‘In propaganda as in love, anything is permissible which is successful.’ – Goebbels.
If the ‘Leave’ vote has made one thing clear, it’s that we need to ‘take back control’ of something: language. I have never seen such a sickening barrage of propaganda in my country before as over the last few months, and the ‘Remain’ camp has been guilty too. The very nature of a yes/no vote led to horrific, divisive, black-and-white bullshit on both sides. Much as I hate to bring up the Nazis again, Johnson, Gove and Farage did continually remind me of an essay I once wrote about language and evil. They seemed to adhere very closely to the advice of Hitler in Mein Kampf that: ‘the art of propaganda lies in understanding the emotional ideas of the great masses’ whose ‘intelligence is small’ so ‘effective propaganda must be limited to a very few points and must harp on these in slogans until the last member of the public understands what you want him to understand by your slogan.’
And the technique is most dangerous when combined with assertion, and the linguistic trick of phrasing opinion as fact – as Hitler observed: ‘It would not be impossible to prove with sufficient repetition and psychological understanding of the people concerned that a square is in fact a circle. They are mere words and words can be moulded until they clothe ideas in disguise.’ Whilst showing Hitler’s utter contempt for reality, the telling phrase here is ‘in fact.’ The philosopher Hannah Arendt observed the disturbing phenomena that ‘To the extent to which unwelcome factual truths are tolerated’ in politics they are often ‘Consciously or unconsciously, transformed into opinions.’ Gove’s extraordinary statement ‘People in this country have had enough of experts’ deliberately treated facts as just more hot air. Directly complimenting this is the transformation of opinion into fact, and the combination of these two processes might be said to mislead thought – to draw it into an argument with Truth whilst Opinion, in his disguise, slips past unquestioned.
Take Farage’s rant against Cameron: ‘ I just think that with ludicrous statements such as it’s the patriotic thing to do to literally give away control of your nation, to sign us up to a foreign flag, a foreign anthem and before long a foreign army…it’s contemptible.’ This is Farage’s paranoid opinion – what he thinks Cameron must secretly want – but with the noun ‘statements’ he frames it as a fact, as if someone in the Remain camp has actually declared such a thing. The sense Farage is giving us facts is heightened by that weaselly intensifier ‘literally’. But no one claimed signing Britain up to a ‘foreign army’ would be patriotic. This was just Farage’s own bizarre fever-dream.
And the videos. Oh god, the Leave videos, with their hospitals full of injured foreigners, as if every Polish builder was continually hammering nails into his own hands. This one by Leave EU clearly states: ‘You will benefit from better care provided by our NHS thanks to the reallocation of funds from the EU budget.’ It frames it as a fact.
And Boris Johnson is still carrying on now with his utterly unfounded assertions – ‘people’s pensions are safe, the pound is stable, markets are stable.’ How is he allowed to state these things not only in the absence of evidence, but against it?
Hitler also felt that in order to stem doubt he needed to treat ‘Essentially different internal enemies’ as if they were a singular force, creating a bipolar system so total as to be almost absurdly funny – head propagandist Goebbels continually surpassed himself with all-embracing insults, there being nothing he hated more than the ‘Plutocratic-Jewish-Masonic-Marxist-Communist-System.’ The tabloids have had particular fun with this technique recently, with Richard Littlejohn railing against Remain as ‘the vested interests of Luvvie Land, big business, merchant banks and almost the entire political class’ whilst metropolitan-muslim-rapist-intelligensia-snobs seemed to emerge as what Farage termed a ‘fifth column’. Simultaneously, UKIP has indiscriminately vacuumed up positive connotations: ‘This is a victory for ordinary people, for good people, for decent people.’ The human cost is to erase the many perspectives of public life and leave only Us and Them.
Let’s not let Remain off too easily though. We have also played Them and Us, with Them being the old, provincial, thick, racist white people, whilst We are multicultural, tolerant, intelligent, youthful and #lovelikejo (‘I know, let’s declare London independent!!’). And it now seems Labour is in meltdown because Corbyn can’t do propaganda. Nuance, it seems, is for losers. How can he win if he won’t simplify and deceive?
But does this have to be the case? Couldn’t someone regulate political propaganda? Couldn’t those in power, at the very least, have to comply with something like advertising standards, and be unable to assert that migration will be reduced without providing supporting evidence of a realistic plan to do so? Couldn’t knowingly lying to the electorate be made a sackable offense? And also – call them naïve – but many people assume that those things reported as fact in ‘newspapers’ are actual news. How about a rule that any apology for a failure of accuracy has to be printed in the same position in the same-size font as the lie?
Public language has become so poisoned with untruths that it is wrong to sneer at Leave voters who only now grasp the implications of their vote. I’m interested, I read widely, I have a first from Cambridge (I know, what an elitist bitch), but I could still barely work out of the actual pros and cons of such a complex decision.
How can we expect anyone to recognise the truth in this age of infinite lies?
As a culture, it seems we currently agree with Goebbels that in propaganda ‘anything is permissible.’ Until we change this, I fear that things will only get uglier.