Against the Proposition that all Propositions are Propaganda

An another blog lost in the bogs of the Internet, we read these words:

“There isn’t a form of media on this earth that isn’t biased. As George Orwell said, all art is propaganda. And good journalism is art in the same manner of Ulysses and the statue of David. It exists to reveal truths about the world and influence people to think, believe and/or feel certain things.”

There was a longer argument attached, some typical PC blather about Fox News, which is, for some reason unclear to me, a PC croquemitaine. I did not read past the paragraph above quoted.

Need I interpret this for anyone? This is the voice of Nihilism, the blatant denial that truth exists or that loyalty to truth is commendable. It is a flat-out and naked statement that all communication is sociopathic falsehood meant only to manipulate the listener like a Pavlovian dog.

At that point, there is no reason to read another word. The witness has impeached himself. He has said everyone lies. If true, then he is a liar because he is one of everyone. If false, then he is a liar because he says what is false.

A reader replies:

I did read the entire entry from the young liberal blogger afflicted with conservative parents.  I think you are unfair to him, and that there is still considerable hope for him.

He does not deny objective reality as do his more cynical and nihilistic elders; he actually believes in it, and thinks it supports his own liberal and lefty position.

He is in fact correct that all reporting, and most art, exhibits some kind of bias,  and can be read as propaganda for some point of view or another. So what?  If it didn’t it would not be worth reading.

I sometimes despair of pointing out that there is nothing whatever wrong with bias or propaganda, so long as they are openly avowed and argued honestly.

If so, they can be valuable even if the author is mistaken, so long as he is not malicious. These words have acquired a negative freight which is not warranted by their actual meaning. Personally I greatly value honest propaganda in a good cause.

In short, saying that everyone has bias and engages in propaganda is not the same thing as saying that everyone lies.  He is not that far gone yet. (Nonetheless his statement is not strictly true; some people are unbiased because they are simply indifferent. )

My comment:

This is a reader whose opinion I respect, and so it is with great respect that I object to his argument in the strongest possible terms. The thought is pure poison, for were it true, then all thought is in vain, and alas to all reasoning.

It is true that the youth quoted above says journalism exists to exhibit truth, but then he says journalism is art, and says art is propaganda, by which he means an attempt to influence people to believe and think and feel certain things. Obviously the first half of the sentence contradicts the second half.

Sir, you argue the position as if it is already settled that there is no such thing as unbiased thinking, unslanted reporting, or an honest attempt to tell both side or all sides of the story. You imply that this is merely the nature of the universe, and that we all must resign ourselves to it.

If so, for what purpose have I spent the last fifty years of my life? Why be devoted to the truth, if there is no truth?

If everyone I trust when I read or hear his words is merely trying to manipulate me with half-truths, leaving out crucial bits he knows fairness demands I hear, using words and images chosen for their emotional effect rather than for their precision, then what is the point of trusting any man?

What is the point of being a philosopher? What is the point of being a lawyer? What is the point of being a newspaperman? What is the point of writing books? I have done all these things, but if you view of the universe is correct, it is all vanity. For if there is no truth, philosophy is vain; and if there is no truth then there is no justice, and law is vain; and if there is no truth, there is no beauty, and art is vain.

The only reason I am not personally offended by this jackanape insulting everything I am and everything for which I stand is that coldness and aloofness of heart which the icy pursuit of truth installs in a man after decades renders me stoical and indifferent to the lazy opinions of the imprecise, the intellectually craven, and the weak-minded.

I am not writing my argument, nor my fictions, nor my journalism, to INFLUENCE other human beings, and get them to think and feel CERTAIN THINGS. Are you out of your mind? I do not do what I do for the sake of other men, to manipulate them, to gain power over them. Argument is for the sake of truth. Once the truth is revealed, I have no concern with whether another man sees and acts on it or no: the truth speaks for itself, and cannot be aided by me. I speak the truth honestly.

I do not report the news for the sake of manipulating other men to my faction or school of thought. I report the facts honestly.

Even on the editorial pages, I report my opinion HONESTLY. Does that word mean nothing to you? My esteemed readers can take it or leave it as their best judgment determines, but I neither hide my opinion nor slant the truth to trick them into supporting me. I do not care enough about them for that. I write opinion journalism, not propaganda.

An honest man speaks the truth for the sake of the truth, not for the sake of influence other men. A Christian speaks the truth for the greater glory of God, not to win the applause of men.

The final cause or purpose of speech is not what he, nor you, say it is.

You expect me to hear my entire life call worthless and meaningless — and then to read on?

If my life is meaningless, why read his long and difficult argument, why ponder in my thought and why try so hard, very heartrendingly hard, to be so scrupulously fair, rigorously logical, inhumanly just and objective? Why be a Houyhnhnm?

If my life is meaningless, and there is no truth, why need I treat some random stranger in fairness and justice?

Why? For the sake of learning the Truth?

If you say he does not say that, I suggest you ponder the real and inescapable meaning of what he said. He said that everything — INCLUDING WHAT HE HIMSELF WAS WRITING — was propaganda.

He is not merely saying that there is an objective truth and every man has his own vantage or viewpoint from which he approaches it. This is a trivial truth, and would be irrelevant to his argument, which is either a moral argument or is meaningless. It is a moral argument if and only if the writer is proving his parents have a moral duty to listen to the truth which, by listening to Fox News, they violate. If it is not a moral argument, then his statements have no more meaning that one man who says he likes sonnets and another who says he likes ballads.

If it is a moral argument, it is (by its own admission) propaganda, that is, words used to indoctrinate a partisan dogma, not to inform nor instruct. You may not mind reading propaganda clearly labeled as such, but I certainly mind when a man approached me with what he claims is philosophical truth, but it is just his unexamined and partisan dogma. His propaganda. His lies.

Why should I listen to lies? To pick through them hoping for an accidental nugget of truth? But if there is no truth, there is nothing to find, and if there is truth, why heed an argument which says otherwise?

“In short, saying that everyone has bias and engages in propaganda is not the same thing as saying that everyone lies.”

No. When I try to sell a book, or ask a girl to marry me, I am engaged in persuasive speaking or writing. To persuade is not the same as propaganda, and it is a sign of our times and perhaps (if you will forgive me) of your naivety that you fail to make this distinction. Propaganda is an attempt to indoctrinate of viewpoint, particularly a political or factional or religious viewpoint. It is not the same as persuasive argument; in many ways it is the opposite.

Saying everyone engages in propaganda is the same as saying everyone lies. Either that, or you have expanded the definition of propaganda to include all speech, including deliberate attempts to be truthful and objective.

I am being unfair to him in that I did not read his whole argument. His alleged belief in truth is incoherent, since by definition no one can believe that all talk and speech is untruthful pursuit of self-interest without either (1) excepting himself (2) excepting the statement that all speech is untruthful (3) not realizing the paradox.

I was, however, utterly fair to his argument, which rests on a premise which is self defeating. The truth is that if there is no truth, then there is. To call all art and news reporting and indeed all human speech non-objective, and to equate non-objectivity with deliberate propaganda or deliberate lies is tantamount to saying there is no truth, or that men owe truth no loyalty.

Once the witness has impeached himself and called the jury all liars, why should the jury listen more?

I think you are reciting bromides of the sloppy modern school of philosophy whose implications you perhaps have not contemplated.