Sunday, June 12, 2011

Education and Propaganda

A number of years ago, I discovered the writings of Jacques Ellul (1912-1994), a French philosopher who had started his adult life as a Marxist but became a devout Christian. He wrote more than 58 books, numerous papers and essays, many of which focused on one of the major themes of his life – the threat of technological society to human freedom and Christian faith. (In some ways, Ellul was like a French version of Wendell Berry, a generation younger than Ellul but who has developed many of the same themes.)

The book by Ellul that made the biggest impression on me was Propaganda: The Formation of Men’s Attitudes. It was published in 1962 in France and translated into English in 1965; I read the 1973 paperback version published by Vintage.

Elul said many important things in that book, but there was one that at first astounded me until I realized its simple truth. It was one of those Chestertonian “take conventional wisdom and turn it on its head” kind of statements. What he said what this: the people who are the most susceptible to propaganda are not the poor and uneducated. The people who are the most susceptible are the educated and intellectual classes, and the more educated you are, the more susceptible you become to propaganda.

And the reason is that more educated people read more, and they read so much that they cannot possibly verify everything they read. Therefore, one’s worldview becomes a critical filter – if something fits your worldview, you tend to believe it; if it doesn’t, you tend to reject it. People who are less educated tend to interpret news and issues with the filter of their everyday experiences and common sense (which might explain a lot about many of the members of our media elite).

That book by Ellul humbled me. It made me question more – question my own views and the things I immediately accepted as true. It also made me highly conscious of one of the ways to “resist enchantment” that Guy Kawasaki discusses in Enchantment: The Art of Changing Hearts, Minds, and Actions. Beware of salient points, data and the experts. None of them last forever. All of them can flawed, and seriously so.

And don’t fall for the “example of one,” he says, when one person articulates a point of view that gets lots of media attention, even if it flies in the face of reality. The example Kawasaki cites is actress jenny McCarthy, who has been an articulate spokesperson against vaccinations for measles, mumps and rubella because she believed it caused autism. A study in Britain in 1995 came to that conclusion. A few months ago, it was shown that the study was fraudulent. (I pointed that out in a book review of a Karen Kingsbury novel and got taken to the woodshed by a reader who said I should look at the writings and speeches of Jenny McCarthy and that the study was true even if it was fraudulent.) (I’m not making this up.)

Twitter and Facebook exacerbate this problem. If we trust the person who’s tweeting something, we will retweet it as true. We will not stop to question whether we should check the statement out. Serious damage can get done to people and organizations because we automatically accept something as true. It’s one reason why I generally avoid tweeting about politics, news and issues – I can’t verify whether the statements or true or not.

It’s not that education, and more education, is a bad thing. But it needs to be tempered by humility, and the more education we get, the more humility we need.

We’ve been discussing Guy Kawasaki’s Enchantment over at The High Calling, led by Laura Boggess. We’re covering the last two chapters – “How to Enchant Your Boss” and “How to Resist Enchantment.” To see more posts, please visit The High Calling.


Bill (cycleguy) said...

Loved this post Glynn. I don't know how many forwards I toss out because they are poorly researched, outright lies or pure wives tales, that were never checked out. I seldom forward much of anything that comes in a mass email for this very reason. If it can't be verifies, dump it. More people need to read this.

Anonymous said...

This is the problem with media, right? "Don't believe everything you see on the internet." But perception is everything, especially the point you make about information that supports our already-existing world view. It's almost as if everything we read must be taken with a grain of salt, as if it it may or may not be true... but something to stimulate your thinking.

I am not comfortable being on the hedge all the time. This is why humility is best.

Laura said...

Glynn, I really appreciate this point of view. It sounds like Ellul knew what he was talking about. I think being educated leads us to pride ourselves in "having an open mind" and therefore we may actually think less critically of some things. Great food for thought! Thanks for coming along on this book club journey, Glynn. It's always a pleasure to share the discussion with you.

Louise Gallagher said...

Me too! Love this post. there's another study that says, those without give more.

Knowledge without heart is simply information.

Maureen said...

Unfortunately, the instances of "what you see is what you get" are proliferating, one of the best of most recent examples being the blogger in Georgia, a man, pretending to be a Syrian female whose rights were being violated.

What will it take to become re-enchanted with truth-telling?