Book review: Jason Stanley’s How Propaganda Works shows how human empathy can be crippled

Propaganda today works by subtly reducing empathy, reinforcing inequality and squandering human potential. Caleb Lauer finds these ideas fascinating but also a book in need of an editor.

The Nazi used images of tank drivers, such as in this poster from 1943 Vienna, to define ideas of 'heroism'. In the book, the author examines the work of Victor Klemperer on this theme, where just uttering the term heroism under the Nazis could hijack rational dialogue. Getty images
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During a 2012 US election debate, a moderator challenged Newt Gingrich over the presidential hopeful’s past remarks that “black Americans should demand jobs, not food stamps”, and that “poor kids lack a strong work ethic” and could benefit by working as “janitors in their schools”.

“Can’t you see,” the moderator asked Gingrich, “that this is viewed, at a minimum, as insulting to all Americans, but particularly to black Americans?”

When Gingrich said “No”, the audience applauded. When Gingrich proceeded to preach on the “value of hard work”, the audience cheered. But when the moderator suggested Gingrich was being “disingenuous” in denying that the phrase “lacking work ethic” had racist undertones, the audience booed the moderator.

This anecdote, in Yale University philosophy professor Jason Stanley's valuable new book How Propaganda Works, illustrates well one of the book's central claims: the propaganda that harms democracy is inseparable from the dulling and crippling of human empathy.

Stanley spends little time on pictures of rotting lungs pasted over cigarette packages, on human-rights demonstrations, advertising or extremists’ cyber chat-rooms. As for dystopian re-education camps or North Korea’s rockets, totalitarian propaganda is too obvious to much worry about, Stanley says. It is the unacknowledged and unnoticed propaganda in putative liberal democracies that concerns Stanley.

Why, for example, in the US – a country that considers itself to be a liberal democracy – are black men so disproportionately locked-up in prisons, serving disproportionately long sentences? This is the type of question that, for Stanley, goes to the heart of what propaganda is and does.

“By the end of the 1990s, it was apparent that somehow, despite the rhetoric of and indeed sincere belief in a recently achieved democratic equality, there was drastic racial and economic injustice, evident to those suffering it, but somehow invisible to most of the rest of us,” Stanley writes.

What prevents us from seeing how much distance separates our ideals and life as it really is? Our words. “The most basic problem for democracy raided by propaganda is the possibility that the vocabulary of liberal democracy is used to mask an undemocratic reality,” Stanley writes.

“Anti-racist ideals” may serve to “mask” a racist reality. Ideals of meritocracy can cover-up a social structure of unjust advantages. Liberal ideals may veil how vested-interests operate in an unfree market. Propaganda, Stanley argues, consists of ideals turned back against themselves.

Propagandists need not be liars, nor insincere. The problem is not bad faith, but what Stanley calls “flawed ideologies” – habits of thought which serve to justify elite privilege, advantage and status as “legitimate” and “deserved”, and judge those on the have-not side of these gaps as there by their own “fault”.

Prisons provide a flesh and concrete illustration of both the mechanisms and consequences of propaganda.

Appealing to common values like justice, law and order, politicians use fear – in this case, of crime – to create a demand for policy. The politicians present themselves as the answers to voters’ demands for action. “Objective science” – such as the “super-predator” criminal profile theory – is enlisted to boost the rationale for more imprisonments.

On top of that, the jobs, public money and free labour that prisons provide create incentives to increase incarceration. Citizens feel totally reasonable in demanding more jails and that convicts be locked up longer; importantly, they don’t feel racist. But now a whole segment of society is dehumanised, sequestered out of sight, and deemed unworthy of political representation (prisoners in the United States do not have the right to vote). By this very process, the values used to such ends, those of justice, law, order, objective science and racial equality themselves get degraded. Empathy is reduced, inequality is reinforced, democratic deliberation is constrained, and human potential, especially of prisoners, is squandered.

Understanding how such a system works, Stanley suggests, would enhance our ability to keep prisons real sites of justice, law, and order, not a means by which our values are debased.

Stanley introduces his book with the story of Victor Klemperer, the Jewish-German philologist who survived Nazi rule and wrote in 1947 The Language of the Third Reich. Klemperer describes how the Nazis' use of images – namely, of three uniforms, that of the Storm Trooper, the masked racing car driver, and tank driver – came to define the concept of "heroism", and how just uttering the term could hijack rational dialogue. "As soon as this concept was even touched upon, everything became blurred, and we were adrift once again in the fog of Nazism."

In How Propaganda Works, Stanley describes how such a dynamic remains in operation today, no longer a function of crude totalitarianism, but of arguably more sophisticated democratic partisan politics.

“Politics involves a constant search for words that do not appear to be slurs,” Stanley writes. The anti-racist ideal, to which essentially all American politicians and their constituents subscribe, makes outright racism unacceptable. Other words, therefore, must be made to function like slurs – and are often more effective at “priming racial bias”.

When Newt Gingrich speaks of a “work ethic” or “food stamps”, or when others speak of “culture” problems in the “inner city”, or of “entitlement” they can plausibly claim to be impartial, reasonable and talking about something true.

However, Stanley argues, as a result of deliberate, repeated matchings of images of black urban poverty with such words, the “common ground” necessary for deliberating an issue such as “welfare” becomes distorted and shrunk with prejudice, irrationality and falsehood, crowding out any hope of empathy with connotations of lazy, criminal, undeserving blacks with character problems.

Gingrich can claim to be using objective language. But because explicitly broaching race disturbs Americans’ anti-racist ideals, the moderator who challenges Gingrich draws the audience’s ire. Propaganda, again, is the ideal turned against itself, and sets us adrift in the fog.

How Propaganda Works deserves huge praise and should be read by anyone who cares about politics and language. Its trove of tools and insights is impossible to completely summarise here.

As a book, however, How Propaganda Works suffers serious flaws, which, given the book's importance, is hugely frustrating. The writing, although usually clear, can be exasperatingly redundant. Similar sentences, making essentially the same point, can be found in paragraph after paragraph, and then again in later paragraphs. At times the book reads like tyres on ice.

Too often How Propaganda Works seems a catalogue of preliminary statements rather than an unfolding argument. This is not due to the rigours of philosophical exposition – it's just poorly edited. Rather than a 300-page book organised around seven chapters, How Propaganda Works could have been edited down into a more rigorous, 200-page gem, organised around twice as many chapters.

Though the concrete details and anecdotes Stanley provides are often fascinating, I had a desk-hits-head moment of desperation when, already well into a run-on chapter, I encountered the sentence “Here is a seventh example”.

Stanley, in quoting and discussing racist slurs, uses the “N-word” rather than the term itself. His no doubt reasoned and well-intentioned censorship unfortunately gives off an air of childish delicacy. Sanitising hate speech can be appropriate, but I find it immoral to do so in the pages of a university press work of philosophy. I doubt such consideration will age well.

I found myself wishing Stanley analysed the merits of, and contradictions between, liberal democratic values themselves more. I look forward to seeing Stanley’s thoughts adapted to critiquing the propaganda of international diplomacy.

Not least, How Propaganda Works contains a valuable message for journalists and social scientists: keep from reproducing propaganda by seeking to understand and communicate that which enhances our collective capacity for empathy.

Caleb Lauer is freelance print and radio journalist based in Istanbul.