Public Opinion, Propaganda, and You

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The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country.

We are governed, our minds molded, our tastes formed, our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of. This is the logical result of the way in which our democratized society is organized. Vast numbers of human beings must cooperate in this manner if they are to live together as a smoothly functioning society…

In theory, every citizen makes up his mind on public questions and matters of private conduct. In practice, if all men had to study for themselves the abstruse economic, political, and ethical data involved in every question, they would find it impossible to come to a conclusion [about] anything. We have voluntarily agreed to let an invisible government sift the data and high-spot the outstanding issue so that our field of choice shall be narrowed to practical proportions. From our leaders and the media they use to reach the public, we accept the evidence and the demarcation of issues bearing upon the public question; from some ethical teacher, be it a minister, a favorite essayist, or merely prevailing opinion, we accept a standardized code of social conduct to which we conform most of the time.

In theory, everybody buys the best and cheapest commodities offered him on the market. In practice, if everyone went around pricing, and chemically tasting before purchasing, the dozens of soaps or fabrics or brands of bread which are for sale, economic life would be hopelessly jammed. To avoid such confusion, society consents to have its choice narrowed to ideas and objects brought to it[s] attention through propaganda of all kinds. There is consequently a vast and continuous effort going on to capture our minds in the interest of some policy or commodity or idea…

Some of the phenomena of this process are criticized – the manipulation of the news, the inflation of personality, and the general ballyhoo by which politicians and commercial products and social ideas are brought to the consciousness of the masses. The instruments by which public opinion is organized and focused may be misused. But the organization and focusing are necessary to orderly life.

Edward Bernays, excerpt from Propaganda

 Ask anyone in the U.S. if propaganda exists, and you will hear a resounding, “yes!” Ask those same people if they are, themselves, subject to that propaganda and you’ll get a different, disturbing, and telling response. But the truth is, as Bernays so articulately puts it: if one is not doing the research themselves, does not know the subjects intimately, or can afford (and spend) the time and energy to critically think through argumentation and evidence: one is most likely not thinking for their self at all. Instead, what one does is accept the “facts” as they’re presented by authorities to whom they submit and defer. What’s more is that this is the way it is supposed to be, this is the most efficient way it can be, as Bernays and scores of influential others persuasively argue. And indeed there is no shortage of books and research dissecting mass psychology and new techniques of influencing and manipulating that psychology. But this post is not a rant, nor a explication of propaganda, its history, methods, or any other aspect of it. Instead, it is merely a reminder just how problematic being informed is, especially in a democratic society which functions primarily as it does using the techniques of propaganda. And it is a reminder, too, just how difficult “knowing” really is. And in the spirit of such admission of ignorance and humility, this author admits, not being an expert in the field myself, that my opinion may be being manipulated by an authority that I consider legitimate. But, even in my ignorance and my admission of it, I simultaneously validate the truths that Bernays and Co. express.Knowing this, a few questions remain. “To what extent do you think for yourself?” and “Where do we go from here – do we shrink back into the befuddled herd, resigned to living lives of misdirection and distraction; or do we muster the strength and patience required for the colossal effort of earning authentic individuality?”

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