Some propaganda tricks seem to work over and over and over. The simple linking of two unrelated ideas in one sentence is remarkably effective. I used this trick in my novel Lucy Goes Home. Lucy and her friends were orphans. The oligarchs in her country saw an opportunity to get free labor by convincing the population to force the orphans in government placement to work for their support. They started a propaganda campaign that linked the word criminal to orphan. Soon, every petty criminal was called an orphan, and every orphan was a criminal.
If some compassionate person pointed out that the orphans had never really commit a crime, the answer was that they were criminals because they lived at the government expense and weren’t working to pay back the money spent on their care, and that is stealing from the taxpayers. The belief became, existing without a family member to support you was somehow dirty and wrong. And, a large portion of the population fell for it.
I could write the story I did, because I see this happening all around me. Something serious is going on through the linking of unrelated words and ideas.
We see this happening with the verbal linking between Mexican, immigrant and criminal just as I linked orphan and criminal in my book. We’ve heard the words Mexican, criminal, illegal, and immigrant linked so many times that way too many people have come to believe that any brown person coming to our southern border is illegal and a criminal just because they are standing at the border waiting to cross. Not only are people at the border illegal. Spanish speaking children in US schools are labeled illegal without any evidence of improper paperwork. I have a friend who came here from Spain. She introduces herself with, “I’m here from Madrid on a research Visa.” She’s afraid she’ll be mistaken for being of Mexican descent or undocumented because that has come to equal criminal. The words Mexican, illegal, immigrant and criminal are not the only case of destructive paring of words and ideas.
I find the linking of the words Christian with right wing to be particularly offensive. Religion at it’s base is about our spirituality. Some people need to feel connected to other people and to the cosmos in order to be at peace within themselves, to shut out all the unnecessary brain chatter and actually think. This has nothing to do with politics, or power over other people, or controlling others, despite what people of power have tried to practice for ages. All religions are basically about finding that inner peace. The media loves to use the words right wing Christians as they relate stories of horrific spiritual abuse cloaked in bibliobabble. There is nothing Christian about the content of the stories, and there is nothing validly right wing in spiritual assault. The word Christian along with the words right wing have become paired with an ugly vision of mean spirited abusive behavior. How divisive.
How many of us can hear the word Muslim without the word terrorist popping into our minds? I confess, I’ve heard the words Muslim and terrorists linked so many times that I have to mentally erase the word terrorist from my mind. Terrorists are terrorists no matter what color their skin is, or where they come from, or whatever the predominant faith of their culture is. Those who spread propaganda for personal gain and power have done an excellent job of manipulating the population into feeling afraid and trying to withdraw from interactions with others who have some really interesting perspectives, cool food, and exotic experiences.
How dismissive and divisive is the term feminist rhetoric? The problem comes in the word rhetoric-words. Some people can get really triggered by this pairing because the ladies are unjustly demanding special rights. I get pissed and have a knee-jerk reaction that makes me want to backhand the speaker for being dismissive of women for wanting equal pay for equal work, and not wanting to be assaulted or have their intelligence questioned.
One of the reasons the linking of unrelated words works so effectively is those pushing the propaganda can build stories around those words. Stories are very effective in teaching about difficult concepts. When I was working in the field of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, we used stories, hopefully humorous, to describe how specific brain damage links to specific behavior patterns. The syndrome we were talking about had been recognized over twenty years before we started our work, but the general population barely knew the problem existed before people started telling their stories. Telling stories works.
The story can be told two ways. The police pick up two men involved in a knife fight in a parking lot. My local paper might tell the story. At 11 PM Saturday night, two men were arrested behind Sporty’s bar and charged with assault. Alcohol was believed to be involved.
Now, the same story can be told pairing words. Carlos Cruz, under investigation for illegal immigration, and another man were arrested behind Sporty’s bar late Saturday evening. Cruz was found in possession of a knife when police arrived on the scene.
The first telling of this story would rev up the small town gossip machine to full tilt as we wanted to know who was arrested. We would find out that Carlos is as great a guy as we always thought, but he gets belligerent if he drinks. He was, in fact, born on the ferry between here and Seatte, but the police did ask for his address and citizenship status. The attorney, who lost ten bucks betting on the fight, overheard the sheriff asking Carlos about his citizenship and filed complaints with the county. The other man was Chuck Smith. We all wonder what the community could do about Chuck, he’s dangerous. A few woman hope Carlos was able to cut Chuck in the balls. Jokes about Carlos gelding Chuck ensue. Alcohol was involved.
The word pairing telling of the story paints a very different picture, but it does something else. It gives enough facts that we don’t gossip—as much. We know that Cruz was arrested. We might wonder about Cruz’s citizenship, but because we have that name, we don’t overly embarrass his mom with a good, full-blown, small town gossip fest. We don’t get the back story or who else was involved. Also, the AP is not going to pick up a small town arrest. Someone doing internet searches for the propaganda media will pick up the story of the drunken illegal immigrant who attacked someone in a parking lot. They won’t investigate, but the story becomes part of the story-telling around illegal immigration.
Yes, I know that occasionally an undocumented person does get drunk and get into a knife fight, the problem with how the story is told is that lots of people of all backgrounds get drunk and get into knife fights. The citizenship status is irrelevant to the story because it doesn’t drive the plot or illuminate the character.
These pairings of words and ideas are so pervasive, we don’t really stop and think about them. I fully admit that despite my allergy to being manipulated and my attempts to be vigilant about thinking things through, these pairings of words do bring up negative images for me, and I will have a knee jerk reaction until I mentally separate the words from each other and from the stories that are told about them. I know, some people miss the oxymoron created around the paring of the words right wing and Christian and will adopt the description, thinking that means they believe in the Bible, but they miss how the right wing pairing diminishes their god to the level of a human being. When a sweet person, who genuinely cares about others, voluntarily identifies with a violent pairing of words, we can see the power of propaganda. These pairings do influence how we think, how we feel, and how we interact, as well as how others perceive us.