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.
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.