Tuesday, July 14, 2009

On Elections and Other Scams

When my first child was born, we had an old black and white television that was given to me some years earlier. It was a vacuum tube affair, with knobs that wobbled loosely on their connecting rods. I used to have to lie in front of the TV, on my back, and continuously twiddle the knobs with my toes to keep a picture on the screen. I watched the first moon landing on this TV, and somewhere I have a picture of my son – barley old enough to stand by himself – standing in front of the set while on screen Neil Armstrong is taking his first step onto the moon’s surface.

As my children grew up, we had fascinating conversations around the dinner table, and one of the things we did was to dissect the television advertisements, and discuss the use of the English language through the prism of advertising propaganda. One of my favorite advertisements touted the ability to “… borrow up to $50,000 – OR EVEN MORE!” I would say, “Well, that about covers it, all right.” My children thought making fun of advertising was hilariously funny, and joined in enthusiastically; but early in their life, they learned to distinguish how language was used not jonly to inform, but also to sway opinion.

This tendency of mine to make fun of how our language is used and mis-used must be some hold-over from my own childhood because I can even to this day repeat verbatim, advertisements that I heard on the radio as a child – and can still sing those that came in the form of jingles, not to mention racy jokes shared with my friends about some of the products: “DUZ does EVERYTHING!”

Dissecting the techniques used and the motives that drive how language is mis-used in advertising is both serious and entertaining – sort of serio-comical – but the ability to determine both techniques and motives becomes a serious requirement when it comes to politics, where, in part at least, it is my money they are talking about spending.

In the United States, there are two broad views of government: There are those who have been raised to believe that supporting the government with their tax money is part of the responsibility of being a citizen; that the money spent by the government should go to buying something that benefits the citizenry as a whole; and that the government should otherwise keep out of their affairs. There is another view of government: That it is there to provide essential services to those citizens who should provide them for themselves, but don't, or can't; that the citizenry won’t provide this help unless they are coerced, hence the government needs to take the lead; and that other people than themselves – notably the “rich” who everyone knows have more money than they really NEED – should pay for them.

There are people with views, of course, that range all the way from the one end of the spectrum I have drawn, to the other end, but my point is, people have different views – sometimes radically different views – of what government should be and do. Candidates who run for office have their own views of government, and during their campaign for election they want to present those views in the most positive light. Their goal becomes not to inform, necessarily, but to get elected. What they do, in essence, is to form a business, of which they are the chief operating officer, the sole purpose of which is to present the candidate in the most positive light. In short, the candidate’s organization becomes a specialized advertising agency, with the candidate as its product. In this light, our childish game of critiquing television advertising becomes a much more serious tool for choosing among candidates for office.

The basis for advertising, whether for a commercial product or a political candidate, is information. But there is information – a neutral rendition of factual content without “spin” (e.g., adverbs and adjectives); there is mis-information – information that is designed to mislead, either intentionally (e.g., innuendo) or unintentionally, even when the information itself may be correct, although it not always is; and there is dis-information – information that is deliberately false and/or factually incorrect. From these categories of information an advertising campaign is constructed. Remember, for a candidate the primary goal is not to inform, but to sway opinion to get him elected to office.

The subject of the advertising campaign may be the candidate himself, or his views, for which usually information and mis-information is chosen, although dis-information may also be used: “I deny categorically that I ever said (or did) that!” Or, the information may be about his opponent, in which case the usage is almost always either mis-information or dis-information. “My opponent says … (mis-information) …, but I say … (information or more mis-information) …”. Or, “My opponent believes … (dis-information, always)”. These uses of information collectively form the techniques of propaganda.

Propaganda techniques have been studied for many years, but interestingly, they are not always recognized by the public. In addition, it is not only the candidates that employ these techniques, but the media as well, all the while telling the public what good watchdogs they are. “Yellow Journalism” is not new, it is just that none of the journals admit to it.

Here are some common techniques:

Assertion – an enthusiastic or energetic statement presented as a fact. It may or may not be true, but it is presented as if it were.

Bandwagon – “Hop on – EVERYONE is doing it!”

Stacking the Cards – Selective omission of information contrary to a position.

Glittering Generalities – Using words linked to highly valued concepts, whether they actually apply or not. “Change”, “good”, “honest”, “fair”, “best”, are examples.

Lesser of Two Evils – Presenting a proposal as the least offensive of the only two available options, denying that there are other options.

Ad Hominem – Rejecting an argument on the basis of derogatory facts (which may or may not be true) about a person. Attacking a person instead of his argument or views.

Name Calling – A form of Ad Hominem: The use of derogatory language or words when describing the opponent.

Straw Man – Ascribing a false position to a real or imaginary opponent, and then demolishing that false position.

Simplification – Reducing a complex issue to a choice between good and evil, or a “bumper-sticker” slogan.

Transfer – The attempt to link a negative (or positive) feeling about an object or word to the proposal at hand (e.g., presenting the proposal while standing in front of a flag to invoke patriotic feelings; having a spokesperson stand in front of a well-manicured bookshelf of important-looking books, to imply a scientific basis.

False Analogy – Portraying two things as similar, even though they are not.

Testimonial – Using well-known personalities to testify on your behalf.

Plain Folks – Using a folksy approach or people to obtain support.

Faulty Logic – There are many techniques that deliberately misuse the rules of logic to support a position.

Contradiction – Information that conflicts with other information within the same argument.

False Cause – Because one event follows another, it must be the cause of the other event.

Begging the Question – Circular reasoning: Constructing an argument in favor of a claim that amounts to making the claim in the first place.

Evading the Issue – Answer to a question that amounts to changing the subject.

Composition and Division – Arguing that because the claim is true for one, it is true for all, or vice versa.

Poisoning the Well – Blindly explaining away all arguments, no matter how absurd the explanations become.

Appealing to Emotion – Use of an emotionally-laden sob story or argument to help prove a claim.

Appeal to Fear – Unless you support my position, really bad things will happen. “We can no longer afford to wait …”, “We risk a long-lasting and deep depression …”.

Even with these techniques in mind, it sometimes takes time to recognize them in practice. Television commercials and political campaigns are two good places to find them and learn to recognize them because these two sources are so very rich in propaganda techniques.

When we elect a politician -- especially to national office -- we not only elect that official, but in effect we also elect all those people whom that candidate will be authorized to appoint to government positions, and depending on the political office, this may be a very large number indeed.

A final thought to keep in mind: The primary goal of advertising is not to inform. It is TO MAKE MONEY. The primary business of newspapers and television news organizations is TO MAKE MONEY. And similarly, the first and primary business of politicians is TO GET ELECTED. Keeping the primary motivation in mind will be a substantial assist to decoding the propaganda they promulgate.

1 comment:

Maren said...

Good thoughts. This is the kind of thing I'm so glad to have been exposed to while growing up. It's important to be able to see through things from time to time. Thank you!