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”?