Friday, August 28, 2009

Defending ourselves from insidious political propaganda

Whether or not they constitute premature election campaigning under our fuzzy laws, the expensive TV commercials and print ads currently being run by some aspirants to the Philippine presidency are nothing less than crass political propaganda. They are a deliberate attempt to get ahead by foul means, very much like an Olympic runner’s sprinting ahead of the pack even before the starting gun is fired. Sportsmanship and fair play still reign supreme in the Olympics, of course, so that runner would be automatically disqualified for such a brazen act. Not so in the incorrigibly roughshod world of Philippine politics, where false pretenses and shameless dissimulation are routinely tolerated as justification for outright violation of the rules.

The sly, eager-beaver politicians callously foisting on us their early propaganda obviously have this agenda: to create a vote-worthy image for themselves, to manipulate the results of the political surveys in their favor, and to create a bandwagon effect for their putative candidacies. Such an agenda is, of course, not objectionable in itself—it’s only the timing of its execution that’s morally and legally in question here. Indeed, once the election campaign season starts, we can expect even more intense, go-for-broke political propaganda from the successful beneficiaries of this premature election campaigning.

In the months leading to the 2004 national elections, I tried to put propaganda in both its historical and contemporary perspective by writing about it in my column in The Manila Times. I did the piece, “A Primer on Political Propaganda,” in the hope of helping people fortify their defenses against blatantly dishonest and deceptive propaganda. To foil the single-minded goal of political propagandists to short-circuit our rational thought, I proposed that we should do two things: know at least the most basic tricks they use to subvert rational thinking, and cultivate an open and objective mind to prevent ourselves from being deceived and making wrong decisions.

On the eve of what promises to be another propaganda-saturated national election campaign season, I make the same proposals once again to protect the country from being led by the nose to political perdition.

A primer on political propaganda

Propaganda did not start as something undesirable or downright evil. In fact, it had its origins in what many of us would consider the holiest of causes. Almost four centuries ago, in 1622, Pope Gregory XV was confronted with a twin-horned problem: heathens were fiercely resisting Christianity in the new lands that the papacy wanted to evangelize, and where the faith had already made a beachhead, heretics were attacking its very genuineness and patrimony.

Alarmed, the 68-year-old pope, once a fiery and outspoken doctor of laws but now afflicted by a dreadful bladder stone barely two years into the papacy (he died of the illness a year later), decided to form a special task force. He called it the Congregatio de propaganda fide, or “the Congregation for propagating the faith,” and gave it the task of putting more teeth to the worldwide missionary activities of the Roman Catholic Church.

That congregation’s successes and failures are today firmly etched both in the world’s religious geography and in the inscrutable, sometimes shockingly irrational ways that people on both sides of the great religious divide view that world. That, of course, is a fascinating subject crying for an intelligent discussion, but at this time, we will limit ourselves to how the entirely new word “propaganda” crept into the language, first into Latin and later into English, and how its practice evolved into a deadlier hydra than the twin-horned devil it was originally meant to vanquish.

Today, as most of us know, the word “propaganda” has become a noun that means “the spreading of ideas, information, or rumor for the purpose of helping or injuring an institution, a cause, or a person.” In plain and simple English, it is a one-sided form or persuasion seeking to make people decide and act without thinking. This blight on the logical thought process becomes virulent when serious clashes in religious, political, and ideological beliefs become inevitable. And what makes the once pious word and activity even more unchristian and linguistically anomalous is that it is waged as fanatically by the really bad guys as by the presumably good guys on our side.

The essential problem with propaganda, of course, is its single-minded goal of short-circuiting rational thought. As practiced in the Philippine election campaign, for instance, it is excessively bigoted in agitating our emotions, in exploiting our insecurities and ignorance, in taking advantage of the ambiguities and vulnerabilities of the language, and in bending the rules of logic whenever convenient or expedient. Propaganda can delude both the ignorant and intelligent alike, and the even greater danger is that even astute people could become its victims and crazed believers, as we are witnessing right now.

To fortify our defenses against political propaganda, we have to do two crucial things ourselves: (1) know at least the most basic tricks used by political propagandists to subvert rational thinking, and (2) cultivate an open and objective mind to counter their deceptions and sleighs of the mind.

A practical first step for this propaganda-defusing process is to critically scrutinize those aspiring for the top national positions. For our own and this country’s sake, and no matter what the poll surveys and the TV or radio commercials say, we must cut the candidates down to size. We must for decision-making purposes think of them simply as applicants for a specific job, or consider them as nothing more than branded products on the supermarket shelf.

By looking at a candidate as just another job applicant, we can greatly loosen the grip of his or her propaganda on our senses. That will allow us to dispassionately go over his or her application and résumé and make a reasonably sound judgment on the following basics: (1) communication and writing skills, (2) quality of mind and self-appraisal, and (3) qualifications and job-related work experience. Anybody who skips this elementary procedure for hiring entry-level stock clerks and senior corporate executives alike is obviously an incompetent, irresponsible fool who deserves to be fired outright. And yet, as we can all see, skipping this very basic process is what many propagandists of national candidates would like the Filipino electorate to do.

It would be even more instructive to treat the candidates simply as products on a supermarket shelf. We can then proceed to mercilessly strip them of their elaborate branding and packaging to see the intrinsic worth of the actual product inside. It would shock many people to know that the cost of the packaging of certain shampoos in glitzy sachets can run to as much as 85 percent of their total selling price. How much more profound their shock would be to find that some highly touted candidates, when stripped of their glitzy imaging and positioning, have less probative value for the national positions they are seeking than the paper their faces and names are printed on.

From the weekly column “English Plain and Simple” by Jose A. Carillo in The Manila Times, March 29, 2004 issue © 2004 by the Manila Times Publishing Corp. All rights reserved.

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