Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Guide to Propaganda

(The Evil Villain’s) Guide to Propaganda

Not long ago, I watched a movie about polar bears with my dad.

The movie made me sad.

The polar bears are dying, the movie told me. 

In the movie, a mother polar bear
and swam.
Her baby died.

All of the icebergs are melting, the movie told me. 
Here is why it is happening. 
Here are the consequences. 
Please support our cause so the polar bears don’t die anymore.

I thought the movie was good
I thought it was convincing
I said, “Of course, my dear father, you care about this world we share. 
Of course you care about polar bears. 
Surely you too support this cause:

Surely the sound arguments were also convincing to you.”

He did not see things the same way, quite.

“What PROPAGANDA,” my dad said.

This was confusing to me. 
I thought about his statement.
I think what he meant was, 

“This movie is trying to use my emotions to convince me of its message, but I disagree with its message, so I feel manipulated.”

This is not propaganda.
Yes, propaganda uses emotional responses to influence people.

But so does sound argument

Just ask Aristotle. 

That dude.

According to him (and most everybody since) there are three elements to good argument:

The speaker’s 
or whatever makes us listen to them
their expertise
way with words

The argument’s 
the evidence, 
 and reason
 that build the speaker’s argument,

and finally, the listener’s 
the emotional response
that makes the listener care 
that inspires action

When you combine all three, you get a pretty killer argument.

How do you know an argument was effective? 

1. People listen
2. They come to believe as you do
3. And act on this belief.

So, what is propaganda?
It’s a shortcut.

Let’s say I’m an evil villain 
and I’m trying to control the masses for my evil ends. 
                                                        (not much of a stretch, if you know me.)

I'm trying to decide how best to go about it.
Logos would not be my method of choice.

First of all, it takes a 

to persuade someone with LOGOS.

You offer facts that support you, which they might challenge
They’ll probably offer facts that disagree with you
  Which you have to rebut 

your argument has to build upon itself so that it makes sense 
each conclusion must be well supported with evidence 
each point you make should follow logically from the last, no fallacies.

a good LOGOS-BASED argument 
takes a lot of work to build
even when you’re telling the truth and you’re right.

Second, the whole point of a LOGOS-BASED argument is that if it is wrong…
it will fail.


Our entire justice system rests on the infallibility of logos 
(we can PROVE someone innocent or guilty)
All scientific theorems are subject to logos at all times 
(we proceed with the ideas that have PROVEN to work)

We owe 
the majority of our modern understanding of the world around us
our technological advances, our progressive societal morals (like the idea that all men are created equal), and more 
to prizing and prioritizing evidence and reason. 

Logos has served us well.

When it comes to LOGOS, pretty much Right = Right

Logos is not the friend of evil. 
It is not the friend of villains and liars and other people in a hurry.


ETHOS is a bit different.

Ethos is supposed to give people credit for knowing a lot, 
for being good at what they do, 
for being worth listening to. 

But we all know people are fallible, buyable, selfish. 
We know they can be blackmailed and bargained with. 
We know they cheat, scheme and lie. 

There are a lot of ways that I, 
as an evil villain, 
can bend ethos to my ends.


I can convince or force someone with a lot of ethos to speak for a cause they don’t actually believe in. 
Monsanto pays scientists to “prove” specific things about their products. The tobacco industry used to buy doctors until we made them stop.

I can create a disreputable source and 
camouflage it as the kind of source that
supports its arguments with logos.
Fox News pulls this off pretty successfully. 

I could even build up a cult of personality where anything I say, my followers will accept as true, regardless of how obvious the lies. 
The current winner at this particular game is the Great Leader of North Korea, who runs a whole country full of people starving, slaving, and suffering who nonetheless worship him rabidly and single-mindedly.

With ETHOS, Right could = Right, but all too often, Might = Right. I would definitely use ethos if I were an evil villain...


…but mostly, I would use PATHOS. 

PATHOS is the easiest to manipulate of all.

Listen to the following phrases:

“I’m so mad I can’t think straight!”
“It was a crime of passion.”
“He’s riling them up into an angry mob”
“Come on, there’s nothing to cry about.”
“Flattery will get you everywhere with me.”
“Love is blinding you.”

It’s no secret that our emotions and our logical abilities do not necessarily go hand in hand. In fact, it’s well understood that when our emotions are 

running high, 

our ability to reason is 

We’re more likely to act out of an impulsive, illogical place than a logical place. 

How often do we fail to do something that we logically know will benefit us? 

Like: exercise,  eat right,   save money,   bite our tongues

How many times do we do something that we know will hurt us because we’re in some kind of emotional state? 

Like: cheat on a lover,  punch a wall,   
eat an entire tub of ice cream after a breakup,   say something cruel

We can barely control ourselves when it comes to emotions! 
So you can only imagine that a supervillain 
with a good understanding of emotions
and no concern for your welfare or autonomy
could easily learn to control you this way!

With PATHOS, I can say almost anything I want, it doesn’t even have to be true. Because once I’ve got you REACTING you stop THINKING.

I can get you angry using a SCAPEGOAT. I can point to things you don’t like and then tell you who to blame for it. (It’s the immigrants’ fault. It’s because of the gays. It’s all of those people on welfare. No, not you: the black ones.) 

It doesn’t matter whether there is any evidence at all supporting my claim. 
People like to have a clear and easy target for their anger. 
The easiest target to choose is someone they already have negative feelings towards, because they’re less likely to question it.
Just ask Hitler.

I can get you scared using emotionally loaded catchphrases and vague, unsubstantiated threats: (Communist. Socialist. Godless. Anti-american. Unpatriotic. The liberal agenda. It’ll bring about the destruction of our country. It’s a threat to the family.)

It doesn’t matter whether there is any evidence to support my threats.
It doesn’t matter whether the accusations make any sense at all.
She’s a witch because she floats! She’ll curse you! Burn her!
You’re a traitor if you don’t tell us what your neighbors are doing!
Weapons of mass destruction!

9 times out of 10

I can get you to stop using your head 
as anything but a blunt weapon.

Truth or lies, sense or nonsense, good or evil, if I can get you angry or scared enough, you’ll do what I want.



Propaganda, by definition, uses pathos more than ethos, and uses logos barely or not at all.  Pathos is the quickest way to get people to do what you want. Ethos can be quick too, sometimes, but logos is slowwwww.

But even if you think you’ve identified propaganda, it’s just a tool. It is not inherently evil.

When something tugs on your heart-strings
It may be propaganda
It’s certainly pathos
But it’s not necessarily wrong

It depends on what they’re doing with the pathos.

1. Are they trying to rile you up past the point of reason?
2. Are the emotions they’re arousing directly connected to the issue at hand?
3. Are your emotions being used to underline the facts presented, or to get you to gloss over/ignore the facts?
4. What actions is the speaker trying to inspire by making you feel this way?
5. Will those actions benefit you? Others? Your country? 
6. Who else will those actions benefit?
7. How thoroughly have they checked their facts?
8. Is someone paying them to say this?
The polar bear movie checks out. 
It's primarily logos, 
backed by significant ethos, and when 
pathos is used (feeling bad about the polar bears) 
it is directly connected to the issue at hand 
and apparently necessary 
to inspire any kind of concern for the situation.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Working backwards, this is the first of your posts to make me feel like crying. Maybe not for the immediately obvious reasons. It's the scale of the effort more than anything else. My God! And maybe I know something of how it feels to be dismissed by someone important to you.

    Sure, he dismissed the polar bear movie as propaganda, but it felt like he was dismissing you, didn't it? Maybe that's my projection. Your response is deeply moving and remarkable to me either way.

    I know in my bones that the fates of the polar bear and my grandchildren are linked. And I've thought long on the nature of propaganda. Your post is so Logically thorough, and so wrought with Pathos that I would need to spend hours over weeks to meet it on equal terms, even in agreement. Hours over weeks. Who am I kidding? Even that seems boastful.

    Words are my playground, and it's rare for me to read something and not be tempted to mess with it in my own head - to think up other ways of saying the same things, or to distill an abstract thought, or spot a typo. I walk away from this with a bow, leaving it exactly as I found it.

    I'm answering, not because I think I'm up to the challenge, but because your effort deserves an answer. If I am unmistaken, your efforts will be recognized. Brace yourself.

    FWIW, I also think the polar bear movie stands up.