37th Fritz Marti Lecture features Yale philosophy professor

Propaganda is a “dangerous, pejorative function,” according to Yale philosophy professor Jason Stanley.

Yale philosophy professor Jason Stanley lectured about propaganda and liberal democracies last week for the 37th Fritz Marti lecture. The Fritz Marti Lecture series has occurred since 1976. Photo by Kari Williams

Stanley presented his talk, “Language as a Mechanism of Control,” last week at the 37th Fritz Marti Lecture.

In exploring the concept of propaganda throughout the hour-long lecture, he referenced and explained notions held by historical philosophers and past governmental leaders from around the world.

One version modern-day propaganda, according to Stanley, is the phrase “fiscal cliff,” which he explored in a New York Times article. The article states that “only 14 percent” of the general public understood that the phrase “fiscal cliff” meant the nation’s deficit would be reduced.

“The expression ‘the fiscal cliff,’ though in use to some extent before, was introduced to the broader public by Ben Bernanke, the Chairman of the Federal Reserve, in February 2012 to describe the threat to the recovering economy posed by the confluence of two events,” Stanley wrote. “First, Congress was again facing their repeated promise to restore income taxes to their levels during the Clinton presidency in order to reduce the deficit. Secondly, Congress was simultaneously facing large self-imposed spending cuts (the so-called “sequester”).”

Within the fiscal cliff discussion and media coverage, Stanley said there was an “attempt to create a false ideology of government spending” through comparing the government’s budget to that of an individual household. However, he said that is “not analogous at all” because single families cannot print their own money.

The message delivered to the public was to avoid the fiscal cliff and politicians on both sides “relied on false ideology to get there,” according to Stanley.

Another form of propaganda can occur when a Christian politician says there are Muslims among us, that statement, according to Stanley, “means to raise fear about Muslims.” Though true, Stanley said it is “clearly propagandistic.”

“[It] conveys a falsity that Muslims are dangerous,” Stanley said.

Sincere people, according to Stanley, “can say propagandistic things if in [the] grip of false ideology.”

“Insincere conditions are really wrong,” Stanley said.

Walter Lippmann, “one of the most insightful thinkers,” according to Stanley, had concerns about propaganda. Lippmann argued that a symbol had to be created to unify the public, according to Stanley.

Stanley also discussed the philosophical background leading up to his beliefs about propaganda. German philosopher Carl Schmitt makes the argument, according to Stanley, that one cannot “know what a political word means unless you know who it’s directed to.”

Liberalism encompasses concepts such as liberty, freedom, humanity and reason, according to Stanley. But he also said thinkers such as Schmitt had concerns about liberal democracy’s common character.

Liberal concepts are universal, according to Stanley, but leaders make enemies “feel outside of that.”

“Dehumanization comes from universal concepts,” Stanley said. “… Schmitt wasn’t right and we have to take his life as a lesson”

Stanley also explored the concept of war and propaganda, during which he said there is “no liberal democratic way to go to war.” But doing so would simultaneously would result in “non-stop wars” in the name of freedom and democracy.

“[You] cannot have war in the name of humanity,” Stanley said.

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