Sunday, May 08, 2005

Aldous Huxley on Propaganda

Previously, I had written about the importance of clear language and referenced the work of George Orwell in which he warned of the danger of poor language corrupting thought. This post is something of a continuation of that theme, except this time we'll be examinig the issue from the perspective of another famous writer - Aldous Huxley, the author of the dystopian Brave New World.

Orwell's work is better known and it is Orwell who people think of when they speak of thought-control, but a case could be made that it is Huxley's critique that is the more pertinent.

Both authors were critical of the dangers of nationalism, but while Orwell's 1984 and Animal Farm emphasized the dangers inherent in Stalinism and fanatacism, Huxley was able to emphasize the capacity of a capitalist society to subject its citizens to the same dangers of thought control. The difference being that the form of thought control that Huxley envisioned was more insidious than Orwell's because it was less explicit and resulted from the public's lack of interest in knowledge rather than from any active suppression of information.

In his essay Propaganda in a Democratic Society (originally a chapter in Brave New World Revisited) Huxley writes

There are two kinds of propaganda - rational propaganda in favor of action that is consonant with the enlightened self-interest of those who make it and those to whom it is addressed, and non-rational propaganda that is not consonant with anybody's enlightened self-interest, but is dictated by, and appeals to, passion ... Propaganda in favor of action that is consonant with enlightened self-interest appeals to reason by means of logical arguements based upon the best available evidence fully and honestly set forth. Propaganda in favor of action dictated by the impulses that are below self-interest offers false, garbled or incomplete evidence, avoids logical argument and seeks to influence its victims by the mere repetition of catchwords, by the furious denunciation of foreign or domestic scapegoats, and by cunningly associating the lowest passions with the highest ideals, so that atrocities come to be perpetrated in the name of God and the most cynical kind of Realpolitik is treated as a matter of religious principle and patriotic duty.
Huxley goes on to note:

In regard to propaganda the early advocates of universal literacy and a free press envisaged only two possibilities: the propaganda might be true, or it might be false. They did not forsee what in fact has happened, above all in our Western capitalist democracies - the development of a vast mass communications industry, concerned in the main neither with the true nor the false, but with the unreal, the more or less totally irrelevant. In a word, they failed to take into account man's almost infinite appetite for distractions.
Huxley viewed the media with the capacity to either do good or harm:

Used in one way, the press, the radio and the cinema are indispensible to the survival of democracy. Used in another way, they are among the most powerful weapons in the dictator's armory.
And he seems especially prescient where he finds that

In the democratic West there is economic censorship and the media of mass communication are controlled by members of the Power Elite.
The ultimate message echoes the same warning that I quoted in the previous post:

Only the vigilant can maintain their liberties, and only those who are constantly and intelligently on the spot can hope to govern themselves effectively by democratic procedures. A society, most of whose members spend a great part of their time, not on the spot, not here and now and in the calculable future, but somewhere else, in the irrelevant other worlds of sport and soap opera, of mythology and metephysical fantasy, will find it hard to resist the encroachments of those who would manipulate and control it.

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