Weakness is Strength in Propaganda Wars
I saw an Instagram post of a young woman tearing down posters of Israeli children whom Hamas had kidnapped. She was identified as an attorney who represented abused women and children. I shared it with a few friends, pointing out the irony of an advocate for the vulnerable tearing down reminders babies were being held hostage by savages.
I wasn’t surprised. I wrote about a parallel phenomenon in my first book, published in 1999. I diagrammed how modern propaganda was increasingly dividing cast characters into villains, victims and vindicators, the latter being an ostensibly neutral party who helped define the players and sort out the mess. In my construct, whoever captured the victim’s flag won the PR fight.
This isn’t how propaganda historically worked. In past campaigns, propaganda focused heavily (but not exclusively) on projecting strength. Think about World War II posters depicting red-blooded soldiers off to defend America abroad supported by hale-and-hardy Rosie-the-Riveter atta-girls assembling airplanes for the war effort. To the extent the enemy was depicted, he was dark and freakish. Sometimes, the images were downright racist. But “we” could defeat the monster because we were stronger.
More and more, today’s propaganda campaigns are engineered to convey weakness to elicit sympathy. The civil rights movement rightly perfected this type of campaign where suffering was broadcast leveraging high-profile events using the latest media technologies — not to mention the ideological support of journalists. Of course, academia played a role in this, serving as vindicators coaxing a new generation who would take to the streets. Had I been of age during this era, I would indeed have been one of them.
The villain-victim-vindicator template worked so well that it was replicated everywhere: academia, plaintiffs’ lawyers, non-governmental organizations, and Madison Avenue. The binary construct of villains and vindicators, oppressors and oppressed, has become so deeply entrenched in global culture that its mimetic properties have become an intrinsic part of everyday thinking. Brains have been rewired.
I have spent a four-decade career working with powerful business interests and institutions (always the villains) who find themselves challenged by self-styled victims. Then there is the fight to win over or become the vindicator, such as elected officials and the news media. To be sure, there really are villains and victims, but that is beside the point.
The real point is that regardless of authenticity, the villain-victim template is so foolproof that the most unlikely characters have added it to their bag of tricks. On the most sinister end of the spectrum, there is Hamas, which locates its terror cells and missile batteries in schools and hospitals. With this device, they have succeeded in diluting the very concept of terrorism into a satisfying elixir that is happily chugged by the global media and all of Western academia.
I’ve watched corporations get into the act, with Gillette hilariously running an advertisement about toxic masculinity, replacing alpha dudes engaged in beard-busting before admiring supermodels. Plaintiffs’ lawyers have created a multi-billion dollar industry trolling for plaintiffs, merchandizing them to the news media and forcing corporations into settlements lest the hideous images continue to populate the culture. Hollywood publicists promote their clients by having them give mournful interviews about afflictions that in any other historical era would have been considered quirks, at best.
Then there is the cavalcade of celebrities and pop-culture pan-flashes that appropriate the ethnicities or life experiences of people who have legitimate grievances with more powerful civilizations. A bona fide American Indian chief once lamented the rise of frowny-faced media hounds who claimed to be “part Cherokee” (perhaps 1/742) and demanded some goodies in return. He called them “pretendians,” which makes me laugh to this day. When he drove me around his reservation to see what life was like for his people, I wasn’t laughing. It was heartbreaking.
I have latent bleeding-heart tendencies and have been known to write a check after I see an abandoned child or puppy staring at me while I tear up on my elliptical. The thing is that with these causes, the suffering is straightforward. Yes, they exploit my empathetic nature, but no lying is involved. With the human welfare attorney mentioned at the outset of this piece, there was a hard kernel of truth about Palestinian suffering wrapped in layer upon layer of deceit. Moreover, her cloak of sensitivity concealed a viciousness, a desire to harm Jews no different from a neo-Nazi who at least had the psychotic decency to display exactly who he was and what he intended to do.
Moreover, the seemingly weak can be wrong, powerful, and dangerous. Think HBO’s Livia Soprano, who manipulates her gangster son by clutching her chest (heart attack?) and incanting “poor you” through crocodile tears. When Tony slips and falls on the pavement, the viewer can see Livia’s lips curl upward in a grin beneath her tissue.
How do you deal with the predators of meekness? One way is to press on. You cannot debate them because they cannot educate or be educated. They are all about indoctrination, which is about emotion, not data. Emotion will whip data every time. Be prepared for savage resistance because these predators are unaccustomed to pushback. They will hide behind the rhetorical fortresses of “narcissist,” “gaslighting,” “bully,” “racist,” “misogynist,” “genocide,” “apartheid,” “Nazi,” and “fascist.”
Next, you can rally your side using the same emotional frequency that meekness merchandisers use against their enemies. If your side is suffering losses, remind them, show them. “Preaching to the choir” gets a bad rap, but here’s the thing: you’ll never win over the adversarially indoctrinated, so you’ll need the choir you have, not the one you want. One of the greatest myths about public opinion is that you can get people to believe things they have no interest in thinking. If you can’t persuade a supposedly objective media, go to the outlets more likely to be with you — and challenge the hostile ones when they get it wrong. They respond to pressure and embarrassment, not data alone.
Finally, stop financing your detractors, believing you can win them over. I have watched in disbelief companies falling all over themselves to be loved by those who hate them. Then there are the billionaires who give money to NGOs and universities to indoctrinate their future executioners. Generally, giving money to people you know will immediately buy the rope with which they’ll hang you is impractical.