The British Library is currently hosting an exhibition entitled Propaganda: Power and Persuasion. Being engaged, as I am, in seeking to understand how ideas are propagated in a culture, and how those with different ideas can challenge and perhaps shift the status quo, I could hardly wait to go.
The exhibition is advertised as,
the first exhibition to explore international state propaganda from the 20th and 21st centuries. From the eye-opening to the mind-boggling, from the beautiful to the surprising, posters, films, cartoons, sounds and texts reveal the myriad ways that states try to influence and persuade their citizens.
It starts even further back than that, though, with a few exhibits illustrating how propaganda has been used since the earliest times to demonise, inspire, intimidate and encourage. Even something as simple as a coin can be seen as a means to propagate (the root of the originally-neutral word ‘propaganda’) the message about who is in charge and what he or she is like.
To modern eyes, many of the posters and films seem laughable in their blatancy. Surely no-one ever fell for cartoon-images of funny-looking foreigners, brutal British colonialists or the ‘soldiers of the future’ solemnly tying their bow ties and straightening their coat tails before engaging in riotous games at an Eton-type school?
But they did, and we do too, though ‘Political Correctness’ means we have to veil our prejudices and stereotypes more carefully.
Or do we? Tell me if you recognise any of these:
– Muslim women veiled head-to-toe in black, oppressed yet ominous;
– Benefit scroungers, who can’t afford the rent, but can maintain a heavy drinking habit, a 42″ flat screen TV, a couple of dogs, and 20 cigarettes a day;
– Polish builders – hard workers, but basically over here to take our jobs and use our health system;
– Supporters of traditional marriage, narrow-minded and bigoted.
Propaganda against people groups – demonising and vilifying, refusing to acknowledge nuance, caricaturising and mocking – is as rife as ever. Just look at a political cartoon in any newspaper, or watch a satirical news programme on TV. The images are there as strong as ever.
The weakness of the British Library’s exhibition was its almost total lack of engagement with modern propaganda. It had a small space at the end with a much-publicised ‘twitter wall’ showing the evolution of the tone of the twitterverse’s response to occasions such as the London 2012 Olympics opening ceremony and the re-election victory of Barack Obama, but very little else.
How does one stay alert to propaganda today, when it’s dressed up as humour or worse, believed so thoroughly to be truth? How does one combat it? How can individuals use the tools of propaganda to beat it at its own game? How can the positive win out over the negative?
Of course, the role of an exhibition is to display, not to comment. The British Library is running a programme of events alongside the exhibition (which runs until September 2013), and perhaps these will dig deeper into the issues and consider solutions.
And the only solution, when living in a culture based on untruth, half-truth, concealed truth and a conviction that there is no such thing as objective truth, is to commit oneself utterly to the pursuit of truth.
Mark Meynell, reflecting on Václav Havel’s essay The Power of the Powerless, wrote recently:
Written in the dark days of Czechoslovak communism (only 10 years after the false dawn of the Prague Spring), it is a profound analysis of what it was like to live under a regime built entirely on lies. The only response, the only subversion of the regime, therefore, is to live in truth.
Are we living in a context as sinister as Havel’s ‘post-totalitarian’ culture? Perhaps not, though if you manage to plough your way through the long quotation in Meynell’s article, you may spot some eerily-familiar features. It can only be a good discipline, however, to search out the truth of situations and stories, and seek to tell those instead of the easier, snappier, wittier, more convenient lies.
Image Credit: British Library Propaganda Exhibition Poster