Friday, December 02, 2005

Uttering the P Word


There I was, blithely running on about the altruism of and for taking such noble risks with their wonderful, socially relevant new films. Their innovation has been the single most promising development I’ve observed in the past year and I talk about it all the time, as if it were my own accomplishment (which in a way it is, since I thought it up and started promoting it in my book several years before I ever heard of Participant Productions).

But a few days ago I ran into the first critic of the idea – someone who wrote a comment on my blog entry saying, “Far be it from me to question anyone’s sincerity or motivation. But let us also acknowledge that are nothing if not sincere. And let’s not exaggerate the degree of actual financial risk incurred by these super-rich propagandists. Finally, let’s not cheapen the word ‘altruism.‘”

Such cynicism. Nevertheless, one has to expect some people to react that way. And so it’s time for me to reckon with this word “propaganda” – a strangely pejorative term in Western society. What does it mean and how bad is it, anyhow?

Nicholas has written a relevant book on the subject, The Power of Film Propaganda. He accepts the definition proposed by Terence Qualter: “ is the deliberate attempt by the few to influence the attitudes and behavior of the many by the manipulation of symbolic communication.” Reeves points out a couple of interesting facts: First, the truth or falsity of the message is not what makes it propaganda. Instead, the defining quality is how the message is intended to be used. Second, propaganda, by definition, is intentional. It is perfectly possible to influence large numbers of persons without intending to do so, but such outcomes cannot properly be considered as propaganda.

According to this definition, people who try to influence each other individually or in small batches are not propagandists. Almost everybody does try to influence others – usually in a personal way. Parents influence their children. Teachers influence their students. Therapists influence their clients. Managers influence their employees. None of these relationships constitute propaganda. As a professor I hope I had some influence over my students and colleagues – sometimes even in large batches. Occasionally I had to teach 300 students in one lecture hall, so that makes me a propagandist, I suppose. What about pastors? How large does their congregation have to be for them to qualify as propagandists?

The people whom I respect most are those who want to in the world. Since the most effective way to do that is through mass communication, evidently the people I respect are propagandists. Of course, I admire only those propagandists whose ideas and values I honor. It’s the validity of their message that matters – not the sheer fact that it is delivered by just a few persons to large audiences. I wouldn’t admire Clooney and Skoll if their movies were promoting foolish ideas, and my admiration of their work is not diminished by calling them “propagandists.” What will benefit humanity most is storytelling that conveys wise messages and influences large audiences to live in more constructive, sustainable ways. If you want to call that propaganda, fine. It sure beats telling stories that amount to silly twaddle. We’ve got a world to save, people!

There is another question that’s important: To what extent is propaganda effective in changing the hearts and minds of audiences? I’ve said that storytelling is immensely powerful, but you may doubt it. In fact, there’s a lot of research on the question, and the conclusions of different studies do not always agree. Here I’ll contrast two books, Reeves’s The Power of Film Propaganda, and a book by Arvind Singhal and Everett M. Rogers, Entertainment-Education: A Communication Strategy for Social Change.

Reeves compares the success of propaganda films made by Britons, Soviets, German Nazis, and Italians between 1917 – 1948, which were intended to stir up the of their respective citizens during and after wars. For some reason, he does not cover the Hollywood films made during World War II, notably by , or the numerous pro-war films featuring (see photo). Reeves points out that some of the finest films ever made were propaganda movies, such as Eisenstein’s , and Leni Riefenstahl’s , which glorified . Yet he concludes that public opinion was not affected by these powerful images as much as the creators had expected. The truly effective films were also entertaining. People went to see them for the same reason they would choose other movies: great stories, excellent photography and music, and fascinating characters. Unless these qualities were present, people tended to avoid shows that they knew had been produced by the state to promote its . Reeves wrote,

“Of the films that did reach that mass audience, those that were positively received were almost always films that confirmed and reinforced existing ideas and attitudes – films that set out to challenge and change those ideas and attitudes proved almost entirely unsuccessful….In very different ways, therefore, the history of film propaganda in Nazi Germany and Britain during the Second World War serves to demonstrate not the power of film propaganda, but rather the powerful constraints within which such propaganda operates. …Cinema audiences exercised considerable discrimination, both in the films that they chose to see and in the meanings that they constructed in the films that they did see.”


Reeves concludes, then, that propaganda films were far less effective than expected, even by , the most powerful propagandist of all time.

However, filmmakers need not give up hope of making a difference, for other studies reveal much stronger effects. The book by Singhal and Rogers does not refer to “propaganda” at all, but “education,” presented in the context of programs that are entertaining. By now, the techniques for making influential educational dramas have been well documented and are being used in many countries around the world. The approach was invented in Peru in 1969 in a television soap opera called Simplemente Maria about a single mother who enrolled in adult literacy classes in the evenings and climbed the social ladder by hard work with her trusty Singer sewing machine. Lots of other young female viewers enrolled in adult literacy and sewing classes. The show was broadcast in other Latin American countries, always with the same impressive results.

Between 1972 and 1982, produced one new per year in Mexico, which produced dramatic public responses in terms of adult literacy, family planning, and gender equality. These shows were commercial successes even while they were influencing Mexican society measurably. Sabido always began the story with the characters holding views typical of the larger society. Throughout the year, they encountered situations that challenged their assumptions and made them consider making changes, such as adopting birth control. As the audience followed their story, they adopted the same values. Everywhere in Mexico the shows were discussed, and during that period Mexico’s dropped more than in any other country.

television has been introduced to many other countries, where the social messages are proving to be remarkably influential. In South Africa, for example, there is a mass media campaign called “Soul City,” which promotes health and education. Soap operas are unmatched as a means of promoting the prevention of HIV in Africa. By the definition proposed above, these programs can certainly be considered “propaganda,” but I can’t imagine anyone objecting to them for that reason.

If propaganda comprises only productions that are created specifically to sway the opinions of viewers, then relatively few such programs exist. But if we look at shows in general, we’ll find an enormous number of influential productions, most of which are not created deliberately to change the viewer’s mind.

In fact, everything we do in the presence of other people may influence someone, whether we intend it or not. The same goes for filmmaking. It’s impossible to avoid influencing people, unless you become a hermit, and even then others will inhale air molecules that you’ve exhaled. We are all connected, and we all make a difference, for good or ill. It’s a delusion to try to avoid making a difference, so we’re better off purposefully leaving the best possible mark on the world.

The films that show violence teach people to solve their problems by resorting to violence. Women learned to smoke from watching glamorous movie stars in the 1930s. People are learning to stop smoking by watching shows today that no longer show characters smoking. We can teach ways of living sustainably in the world by producing shows about lovable characters who take care of the environment.

You can’t help sending messages by the way you live, just as you can’t help speaking prose. We may as well decide what messages we’ll try to send, even if, in forming our conscious intention, we become “propagandists.” Likewise, filmmakers can't help influencing their audiences. They have no choice. But they can choose how to influence society.

I can live with that. Can you?

5 Comments:

Anonymous Tim Boychuk said...

Websters defines propaganda as:

"1. The systematic propagation of a doctrine or cause or of information reflecting the views and interests of those advocating such a doctrine or cause.

2. Material disseminated by the advocates or opponents of a doctrine or cause: wartime propaganda."

The most blatant "propaganda" movie that I've seen lately is Fahrenheit 911. In it, Michael Moore bends the truth and creates a very sinister view of the current US government, released during the US election campaign, released to DVD just before the election. I had the pleasure of seeing it on the Champs Elysse in Paris in the summer of 2004. I must say that the French people had great pleasure confirming their beliefs. In my opinion, while Moore had some great points, he went overboard by not illustrating the other side. In fact, if his movie was more fair, he might have influenced some Republicans to see the movie and make some real change. Instead, his movie helped polarized the differences between left and right. My wife, who is republican, wouldn't watch the movie.

For me, propagandist literature is material that is untruthful and doesn't tell both sides of the story. It could illustrate science that has not fully backed up. Global warming, for example, might have been viewed as propaganda thirty years ago when the link between Carbon Dioxide, methane, and temperature was not proven to be linked. For a story to be proven as true, it should take both sides of the story, affirm the truth, and successfully disarm the other side of the story with good evidence.

With respect to the oil "shortage", I read Roberts' book, "The End of Oil" and it was a good read, backed up by solid evidence, observation, and comment. But there are opponents to that view too that say that while oil is progressively more expensive to extract and that new finds are decreasing, that the extractable supply of oil is 'plentiful'. But the science doesn't support the statement, so I would classify the people who say that the oil supply is 'plentiful' as propagandists.

From a personal standpoint, you could classify anything you don't believe in as "propaganda". Right now, there's a inch of snow here outside my home. The local news stations here in Seattle are calling it a snow "emergency". Give me a break!

11:58 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

No, I can't actually. Please help me get this right: Propaganda is acceptable as long as you endorse the message? Propagandizing Mexican TV viewers is okay just because you happen to want fewer brown babies? May I ask with all respect who the devil elected you? And who rescinded everyone else's rights?

Calling propaganda "edutainment" is chillingly Orwellian—to say nothing of morally repugnant.

Your comments neglect two fundamental issues: disclosure and consent. You have every right to create propaganda, and I have every right to ignore it. I have a responsibility to screen messages critically (and I happily embrace the label cynic if it means one who treats propaganda skeptically). But you have a responsibility to disclose your intentions and respect my freedom to give or withhold consent to being exposed to your message. Disclosure also gives me a context for critically evaluating your message.

Advertising is a ubiquitous form of propaganda, and I expect it to be clearly identifiable as such. That is an obligation ethical advertisers and publishers understand. Likewise an ethical editor helps readers sort news reports from opinionated commentary. Now, undeniably in both cases the envelope gets pushed, but this type of disclosure is essential to healthy discourse.

I acknowledge that the Participant crowd is quite straightforward about its intentions and has disclosed and publicized them. But most viewers will be exposed to these films without benefit of such disclosure. At a minimum the Participant films should have a warning label like the copyright notice on DVDs. Ideally, the warning would crawl across the bottom of the screen throughout the film. I like your expression "silly twaddle" and would propose working it into the warning text.

You say you "wouldn't admire Clooney and Skoll if their movies were promoting foolish ideas." Ah, but they are and yet you do! Please don't debase yourself by flattering these minor-league Riefenstahls.

For my part I'll save my admiration for those who truly are making a difference and making the world better by investing, building, innovating, growing the global economy and lifting people out of poverty—so that all of us can support lots and lots more adorable babies (whether or not you approve).

8:07 PM  
Blogger Metta Spencer said...

Well, you can try to define the word so as to make it always bad -- by saying, for example, that propaganda is always false or distorted. The people who study it professionally do not define it in that way, however, but rather call any symbolic communication propaganda that is intended to influence large numbers of people -- whether it is true or false or (as is usually the case) some combination of the two.

Defining it in that way, no one can say that all propaganda is bad. Whether it is bad or good has to depend on whether it sends a valuable message or a harmful one.

Tim, I tend to agree with your appraisal of Fahrenheit 911, though I didn't see the whole thing. (The fire alarm went off in the theater half way through and we had to evacuate.) I do agree with most of Moore's political views, but I felt his presentation was heavy-handed.

Anyway, I don't call something "propaganda" on the basis of whether I agree with it or not. There's propaganda that I agree with and some that I don't.

Now, turning to "anonymous," it should not be necessary to tell you that I don't have anything against "brown babies." Everyone can see that the unlimited growth of the human population would be catastrophic, but it is actually not going to grow endlessly. People choose to reduce their family size, especially if they see that small families have many advantages over large ones. TV shows often display that fact, whether deliberately or inadvertently. Either way, viewers may imitate what they see.

I can understand your desire to keep advertising from being thrust into your face. You should have a right to privacy, to some extent, but the US Supreme Court defines advertising as a matter of free speech, so all of us receive a lot of information that we don't ask for. God knows, I have so much trouble with spam that I rather sympathize with your views.

However, it is naive to suppose that you are influenced only by the messages that are INTENDED to influence you. You can't help influencing others, nor can you avoid being influenced -- which is a darn good thing, if you ask me. People who cling to their opinions without listening to others are a real problem in this world.

11:25 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Your point about being open-minded is utterly superfluous. We're talking about propaganda, not an honest exchange of views.

In any event, you apparently "cling" to an archaic and discredited Malthusianism. Your obsession with controlling the world's nonwhite population is morally reprehensible and quite terrifying.

6:46 AM  
Blogger Metta Spencer said...

If I were Malthusian, I'd not try to limit population but rather let nature take its course. Malthus did not believe in birth control, but expected that the human population would be limited by disease, famine, and war. Fortunately, his predictions have been proven wrong. Instead of reproducing up to the limit of the possible food supply, people in industrialized societies began long ago to use birth control and now have populations that fall below replacement level -- 2.1 children per couple. We would actually be declining if we did not have immigrants -- most of them from what you call "brown" countries.

My point is that people all around the world have been reducing their family size long before they were predicted to do so on the basis of declines in infant mortality. According to most researchers, they are doing so in response to television shows, which portray happy, small families. These dramas were mostly not propaganda, because the were not intended to influence the birthrates. They did so inadvertently, as most other influences take place in this world. There is no reason to identify propaganda as a problem. We all influence each other all the time, consciously or not, and that's fine.

10:46 AM  

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