It is undeniable that the ability of a government to control and manipulate information – whether through the propaganda machine or outright lies – is intrinsic to the process of preparing a society to embrace war. For when left to their own devices, and provided with the ability to make reasoned decisions in the presence of unaltered information, the vast majority of the masses have historically proven very unsupportive of aggression when their own lives may be at stake.
Even the most apolitical amongst us know, intrinsically, that governments have held the truth at arm’s length since the history of governments. What has changed is the sophistication of the messaging. Propaganda, after all, is merely the art of making reality appear reasonable, and making a lie appear more reasonable than reality. To the publicist, there is fundamentally no difference between selling a war and selling a bar of soap. Yet, if the people know to take whatever their government says with a grain of salt, then how is it that they continue to fall for the same dubious messaging?
It is a psychological fact that humans need the world to make sense. Notably, we will go to great lengths to find patterns in everything, even to the point of filling in the blanks where none exist, just to make reality seem more congruent. However, the real world is often not so willing to cooperate with reason, when taken at face value, and thus why the well-crafted lie often sits better with the masses than the hard truth. Indeed, the most distinguishing characteristic between the truth and a lie is that a good lie always makes sense.
This does not mean that people desire to be lied to. To be branded a liar is a great shame in any society. What people do need, however, is for any description of reality to make sense with their world view. It is a well-known fact that while people will reject an outright lie, they will even more strongly reject a truth that is contrary to their perception of reality. Thus, the role of the propagandist is to alter the reporting of reality such that the resulting message conforms just enough to a target audience’s desired perception of the world that a reasonably constructed argument can motivate that audience in some desired direction. The well-crafted lie is not the intent, but merely a tool to buttress a case for action; and in the world of propaganda, the end always justifies the means.
The truth, however, is not so easy to ferret out. Because we have an innate propensity to alter our perception of reality to conform to our understanding of the world, distinguishing the truth requires access to hard, indisputable facts for which there can be no misinterpretation. It requires exhaustive examination by an open mind with the courage to take the truth at face value, no matter where it leads. And it requires total dedication to carefully pealing back the layers of interpretation and conceptualization that invariably wrap any issue until the bare, kernel of truth is exposed. Much more dedication than the vast majority of people have the time and resolute fortitude to pursue, and why propaganda is so much easier to consume.
Therefore, since governments, especially those “of the people,” are in the business of motivating those people in one direction or another, the shaping of truth for the sake of motivation is of paramount importance to the operation of the bureaucracy. A government in which the people have some choice in selecting their representatives requires the confidence of the people in order to effectively operate, although people have proven somewhat tolerant of liberalness with the truth if they feel the outcome is in their best interest. However, a government that is perceived as stepping too far and too frequently over the line will quickly lose that confidence of the people, and find them quite dubious when the next case needs to be made. Indeed, the most dangerous time for any society is when its government feels that it can lie to the people without fear of retribution: for a government so totally divorced from reality and the will of the people that it believes it can in wanton fashion manufacture and inhabit its own reality is the essence of totalitarianism.
Thus, when receiving a message from the government, particularly when war is a part of the picture, it is of high importance to understand that propaganda is always involved. Since propaganda is involved, one must be prepared to look beyond the message and into the agenda behind the message. Ask why certain atrocities were highlighted at the expense of others. Ask if the message seems to be shaped to reinforce a particular world view. Release yourself from that world view and drive down into the heart of the matter. For, as we will see in the next segment of this essay, the most dangerous world view is one so constructed on propaganda that reality not only becomes an abstract concept, but an abstract concept that takes on enemy tones as it dares to deviate from the world as we demand it to be.