Wednesday, September 07, 2011


For most of my working life I've made a living as a propagandist. Propaganda is a delightful word to say out loud. It is also a scary word. It conjures images of Goebbels and Big Brother.

Another word for propaganda is advertising, also now something of a pejorative. Persuasive communication is yet another synonym. It is safe, and leaden.

Propaganda per se is morally neutral. It is based on the Latin verb propagare, which means “to propagate,” as when a horticulturalist plants or grafts a cutting. I know this fact about propaganda, and yet I have always struggled with the moral ramifications of creating it. Should not facts and logic be sufficient to win an argument or motivate action? It always was for me, or so I tell myself.

A BoingBoing guest post by Stephen Worth in January 2010 praises passion as a necessary complement to reason. In particular:
The problem with this world isn’t that there isn’t enough logic. The problem is that there isn’t enough compassion. Logic won’t cut it alone in each of our own lives either. There are a million things that make sense to do. I have a whole laundry list full of logical things to do in my own life—more than I'll ever get around to doing. Guess which ones I actually go out and do? Reason may be the reason to do things, but passion is what makes things actually happen.
Worth is right. Logic may appear to offer safe harbor for those of us who want to escape the moral dilemmas inherent in persuading people to think or do something. But logic can take you only so far in changing people’s minds (apparently not very far). This has been a very hard lesson for me to learn, and I have to continually re-learn it, which is frustrating because in other areas of my life I am not so thick-skulled. But to make history, you have to temper reason with passion. Scary.

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