Satan's Trouble With Eve

Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Polemic & Propaganda

One of the (characteristically good) questions from seminar Monday sought to refine the definition of polemic by asking about its distinction from propaganda. Looking, as I customarily do, to etymology as the first step in understanding concepts, “polemic” is, as you know from lecture, from the Greek word for “war,” polemos. Therefore, polemic is that species of rhetoric characterised by a metaphorical equivalence to conduct in war. We know from our Leviathan that “….force and fraud are in war the two cardinal virtues,” meaning that polemical writing will be conspicuously forceful and conspicuously fraudulent.

Propaganda” is from the title of an historical Office within the Roman Catholic Church: the Congregatio de Propaganda Fide – the Congregation for Propagating the Faith. Thus, propaganda is a method of evangelisation; a means of converting people to your point of view.

In this strict sense, therefore, propaganda may be, but is not necessarily, polemical in design. In practice, however, “propaganda” is one of those irregular verbs:
I present my position publically; you propagandise; she spreads disinformation by agitprop.”
I believe that there is a meaningful difference between propaganda and polemic, and I should like to illustrate my claim by example.

Before I do, however, I will pre-emptively exculpate myself from partisan charges. I am purposely presenting examples that (a) balance opposing polemical sides; (b) show polemical antagonists in each of the two categories; (c) are, almost by definition, engaging, and (d) will be objectionable only to extremist partisans on either side. [N.b. My caution reveals that I have been at modern university for some while.]

Of propaganda, I have seen two cases, published side-by-side, here at SFU recently. On your way toward the AQ from the Bennett Library on the Mall level, just outside the doors to the James Douglas Cafeteria, is a bank of bulletin boards. In one is a pair of posters set out by the union representing our University staff, CUPE. In another is a pair of posters from one of the religiously-based student clubs on campus. Both sets of posters show pictures of, and concise quotations by, real and current members of their respective organizations, being sincere personal testimonies in open and honest intent to propagate their identifying points of view. Thus, propaganda.

Of polemic, I offer the case of the now-infamous television advertisement by Canada’s federal Liberal Party during our just-completed national election that portrayed the leader of their main rival Party, Stephen Harper, as a Big Brother personification, with the explicit charge that he would introduce soldiers with guns into Canadian cities; a charge stated in a manner designed to invoke equivalence with thuggish military dictatorships, such as Pinochet’s Chile or the Hussein’s Iraq. Likewise, in a previous Canadian election, the Progressive Conservative Party had used an equivalent type of advertisement, when then-Prime Minister Kim Campbell televised a cruel portrayal of the leader of their main rival Party, Jean Chretien, that showed a mild facial paralysis suffered by Mr. Chretien at a distorting and exaggerated angle.

In the first of these two cases, the Liberal Party based their advertisements (the colloquial term for the type – “Attack ads” – declares their polemical identity) on a fact: that the leader of their opponent Party had stated that the Canadian military should be deployed to cities. The context, however, was the need for rapid order, direction and relief after a disaster – such as happened in the United States this past year during the hurricane devastation in the State of Florida. In the second case, the Progressive Conservative Party advertisement was also based on a fact: that Mr. Chretien has an (inconsequential) facial handicap. The text accompanying the advertisement, however, declared that Mr. Chretien’s visage would be seen internationally as a poor reflection of the nation: a statement that is both morally reprehensible and unempirical.

Both of these political advertisements, then, are polemics: using Hobbes definition, they are forceful and fraudulent. It is notable that the arena is the political: war being, according to Karl von Clauswitz, “….the continuation of politics by other means.” The question of effectiveness is an open one. In both examples given here, the specific polemics failed to result in a victory for the side that employed them: yet of course the polemical mode could be highly effective if a more effective strategy for their deployment were devised.

Though battles be lost; changes in tactics can still win a war.


  • I recently learned in one of my Communications classes that the term "Public Relations" (coined by Freud's nephew Edward Bernays) was created for no other purpose than to put a new label on the word propoganda. The word had developed a negative connotation after the World Wars and Bernays came up with "public relations" as a means of avoiding saying "propaganda". I hope this lends a little bit of insight into the nature of propaganda.

    By Blogger Mike, at 12:48 PM  

  • Thanks Mike: very helpful contribution.

    By Blogger Dr. S.A. Ogden, at 10:31 AM  

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