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Laugh, Cry or Run for Cover

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October 6, 2011 by wcobserver

About a year ago, an editorial appeared in this space titled “Wanted: Skeptical Voters.”  As another fall rolls around, it seems each week another candidate for public office throws their hat in the ring. We welcome and commend individuals who are inspired to step up and offer their time and talent for consideration of public service, and we certainly don’t wish to discourage anyone’s political ambitions. 

Believing as we do at the Observer that trying to discern ones motives for anything, including running for office, is beyond our understanding — much less interest — we’ll limit our comments to these candidate’s words and actions. This is where “crap detection” begins. The phrase originated in 1954, when Ernest Hemingway, in answering a reporter’s question about what makes a good writer, said “every man should have a built-in automatic crap detector operating inside him.”

The concept of crap detection (sometimes called critical thinking) was nourished by media theorist and author Neil Postmen, along with writers Howard Rheingold and Scott Berkkum.  There seems to be an endless variation in the nature of the crap (aka “BS”) that can possibly fall from a candidate’s mouth. There are usually copious examples of flawed logic and rhetorical sleight-of- hand being presented:  a “straw man” argument,  “red herring” arguments, the  “slippery slope” and an “appeal to authority” to mention a few.

Another way to detect these and other forms of crap is by adapting a more universal understanding of the word “propaganda.”

Wiki dictionary uses the neutral definition of propaganda referring to it as a “form of communication that is aimed at influencing the attitude of a community toward some cause or position.” The word took on a sinister aura when it became synonymous with any pronouncements by Nazis and communists. But in most languages, propaganda is neutrally defined as a “systematic form of purposeful persuasion that attempts to influence the emotions, attitudes, opinions, and actions of specified target audiences for ideological, political or commercial and religious purposes through the controlled transmission of one-sided messages (which may or may not be factual).” With this definition, it should be clear that advertising is one of the most prevasive and successful forms of pure, unadultered propoganda.

One of the prime aspects of propaganda and one which makes detection easier is the obvious appeal to emotion rather than intellect. Like advertising and public relations, each of which can be thought of as propaganda it is important that the target audience “feels good” about the product, idea, brand or candidate. Don’t confuse them with facts.

Propaganda relies on loaded messages that aim for an emotional rather that rational response to the information presented. The goal is for a change in ​​​attitude toward a subject to further some agenda, be it political, religious, cultural or  commercial.

Some of the emotions most often tapped into by political propagandists include fear, humor, disgust, anger, and the ever-popular heart-wrenching anecdote.

Lefty propagandists seem to excel at the use of humor and disgust in making their argument. The Right prefers drawing on fear and anger to influence the opinion of the target audience. Both ends of the political spectrum love the personal tale, regardless of how far removed it is from the facts.

So when the politician’s argument starts to sound a little emotional and makes you want to laugh, cry, or lock the door and hide under the covers, you are being exposed to ole fashioned propaganda.

The thing to remember about propaganda, though, is that its use isn’t just limited to the other guy’s argument. Your side uses it, too. 

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