While the word propaganda has taken on a decidedly negative connotation, especially since the Nazi era, it wasn’t always the case. In its earliest uses in the Catholic Church in the 1600s, it referred to the “propagation” of the faith. In ecclesiastical and missionary terms, it was a neutral term, at least for Catholics, but perhaps not so for the Jews who suffered from the Spanish Inquisition or the many other groups who were oppressed by their misguided ideas. The Nazis’ Ministry of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda took propaganda to a whole new level. There was nothing enlightening about their misinformation machine that anesthetized the German people to accept and even embrace the idea of genocide.
Today propaganda is alive and well in the forms of media lies and misleading advertising, and indoctrination by sinister political forces targeted at the ignorant, uneducated, and the uninformed. In its most extreme forms, it’s psychological warfare and brainwashing. The misuses of social media by political parties and the information ministries of other countries during recent elections seem to be a case in point.
One could even argue that the dogmatic spread of any religious group’s agenda is a form of propaganda. If you’re a member of that group, it looks like you’re merely being true to your convictions, spreading the good word. From the outside, though, media outlets pushing a religious agenda are hostile and even malicious actors. The challenge is, as we have seen with earlier discussions of story and our susceptibility to any information that is narratively structured, we are vulnerable to this form of storytelling. In many respects, it’s antithetical to life in a society informed by democratic principles. How can the average citizen resist being duped?
All of us must contend with the challenges posed by the internet’s wild west nature that exposes us to a range of stories that violate our norms for decency and integrity. Are our children mature enough to discern falsehoods when they see them? Are they discriminating enough to distinguish between stories that promulgate positive values and those that can lead them down a dark, twisted alley? It would seem that we adults are challenged by these questions as well. Why would we expect our children to be more adept at separating the wheat from the chaff?
There are plenty of examples of how people have feared and decried the pejorative influence of stories. One from the 1950s might make you laugh in the context of what children are exposed to today on the internet and through game platforms like PlayStation and Xbox. At the time, the warnings were taken seriously by many. Fredric Wertham, an American psychiatrist, was deeply concerned about the adverse effects of comics on children’s minds and behavior. He penned a book entitled Seduction of the Innocent: The Influence of Horror Comics on Today’s Youth, claiming that these steamy graphic stories were causing juvenile delinquency. Parents were alarmed. Congress initiated an investigation. Publishers introduced the Comics Code Authority to self-censor titles to ward off government intervention. The claims of harm were overblown and unfounded, though. If you believed Wertham, comic books were more pernicious than Hitler himself and the root of all evil and no doubt responsible for most of what was wrong with American society at the time. From his point of view, the graphic depiction of violent acts was encouraging the same in kids. Wertham’s ideas were soon discredited by researchers, but not before it drove many of the comic companies into bankruptcy.
Today we still grapple with the impact of violent stories. Are children capable of discerning that these are just stories filled with violent behavior and not meant to be emulated? The jury is out. If we steep ourselves continually in a toxic brine, it’s hard to believe that it doesn’t pickle our brains. Perhaps the best antidote for this adverse possibility is developing a deeper awareness of story and how it works on and in us so that we can become better gatekeepers for what passes through our lips and what enters our eyes and ears.