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Maude Barlow and the Council of Canadians. Photo by M. Soules, Toronto, 2001

The Spectrum of Persuasion

Please read my short review Habermas and the Public Sphere as an introduction to what will be a central focus of the course. In brief, Habermas, a cultural theorist, is concerned with how the public sphere is a contested virtual space with competing interests, and how persuasive rhetoric is used for advancing political power. While many people are cynical about the use of promotion, persuasion, and propaganda in the public sphere and focus on its abuses, it is helpful to remember that representative democracies at least allow the possibility of dialogue in the form of public discourse. The alternative in authoritarian societies is the use of force and physical threats to maintain social order. This is one of the reasons why an aggressive police presence to contain peaceful demonstrations during trade negotiations is so disturbing to pro-democracy advocates in our time.

Discourse in the public sphere is the basis of democratic governance and offers an alternative to the use of force to maintain social order. Thus, in the public sphere, we see what I call a "spectrum of persuasion" beginning with promotion--of an idea, policy, law--through persuasion towards propaganda. In the case of an idea meant to create social solidarity, promotion presents the idea in a positive light and tends to omit or minimize any dissenting opinions. Parents, for example, will suggest to their children that eating a certain kind of food is more healthy for them.


When promotion becomes persuasion, the suggestion becomes increasingly like an argument, with a more defined structure and a greater use of rhetorical devices. (Rhetoric, from the Greek rhetorica, is the art of effective or persuasive speaking or writing and embodies a strong sense of technique.) Common rhetorical devices include repetition of key words and phrases; use of analogies and other figures of speech; inversions and other rearrangements of speech patterns to create dramatic impact. Rhetorical devices are equally the stock-in-trade of great speakers, speech writers, public relations experts, advertising copywriters, and teachers.

Persuasion evolves into propaganda by virtue of its scale. Propaganda is a sustained campaign to win the hearts and minds of the people, usually to mobilize them into taking decisive action. The word propaganda originates from congretatio de propaganda fide--congregation for propagation of the faith--a 16th C. committee of Catholic cardinals responsible for foreign missions to spread the teachings of the church. In its original sense, propaganda means education, and it wasn't until the British used heavily slanted messages in World War 1 to demonize their enemies that the word took on its darker connotations in the 20th C. The American public relations industry from the 1920s on, and Nazi propaganda under the direction of Goebbels are equally indebted to British innovations during WWI.

In Endless Propaganda: The Advertising of Public Goods, Paul Rutherford defends his use of propaganda in his title in the following way, and thus helps clarify what is meant by the spectrum of persuasion. He begins by noting the extraordinary increase in public relations expenditures by governments and other organizations from the 1980s on:

All of this publicity and promotion is part of propaganda today--though it is rarely recognized as such. Another of the ironies of the postmodern age is that this most persistent and ubiquitous barrage has gone largely unnamed in general or academic discussion. Instead, aspects are called social or political marketing, public-information campaigns, public relations, issue advertising, and so on. Nothing names the single phenomenon....Propaganda is one of those problem words that do not lend themselves to easy definition. It used to be that propaganda was something the other fellow did, the Nazis in World War II or the Communists in the Cold War. It was the intellectual equivalaent of mugging: propaganda meant lies and lying, the misinformation the enemy manufactured to persuade its victims and the unwary. That notion persists in ordinary conversation. But recently, at least in scholarly circles, propaganda has become a synonym for all kinds of mass persuasion. The more sophisticated definitions often highlight self-interest, manipulation, irrationality, and especially intention: propaganda is a conscious act--an accidental propaganda is an oxymoron....Above all, propaganda tries to determine happenings in the public sphere. (7-8)

In the remainder of this course, we will explore the elusive meaning of propaganda and other subtleties in the spectrum of persuasion, first by studying examples of prominent propaganda campaigns in the 20th C. through its art and symbolism--what propaganda looks like; in the second half of the course, we will study the psychology of influence--how do the techniques of persuasion work in the human psyche. (You should, as soon as possible, finds copies of the required texts for the course. See course description.)

I hope it goes without saying that the intention of the course is not to train you to become an expert at manipulation; rather, our study is intended to make us more aware of the forces attempting to shape our beliefs and actions, and thus prepare us for more conscious participation in the public sphere. While it is tempting to remain indignant about these various and widespread attempts to shape our attitudes, or to complain about the failures of the mainstream media to rip the veil of illusion from our eyes, it is useful to remember that our participation in a working democracy carries responsibilities--unless we're content to let others do our thinking for us, or, worse, we're willing to allow governance through public discourse to revert to rule by force and physical coersion. The history of the 20th C. is marked by spectacular examples of citizens faced with just such a stark choice...often without even knowing that the tide was turning against their freedoms.