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I spent a chunk of the weekend reading Jason Stanley's book, "How Propaganda Works". It was tough going at points, but had a lot of insightful material. His focus was particularly on demagogic propaganda, but he spent the first chapter discussing several other types of propaganda, what purpose they serve, and why demagoguery is so particularly harmful to a democracy.
Some of the points that struck me:
A democracy is based on equality, specifically equality of voting and opportunity. A society that represents itself as a democracy but has serious inequality, particularly of opportunity, has an extremely strong incentive to rationalize that inequality as being the fault of the people who are deprived of opportunity. People who have the highest privilege are most apt to do this, but to a lesser extent, the people with the least privilege tell themselves the same, out of self-preservation.
People make assertions based on their confidence, and their confidence is heavily influenced by the risk they face by making the assertion. People who assert that the poor are lazy, for instance, have very little risk in their assertions, while people who assert that there are cultural and legal systems of oppression that create and maintain poverty get shot in Memphis. This strongly predisposes the cultural dialog towards the high-confidence assertions.
An aside: when discussions of inequality arise, in most of the places I've hung out, someone will bring up the Pareto Principle and say that 20% of the people are always going to have 80% of the resources. I wonder if the Pareto Principle is a statistical representation of the effect that confidence ratio of assertions has on culture.
The best propaganda uses implied terminology: use of an overt slur is nowhere nearly as effective as a word that is associated with a slur. Words like "welfare" have been successfully racially linked, for instance. Likewise, words like 'childlike' or 'savage' have been replaced by 'lazy' to justify lack of equality without referring directly to ancestry.
An aside, that was wholly new and surprising to me, was a quick discussion of prison gerrymandering. Prisoners in most of the US can't vote (which is specifically listed as a human rights abuse in the European Union, save for in extremely specific cases) but are listed as residents of rural areas where the prisons are located, which strongly distorts proportional representation, and strongly incentivizes those areas towards harsher sentencing policies.
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