What is propaganda?

I sent this excellent post at Titanic Deck Chairs to a friend, who forwarded it to another and got a reply that started with

 Well the blog post reads like a propaganda piece. But thats not my argument. …

I will answer his actual argument later. But first, what is propaganda? Here are the relevant meanings of the word from the merriam webster dictionary

2: the spreading of ideas, information, or rumor for the purpose of helping or injuring an institution, a cause, or a person
3: ideas, facts, or allegations spread deliberately to further one’s cause or to damage an opposing cause ; also : a public action having such an effect

So yes, the blog post linked to is propaganda, i.e, it is a deliberate attempt to propagate ideas that the author believes in. In fact, by that definition, almost every post I have written on this blog qualifies as propaganda too. Why does the word have a negative connotation? It is because ideas are supposed to be held in a disinterested, dispassionate manner. But is that possible? I write about ideas because I believe they are essential to my life. Having the right ideas and spreading them is crucial to my interest. I do not write about ideas that do not interest me. I consider them a waste of my time. In fact, it is the disinterested pursuit of ideas, a pursuit cut off from any contact with reality or from any any attainable purpose that is disingenuous. It is precisely the disinterested nature of much of dominant philosophy that gives philosophy a bad name, that allows schools of thought such as pragmatism (a rejection of all abstract principles) to exist. What is more genuine – a passionate and interested expression of an idea the author believes in or a disinterested, dispassionate analysis of information with no specific purpose? As long as man has a purpose in his life, he cannot divorce interest and passion from the ideas which he entertains. And interest, passion and purpose are not bad things. They are what make life meaningful and enjoyable.

2 Responses

  1. How interesting! I never would have thought of my post as propaganda, especially since it was simply a retelling of a conversation.

    I too just went to the dictionary and looked up “propaganda” and you’re right. The word has no implicit value judgment either way. This is a definition I found: “The systematic propagation of a doctrine or cause or of information reflecting the views and interests of those advocating such a doctrine or cause.”

    But despite the definition, if you would have asked me to state a definition without looking it up (I had never looked up the word before) mine would have included elements of the definition of _sophistry_, “the practice of using arguments which seem clever but are actually false and misleading ”

    So the word propaganda itself has no value judgment in it, and yet, I add one in when I think about it. It becomes “the systematic propagation of a doctrine… one which is both wrong and insidious.”

    Perhaps this is because of the historical use of the word. I most firmly associate it with the Soviet Union or other communist totalitarian states.

    So if someone was opposed to, say… freedom or individual rights, they might look at my post and think it was propaganda because they disagreed with me. I suppose there are worse things than being thought a propagandist for freedom.

    If you’re free to post it, I’m curious what your friend’s argument was.

  2. Yes, the word propaganda has a definite negative connotation. Interestingly, my friend clarified in a further response that he associated the word with images of happy workers/farmers in USSR/China which is quite close to your description. More than the historical use of the word, I think the connotation exists because every selfishly motivated action is considered inherently suspect. That coupled with the fact that so much of philosophy is so cut-off from reality makes people think that any motivated propagation of ideas must have an ulterior motive.
    About his arguement, I have just posted its essence and a rebuttal.
    By the way, my friend writes (in his later clarification) that he saw your post as propaganda because it contained no examples of where the Canadian system might be better and it seemed that you were already convinced of your ideas and the post was merely an attempt to convince others.

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