On Propaganda

This is a repost from a couple of years ago, but it still seems relevant.

Is propaganda ever acceptable? I’ve been thinking about this the past several days, as I prepared a presentation I was asked to give for Veteran’s Day.

The word “propaganda” originated in the Catholic Church with a positive meaning. In 1622, Pope Gregory XV appointed a committee of cardinals to organize and oversee a system of establishing missions to “propagate the faith” to the heathen. The committee was called the propaganda. Eventually, the word came to mean the spreading of a message, instead of the spreaders themselves. Later still, the word began to have a negative connotation of spreading false information. 

The presentation I gave was about General Douglas MacArthur and his activities in Japan. The Japanese people, for the most part, hold the General in high esteem for his accomplishments there. He did get a lot done, especially considering that he was working in a country American had just atom-bombed as an enemy. But it’s one thing to change systems (he rebuilt infrastructure, restored the economy, abolished monopolies, democratized the government, reassigned land…) and another to change hearts and attitudes. General MacArthur did both. He used written materials to accomplish the latter.

douglasmacarthur

The Allied Occupation, under the direction of MacArthur, censored all published material in Japan. They decided what could and could not be printed. All books that made the cut portrayed the idealized American way of life. The first book put out under the Occupation was The Long Winter by Laura Ingalls Wilder. (Why, yes, I do tie everything in to LIW. Why do you ask?) The rest of her books followed, along with such titles as Little Women, Anne of Green Gables, the Nancy Drew mystery stories, and Gone with the Wind. The Little House books were most popular.

There were boys’ and men’s and women’s books, too, but most were girls’ books. Why? Because “the hand that rocks the cradle is the hand that rules the world.” MacArthur knew getting the young women who would be mothers of the next generation on his side was key in establishing a friendship between Japan and the U.S. He was right, and it worked. The outcome was positive, helping establish peace and friendship where enmity had existed. Did the end justify the means?

My old Webster’s Dictionary defines propaganda as “information, especially when biased in nature, used to promote a particular cause, and especially a political or religious view.” Logic informs us that any information used to promote a particular cause is by definition biased in nature, whether the cause is good or bad, and whether the information is true or false. So really, anytime we speak positively about something we like, or negatively about something we don’t, we are spreading propaganda. (Kinda makes me stop and think about what I’ve been spreading…)

So is it ever acceptable? My personal opinion is that true information is always acceptable. But that means the whole truth – not just the cherry-picked good parts we like. And since people don’t always agree on what’s true, everyone should be able to make up their own minds, from all available information. So I don’t have an issue with MacArthur distributing books promoting American values. The part that bothers me is the censoring of any other materials. What do you think? Did the end justify the means, or not?

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3 responses to this post.

  1. No. as an English professor and a trained librarian I am one hundred percent against censorship. Even though it’s. it popular, I stand with zuckerburg on not allowing the censorship of trump talk on FB and I stand by their decision to keep the Trump supporting board member on the board of FB. It’s a slippery slope. I don’t care how annoying insulting or vulgar it is. Free speech is free speech and I’m voting for Hillary. However I don’t believe in muzzling anyone. Hate speech is tricky, it hate crime is not.

    Reply

  2. Sorry for typos. I’m on IPad and the lettering on here is insanely small with no edit button. WordPress needs to fix that.

    Reply

  3. I agree…”free speech” means exactly that and should be protected.

    Reply

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