Summary: How do we gain approval of the American people for necessary social and political changes? Especially important but expensive and painful measures? There is the easy and popular method: lie. In a good cause. Today we consider the effects on America and on ourselves. My conclusion: stick firmly to the truth; it is the most effective tool.
Two comments from readers about propaganda:
“Let’s say that climate alarmists are wrong. But let’s say that such alarms were contributing factor in changing economic policies in order to control CO2 releases into the atmosphere. Something like it already happened when pollution created bad air /smog in many cities in the US and environmental policies changed that. Do you agree that environmental policies provided for cleaner air today then it would be otherwise.”
— In reply to Better news coverage of climate change. Our institutions still function!
“The truth, which you wish to uphold in political discourse is often nuanced and has a range of opinions in the details, even when the bigger picture is generally agreed upon. Unfortunately, this nuanced discussion leaves lay people confused (possibly due to the nature of reporting) and does not persuade them to change their behaviour.
“Take climate change as an example: in general most scientists agree that there has been a degree of warming over various timespans. The degree and the time is under debate. Let us assume that the behaviour of the population in general needs to change. Should they be presented with the truth, even if this does not produce a change in behaviour or should they be presented with a (white) lie to produce a change in behaviour that benefits everyone?”
These comments approvingly describe a form of the Plato’s Noble Lie. Similar sentiments often surfaced in discussions I had with leaders in the Peak Oil community (before it collapsed under the weight of so many falsehoods and failed predictions). The classics always remain trendy. From Wikipedia
In politics a noble lie is a myth or untruth, often, but not invariably, of a religious nature, knowingly told by an elite to maintain social harmony or to advance an agenda. The noble lie is a concept originated by Plato as described in The Republic.
Interestingly but not surprisingly, people approving the use of the Noble Lie to further their causes often denounce it when used to support causes they oppose. Either way, it is a pernicious tactic, for four reasons.
- Life is not a single round game. People are not fools, and eventually become skeptical. So this method becomes ineffective after repeated use.
- Many of the examples cited of its success are bogus. Such as the “noble lie’s” contribution to the anti-pollution efforts of the 1960s thru 1990s.
- What’s the cost of using white lies? “White lies” are lies; the cost of using them is lost credibility for your institution or movement (credibility is a capital sum, reduced by withdrawals). We are long past that point by now for the US government and — to many Americans — for environmentalists. They have burned away their credibility.
- Consider the effects on a movement that adopts lies. It’s necessary to first convince your followers of the lie, which increasingly takes their eyes off the real world as lies tend to grow in number and complexity. Resources are diverted to defending the lies, which become magnets for opponents. And it corrupts the soul — unless you convince yourself as well.
Looking back in history shows what we have lost. It’s a shock to read accounts from the 1930s and see how people trusted statements of government leaders. With reason. FDR’s plain speaking in his fireside chats and Churchill’s speeches show a frank honesty rarely heard today from politicians. Not just politicans; rare today are statements from generals like that of General Stilwell in May 1942:
“I claim we got a hell of a beating. We got run out of Burma and it is humiliating as hell. I think we should find out what caused it and go back and retake it.”
Another example, said by a general in the US Eighth Air Force returning after one of their early bombing raids in Europe, with heavy casualties: We took a licking; we are going back tomorrow. Direct honesty and committment.
Now people often assume that government officials lie (especially those from the “other” political party). Sixty years of lies might have contributed to the collapse of trust in America’s public institutions (see the numbers here). The effect of overusing Noble Lies is also seen in the failure of the climate change crusade, the Left’s movement to enact public policy changes to fight climate change. After 15 years of one of the most intense propaganda barrages in US peacetime history, what have they to show for it?
We still believe two groups of government officials
There are two large exceptions, officials we still believe although they lie: people in the security services (formerly known as “law enforcement”) and the military. See the numbers here. Decades of scandals, even involving some of the most-trusted of American institutions (such as the FBI Crime Lab). Years of lies about our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan — we were winning until we left, achieving nothing for America at great cost in money and blood. Years of FBI and police recruiting and setting up domestic terrorists — from whom they save us.
Yet still we trust them. I do not know why. I doubt learning the reason will boost my confidence in America.
For More Information
For all posts about this see the FM Reference Page about Information & Disinformation.
Posts about propaganda in America:
- You can end our war in Afghanistan, 20 August 2009 — The big lie justifies the war
- Successful propaganda as a characteristic of 21st century America, 1 February 2010
- A note about practical propaganda, 22 March 2010
- Our leaders have made a discovery of the sort that changes the destiny of nations, 15 September 2010
- The easy way to rule: leading a weak people by feeding them disinformation, 13 April 2011
- Our minds are addled, the result of skillful and expensive propaganda, 28 December 2011
- More use of the big lie: shifting the blame for the housing crisis, 29 December 2011
- Have Iran’s leaders vowed to destroy Israel?, 5 January 2012
- But Hitler confiscated guns, leaving Germans helpless!, 11 January 2013
- Lessons about America to be learned from the Climate Wars, 28 June 2013
- The secret, simple tool that persuades Americans. That molds our opinions., 24 July 2013
No source known for this quote. But it’s worth considering, whatever the source.