The topic of Stanley’s How Propaganda Works is public discourse which is a kind of double-talk: it appears to be fostering an ideal that is important, but is in fact undermining that very ideal. For example, it is talk which appears to foster equality, but which in fact re-enforces inequality.
In an explicitly totalitarian state, there is no such double-talk, since there is no appearance of equality. In an ideally democratic state, there is no such double-talk, since there are no inequalities to reaffirm. Double-talk is a feature of a flawed democracy: the very discourse of democracy is used to undermine democracy. If we want to improve our democracy, we need to understand double-talk, and see how it can be minimized. That is Stanley’s project. This is an important project, and I am fully on board with it.
The key terms for Stanley are what he calls “undermining propaganda” and “undermining demagoguery”. Undermining propaganda is “a contribution to public discourse that is presented as an embodiment of certain ideals, yet is of a kind that tends to erode those very ideals.”(53) Undermining demagoguery is a kind of undermining propaganda: it is presented as fostering worthy ideals, but in fact undermines those ideals. Undermining demagoguery is what I above call “double-talk.”
In my discussion of Stanley’s book, I am not going to use either of these terms he introduces. “Propaganda” and “demagogeury” as generally used are highly rhethorical terms which carry a lot of emotional meaning, and I think they muddy the waters more than clarify issues. I will simply use “double-talk”.
One question that jumps out is whether Stanley’s book is itself an instance of double-talk. Could it be that while it appears as if Stanley’s discussion is fostering democratic ideals, it is in fact undermining those ideals?
In a 300 page book, Stanley considers this kind of worry for 3 pgs, and quickly sets it aside. Near the end of Chapter 5, Stanley imagines someone objecting to Stanley’s theory of ideology on the grounds that Stanley’s view is itself a form of ideology. He is imaging a rich person using a relativist argument to say that everyone, including the “resentful, undeserving poor” and even a theorist like Stanley, has an ideology, and so Stanley’s critique of power structure is just yet another ideology. In response, Stanley writes:
One might worry … that my ideology does not just influence my choice of examples to discuss. One might worry that it also biases the tools I use in their analysis. However, the tools I use were developed in areas of philosophy that are overtly non-political. In chapter 4, in the analysis of one mechanism employed in propaganda, I used tools from formal semantics and pragmatics… In this chapter and the next, I employ tools from analytic epistemology, the characteristic puzzles of which lack any political content. So it is hard to see a case for the thesis that the tools I employ in chapters 4, 5, and 6 [the heart of the book] carry with them a political bias.(219)
Stanley’s point is that the tools he uses aren’t political biased: they are not Democratic or Marxist tools. This is certainly correct. But the worry that Stanley’s book engages in double-talk doesn’t have to reduced to a knee-jerk conservative’s accusation of Stanley using “liberal philosophy” to defend liberal politics.
The worry can instead be that Stanley’s arguments are themselves enmeshed in power structures which Stanley’s discussion does not make explicit. That Stanley’s book is mired in double-talk because even as it appears to foster democratic ideals, the way he argues undermines those ideals.
Imagine a lay person without much knowledge of academic philosophy reading Stanley’s book, and coming across a paragraph like this:
How should we think of the mechanism by which a contribution is in the service of erosion of empathy for a group of people? In an important series of papers, Sarah-Jane Leslie has connected generics to problematic stereotyping of groups. Leslie establishes that generics are cognitively fundamental generalizations that are acquired very early in life… In “The Original Sin of Cognition,” she provides an explanation of the epistemic problems that acceptance of a generic engenders…I am going to use Leslie’s insights, together with the mechanisms discussed by Veltman in his theory of generics, to explain various features of propaganda.(139)
The book is filled with paragraphs like this. What is the lay person to make of this paragraph? The words jump out of the page: “important series of papers,” “Leslie establishes,” “provides an explanation,” “Leslie’s insights”. But what does this mean to the lay person? What can it mean?
Stanley is not, and does not aim to be, arguing from authority. He is not asking the reader to simply trust him that Leslie has done important work. After all, Stanley’s overall aim is to help the lay person understand how ideology and double-talk work so that the lay person will be in a better position to be aware of it in his daily life. Simply taking Stanley on authority cannot enable this, since the aim is to foster the reader’s critical thinking capacities. That requires that the reader is able to read Stanley’s text itself in a critical way.
But this is the problem: there is nothing the lay reader can do with the above paragraph other than take it in passively! He cannot say “I agree” or “I disagree” because he has not even a preliminary grasp on how to go about evaluating Stanley’s claims about Leslie’s work.
Perhaps a zealous reader might google Leslie’s paper that Stanley mentions, and read it. Now the reader has gone from the frying pan into the fire. Given that Leslie’s paper is a move in the philosophy of cognitive science, a move which presumably even academic philosophers who don’t specialize in philosophy of mind can’t evaluate, the lay reader can at most attempt to understand what is happening. Even if he understands it, which is unlikely, what can he do with that understanding given that he is institutionally not in a position to contribute to that discourse? In fact, can he understand the text even though he cannot contribute to that discourse?
The issue raised by Stanley’s reliance in the book on analytic epistemology and philosophy of language isn’t that those fields are influenced by liberal politics. It is that those fields are some of the most specialized fields in academic philosophy, bordering sometimes almost on the sciences of linguistics and psychology.
In responding to the conservative’s worry, Stanley plays up the fact that he uses tools from formal semantics and pragmatics, which are apolitical. True. But they are also non-normative in the sense that these are not fields like normative ethics or political philosophy which concern what norms we should adopt. Formal semantics is in the business of saying how our linguistic capacities work, not how we can or should use language to foster democratic ideals.
This is the tension at the heart of Stanley’s book. The appeal of analytic epistemology and philosophy of language is that they avoid the worry the Stanley’s book is politically biased; that it is is just one more book written by a liberal about how conservatives use propaganda based in false ideology. Here is the difference between Stanley and authors like Rorty or Nussbaum. Rorty in a book like Achieving Our Country is explicit that he is a liberal, and that he is engaged in a project of improving our democracy from within his stance as a liberal.
I think Stanley worries that an approach like Rorty’s ultimately reenforces the bifurcations already prevalent in the society, and that in order to have a thriving democracy we need to have modes of discourse which can incorporate our differences and so enable critical dialogue. This is great, and I agree.
But the way Stanley tries to have this encompassing, politically non-biased discourse is through the areas of academic philosophy which are, other than fields like logic or philosophy of science, the most scientific sounding. Stanley’s point is that his use formal semantics is no more politically biased than Stephen Hawking writing about the big bang is politically biased. This doesn’t mean that Stanley or Hawking are neutral on questions society is divided on. They are not. Both are liberals, atheists, and so on. But the idea is that the truth of what they are writing about isn’t determined by their political views. The truth or falsity of Stalnaker’s view of content, anymore than the theory of big bang, does not depend on Stalnaker’s political views.
All this is right. But the crucial difference between How Propaganda Works and A Brief History of Time is that Hawking’s book is explicitly and obviously authoritarian. He is the expert and the lay readers are merely trying to understand as best as they can. The tension in Stanley’s book is that Stanley can’t make up his mind about whether he is an expert about propaganda in the way Hawking is an expert about the big bang, or if thorough his book he aims to foster democratic dialogue with his readers as fellow citizens.
How Propoganda Works aims to occupy a middle ground between texts like A Brief History of Time and texts like Achieving our Country. The way Stanley tries to occupy that middle ground gives the book a particular schizophrenic flavor where in one paragraph Stanley is appealing to the reader’s sense of moral outrage, and in the next paragraph he is lecturing the reader about semantics. The strange thought hangs in the air throughout the book that a proper understanding of semantics holds the clue to how we can best act on our moral outrage and create a more just society. This is as bizarre as saying that understanding Marr’s theory of vision is essential to learning how to see one another as equals.
This is the pervasive double-talk in Stanley’s book. His aim is to foster democratic ideals and to help the reader develop critical reasoning skills in order to be aware of the double-talk all round them. And yet the method of Stanley’s book ensures that the lay readers can at most passively take on the insights from analytic philosophy that Stanley assures them are insights.
By being mainly silent in the book about even the possibility of this tension, and about the epistemic inequality about himself and his lay readers, Stanley fosters the illusion that the discourse in the book is happening at a purely rational level. As if it is only interested in bringing to light the double-talk that happens over there, away from the context of the book itself, and that the book is nothing other than a democratically engaged work simply in the service of its lay readers.
In 0rder to better understand double-talk, it is helpful to understand as an instance the sources of the tension and illusion in Stanley’s book. I will talk about this in the next post.