Since faith is one, it must be professed in all its purity and integrity". Pope Francis/Pope Benedict

Tuesday, 29 January 2013

Truth, Propaganda and the Internet

What is truth?

Pilate's confusion over the nature of truth is perhaps understandable for we are still somewhat confused over this today. Perhaps one of the most infamous examples of the manipulation of truth is the activity of Pope Pius XII during the War. Prior to 1964 he was well regarded my many who had lived through WWII, including many Jews. After 1964 his reputation suffered greatly and controversy rages to this day regarding his actions during the war. The difference was not some new research or the revelation of new facts but a play written by Rolf Hochhuth called The Deputy. Now the entire Pius XII controversy is beyond the scope of this blog but I wish to point out an aspect of this for our consideration.

The massive change brought about in the case of Pius XII was a clear case of the manipulation of public opinion. The play provided a new and completely different narrative of the events during the War. Once the new story became known, scholars, researchers and political activists began to fill in the details. Since much of this history is open to interpretation, many of the facts can be fit into one story as well as another. The important thing to note here is that the story precedes the facts.

The Encyclical and the Press Release

It is quite amusing to watch media outlets in their coverage of the Vatican. I never tire of pointing out to folks that the Vatican is a hill in Rome on which Peter was buried and a church was built. It doesn't issue press releases. When dealing with information from the Holy See, it is important to scan down to the bottom and take note of who signed the document. When the pope issues any communication, such as an encyclical, his signature can be found at the bottom of the document. This sort of document is to be granted greater weight than one issued by a secretary in some obscure congregation for instance. Being able to attribute a communication to a source is fairly important in curia circles. 

This is not so in the field of public relations. In fact the latest development in the field, viral marketing, involves the transmission of an idea or product in the same manner a viral infection transmits itself in the human body. No one can say with certainty where it came from. In fact if the source of the idea can be attributed to a PR agency, press office or some other entity with a vested interest then the credibility of the information is suspect. Something heard from a friend, coworker or neighbor is far more likely to be given credence. The ideal is for the press release to be transmitted as news.

Bernays and the Propagandists

Edward Bernays, a nephew of Sigmund Freud, was primarily responsible for the application of his uncle's theories to the manipulation of public opinion. He realized upon reading Freud's Introduction to Psychoanalysis that to sway public opinion he would have to appeal to their emotions and subconscious rather than their rational mind. He founded the first public relations firm and consulted extensively with the US government. His legacy is with us today.

The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country. ...We are governed, our minds are molded, our tastes formed, our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of. This is a logical result of the way in which our democratic society is organized. Vast numbers of human beings must cooperate in this manner if they are to live together as a smoothly functioning society. ...In almost every act of our daily lives, whether in the sphere of politics or business, in our social conduct or our ethical thinking, we are dominated by the relatively small number of persons...who understand the mental processes and social patterns of the masses. It is they who pull the wires which control the public mind.
          Propaganda (1928)
The Catechetical Crisis 

Years ago we of a certain generation learned our faith from one edition or other of the Baltimore Catechism. For better or worse this has stuck with most of us whether we believe or not. Those of us who returned to the faith found it an excellent foundation for deeper study. This approach to catechetics involved indoctrinating students in the essential tenets of the faith while leaving the experiential side of it to the family and school environment. This approach could leave great whopping holes if the home and school environment were lacking. However when it clicked eventually, it really made sense. This approach appealed to the rational mind by giving people a solid foundation upon which to build an edifice involving the whole person, both rational and emotional.

Today catechetics is handled somewhat differently. We somehow lead the student into some sort of experience of God, eschewing the lifelessness of rote learning. These techniques have more in common with Bernays and the propagandists than they do with Catholic tradition. Rather than provide a firm foundation they seek to sway and manipulate people into having some sort of collective experience that will leave them feeling good. This triumph of sentimentality over reason leaves people ill equipped to reconcile anything that doesn't feel good with their religion. 

The difference between the two approaches can be seen in the ease with which contemporary Catholics can be led astray. Their house is built upon sand. This flight from the rational is fundamentally flawed.

Truth and the Internet 

One of the more difficult ideas to grasp is that the end does not justify the means. If you wish to achieve a good end then you must use good means. The internet is the great leveler in that it provides a wealth of opportunity to transmit information to almost everybody. In this I submit that it is the moral equivalent of the printing press. Unfortunately the same printing press could be as easily used to print Mein Kampf as the Holy Bible. Moreover, the internet is far more difficult to manage than the printing press. When the flow of information was much slower it was possible to submit publications to the appropriate authorities and obtain an imprimatur and nihil obstat. Such methods are no longer effective in this information age.

The internet can be used to slander someone or to spread gossip and rumor. It is fairly easy to use it to rouse peoples emotions and whip them into a frenzy. The techniques of Bernays, the propagandists and public relations can lend themselves to the internet quite handily. The question is whether any of these things is entirely moral. Is advancing the cause of truth by false means ever permissible?

What exactly are false means? In the context we are dealing with here, the triumph of sentimentality over reason, anything that furthers the abandonment of reason is ultimately going to turn around and bite you in the end. Opposing abortion because the killing of a human being in the womb is wrong is quite appropriate. On the other hand, opposing abortion because you are shocked and horrified at pictures of aborted babies on display is ultimately a very weak position. It begs the question of whether it might be alright so long as you are shielded from the emotional impact.

What is perhaps the worst abuse is the party politics approach to questions of truth. Advocates of women priests imagine that if only they can garner enough support and put enough pressure on the powers that be, that they may eventually force a change. Truth becomes a matter of public opinion and the one who is most successful at swaying public opinion decides questions of truth.

A quick tour through some of the blogs on the internet will quickly reveal that this notion of truth as public opinion predominates, as evidenced by the proliferation of com box flame wars. Characterizing one group as Taliban Catholics is certainly not much different from calling another group liberal modernists or the conciliar church. Such name calling means you really don't care about rational argument; you just want these folks to shut up or be ignored. 

People have their internet heroes and villains and the efforts to cheer for the former and boo the latter are far more reminiscent of a WWF wrestling match than any sort of  rational discourse. This leads to all sorts of  questionable phenomena such as the furor that explodes when one of these internet personalities falls from grace. You have to stop criticizing this person or cut this group some slack... we have stopped seeking truth and have degenerated into cheering our favorite team. Truth is not a matter of public opinion or who has the biggest cheering section. It never has been. 

For an interesting perspective on the work of Edward Bernays watch The Century of the Self by Adam Curtis. 


Vox Cantoris said...

St. Pius X wrote an encylcial on Modernism. Therefore, someone who follows that path is a modernist.
Dr. Don Felix Sarda Y Salvany wrote that "Liberalism is a Sin" thus there are also then, liberals.

How can describing those who adhere to modernism or liberalism, both enemies of Catholicism, as by their nature, they are unorthodox and the truth of Catholicm must always be orthodox; or am I just guilty of actually saying that there is a truth?

How is identifying a person by their philosophy as above, rather than the rather disgusting term such as "Taliban Catholics" which should never be writtin again, indicate that one does not care about debate?

On the other hand, one can talk in circles and still end up in a round room, but that doesn't get anyone, anywhere.

Barona said...

The CCCB's anonymous PR statement re the SSPX is an example of using internet rhetoric to attempt to shut the other side down.

Freyr said...

The question is not whether modernists or liberals exist but whether your identification of any particular person or group as such is based upon rational discussion with them or merely some knee jerk emotional reaction. Lambasting an entire group with a label is usually an effort to shut down the conversation and demonize the group.

Freyr said...

The CCCB press release is attributable to no one and worth nothing. The real question is why people react to this stuff as though it was some sort of official pronouncement. A press release is not much better than an internet troll and should be treated in much the same way.

Barona said...

I think we have to do some unpacking. Rightly, after rational review certain people can be "demonized" by those in an authoritative position: e.g. the Western Allies could demonize Nazis after determining that indeed the Nazis, and those committed to the movement were actually diabolical. The Church too, "demonizes" as well, but She tries to hold out a chance for repentance. Pope JPII "demonized" in his Fides et Ratio encyclical, when he reviewed the past 100 years or so of Church condemnation of heresies...

The CCCB troll - yes, should have been ignored in an ideal world - however, it is legitimate to "call them out" on an egregious error of fact. Moreover, I wonder how many bishops actually knew about this strange statement?

Freyr said...

Enumerating heresies is not exactly what I mean by demonizing. Identifying specific ideas as heretical is quite legitimate as is the appropriate exercise of church discipline in dealing with individual theologians and teachers. What I specifically object to is when this activity is carried out by amateurs with little knowledge and less common sense. It then assumes the character of a witch hunt.

Let me give you an example. I once witnessed a maypole being carried in procession during mass at a church in Toronto. Calling attention to this and stating that it made me quite uncomfortable is quite legitimate as would be reporting it to the competent authorities . Characterizing the church as a den of liberal modernists would have been inappropriate. If a bishop identifies someone as a heretic, there is a judicial procedure that must be followed. When a blogger does the same there is no procedure at all.

Vox Cantoris said...

Firmly place head in sand.

Freyr said...

Vox, place brain in gear before commenting.

Barona said...

Spock's brain?

Vox Cantoris said...

You'd get along well with Shea.

Barona said...

I have just read Shea's article. In fairness, it fits in perfectly with Freyr's description of a propaganda piece that leads people around by the nose. By using little common sense, and over-dramatizing he actually is indulging in a witch hunt and demonization.

Barona said...

Did you report this maypole to the appropriate authorities. If so, what response did you get? If not, why not?

Freyr said...

Actually you will find that a lot of bloggers are doing this. You've seen it many times... it begins with a blogpost, the more controversial the better, then the minions and fanboys get into the act in the comboxes. Meanwhile the blogger basks in the somewhat tainted light of all the attention. I seriously question the morality of the entire enterprise.

I just read Shea's post and unfortunately it is exactly what Barona says it is. Bernays and the propagandists could have accomplished the same thing, leaving you smiling in agreement. Beware the devil when he appears as an angel of light.

Freyr said...

Re: The maypole
The church in question is somewhat notorious. I was living in the neighborhood and decided to make the rounds of the closest churches to decide where I was going to mass. I settled on a lovely Portuguese parish and spent the next year there. No complaint was made.