Sunday, January 16, 2011


"The educator tries to tell people how to think; the propagandist, what to think." -- Everett Martin.

As graduation and my inevitable return to the real world loom in the future, the only things standing between me and them are my thesis and Craig Hayden's course on public diplomacy. We kicked off our first week with a 2001 reading called "Semantics and Ethics of Propaganda," in which Jay Black discusses, as you might assume, the semantics and ethics of propaganda. Black takes a fairly broad view of the word, listing the following as essential components:
  1. Heavy reliance on authority figures in forming beliefs and opinions;
  2. Greater reliance on unverified abstracts, as opposed to empirical validation, in forming beliefs and opinions;
  3. Division of the world into simplistic binaries;
  4. A tendency to see events in simple cause-and-effect terms, overlooking complicated, multiple causes;
  5. Rigid understanding of time that overlooks time flow;
  6. Emphasis on conflict over cooperation.
Black concludes that "what many call propaganda...becomes part of that open marketplace of ideas," noting that pluralism of views is desirable in democratic societies. But the media environment he describes seems remarkably similar to the one America has embraced in recent years and decried in recent days, as the Tucson shooting has led people to question whether the vitriol of public discourse can exhort people to violence, followed by questions of whether the media is really responsible for the behavior of madmen, followed by questions of whether civil discourse isn't superior to toxic partisanship regardless of whether it contributes to violence or not.

The fact of the matter is that people tend to seek out information that reinforces existing beliefs, and vitriol, while temporarily unpopular, still sells. In terms of international conversations, this underscores the need to listen and determine what beliefs exist in other countries as the United States attempts to start dialogues to further foreign policy goals. But it's important to remember that domestic discourse has international repercussions as well.

Whatever opinions our media and politicians take, it behooves them to do so in a manner that promotes U.S. values: free speech, transparency and open-mindedness. Failure to do so presents an image of the nation as a house divided, closed to the possibility of cooperation and compromise.

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