The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in a democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country.
We are governed, our minds molded, our tastes formed, our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of. This is a logical result of the way in which our democratic society is organized.
Whatever attitude one chooses toward this condition, it remains a fact that in almost every act of our daily lives, whether in the sphere of politics or business, in our social conduct or our ethical thinking, we are dominated by the relatively small number of persons who understand the mental processes and social patterns of the masses.
– Edward Bernays, Propaganda (1928)
In 1622 by Pope Gregory XV founded the Office of the Propagation of the Faith (congregatio de propaganda fide) as a new branch of the Catholic curia to bring the ‘sheep now wretchedly straying’ back ‘to the springs of the waters of life’. In doing so he launched a discipline that has become synonymous with misinformation, subterfuge and mind-control. But is it all really so bad?
Pope Gregory’s intentions were arguably altruistic. His aim was to save lost souls and place them on a path to heaven. In Propaganda (1928) father of public relations and nephew of Sigmund Freud Edward Bernays pursues this line. Though his work seems sinister to a 21st Century reader, he argues for the public good of propaganda in shaping opinion and organizing what would otherwise be an irrationally functioning society.
Is there a role for this thinking in the public education of today? What would a benign propaganda consist of in schools and society? In many countries, national curriculum implicitly serves this purpose. In Singapore propaganda is more explicit, with bus stop adverts and billboards vaunting the merits of school and proclaiming a ‘thinking school, learning nation’. Are we ok with that? Should we be? Must all propaganda make us think of Orwell’s Big Brother?