The Institute For Propaganda Analysis, A Precursor and a Warning

Years ago, I stum­bled upon this most in­ter­est­ing seg­ment while read­ing Al­dous Huxley’s Brave New World Re­vis­ited, of which I have fi­nally found an on­line ver­sion that en­ables me to share its con­tents with you:

In their anti-ra­tio­nal pro­pa­ganda the en­e­mies of free­dom sys­tem­at­i­cally per­vert the re­sources of lang uage in or­der to whee­dle or stam­pede their vic­tims into think­ing, feel­ing and act­ing as they, the mind-ma­nipu­la­tors, want them to think, feel and act. An ed­u­ca­tion for free­dom (and for the love and in­telli gence which are at once the con­di­tions and the re­sults of free­dom) must be, among other things, an ed­uca tion in the proper uses of lan­guage. For the last two or three gen­er­a­tions philoso­phers have de­voted a great deal of time and thought to the anal­y­sis of sym­bols and the mean­ing of mean­ing. How are the words and sen­tences which we speak re­lated to the things, per sons and events, with which we have to deal in our day-to-day liv­ing? To dis­cuss this prob­lem would take too long and lead us too far afield. Suffice it to say that all the in­tel­lec­tual ma­te­ri­als for a sound ed­u­ca­tion in the proper use of lan­guage — an ed­u­ca­tion on ev­ery level from the kinder­garten to the post­grad­u­ate school — are now available. Such an ed­u­ca­tion in the art of dis­t­in­guish­ing be­tween the proper and the im­proper use of sym­bols could be inau­gu­rated im­me­di­ately. In deed it might have been inau­gu­rated at any time dur­ing the last thirty or forty years. And yet chil­dren are nowhere taught, in any sys­tem­atic way, to dis­t­in­guish true from false, or mean­ingful from mean­ingless, state ments. Why is this so? Be­cause their el­ders, even in the demo­cratic coun­tries, do not want them to be given this kind of ed­u­ca­tion. In this con­text the brief, sad his­tory of the In­sti­tute for Pro­pa­ganda Anal­y­sis is highly sig­nifi­cant. The In­sti­tute was founded in 1937, when Nazi pro­pa­ganda was at its nois­iest and most effec­tive, by Mr. Filene, the New England philan­thro pist. Un­der its aus­pices analy­ses of non-ra­tio­nal propa ganda were made and sev­eral texts for the in­struc­tion of high school and uni­ver­sity stu­dents were pre­pared. Then came the war — a to­tal war on all the fronts, the men­tal no less than the phys­i­cal. With all the Allied gov­ern­ments en­gag­ing in “psy­cholog­i­cal war­fare, ” an in­sis­tence upon the de­sir­a­bil­ity of an­a­lyz­ing propa ganda seemed a bit tactless. The In­sti­tute was closed in 1941. But even be­fore the out­break of hos­tilities, there were many per­sons to whom its ac­tivi­ties seemed profoundly ob­jec­tion­able. Cer­tain ed­u­ca­tors, for exam ple, dis­ap­proved of the teach­ing of pro­pa­ganda anal ysis on the grounds that it would make ado­les­cents un­duly cyn­i­cal. Nor was it wel­comed by the mil­i­tary au­thor­i­ties, who were afraid that re­cruits might start to an­a­lyze the ut­ter­ances of drill sergeants. And then there were the cler­gy­men and the ad­ver­tisers. The cler­gy­men were against pro­pa­ganda anal­y­sis as tend ing to un­der­mine be­lief and diminish church­go­ing; the ad­ver­tisers ob­jected on the grounds that it might un­der­mine brand loy­alty and re­duce sales.


Th­ese fears and dis­likes were not un­founded. Too search­ing a scrutiny by too many of the com­mon folk of what is said by their pas­tors and mas­ters might prove to be profoundly sub­ver­sive. In its pre­sent form, the so­cial or­der de­pends for its con­tinued ex­is­tence on the ac­cep­tance, with­out too many em­bar­rass­ing ques­tions, of the pro­pa­ganda put forth by those in au­thor ity and the pro­pa­ganda hal­lowed by the lo­cal tradi tions. The prob­lem, once more, is to find the happy mean. In­di­vi­d­u­als must be sug­gestible enough to be will­ing and able to make their so­ciety work, but not so sug­gestible as to fall hel­plessly un­der the spell of pro fes­sional mind-ma­nipu­la­tors. Similarly, they should be taught enough about pro­pa­ganda anal­y­sis to pre­serve them from an un­crit­i­cal be­lief in sheer non­sense, but not so much as to make them re­ject out­right the not always ra­tio­nal out­pour­ings of the well-mean­ing guardians of tra­di­tion. Prob­a­bly the happy mean be tween gullibil­ity and a to­tal skep­ti­cism can never be dis­cov­ered and main­tained by anal­y­sis alone. This rather nega­tive ap­proach to the prob­lem will have to be sup­ple­mented by some­thing more pos­i­tive — the enun­ci­a­tion of a set of gen­er­ally ac­cept­able val­ues based upon a solid foun­da­tion of facts. The value, first of all, of in­di­vi­d­ual free­dom, based upon the facts of hu­man di­ver­sity and ge­netic unique­ness; the value of char­ity and com­pas­sion, based upon the old fa­mil­iar fact, lately re­dis­cov­ered by mod­ern psy­chi­a­try — the fact that, what­ever their men­tal and phys­i­cal di ver­sity, love is as nec­es­sary to hu­man be­ings as food and shelter; and fi­nally the value of in­tel­li­gence, with out which love is im­po­tent and free­dom unattain­able. This set of val­ues will provide us with a crite­rion by which pro­pa­ganda may be judged. The pro­pa­ganda that is found to be both non­sen­si­cal and im­moral may be re­jected out of hand. That which is merely irra tional, but com­pat­i­ble with love and free­dom, and not on prin­ci­ple op­posed to the ex­er­cise of in­tel­li­gence, may be pro­vi­sion­ally ac­cepted for what it is worth.

Ob­vi­ously I most fer­vently recom­mend this book as some­thing a ra­tio­nal­ist and hu­man­ist would prob­a­bly greatly en­joy. In fact, if there is enough de­mand, an en­tire thread to dis­cuss said book’s con­tents, the facts that it re­lates and the in­sights that it brings, would be a won­der­ful un­der­tak­ing. This thread, how­ever, has the sig­nifi­cantly nar­rower ob­jec­tive of bring­ing to the fore the his­tory of the de­funct In­sti­tute For Ra­tional Anal­y­sis (which has an heir in the Pro­pa­ganda Critic, a web­site which analy­ses cur­rent pro­pa­ganda with the help of the tool set the in­sti­tute de­vel­oped), and look at its his­tory for in­sights on how to con­duct our own, oddly similar, philan­thropic en­deav­ors, es­pe­cially the newly-cre­ated Cen­tre For Modern Ra­tion­al­ity, and es­pe­cially on the ob­sta­cles and op­po­si­tion we should ex­pect to meet, and spec­u­late on how to nav­i­gate them, if and when they should arise.

I have in­cluded the sec­ond para­graph be­cause, while it not di­rectly rele­vant to the the ex­ter­nal difficul­ties the In­sti­tute had to face, it high­lights a very im­por­tant topic: our re­spon­si­bil­ity to­wards these youth. We will, most prob­a­bly, be tear­ing apart all the moral­ity in­fras­truc­ture, all the adap­ta­tions of which they would be ex­e­cuters. And we might also hurt their chances of in­te­grat­ing in a so­ciety where clear think­ing and men­tal hy­giene are not in the main­stream. What are the mea­sures we should take to help young ra­tio­nal­ists be able to win, if they de­cide one of the games they want to win at is ” live hap­pily with non-ra­tio­nal­ist peo­ple, befriend them, and per­haps even spread our mes­sage fur­ther”? Or, for that mat­ter “make de­ci­sions quickly and effi­ciently on what’s the right thing and the wrong thing to do in a given situ­a­tion”?