Propaganda at Work

“The misuse of language is not only distasteful in itself, but actually harmful to the soul.”—Socrates

No political party is immune to the misuse of language as a way of gaining power over others. Nevertheless, in recent decades the excesses of a triumphant left have been most conspicuous.  Both sides may be tempted by the same unscrupulous methods, yet there seems to be a difference in assumptions. The right tends to acknowledge the shortcomings of human endeavors and for this candor is criticized as being cynical and opportunistic. The left proclaims its idealism, but when it falls short of pristine integrity and transparency it is more apt to go into denial than to admit its inadequacies.

The real danger is not the presence of political zealotry but its institutionalization. Treating political dissent as an imminent resurgence of Hitlerism has permitted the advocates of “tolerance” to practice intolerance, the enemies of “bigotry” to stereotype, the devotees of “peace” to bully. The ends justify the very means that are condemned in others. In all fairness I should note that more sober commentators, regardless of political affiliation, have regretted such abuses. As to the mindset behind ideologized speech, Roger Scruton discusses this danger in his book, A Political Philosophy:

The intellectual in his garret can contemplate with satisfaction and a clear conscience the “liquidation of the bourgeoisie.” But when he enters the shop downstairs he must speak another language.

Everyday discourse permits the other “a voice of his own” even if he is a perceived enemy. It fosters “the resolution of conflict, the forging of agreement, including the agreement to differ.” By contrast, propagandistic speech forbids spontaneous modes of judging and interacting. Not only does it “impose a plan; it also eliminates the discourse through which human beings can live without one.” In other words, if I believe that the imperfections of existence can be eliminated through a planned society there is no reason for me not to seek this goal through the control of language, and life itself, using broad generalizations and condemnatory slogans that admit of no contradiction.

Both mass media (and social media) favor depersonalization and polarization. The only antidote—ordinary daily interaction—is increasingly neutralized because those with differing opinions will avoid open discussion for fear of harassment or, in some cases, actual violence. Once opposing views are suppressed in the cultural mainstream the left establishment assumes that only a tiny handful of inconsequential individuals could possibly object to their agenda. Of course there are limits to how far political rhetoric can shape facts, as recent events have clearly shown.

For related commentary see Josef Pieper and the Return to Dialogue and Pieper on Language and Power.

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