’re good at not getting caught), and the ability to “fill football stadiums”? Really?

    http://www.patheos.com/blogs/friendlyatheist/2018/02/26/tim-tebow-is-not-the-next-billy-graham-and-he-better-not-be-the-next-president/

    There have been a rather obviously large proportion of film stars, comedians, rap stars, celebrity New Atheists, YouTube celebrities etc invited on stage to try to fill the last Reason Rally and recent atheist conferences. So let’s re-phrase Caplin’s words:

    Has the atheist reputation sunk so low that the new standard of morality is “charisma” (which every great cult leader has, by the way), avoiding scandal (it could just mean you’re good at not getting caught), and the ability to “fill Reason Rallies and conference halls”? Really?

    The atheist movement has long known about the cult of the celebrity personality, and has exploited it shamelessly for their own ends.

    *

    Avoiding scandal (or at any rate, avoiding being caught) is important. Tebow seems to achieve that by not being scandalous.

    Contrast that with Lawrence Krauss, and Richard Carrier, who have recently been largely de-platformed; Michael Shermer — he who reportedly wore tight cycling shorts to conferences, presumably to show off his cycling prowess — seems to have been quietly de-platformed years ago, and he’s hardly visible today.

  4. TFBW says:

    @Dhay: turn-about (as you have done) is fair play, but who really gives a damn about Sarabeth Caplin’s opinion in relation to Tim Tebow’s suitability as a replacement for Billy Graham? It’s not obvious that she would be satisfied with any set of characteristics, with the possible exception of atheism. Let’s get her opinion on what characteristics would make for a good pope while we’re at it, shall we? Talk about an inflated sense of the worth of one’s own opinions. I’m not going to pontificate about who would make for a good Richard Dawkins replacement when his number inevitably comes up: he does not represent me or my ideas. If Sarabeth had an iota of perspective, she’d treat the Billy Graham replacement issue the same way. I guess “activist” is just “ideologue” + “busybody” when it all boils down.

  5. Dhay says:

    Courtesy of Edward Feser’s blog comments I’ve located a very interesting quote by Richard Carrier, commenting in his own Comments, from December 2015:

    I am more like a Wikipedia writer, composing authoritative essays on subjects, than a journalist just briefly commenting on things.

    https://www.richardcarrier.info/archives/9211#comment-13982

    Ah, Carrier is claiming his posts are “up” (“up”, I tell you) to the standard of Wikipedia pages (which are not essays, let alone authoritative essays — where does he get that idea from?) That’s odd, as it is commonplace for Wikipedia to be deprecated as inferior to genuine scholarship and certainly not an authority to rely on; those who quote it as the go-to authority are often derided.

    But the following is what got me searching, unable to believe it could be truly his words — which they are:

    That is the function of my writing. It ends all rational debate. Thus all continuing debate becomes demonstrably irrational …

    I’d say Carrier is, on the evidence of both quotes, a modern day propagandist.

    *

    As regards the second quote, Feser’s blog post was “Carrier on Five Proofs“, replying to Carrier’s critique of Feser’s book, which critique Carrier thought devastating.

    Feser thought otherwise: http://edwardfeser.blogspot.co.uk/2018/02/carrier-on-five-proofs.html

    Form your own opinion on whether Carrier’s writing ends all rational debate and all continuing debate — read “disagreement with Carrier”, surely — becomes demonstrably irrational.

  6. TFBW says:

    Holy smokes. Carrier sees it as his function to compose “authoritative essays” and settle the matter as to what the rational position is, beyond which “all continuing debate becomes demonstrably irrational?” He thinks he’s the Pope of Rationality!

  7. Michael says:

    Holy smokes. Carrier sees it as his function to compose “authoritative essays” and settle the matter as to what the rational position is, beyond which “all continuing debate becomes demonstrably irrational?” He thinks he’s the Pope of Rationality!

    He truly is a real-life Vizzini from the Princess Bride movie.

  8. Kevin says:

    “I’m right so by definition anyone who disagrees is wrong.” – Richard Carrier, 2018

    A modern Aristotle, is he.

  9. Dhay says:

    In his 23 February 2018 entitled “Carrier Takes on Feser …” The Verbose Stoic took his own look at Richard Carrier’s critique of Edward Feser’s Five Proofs arguments. VS didn’t have access to Feser’s book hence was unable to comment on whether Carrier quoted Feser correctly or paraphrased Feser correctly — usually not, says Feser on his own blog — so VS critiqued Carrier’s arguments against Feser on their own merits, as made:

    … I think it is fair to note that for the most part the posts [that’s Carrier’s posts in general — Dhay] spend far, far too much time insulting and making snarky comments about the people he’s commenting on, as it seems that he spends as much time trying to convince the reader that the people he’s commenting on are ignoramuses as he does trying to demonstrate that the arguments are wrong. As as I’ve said a number of times in the past, the problem with that sort of approach is that you had better be right, because if you are wrong then you look really, really bad.

    Carrier, it seems to me, gets quite a bit wrong in this post.

    https://verbosestoic.wordpress.com/2018/02/23/carrier-takes-on-feser/

    It’s always worth reading VS’ philosophy posts, he gives a glimpse into the mind of a serious philosopher taking philosophy seriously.

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