How Not to Be Bamboozled

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Propaganda: How Not To Be Bamboozled By Donna Woolfolk Cross Propaganda. If an opinion poll were taken tomorrow, we can be sure that nearly everyone would be against it because it sounds so bad. When we say, “Oh, that’s just propaganda,” it means, to most people, “That’s a pack of lies.” But really, propaganda is simply a means of persuasion and so it can be put to work for good causes as well as bad—to persuade people to give to charity, for example, or to love their neighbors, or to stop polluting the environment. For good or evil, propaganda pervades our daily lives, helping to shape our attitudes on a thousand subjects. Propaganda probably determines the brand of toothpaste you use, the movies you see, the candidates you elect when you go to the polls. Propaganda works by tricking us, by momentarily distracting the eye while the rabbit pops out from beneath the cloth. Propaganda works best with an uncritical audience. Joseph Goebbels, Propaganda Minister in Nazi Germany, once defined his work as “conquest of the masses.” The masses would not have been conquered, however, if they had known how to challenge and to question, how to make distinctions between propaganda and reasonable arguments. People are bamboozled mainly because they don’t recognize propaganda when they see it. They need to be informed about the various devices that can be used to mislead and deceive—about the propagandists’ overflowing bag of tricks. The following, then, are some common pitfalls for the unwary. 1. Name Calling As its title suggests, this device consists of labeling people or ideas with words of bad connotation, literally, “calling them names.” Here the propagandist tries to arouse our contempt so we will dismiss the “bad name” person or idea without examining its merits. Bad names have played a tremendously important role in the history of the world. They have ruined reputations and ended lives, sent people to prison and to war, and just generally made us mad at each other for centuries. Name-calling can be used against policies, practices, beliefs and ideals, as well as against individuals, groups, races, nations. Name-calling is at work when we hear a candidate for office described as a “foolish idealist” or a “two-faced liar” or when an incumbent’s policies are denounced as “reckless,” “reactionary,” or just plain “stupid.” Some of the most effective names a public figure can be called are ones that may not denote anything specific: “Congresswoman Jane Doe is a bleeding heart!” (Did she vote for funds to help paraplegics?) or “The Senator is a tool of Washington!” (Did he happen to agree with the President?) Senator Yakalot uses name-calling when he denounces his opponent’s “radical policies” and calls them (and him) “socialist,” “pinko,” and part of a “heartless plot.” He also uses it when he calls small cars “puddle-jumpers,” “can openers,” and “motorized baby buggies.” The point here is that when the propagandist uses name-calling, he doesn’t want us to think—merely to react, blindly, unquestioningly. So the best defense against being taken in by name-calling is to stop and ask, “Forgetting the bad name attached to it, what are the merits of the idea itself? What does this really mean anyway?”

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2. Glittering Generalities Glittering generalities are really name-calling in reverse. Name-calling uses words with bad connotations; glittering generalities are words with good connotations—“virtue words,” as the Institute for Propaganda Analysis has called them. The institute explains that while name-calling tries to get us to reject and condemn someone or something without examining the evidence, glittering generalities try to get us to accept and agree without examining the evidence. We believe in, fight for, live by “virtue words” which we feel deeply about: “justice,” “motherhood,” “the American way,” “our Constitutional rights,” “our Christian heritage.” These sound good, but when we examine them closely, they turn out to have...
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