This is part one of a series of articles I am writing about propaganda techniques, with the aim of explaining the seven main types that The Institute for Propaganda Analysis identified in 1938, and looking at current examples of their use.
Propaganda techniques are still very commonly used in the media, in advertising, in politics, in rhetoric and debate. In the US, much of the work by the Institute of Propaganda Analysis tended to focus on the techniques of persuasion used by Stalin and Hitler. Many people think that there is no need for research nowadays, but propaganda techniques are still being used widely.
In Britain, the current government has adopted a psychocratic approach to governing, reflected in public policies that have a central aim of directing”behavioural change” of targeted social groups, and are founded on quasi-scientific understandings of the basis of human decision-making.
The Conservatives claim to champion the small-state and minimal intervention, yet the consequences of their policies insidiously intrude into people’s everyday experiences and thoughts. Our attitudes and beliefs are being manipulated, our decision-making is being “nudged,” citizens are being micro-managed and policed by the state.
The Conservatives use Orwellian-styled rhetoric crowded with words like “market forces”, “meritocracy” “autonomy”, “incentivisation”, “democracy”, “efficient, small state”, and even “freedom”, whilst all the time they are actually extending a brutal, bullying, extremely manipulative, all-pervasive state authoritarianism.
Furthermore, this authoritarianism entails a mediacratic branch of government that powerfully manipulates public opinion. The mind-numbing mainstream media is conformative rather than informative, and is designed to manufacture and manage public consensus, whilst setting agendas for what ought to be deemed important issues. The media is scripting events rather than simply reporting them, filtering information by deciding which events may and may not have precedence.
And really, it’s the same old same old. Propaganda is an extremely powerful weapon and seizing control of the mainstream media is one of the first things that all tyrants do:
“Everything within the state, nothing outside the state, nothing against the state.” Benito Mussolini.
The current government is not interested in any form of democratic dialogue. They simply want to set a rigid agenda to control socio-political outcomes to benefit the powerful and wealthy elite.
We are witnessing attempts to control virtually all aspects of social life, including the economy, education, our private life, morals and the beliefs and attitudes of citizens. We are also seeing the rise of political behaviourism, which is closely linked with totalitarian forms of thinking.
“The officially proclaimed ideology penetrates into the deepest reaches of societal structure and the totalitarian government seeks to completely control the thoughts and actions of its citizens.” Richard Pipes.
Recent public policies related to behavioural change exploit the emotive, automatic drivers of decision-making through methods such as subconscious priming or default settings. This is extremely worrying, as it bypasses rational processes, and has some serious implications for conceptions of human autonomy and agency, which is central to the design of liberal democracies.
Democracy is based on a process of dialogue between the public and government, ensuring that the public are represented: that governments are responsive, shaping policies that address identified social needs. However, Conservative policies are no longer about reflecting citizen’s needs: they are increasingly all about telling us how to be.
So we do need to expose and challenge such insidious, anti-democratic state control freakery and psychocratic shenanigans.
Part 1. Glittering Generalities: all that glitters is glib, not gold.
Glittering Generalities is one category of the seven main propaganda techniques identified by the Institute for Propaganda Analysis in 1938. It’s a device often used by the media and in political rhetoric to persuade us to approve and accept something without examining any evidence.
This is a propaganda technique purposefully designed to divert and distract, so that people are less likely to develop their own critical thoughts. This said, the purpose of all forms of propaganda is to tell you what to think, and not how to think.
Glittering Generalities capitalise on increasingly sloganised political discourses, leading to a loss of conceptual clarity, over-idealisation and they also reflect conceptual miserliness – a tendency for some people to prefer simple, superficial and easy answers, rather than having to expend time and effort to grapple with complexity, critical analysis and the need to weigh up evidence. They also succeed in conveying codified messages that reference underpinning discourses which are often prejudiced and controversial, but presented in a way that bypasses any detailed scrutiny, as a consensus view and “common sense.” An example is the slogan “Taking our country back” as it references an underpinning racist, supremicist discourse.
Gordon Allport’s Principle of Least Effort is a theory that humans engage in economically prudent thought processes, taking “short-cuts” instead of acting like “naive scientists” who rationally investigate, weigh evidence, costs and benefits, test hypotheses, and update their expectations based upon the results of the “experiments” that are a part of our everyday actions.
Sometimes we are more inclined to act as cognitive misers, using mental short-cuts to make assessments and decisions, concerning issues and ideas about which we know very little, as well as issues of great salience.
The term “Cognitive Miser” was coined by Fiske and Taylor (in 1984) to refer, like Allport, to the general idea that individuals frequently rely on simple and time efficient strategies when evaluating information and making decisions.
Rather than rationally and objectively evaluating new information, the cognitive miser assigns new information to categories that are easy to process mentally. These categories arise from prior information, including schemas, scripts and other knowledge structures, such as stereotypes, that have been stored in our memory.
The cognitive miser tends not to extend much beyond established belief when considering new information. This of course may perpetuate prejudices and cognitive biases.
Glittering Generalities imply – or signpost us – via common stock phrases to our own tacit knowledge, which often lies below our current focal awareness – prior information, beliefs, ideals, values, schemata and mental models, stereotypes and so on, creating the impression that the person using the terms and phrases understands and sees the world as you do, creating a false sense of rapport by doing so. Or the feeling that some very important recognition has been made.
Glittering Generalities propaganda is sometimes based on a kind of logical fallacy known as Equivocation – it is the misleading use of a term with more than one meaning (usually by glossing over which meaning is intended at a particular time)
Glittering Generalities is a technique very often used by people who seek to stifle debate, sidestep accountability and suppress democratic processes. Because Glittering Generalities tend to obscure or gloss over serious areas of disagreement, they hide controversy and submerge alternative propositions.
As such, Glittering Generalities may often be used to neutralise opposition to dominant ideas. It’s a way of disguising partisanship and of manipulating and reducing democratic choices. It’s part of a process of the political micro-management of your beliefs and decision-making.
It also reduces public expectation of opposition and in doing so it contributes to establishing diktats: it’s a way of mandating acceptance of ideology, policies or laws by presenting them as if they are the only viable alternative.
This propaganda technique bypasses rationality altogether, by employing morally laden or emotionally appealing words and phrases so closely associated with highly valued concepts and beliefs that carry conviction – convince us – without need for enquiry, supporting information or reason.
The meanings of such words and phrases is generally based on a loose, tacit public consensus, often varying between groups and individuals. Semantic shift describes a process of how the meanings of words may change over time, but meanings also shift and vary amongst social groups. Language is elusive and changeable. (Words like wicked and bad, for example, shifted subculturally. Originally: evil, corrupt, sinful, malevolent → superb, excellent, great, fantastic. ) Let’s not forget that when we use language, it is with purpose and intent.
So, Glittering Generalities are rather like platitudes or clichés presented as semantic signs to cognitive short-cuts that are often used to distract and placate people, they provide a superficial, broad, symbolic map to a logical cul-de-sac. They are superficially appealing and convincing but ultimately empty, meaningless words or phrases.
To summarise, Glittering Generalities may be identified by the following criteria:
- Use of attractive, but vague “virtue” words that make speeches and other communications sound good, but in practice say nothing in particular.
- Use of lulling linguistic patterns such as alliteration, metaphor and reversals that turn your words into easy to remember soundbites that often flow and rhyme in hypnotic patterns.
- Use of words that appeal to morals and values, which often themselves are related to triggering of powerful emotions.
- A common element of glittering generalities are intangible nouns that embody ideals, such as freedom, democracy, integrity, justice, respect.
Some further examples of Glittering Generalities are: economic plan, all in it together, big society, freedom, family values, the common good, democracy, principles, choice, incentivise, efficiency, fairness, hard-working families, parental choice, a caring society, fiscal responsibility, market choice, meritocracy, personal responsibility, making work pay, scroungers and strivers, anti-austerity, socialism, progressive, disenfranchised, deceit, Westminster establishment, the needs of the people, but that’s all just semantics really.
A good example of a Glittering Generality is the Conservative’s phrase “making work pay.” It refers to the Tory welfare “reforms” which were nothing to do with the level of wages. How does reducing benefits for unemployed people actually make work pay? Especially given the fact that wages have dropped for those in work, at the same time, the cost of living has risen, and consequently many working people are now living in poverty. The question to ask is: making work pay for whom?
The Tories have an Orwellian dexterity in manipulating semantic shifts. They do like to dress-up words and parade them as something else. For example, take the word “reform,” which usually means to make changes to an institution, policy or practice in order to improve it. The welfare “reforms” have involved the steep and steady reduction of welfare provision and an increase in political scapegoating and victim-blame narratives.
We have also seen the return of absolute poverty since the “reforms” were (undemocratically) implemented in 2012, which can hardly be considered as an “improvement” to what came before the Tories made savage and brutal cuts to poor people’s lifeline benefits, making them even poorer, with some people dying as a consequence.
Then there is the Tory drift on the word “fair.” It’s generally taken to mean treating people equally without favouritism or discrimination, and without cheating or trying to achieve unjust advantage.
However, the Conservatives have repeatedly claimed that cutting people’s lifeline benefits is “fair.” As I’ve previously stated, the value of wages has also dropped to its lowest level ever, whilst the cost of living has risen and many in low paid work are now living in poverty, in reality the welfare cuts have simply made people desperate enough to take any low paid work, which does not alleviate circumstances of poverty.
Furthermore, how can the welfare cuts be regarded as remotely fair, when they took place in a context where the government handed out £107,000 of public funds to each millionaire, in the form of an annual tax break?
Finally, it’s not only the Tories that utilise propaganda techniques, and some parties on the Left have also used Glittering Generalities. These parties especially capitalized on the public’s growing cynicism and dissatisfaction with the “Westminster establishment.” UKIP and the Scottish National Party drew on nationalism (and independence,) whilst using superficial, simplistic and ambiguous phrases and symbols, the Green Party and other Left-wing factions also drew on public dissatisfaction with “mainstream parties” and appealed to people’s hopes and fears to present an “alternative.”
Both the Greens and the Scottish nationalists presented a rhetoric skillfully tailored and laden with words and phrases that reflect progressive ideals whilst also claiming a position that opposed austerity. Yet this lacked integrity, as the rhetoric wasn’t fully connected to actual manifesto policies.
Crucially, the Scottish National Party’s spending plans implied deeper cuts than Labour’s plans entailed over the next five years, as the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) said in a report in April, highlighting a “considerable disconnect” between the nationalist’s rhetoric on austerity and their policies.
The Green Party had a similar disconnect between an anti-austerity rhetoric and their incompatable policy proposals of a zero-growth economy and the universal citizen’s income. The latter was heavily criticised because, as it was modelled, the universal basic income would create deeper poverty for the poorest citizens and further extend social inequality.
The Labour Party ran a more rational but superficially less appealing campaign based on improving the material conditions of society for the majority of people. The policy plans for an extensively redistributive tax system, for example, matched the rhetoric about addressing growing social inequality, as well as a social reality. But the current climate of right-wing anti-intellectualism, widespread disillusionment with the political establishment and increasing public disengagement from democracy doesn’t prompt a rational exploration of policy proposals and any analysis of potential consequences for society from many people.
22 thoughts on “Propaganda techniques part one: Glittering Generalities – language and the New Word Order.”
Reblogged this on | truthaholics.
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Sorry I had prematurely published this by accident, hit the publish button instead of update. But hopefuly the reblog link still works, and thanks 🙂
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nothing to be sorry for its a superb article 🙂
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Many thanks for this, most interesting.
Obviously political parties hire experts to try manipulate perceptions to win votes.
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It might have helped if you’d included a few concrete examples of the techniques you’re describing, otherwise the reader easily becomes lost in fog of abstractions. Also your Labour Party bias unfortunately shows near the end of what is otherwise an interesting exposition.
I’ve believe i did show examples. Also i support labour for reasons I’ve outlined throughout my articles, rather than it being a “bias.” I’m rational and present reasoned judgments as an adult. 🙂
Every writer writes from a perspective, I’m very open and honest about my own and I also write from a clear, ethical position. I don’t apologise for my politics or perspective. I write a lot from a sociological perspective, and use a frame work of social psychology a lot, I don’t apologise for that either. Nor do I expect you to apologise for you anti-labour bias.
Well, I came to your article following a link and took it on its own merits, freestanding as it were. It seemed an interesting analysis and warning, but I felt you weakened your own position when towards the end you “had a go” at all the parties apart from Labour, who you clearly hold to be blameless.
I’m sure Labour are just as inclined to use propaganda as any other politicians, and this is still deception and manipulation, even if you happen to believe that in this case their means justify their ends. In fact it’s probably more important to be made aware of the propaganda of those you agree with, as you’re all the more likely to be taken in by it. Indeed “believing your own propaganda” is often the first step on the road to ruin.
In fact I largely share your political position, I just can’t see the present ‘Tory Lite’ so called ‘Labour’ party having much inclination to change things. They haven’t exactly gone out of their way to vote against Tory cuts etc. of late. Just my 2p’s worth. Keep up the good work …
Actually I am VERY aware of propaganda used amongst LP members and supporters! I don’t agree with people just because they support Labour 🙂
Labour have voted against the cuts where they can, but much policy has been passed sneakily by statutory instrument, which has basically scuppered effective scrutiny and the capacity to vote on tory measures – hence the Upper House taking up the role of scrutiny and where possible, veto – see https://kittysjones.wordpress.com/2016/01/17/the-strathclyde-review-serves-to-emphasise-the-democratic-value-of-bicameralism-and-clarifies-the-conservatives-authoritarianism/
Effectively, the tories are trying to create a one party state. This is why cooperation between all of the opposition – Labour, SNP, Greens, and yes, even the Lib Dems – is crucial at this point in time. Laws are being re-written, edited and made in an undemocratic, underhand way, and we MUST unite in opposing that.
Also, I don’t think Corbyn and McDonnell could EVER be called “Tory-lite” ! You are joking ain’tchya? I support Corbyn, but don’t agree with all people that do. Nor do I necessarily agree with the standard criticisms of “Blairites” either. Or the criticisms OF Blairites … I tend to think things through critically, rather than opting for comforting and comfortable options.
People called Blair that, but the Tories are currently ever so busy trying to repeal Blair’s decent policies – human rights act, quality act, every child matters, effective poverty measures, amongst many others. I’m no Blairite either. Although he was a neoliberal, most of his social policies were nothing like tory policies. Except the antisocial act and terrorism law, and there was also Iraq …
I’m saying that none of it is as simple as people often pass it off as.
Many thanks for the nudge to read your article. 😉 Excellent writing and timely explanation of how people are being incrementally manipulated by slogans, soundbites and emotive wording into voting for things they would have considered horrendous only a few years ago.
I do agree with Marconatrix however that your argument becomes weakened by a Labour bias towards the end. It probably is a great example of confirmation bias, but I experience a moment of disconnect at that point after fully agreeing with you.
I am a member of the Green Party. I am also a graphic designer. All political parties use slogans. All parties, by definition, draw on promoting dissatisfaction with their rivals. It is an unfortunate consequence of living hectic lives that we prefer information as fast food – easy to digest with little useful content. It is my job to understand how I can best communicate to very small attention spans – not that I’ve ever been employed to do that politically. Clear conscience there at least.
While I agree the Greens’ “for the common good” is open to interpretation, I will defend the universal basic income as it is going to become essential to support the poorest members of society. Your paragraph on that came across as an unsubstantiated attack. Employers will always regard their staff as a necessary evils, automation will inevitably replace most jobs. What then? How do you support all those out of work? The administration and means-testing would be astronomically expensive. I believe the Lib Dems are also considering UBI as a policy and in Ontario, Canada the Conservatives (really?) are currently rolling out a pilot scheme. The Greens mistake was simply a lack of clarity by Natalie Bennett – our very biased media were quick to capitalise on her famous “brain-fart”.
Just to add I joined The Greens because I feel the climate change issue is losing ground in this country when (I feel) it should be foremost. The Tories are busy undoing much progress and worse, Trump as POTUS will give them further mandate to continue. So please do keep up the good work in calling out this insidious march into a “post-facts” society.
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Thanks, Janine. I did say that labour have used the same strategy, it’s hardly a bias to express my own political preference. Which I see, by the way, as a simple starting point for the campaign for progressive policies, not as an end in itself.
Labour are also considering UBI as a policy. Ed Miliband formulated our first international climate change act. I’ve also written at least two extensive articles that are in support the UBI, by the way. To criticise the details of models isn’t an expression of a bias or political allegiance. It’s simply what it says on the tin. There were flaws in the original Green Party model which were pointed out by the UBI organisations, also
All of this said, the only way forward is to build alliances between the progressives, regardless of party allegiances and work together on mutual aims and goals. I don’t accuse anyone here of “bias” because of their political allegiances and expect the same in return. It’s dismissive and disrespectful. A genuine dialogue means that we have to accept some differences in preferences and perspective.