Wednesday, 2 February 2011

Proportional propaganda

I’ve been mulling over a blog post about the way in which Christians participate in debates online. This evening the MP Tom Harris, who has sadly stopped blogging, tweeted the following suggestion:
How about instead of accusing someone of being a "denier", you just point out that they disagree with you?
Tom hits the nail on the head about the tone of much public debate. Those who disagree with the government’s current economic policy are labelled ‘deficit deniers’; their opposition must mean that they refuse to recognise the state of the economy rather than that they might be offering an alternative solution. This is where we are with political discourse at the moment and it’s depressing.

What is even more depressing is that some Christians seem to be slipping into the same approach when discussing matters close to their heart. If you take a more traditional approach to issues of human sexuality you can easily find yourself labelled ‘homophobic’. If you take a more liberal approach then you are in danger of being dismissed as ‘unbiblical’.

The campaigns for and against the Anglican Covenant also play this game, pumping out a constant message in support of their cause and often caricaturing the position of opponents. The quality of the debate is therefore debased because people don’t listen to each other or engage with serious points made and issues raised. I followed the debate on the Anglican Covenant at General Synod and found myself exasperated by the contributions of some of the live online reporting. The line between informed commentary and misrepresentation was far too frequently crossed in support of one side of the argument.

But the most concerning example has been the conduct of the debate over the Alternative Vote referendum. I don’t need to go into details about some of the most recent contributions to this debate, the Church Mouse and Pete Phillips have both done an excellent job of summarising key issues for Christians. However, I have found myself increasingly wound up by the tactics of some contributors to the debate. It seems that blatant misrepresentation of opponents and the perpetual pushing of an argument without engaging with the concerns of others are regarded as legitimate tactics.

Here’s a definition of propaganda that I find quite useful:
Propaganda is a form of communication that is aimed at influencing the attitude of a community toward some cause or position.
As opposed to impartially providing information, propaganda, in its most basic sense, presents information primarily to influence an audience. Propaganda often presents facts selectively (thus possibly lying by omission) to encourage a particular synthesis, or uses loaded messages to produce an emotional rather than rational response to the information presented. The desired result is a change of the attitude toward the subject in the target audience to further an agenda.
My question is this: At what point does robust debate and forthright argument become blatant propaganda?

I would offer this thought in considering the question. The method of winning an argument reveals a great deal about the merit of the argument and those employing the method.

Update: Very helpful contribution to the 'Christians and the AV' debate from +Alan Wilson. I'm also grateful to Dr Bex Lewis, for her link to other definitions of propaganda.


drbexl said...

Phil. It will be interesting to see what debates occur on, and I hope that they WILL be positive.

Re Propaganda, see:!

Revsimmy said...

Well said, Phil.

Jonathan Evens said...

Fully agree, particularly that the method of winning an argument reveals a great deal about the merit of the argument and those employing the method.

Prefer Bex Lewis' definition of propaganda as it seems to acknowledge the extent to which we all do propaganda. We are often unaware of the extent to which our perceptions of issues affect the way in which we report them and alternative approaches to them.

Philip Ritchie said...

Thanks for the comments.
Jon, I agree that Bex's definition is better in acknowledging the problem we all have with propaganda. My post was more concerned with what I sense are statements which by their consistency suggest something deliberate in promoting a particular cause. I've seen too much stuff recently that seems to have forgotten Exodus 20:16.

However, I'm also aware of that passage that says something about 'physician heal thyself'.