Note on propaganda: Although to many Americans the word propaganda evokes a negative response, its actual meaning far transcends the artless, tasteless, untruthful practice engaged in by totalitarian regimes. Propaganda is not solely devoted to achieving throught control over the citizenry or to export lies to intimidate the populations of other countries.
These descriptions were certainly accurate in Hitlerís Germany and after World War II in Communist, Cold War propaganda. But American propaganda? How can this be? But if this is so, and Americans have (and do) engage in propaganda, how this obviously decent, acceptable American practice earn such a bad name for itself?
Originally, the term propaganda carried no negative meaning. The horticultural verb "propagate" means to cause something to grow, expend, or to reproduce by sexual or asexual means. The Roman Catholic Church, which centuries ago created the Society for the Propagation of the Faith to be its evangelistic arm, is responsible for the first use of the term in the marketplace of ideas. Certainly in our culture there is little stigma of inappropriateness attached to the practice of religious evangelism.
Propaganda theorists maintain that the term has a value-neutral definition. Propaganda, simply put, is mass-communicated persuasion: it is a cousin of the term "rhetoric," non-mass-communicated persuasive discourse.
Propaganda keys on two important goals: forming new or adjusted attitudes, and urging its audience to action, to do something about these new attitudes. After all, American advertising does the same thing each time it uses the media of mass communications to urge us to change brands of cat food. Certainly political candidatesí orations contain propaganda messages, and arguably many of the entertainment programs we watch on television or in the movies are fashioned to implicitly endorse attitudes and lifestyles favorable to the management of consumer behavior.
No less a scholar than Kenneth Burke agrees that ". . . rhetoric refers to the use of language in such a way as to produce a desired impression upon the reader or hearer" (265). Propaganda does not differ from, but only transcends the definition of rhetoric in that the former is always mass communicated and virtually always contains at least an implicit call for the audience to rise to action. | back to article |