Where Did All These Nazis Come From?
The Monstrous Crew
Our special guest this week is linguist Sarah Robinson, whose research into the linguistic and cognitive aspects of Nazi propaganda shines some light on the resurgence of fascism and ethno-nationalism in current political discourse.
Arendt, Hannah. The Origins of Totalitarianism. 1951.
Black, Jay. 2001. “Semantics and Ethics of Propaganda.” Retrieved from: https://www.scribd.com/…/Semantics-and-Ethics-of…
Bytwerk, Randall. (n.d.) German Propaganda Archive. Retrieved from: http://research.calvin.edu/german-propaganda-archive/
De Saussure, Louis. 2005. “Manipulation and cognitive pragmatics: Preliminary Hypothesis.” Manipulation and Ideologies in the Twentieth Century. / edited by Louis de Saussure and Peter Schulz. John Benjamins Publishing Company: 113-148.
Ellul, Jacques. 1965. “Propaganda: The Formation of Men’s Attitudes.”
Fillmore, Charles J. 2003. “Double Decker Definitions: The Role of Frames in Meaning Explanations.” Sign Language Studies 3 (3): 263-295.
Fillmore, Charles J. & Colin Baker. 2010. “A Frames Approach to Semantic Analysis.” In Heine & Narrog, eds., The Oxford Handbook of Linguistic Analysis, 313–340. OUP.
Herman, Edward, & Chomsky, Noam. 1988. “Manufacturing Consent.” New York, NY. Random House, Inc.
Kuran, Timur & Sunstein, Cass R. 2007. Availability Cascades and Risk Regulation. Stanford Law Review, 51(4), 683-768. doi:10.2307/1229439
Lasswell, Harold. 1927. Propaganda Technique in WWI.
Sperber, Dan & Dierdre Wilson. 1995. Relevance: Communication and Cognition. 2nd Ed. Oxford, UK; Cambridge, Mass. Blackwell.
Stanley, Jason. 2016. How Propaganda Works. Princeton, New Jersey. Princeton University Press.
Van Dijk, T. A. 1995. “Discourse Semantics and Ideology.” Discourse & Society. Retrieved from http://journals.sagepub.com/…/10.1177/0957926595006002006.
Van Dijk, T. A. 1977. Semantic Macro-Structures and Knowledge Frames in Discourse Comprehension. Cognitive processes in comprehension / edited by Marcel Adam Just, Patricia A. Carpenter.
Where did all these Nazis come from?
Hey so have you noticed that there seem to be a lot of Neo-Nazis around these days? What used to be a subculture that existed on the fringes of society, an object of (we thought, sweet summer children that we were) general disdain very few would have taken seriously as recently as a decade ago, has entered the domain of public discourse with trumpets blaring seemingly out of nowhere and very rapidly grown in prominence. White ethno-nationalists have livestreamed their murderous rampages through mosques, men have driven vehicles into crowds, and professing anti-miscegenists have been invited to speak at high-profile Christian conferences. (You know who you are.) So what happened? Where did all these Nazis come from?
Welcome to the Monstrous Regiment. I’m Sarah and I am your guest speaker for today. I am a linguist working on a PhD at Indiana University Bloomington, with a dual major in General Linguistics and Germanic Philology, with a minor in Cognitive Science. Over the past year or so, since about Spring of 2018, I have worked on a project analyzing some linguistic and cognitive aspects of Nazi propaganda, and that’s what I’m here to talk about. (As a matter of fact, portions of the script for this podcast have been excerpted from my previous work.) I’m specifically going to talk about concepts like cognitive coherence, flow of information, and manipulative discourse. This is actually part one of two because the topic turned out too complicated to cover all at once, and VERY broadly, part one is going to establish the basics, while part two is going to apply them to our modern-day context.
Before I start, I want to mention that I’m going to include a list of relevant reading material in the comments, including some of my sources when it comes to specific claims about specific data, but understand that a source is not the same thing as a foundation and that a thesis or a research topic is more than the sum of its background literature, and understand that recommended reading is not automatically something I think it definitive or correct in all aspects nor is it a declaration of ideological alignment with the authors, just useful parts of a complicated conversation. So don’t get sweaty under the collar when you see, for example, Noam Chomsky down there. If you’re going to talk about propaganda and manipulative discourse you should be familiar with Chomsky & Herman’s “manufacture of consent” regardless of whether you agree with Chomsky’s politics, or those of anyone else you may see on the reading list. Finally: I would encourage you not to listen to the things I am going to talk about here and think, “that’s exactly what the leftists do!” or “but the leftists do that too!” because that won’t be very helpful. Yes, obviously propaganda is not a practice of only one “side” of any political divide, but that doesn’t make any discussion of the way propaganda of a specific type replicates and spreads itself in specific speech communities and cultural enclaves “one-sided” any more than studying Spanish but not Japanese is “one-sided” linguistics research. It’s not any more useful than defaulting to “but women can be abusers too!” or “but black people do crimes too!” any time someone tries to draw attention to serious and systemic abuse and violence against vulnerable members of society. You can’t get the speck out of your brother’s eye if you are blinded by the plank in your own–that’s the point. Remember that this is not an attack and I’m not saying anyone is a bad person or unintelligent.
Except literally Nazis, they’re bad people.
First of all, the question that forms the title of this discussion is not actually answerable. To say, “this is where they all came from” is impossible. First of all, the “old” Nazis never left. Nazi sentiment did not evaporate when Hitler shot himself, any more than all racism in the US evaporated when the civil rights act passed; it has been around in some form or another all along. Even before the rise of the nazis, feelings such as racial resentment and antisemitism, existed; they did not appear out of thin air in 1933. These sentiments were stoked to a fervor by the propagandists of the NSDAP during Hitler’s rise to prominence, forming a significant element of his political platform, alongside a pretended Christianity and a pretended socialism—no, Nazism is not actually a socialist ideology any more than it is actually a Christian ideology, both were borrowed frameworks used to appeal to the population, yes, despite “Nationalsozialismus” having the word ‘socialism’ in the name. (You know that famous quote that starts, “first they came for the communists, and I did not speak up because I was not a communist”? Well, that’s because they did come for the communists. Very shortly after seizing power, within a year or two, the Nazi party was purging its left-leaning members, including socialists among other internal factions, via assassinations and all kinds of authoritarian shenanigans in order to consolidate that all-important power and prevent dissent from within, as one ought to expect in any stripe of totalitarianism as soon as they get the power they were grasping for. I mention this partly because I anticipate some people will react feelingly to some things I will have to say about the definition and qualities of fascism, and will want to point to leftist varieties of totalitarianism and suggest that Nazi fascism must be of the leftist variety because of its claim to the “socialist” title—and therefore conservative-leaning people need not worry about fascism in their own ranks. But we really can’t take Nazis at their word about what they believe—they also claimed not to be fascist, incidentally, which you may have heard others saying. It is sometimes necessary to shed our frames of reference and presuppositions.)
To reiterate: by appealing to and stoking up these pre-existing feelings and assumptions, including antisemitism, xenophobia, anxiety about the future of the nation etc., in particular within the context of the already-popular worldviews of the German people, (such as Christianity), the propaganda arm of the NSDAP was appealing to existing frames of thinking among its target audience. And that’s one of the main points of this discussion: propaganda does not–and is in fact largely unable to–introduce attitudes that are meaningfully contrary to the attitudes a propaganda target already holds. There has to be some degree of shared ground for propaganda to work. It typically relies on its message’s coherence with the target’s existing mental frames, and then pushes the target into a more extreme version of those frames. A propaganda whose base assumptions are non-coherent with the target’s base assumptions is easily rejected by the target on the same cognitive principles that makes a target vulnerable to a propaganda whose base assumptions are coherent with their own. As Hannah Arendt says in The Origins of Totalitarianism, totalitarian programs have never invented anything new.
Anyway, the present sharp rise in public visibility of Neo-Nazism cannot exactly be pinned on a specific moment or place where “all these Nazis came from,” in one way or another they’ve been here all along. One need not look very far to find examples of neo-nationalist violence, for example, in the post-cold-war 90s, or the 70s, or earlier. But that raises the question, what has caused this sudden resurgence in visibility, and worse, seemingly in numbers, of Neo-Fascists, which appears to have been energized into gear in the mid-2010s? If they have been here all along, why are they coming out of the woodwork now?
PART ONE: WHAT WORDS MEAN, AND WHAT IS PROPAGANDA
So probably some definitions are in order. I’m not talking “dictionary definitions” because as useful as lexicography is for some purposes, the kind of definitions that dictionaries provide aren’t always very helpful in parsing complicated ideas with long and fraught histories. To begin with, what is a Neo-Nazi?
Nazism is short for Nationalsozialismus, or “national socialism” in German, referring to a specific stripe of fascist white supremacist nationalism or ultranationalism that broadly enjoyed movements all over Europe and the US, but which had its most infamous and most destructive success in midcentury Germany where a fascist ethno-ultranationalist government seized power and committed genocide and tried to take over the world. Neo-Nazis are one of a tight cluster of modern-day neo-fascist resurgences that share most or all of the qualities or beliefs of Nationalsozialismus, including an emphasis on white supremacy and antisemitism. Additionally, modern day Neo-Nazis place considerable emphasis on anti-feminism and fear of Islam, (for reasons we’ll get to), as violently demonstrated by tragedies like the 2019 Christchurch Mosque Shooting, the 2018 Quebec City Mosque shooting, the 2014 Isla Vista shooting and 2018 Toronto van attack. If the last two don’t sound like neo-fascist violence to you, don’t worry, we’ll get to the links, in subcultural… spatial overlap and in presuppositional frameworks, between incel culture and neo-fascism in part two when we talk about the internet and information ecosystems. (Spoiler alert: it’s power religion.)
So… what’s fascist ethno- or ultranationalism?
Very broadly, nationalism is the condition of thinking of oneself as having a national identity, it’s the axis of viewpoint orientation within the world along which being American is different from being Canadian or Australian. What exactly this really means is kind of ephemeral and by necessity, forming a concrete lens of identity defined by one’s “nation” commonly relies on a narrower understanding of “nation” than is really workable or can hold up under scrutiny. On the other hand, separatist movements among previously colonized groups who seek to establish their own state independent of their oppressors may be characterized as nationalist, and also a correction of injustice, so yay! The problem is that nationalism has a distinctly different character depending on who is adopting it, why it appeals to them, and how much power they already hold in society. See, nationalism is tied up with various beliefs and assumptions about who has the right to hold power, over themselves and/or others. For the oppressor, nationalism serves a justification for oppression, it frames oppression, or expansionism, or consolidation of power as a means of preserving or honoring one’s “national existence” or national identity in opposition to some perceived other. It’s a violation of the commandment to love your neighbor AS YOURSELF carried out on a grand scale. ‘Ultranationalism,’ is defined as the condition of regarding one’s national identity as one of if not THE most important aspect of your identity. Ethnonationalism is, finally, the idea that one’s racial or ethnic background is definitional to one’s national identity, and white ethnonationalism of the type embraced by Nazis and Neo-Nazis says that you can’t be a member of the nation if you aren’t “white.”
I know that this seems really obvious but I’m doing here is trying to lay groundwork and make sure we’re all on the same page as much as possible, as well as starting off without relying on cognitive frames of reference any more than necessary for reasons that I hope will become obvious quite soon.
So, fascism. There’s been different ways of trying to define and characterize fascism over the years—for example, Hannah Arendt draws a different type of distinction between Italian Fascism and Totalitarianism that we are not going to get into, but over time we’ve been able to identify some core attitudes and presuppositions of a fascist mindset. Fascism is the reactionary spasm of a power structure in the face of a perceived threat. It’s a political mask for power religion, or the faith-like worldview in which power is the central figure of worship, power justifies itself, and is self-referential, and those who hold power are untouchable solely because they hold power. It’s not the only political mask for power religion; there are other types of totalitarianism and authoritarianism, like Stalin’s communist regime, for example. And that’s actually kind of important, fascist is not synonymous with totalitarian or authoritarian in political philosophy or political discourse in the same way it arguably is in common parlance, though certainly it is a member of the same basic cluster of concepts. Fascism is a specifically reactionary form of totalitarianism. It’s regressive and yes, conservative, in the sense that it seeks to restore or preserve a societal construct or system that is already there or perceived to be there. (Try and divorce the concepts of progressive and conservative from your current preconceptions or networks of ideas about contemporary political ‘teams,’ and their ‘stances’ on various ‘issues.’ Instead, try to think of them as more literal and directional, and that might help ease the discomfort you might feel with these categories—conservative worldviews point backward or down, they seek to preserve what is in place and/or to restore a past state, while progressive worldviews point forward toward a vision of society that has not existed in the past. It is of course quite possible to hold some conservative and some progressive ideals at the same time, with or without getting caught in a state of cognitive dissonance. What I’m definitely not saying is that if you identify as politically conservative, you’re automatically a fascist, okay?) Contrast this with progressive totalitarianism like, arguably, Robespierre’s seizure of power following the French revolution, a form of totalitarianism that seeks to redistribute power from a group that has traditionally held it to another group, but, as the word totalitarian implies, not in an egalitarian fashion. Lenin’s authoritarianism is authoritarian, but it’s not fascist. Some totalitarian regimes align themselves against the existing power structure, or seize power opportunistically after a huge shift in society has resulted in a power vacuum, while others align themselves against the threat of change: this is where fascism falls. There’s a number of qualities that fascism tends to have, though any given instantiation of fascism may not have all of them, and I won’t get too deep into them, but some of them include that fascism is by necessity pro-state, since the state is always the locus of power in a fascist system of organization, as well as pro-police, and pro-military as these are the mechanisms by which power self-preserves and self-reinforces. Thanks to its obsession with preserving traditional power structures, it also tends to be nationalistic, patriarchal, and xenophobic (xenophobia becomes necessary because to a degree the mere presence of other perspectives is a threat to fascist social narrative about why the people who hold power should continue to hold it. In fact, it is sometimes argued that fascism inevitably becomes expansionist over time as it runs out of internal enemies to ‘feel threatened by.’) Obviously not everyone who holds one of these positions should be considered a fascist, just like obviously being a soldier or a police officer doesn’t make you a fascist—as always we’re talking about systems not individuals. It’s not an individual’s personal belief in preserving tradition that makes fascism; preserving tradition can be excellent and virtuous after all, if the tradition in question is excellent and virtuous—or heck, even value-neutral. Instead, fascism becomes possible thanks to a confluence of numerous factors within a social system. Systemic realities are sometimes so ingrained in the group psychology that at the level of an individual member of a system, the assumptions and behaviors that respond to and/or derive from systemic realities are often unconscious, undetectable, or even negligible. Issues become issues at the level of the system.
Furthermore, fascists know that if they can appear not to hold all of them at once they can lend themselves some plausible deniability, like “I can’t be a racist, I have a black friend,” or “we can’t be a racist ideology, we have black members.” Don’t be fooled.
The threat power religion is spasming into fascism in reaction to may be real—say, a revolutionary movement within your society is legitimately questioning the status quo—or purposely fabricated to create the conditions for the reactionary force to take place—the Jews are not and never have been secretly carrying out a plan for world domination—but in either case the threat serves as to justify the volume of force that must be recruited against it in the name of “preserving” a way of life. And of course, justifying a given volume of force means justifying the consolidation of power into fewer decisive hands and/or the expansion of power and limitation of more freedoms. Influential political theorist and actual literal Nazi Carl Schmidt stated that all politics are defined by a distinction between friend and enemy, and idea that is widely influential in politics today. Schmidt believed that ingroup-outgroup dynamics defined political differences and would always boil down to either DOMINATING your enemy or BEING DOMINATED BY them.
This observation helps frame the impetus that causes a political and social hierarchical system (a power-system) to reflexively develop into fascism when faced with an “enemy,” a fear that if you don’t dominate others, you’ll inevitably be dominated. And it makes explicit the source of the drive that a fascist system has to always be threatened by SOMETHING in order to sustain itself. Fascism is a political ideology of urgency and without a threat, fascism can’t justify its own existence. This is why, as mentioned, fascist systems tend to start feeling threatened by the mere presence of outsiders and eventually by the existence of surrounding unconquered territories.
Of course, the concept of justification should be triggering the thought how does fascism attempt to justify itself, and you’ve probably already figured out that the answer is propaganda.
Broadly defined, virtually any media with a message–media which attempts to persuade the addressee to accept one or more propositions, or to perform one or more actions–can be considered propaganda. However, the word “propaganda” has come to have a generally pejorative meaning. Although the term was coined in the 1600s with the arguably neutral meaning of spreading ideas that would not naturally occur, by means of public discourse and literature, as researcher Jay Black notes, QUOTE “over time the term took on more negative connotations; in a semantic sense, propaganda became value laden, and in an ethical sense, it was seen as immoral” (Black 2014). Harold Laswell proposed the definition: “Propaganda is the management of collective attitudes by the manipulation of significant symbols” (Laswell, 1927). Later treatments by Jacques Ellul, Noam Chomsky, and many others have attempted to capture the perceived dishonest or manipulative element of propaganda, especially state propaganda, by describing it as an effort to subconsciously or unduly influence public opinion or, famously, to manufacture consent as Herman and Chomsky put it (1988). Be advised that I am assuming the more common, more widespread contemporary meaning of the word “propaganda,” i.e. a negatively connoted one marked by a sense of dishonesty or falseness, because I’m adopting a descriptivist attitude toward language and semantic shift, rather than woodenly sticking to a definition that was proposed in the 1600s and that is more a hindrance to discussion of media and bias and cognition than it is ever really helpful in my opinion. If you prefer the “original” more neutral sense, that’s fine, but I’m not using it here, so responding to the discussion I’m laying out here from within that definition will not be helpful to you. (I’ve had people do that.)
In fact, Propaganda isn’t always even about convincing or persuading, but more about spreading and saturating a discourse space until it becomes the “new normal.” As Hannah Arendt puts it in The Origins of Totalitarianism, propaganda is a method of organization, a means of gathering and retaining power, less than it is really a sincere effort at persuasion. It is often more about recruiting people who are willing to repeat it—people who share its underlying assumptions to one degree or another, and this includes people who may not be ideologically sympathetic with “neo-nazis” but who unconsciously have biases or reservations about who has the right to old power—over themselves and others—and who doesn’t. This is gonna be important. A defining property of propaganda is that it is made to propagate itself, but since ideas don’t exist without minds to hold them, ideas propagate by means of people. Notably, some early and influential literature on propaganda was concerned mainly with advertising, rather than ideological manipulation—in the same way that mere brand recognition is more likely to influence buying choices than any specific belief about the product itself merely recruiting enough people to be willing to repeat a propaganda message is sometimes more important than specifically or permanently persuading any individual target of the epistemic validity of the propaganda text itself.
What all of the later analyses have in common is the identification of a manipulative element to propagandistic discourse. Manipulation is rather a difficult idea to capture in the abstract. A discourse may be manipulative if it is attempting to persuade you of a truth-conditionally or truth-functionally defective proposition, most obviously by outright lies, or it is attempting to make a given act acceptable to you on false grounds or by means of a dishonest discourse strategy, for example, co-opting a TRUE fact and framing it in a context that makes it seem to imply something it doesn’t actually imply.
For our purposes ‘Propaganda’ can be understood as a type of manipulative discourse that is produced in order to reach the broadest possible audience within a target range (such as, for example, the people of Germany), seeking to integrate a “set of propositions” and/or beliefs about the world into the target’s mental paradigm that are useful in bringing about widespread social change and the creation of a desired normative state of affairs. One of the most important things to keep in mind is that there is often a considerable gap between what a propagandist believes, and what they say. What they believe and what they say may be aligned—the Nazis were genuinely super racist and all the racist stuff they said represented what they really felt—or they may not.
Social scientist, philosopher, and Christian Anarchist Jacques Ellul’s seminal work Propaganda, the Formation of Men’s Attitudes has been significantly influential in the discussion surrounding propaganda since its publication in 1965. In it, Ellul discusses many aspects of propaganda, including its basic function in most cases: for the purpose of making given (desired by the propagandist, if there is one) political acts acceptable to the society which is its target. He specifies different types of propaganda that are produced, adopted, and propagated in different ways and among different types of social groups:
- Political Propaganda vs Sociological Propaganda
- Agitation Propaganda vs Integration Propaganda
- Vertical vs Horizontal Propaganda
- Propaganda as both rational and irrational
Political Propaganda: is produced and disseminated by a government, party, pressure group, etc. with a view to changing public behavior or perception. (This is likely the most prototypical understanding of the word ‘propaganda’ to most English-speakers.)
Sociological Propaganda: the manifestations by which a given society seeks to unify its members’ behavior (and attitudes) according to a desired pattern. It is not produced and disseminated from a single source, but broadly from a sociological context.
Agitation Propaganda: seeks to arouse members of a society to specific urgent action. It is often the most visible and most attention-capturing, and often led by a party seeking to either establish or destroy a particular frame, worldview, or institution. It may be employed by a state or government in order to suppress or target an internal enemy for destruction. Short-lived and emotionally-charged, once its goal has been achieved, it is often replaced by Integration Propaganda. The following quote is exceedingly relevant to the propaganda of the NSDAP, and to modern day extremism: “Agitation Propaganda succeeds each time it designates someone as the source of all misery, provided he is not too powerful” (Ellul 1965). Fascists of the Nazi era (and today) blame the Jews. People on the political left tend to blame their own preferred targets. Modern day people on the political right tend to blame… people on the political left. In all cases: immediately question a narrative that names a person or group as the source of societal ills or human misery. You’re in dangerous territory as soon as there is an identifiable monolithic human enemy responsible for everything bad in the world.
Integration Propaganda: the propaganda of conformity and adherence to social norms. It is long-term and self-reproducing. Once Agitation Propaganda runs its course, a newly establish regime will be quick to institute Integration Propaganda in order to stabilize and maintain the new situation. Its purpose is to reinforce social norms and press individuals to integrate and assimilate and participate.
Vertical Propaganda is produced by a leader—a politician, a religious leader, etc.—a high-ranking individual who seeks to influence the crowd below. Joseph Goebbels for example. As Ellul describes, the propagandee in this case (an individual in the target audience) responds, positively or negatively, only to the leader and propagandist, not to his or her fellow targets in the crowd. Today this might call to mind the idea of a parasocial relationship. Compare this to Horizontal Propaganda, which is a function of group dynamics, which is produced among members of a group and passed amongst themselves. Vertical Propaganda deals with interaction between the leader and each individual in the group. Horizontal deals with interaction between individuals within the group. I’m going to spoil the second half of this podcast and give away that horizontal and agitation propaganda are the types we are dealing with when it comes to Neo-Nazism. With Horizontal propaganda it is also worth noting that the person passing the message to the next person sometimes, or often, does believe it and mean it sincerely, meaning they don’t have a manipulative intent exactly, but the message doesn’t become less manipulative if the person passing it on doesn’t themselves identify the manipulative aspect of the discourse.
Finally he talks at length about “rational” and “irrational” propaganda which basically has to do with the thing I have already mentioned about how a text can be manipulative and dishonest even while seemingly presenting true facts, just by means of the way the facts are positioned and framed in order to imply a particular narrative. This is actually a property of all the previously mentioned types of propaganda. Some claims may be outright lies, like false statistics about crime in particular neighborhoods with majority populations who aren’t “white”, others may be “true” ostensibly but actually misappropriated for manipulative purposes, such as the fact that Germany was hit with reparations after WWI, a true fact, which was positioned by NSDAP propagandists as evidence (or in a frame or context intended to imply) that financially influential world-dominating Jews were oppressing the German race. Jason Stanley, a fellow linguist and author of How Propaganda Works makes a point of observing that propaganda isn’t always necessarily insincere on the part of the speaker nor always false per se, but always leads to false inference or a false ideology.
If the goal of a specific piece of propaganda is to cultivate a specific attitude, which it often is, in its target, then it doesn’t matter if a specific “fact” is proven false after the piece has run its course through society. The job is done: the attitude has gained attention and grown in the pool of public discourse, and anyway, retractions and disprovings of claims seldom go viral in the same way that the original claims do because they lack the emotional gratification and bias-confirming aspect that viral falsehoods thrive on. This was true long before internet “virality” was a thing— for example, in the 19th and early 20th century, the idea became popular among academics that the text of Beowulf was originally a purely pagan text that had been corrupted by later Christian scribes. This idea became popular in the social context of an increasingly quasi-romanticized academic emphasis on finding the “true Germanic roots” of various forms of pan-Germanic cultural artifacts, “untainted” by influences like Roman empiricism or Christianization, itself based on the false premise. And yes, the combination of “the early 20th century” and an attitudinal bias toward “true Germanic-ness” should definitely be raising a red flag for you. (Yes, this attitude is probably part of the macrostructure of assumptions and attitudes that preceded the rise of actual Nazism in the 20th C.) The idea of scribal interpolations forcing monotheism into the text has not been taken seriously in academic circles for at least 50 years, but it is still widely assumed to be the case among lay people in 2019, because the correction didn’t “go viral” like the myth did. (This happens constantly with science reporting.)
The manipulation of information availability cascades (Kuran & Sunstein 2007) is an important and difficult-to-identify form of manipulative discourse: by flooding a target’s publicly available discourse outlets with reports of a specific thing happening, the propagandist makes it seem to the target like that thing happens way more often than it really does, creating an availability cascade, i.e. increasing the availability of a given topic in the target’s flow of information until it becomes a self-reinforcing cognitive bias. For example, in Nazi Germany, obviously the great majority of violent crimes were committed by natural-born ethnic Germans because they made up the majority of the population and had the greatest amount of social power which to abuse for criminal purposes. However, since Jewish people are human and humans are fallen, they also committed a proportionate amount of crimes. By seizing on and overreporting crimes committed by Jewish people, however, Nazi propaganda papers like Der Stormer could make it seem to their readers like there were epidemic levels of Jewish crime being committed. The same thing can be seen in Nazi reporting on crimes by immigrants and other social “non-desirable.” This is also decidedly true of modern-day right-wing reporting concerning immigrants, asylum-seekers, Muslims, and refugees. One more time, this is not the time to think “but the liberals do that!” or to think about the “liberal biased” “Mainstream media,” or to feel defensive and claim that the media is overwhelmingly leftist so it’s okay that the right-wing media is also manipulative because they represent a margin of the mainstream news reporting. Remember that you are not being attacked. (And also right-leaning news media is not marginal.)
This is closely related to attentional biases, obviously, which more or less say that you notice what you’re looking to notice, even if something else super obvious should be drawing your attention away, and it’s not hard to see how attentional bias plays into creating a disproportionate impression when it comes to things like immigrant (or Jewish) crime rates. If you’ve never seen the Monkey Business Illusion video, go watch it, it’s in the description with all the rest. Paying attention to one thing can make you almost literally blind to other things going on around it. So, hypothetically, If you are conditioned—by your personal assumptions or by availability cascades or what have you—to be hyperaware of or to pay more attention to crimes committed by people of a specific subgroup, then that is what you will see, and you’ll miss even really obvious and glaring competitors for your attention. Let’s say you are already told by News Outlet A to be hyperaware of crimes committed by Jewish people, and News Outlet B say, reports on the monstrosities committed in concentration camps, your narrowly focused attentional bias—you’re being tuned in to a specific stimulus to the exclusion of other stimuli—will make it possible that the second thing completely escapes your attention.
Conversely, an extremely widespread or systemic issue may be obscured by limiting or suppressing its presence in a given target’s flow of available information. I’ve sometimes heard people argue about whether ordinary German’s “knew” about the concentration camps or not. The material distributed by the White Rose (e.g. Leaflet 2) indicates that the information about the extermination of the Jews and the atrocities inside the camps was available to those who sought it out, but official NSDAP propaganda seldom discusses concentration camps (in fact the term comes up scarcely 2 or 3 times in the whole corpus of the German Propaganda Archive, an online resource I sometimes use in my research, not counting post-war Soviet propaganda or party-internal material not intended for the general public, and at least once it only comes up in a reactionary effort to discredit a journalist who reported on what conditions were like inside the camps. Another instance is in a disturbing pamphlet portraying children playing in a make-believe concentration camp, perhaps in an effort to frame the camps as quite innocuous things. The subject, to say the least, did not have a presence in corpus proportionate to its significance to the party’s machinations, not even in defense of the practice. (They did complain endlessly about fears that the German people would be exterminated by the apparently rich and powerful Jews, though.)
So: attempts at persuasion are not propaganda under this definition unless they are also manipulative. Appeals to emotion are not to be automatically dismissed as propaganda either, as the idea that “propaganda appeals to quote-unquote emotions rather than quote-unquote logic,” is, as mentioned, itself based on a false and manipulative premise that emotional propositions and factual ones are always distinct, which could easily be the subject of a whole discussion by itself and I don’t have time for right now, but which is the opposite of rational and decidedly unhelpful in discussing manipulative discourse. Suffice it to say one may be passionate and emotional about a virtuous truth, in fact one should be passionate about truth, about establishing justice, as Amos 5 indicates that God himself is passionate about establishing justice within his people’s society. Moral emotion and empathy are part of every non-sociopath’s cognition and are as important to critical thinking as “facts” are. Propaganda does employ appeal to emotion as a means of manipulation, but it just as often simultaneously appeals to “facts and logic.” It’s use of emotional appeal has a lot to do with the emotionally resonant nature of base assumptions, which also provide the basis upon which “facts and logic” are evaluated. In fact, it’s more accurate to say that Propaganda appeals primarily to base assumptions, which, by their nature, are a fundamental part of both interacting with facts and of holding values, holding anything to be valuable. Values, by their nature and definition are emotionally charged. Propaganda takes advantage of this at every level of analysis.
What is a base assumption and how is the concept of “coherence” important? A base assumption is some belief about the world which you take to be automatically true—you don’t typically think to question these assumptions because they are so unconsciously held. You have to have these in order to function as an agent in the world; you can’t be completely baffled by everything you encounter… always. They underly basically all your cognitive interactions with the world and with other people in it and they form the “base” of your mental macrostructures. Anything that seems to you to just be a matter of “the way things are” because they are that way is a base assumption. One example used by Dan Olson is the colors of traffic lights. Why are they red, green, and yellow? Well, ‘red’ had a history of being associated with the concept of warning beforehand, and ‘green’ was chosen because it is the opposite of red, the color on the exact opposite end of a color wheel and as different as possible. Yellow was chosen basically to be different from both colors because it’s right in between them, and so these colors are all easily distinguishable. Unless you’re color blind. There’s a base assumption. The design of traffic lights assumes you are not color blind. Also called a presupposition, as you have probably heard.
One important base assumption, or presupposition, that underlies Nazi propaganda is the idea that race is a meaningful biological human category. Without this assumption, most Nazi propaganda, which is really focused on their bizarre racial theory, is outrightly nonsensical. Specifically, it is incoherent.
Coherence in cognitive science and cognitive narratology has a specific definition too which is important to the formation of narratives and important to propaganda, as does its counterpart incoherence or “non-coherence.” Two propositions are said to be ‘coherent’ if they are interpretable relative to each other within the same context. “Interpretable relative to each other within the same context” means that the meaning of one proposition interacts with and/or depends on the meaning of the other—relative to each other, as in, they relate to each other, or they relate to the same thing. They quite literally co-adhere—their meanings adhere to each other, or adhere to the same third background facts, conditions, or context. Linear coherence describes a sequence of propositions linked (implicitly or explicitly) by a connective like “because,” or “and then.” “Beowulf killed the dragon,” is a proposition, and “the dragon was ravaging the lands” is a proposition, and they are linearly coherent because they can be linked by a linear connective, “Beowulf killed the dragon because the dragon was ravaging the lands.” Sequences of coherent propositions make up cognitive microstructures, which in turn make up large cognitive macrostructures called “Frames.” Frames are defined as structured sets of background knowledge about the world or reality; basically, your sets of interrelated beliefs and assumptions on any particular topic. For an utterance like “Thank God it’s Friday!” to be in any way interpretable to you, you have to possess certain structures sets of knowledge, beliefs, and assumptions, about the division of time into 7-day cycles, the typical allocation of labor hours throughout the 7-day cycle, and even monotheism and even casual non-committal monotheism.
Some of the individual propositions or microstructures that make up your Frames may be base assumptions that you seldom think to question and others may be integrated into your Frames because you were persuaded of them or because you were exposed to them so much that they just drilled their own “default-ness” into your head. Coherence doesn’t have to be strictly linear, as in linked by connective words; in fact, both linear and nonlinear coherence are fundamentally dependent on the concept of reference: two propositions are coherent if they refer to the same facts, conditions, background assumptions, or Frames, etc. (Helpful reading: Charles Fillmore’s 2003 “Double Decker Definitions: The Role of Frames in Meaning Explanations.” From the journal Sign Language Studies, T.A. Van Dijk, 1977. Semantic Macro-Structures and Knowledge Frames in Discourse Comprehension” which can be found in this volume Cognitive processes in comprehension, and Sperber and Wilson’s Relevance: Communication and Cognition. In the description.) A narrative or other linguistic-cognitive macrostructure must have coherency among the propositions that make it up in order to be meaningfully interpretable. If you are reading Beowulf, and you see the sequence “Beowulf killed the dragon; Harry killed the basilisk,” then you have encountered non-coherence. Two propositions don’t have to be at odds with each other to be non-coherent or incoherent—just to have nothing to do with each other. The propositions about Harry and Beowulf and their respective monsters have similarities, but they don’t refer to the same frame of reference (here, the same narrative) so they don’t go together, even though ostensibly they don’t contradict each other. If you remove a base assumption, then you’ve basically removed the foundational element upon which coherence depends. If you are reading Beowulf, but the concept of “dragons” is entirely alien and you have never heard the word nor possess any frame of reference for how to figure out what it means, then when you encounter “Beowulf killed the dragon,” it might as well read “Beowulf killed the schmorgelborg.” Without the frame of reference, the sentence not only doesn’t cohere with the wider narrative of Beowulf (it introduces a nonsensical unrelated and un-defined concept having nothing to do with the surrounding text) but it literally refers to nothing. When I say that without the presupposition that race is a meaningful biological category, Nazi propaganda is incoherent, I mean that its internal structured set of propositions do not refer to any existing frame and therefore cannot have connective tissue to hold them together. Rather than forming a macrostructure, they would be nothing but a series of non-sequiturs.
A worldview is definitely a type of cognitive macrostructure, in the same way that a narrative is a type of cognitive macrostructure, but a frame is not really the same thing as a worldview–the fact that traffic lights are red, green, and yellow, or that time is divided into seven-day cycles among which labor-hours are allotted in a particular way are not usually elements of one’s personal worldview or philosophy, they’re just implicit and unconscious background knowledge and assumptions about the way the world is. One can decide to adopt, for example, a Christian worldview, but people don’t decide to adopt a seven-days-per-week frame it just is that way in their minds. Ethnonationalism can be a consciously held worldview, but at the same time many non-ethnonationalists hold presuppositions and base assumptions that preferentially identify a specific ethnic background with a specific national identity as if the one implied the other. Most generally well-meaning people who hold some unconscious presuppositions like this wouldn’t tell you, you know, “a person of Pakistani descent definitionally can’t be a German,” but they nonetheless probably imagine a specific type of person when asked “what is a German,” because those presuppositions are part of a frame, not part of a worldview per se. In this case, someone with an ethnonationalist worldview, who knowingly believes that the ethnic and national-identity axes of “Germanness” are inseparable and exclusionary, may use propaganda to appeal to their target’s unconsciously held frame, a frame which shares some presuppositions with an ethnonationalist worldview–i.e. the presupposition that having a given ethnic background and having a given national identity are tied to each other in some essential way—and from there push the target from holding these ideas as a frame into adopting them as a worldview.
Finally, we have to mention Grice’s view on conversational semantics, or specifically pragmatics, which in linguistics means the study of how context contributes to linguistics meaning, and I’ll just touch on this briefly. There’s this idea in formal semantics and philosophy of Gricean maxims, or basic unspoken parameters according to which people generally shape their conversational and discursive behavior. They’re not “grammar rules” and they can be deliberately flouted, for example, the maxim of quality states that people try to be truthful, but obviously people are capable of deliberately lying. But it’s the very fact that most people are always operating as if everyone else is abiding by the maxim of quality that is the reason why lying… works. Lying exploits the fact that your interlocutor assumes you are abiding by this maxim. We generally instinctively and automatically abide by Gricean pragmatics and we generally assume everyone else is most of the time. In addition to the maxim of quality, there’s:
The maxim of quantity, where one tries to be as informative as possible, to include all necessary information and no more than necessary.
The maxim of relation, which states that one tries to be relevant, saying only things that are pertinent to the topic at issue
And the maxim of manner, which states that people try to be as clear, brief, and unambiguous as possible.
As an example of how these maxims become important to the issue of manipulative discourse, take two examples of headlines covering the same event (which are made up, and which I borrowed from a youtube philosopher):
Protester dies following altercation involving the police
Student shot to death by police officer
The presence of specific details mentioned by each headline entails the presupposition that those details are relevant (the maxim of relation), that those details are necessary and sufficient, i.e. that no other details are necessary (the maxim of quantity), that those details are truthful (the maxim of quality), and that these details are unambiguous (the maxim of manner). Two important things to keep in mind are that this can sometimes be where the line between intentionally manipulative discourse and sincerely motivated reporting can get blurry. We can’t know for sure where the line between what the headline writer believes is relevant and what the headline writer wants you to believe is relevant lies. These maxims and their general utility among speakers would suggest that both headlines are sincere attempts to capture only unambiguous, relevant, truthful, and informative details… but propaganda by its very nature exploits that suggestion to manipulate the facts. Sometimes a particular news item is so obviously propagandistic (manipulative) in the way that it presents details that it is almost disgusting, and other times it’s not so clear. The maxims say that a person tries to be relevant, etc. not that they always are or that two people’s presuppositions about what’s relevant are always the same. You can’t necessarily label something as propaganda because it includes details you don’t think abide by Gricean pragmatics… but, that being said, sometimes it’s pretty obvious. The other thing to note is that both headlines are equally objective, and this ought to warn you against falling for the siren song of so-called “objectivity.”
So returning to the topic of the contemporary resurgence of Nazi propaganda: for most average people, fringe antics are too odious, too parodic, too cartoonish to be effective propaganda. A man waving a swastika flag is not effective manipulative persuasion. Pasty nerds shouting, “Jews will not replace us!” at tikki-torch rallies are more likely to be objects or scorn or fear (depending on how directly the speech act affects you or is a threat to you, which will obviously depend on, you know, whether you are Jewish, among other things). Those images are propagandistic for people who have already gone at least partly to the dark side (as all propaganda specifically targets those who already share basic assumptions with it!), and the propagandistic message isn’t neo-nationalism itself in that case—since the target of the message is already sold on neo-nationalism—but instead the message is about the social acceptability of airing your neo-nationalist views in public. It’s a display of strength: it exists, yes, also to frighten and gall opponents, but importantly to send the message to “closeted” Neo-Nazis that it’s safe to come out, or to bring your internet antics into the physical world (I say physical world, not real world, since the internet is part of the real world, not a work of fiction): the social cost of being openly fascist is no longer too high to be worth it; there are others like you in public. “Our numbers are growing, others diminishing,” is what it says. If you are not already a swastika-waving Neo-Nazi, that message isn’t targeted toward you. The other side of the same message, “our numbers are growing, others diminishing,” is that it is aimed at Jewish people and other minorities wherein the message being propagated is that… our power and influence in the public sphere is growing, yours diminishing. To closeted Neo-Nazis, it’s a promise. To Jewish people and other groups, it’s a threat. To a lot of other people, it’s a farce.
Instead, effective propaganda sounds like reasonable discourse (to its target, the person who is meant to either be drawn into the extremist view or merely to act as the agent by which the message propagates, the person willing to repeat it). It manages to sound reasonable by taking advantage of the presuppositional frameworks its target already assumes. Propaganda cultivates specific attitudes in its target by utilizing assumptions the target already holds and leading the target to a given conclusion within the framework of those pre-existing sets of assumptions, and this has been the main lesson of my research over the last year and a half or so. The message is not often “hey, you should be a Nazi,” but “aren’t you worried about the decline of society?” A question which fundamentally depends on a base assumption (or presupposition): Society is in decline.
In my 2018 study, (which is unpublished because I am working on a new version of it, otherwise I would gladly make it available) I found three major trends in the very broadest “cognitive frames” in which NSDAP propaganda operates, and they’re pretty commonly observed by other researchers, so I’m not alone: Religion, History, and Science. For example, Joseph Goebbels frequently appealed to the concept of “loving one’s neighbor as oneself” and argued that the definition of ‘neighbor’ includes one’s ethnic in-group, and that loving one’s neighbor means defending them against the threat of domination by an outgroup, namely the Jews. Robert Ley writes… horrifyingly… about the biological definition and category of “parasites” in an effort to categorize social undesirables, specifically Jewish people but also immigrants, homosexuals, those with disabilities or mental illness, etc, as literally scientifically parasitic. Finally, and quite interestingly, the history angle is super important: specifically fascist propaganda (as opposed to, say, communist propaganda), be it Nazi propaganda or Mussolini’s fascism or just… fascism generically, almost universally relies on a myth of a prior historical period when everything was better and men were men and women were women and people were free and good and heroic, etc., and to which period the nation must be restored in order to reverse the apparent decline of civilization. This, obviously, relies on certain presuppositions inherent to declinism and on strong feelings of nostalgia, and it is so fundamental to fascist narratives that British political theorist Roger Griffin invented the term palingenetic ultranationalism to describe it—where “palingenesis” means “rebirth” and relies on this notion of the rebirth of a nation. (In reality, declinism and nostalgia are cognitive biases, usually felt more than really believed, but which may or may not crystallize into a consciously held actual worldview) This is all over Nazi propaganda from the earliest essays right up to1945, here’s a little excerpt from Joseph Goebbel’s 1927 “wir Fordern”:
“The German people is an enslaved people. Under international law, it is lower than the worst [Negro] colony in the Congo. One has taken all sovereign rights from us. And now we are just good enough that international capital allows us to fill its money sacks with interest payments. That and only that is the result of a centuries-long history of heroism. Have we deserved it? No, and no again!” (Wir Fordern, Go 1927)
To what history of heroism is Joseph Goebbels referring? Well it’s not clear from the text, because the text isn’t explicit about what it means, because it’s an invocation of a cognitive frame—a structures set of background knowledge—which the target audience is expected to already hold—one which the propagandist will aim over time to continuously manipulate and build up to fit his own vision of history, as he pushes the target audience toward more and more explicit and extreme versions of it, to be sure, but one whose basic elements are already there in the target’s mind: the idea the history of the German ‘nation’ is a history of greatness.
Needless to say, the ideal nation the fascist wishes to “re”create is never actually contiguous with any real period in history, in the same way the flat-eartherism isn’t actually contiguous with any real period in history when everyone widely believed the earth was flat, since such a period never existed. But it can tell you something about what the propagandist believes, or wants you to believe, or assumes you already believe, constitutes a great nation. Just look at the period in time which they claim is so great. For the Nazis it’s a bit broad and deliberately vague; their “history of heroism” eventually encompassed a huge rolled-together hodgepodge of basically all of European or so-called “western” history including the Vikings and the Romans and even including the stone-age Indo-Europeans (i.e. Aryans or Indo-Aryans as they were sometimes called back then thanks to confusing linguistics stuff), of which the modern Germans were claimed to be the most direct inheritors and apex. Fascism loves the past because fascism is definitionally reactionary and obsessed with who holds the power. In the past, power belonged to those it “should” belong to (whoever the fascist wants it to belong to, to “us,” whoever “us” is), and today, it feels like power is sliding away from that “us”, so “we” have to go back to the past to save society from this terrible decline (i.e. this redistribution of power.) Have you wondered why, though only a few years ago the go-to argument among most social conservatives was that patriarchy was imagined by feminists and didn’t really exist, at least not in the modern era, while today, it seems like conservative reformed circles are increasingly embracing and self-identifying as “patriarchal”? That’s power religion spasming into fascism and tightening its fist on power along the axes of sex and gender role. This, as we’ll see in part two, is not happening along only one axis or in only one subculture. (Stay tuned for part two.)
The romanticized period of history may be as broad as… all Indo-European history stretching back to the stone age or as defined as narrow nostalgia for the 1950s (or both at the same time), but the important element is that it has a strong emotional resonance with the audience. Remember when I said that strong emotional resonance is not an automatic sign of propagandistic intent? Well that’s still true but it is also true that strong emotional resonance is characteristic of propaganda because a vague but powerful feeling of “rightness” or “simplicity” or “greatness” attached to an idealized vision of the past to which the propagandist wants you to want to return is… the reason you would want to return to it in the first place. Jason Stanley calls this “affective override,” describing the moment when emotion overpowers critical thinking. Of course the base assumption is that the past (or some particular aspect of it) is inherently good or tradition is good or something like that, and calling something good is a value judgment, and a value judgment is powerfully emotional.
Also note that ‘international capital’ and ‘international finance’ are pretty much always coded references to the Jewish people, who were imagined to be behind a big conspiracy to take over the world with Marxism. That’s important in part two, the idea that a term that sounds perfectly cogent, like ‘international finance’ often has an uglier propagandistic message that won’t be obvious to everyone targeted by the propaganda message, but will be obvious to those who are farther along in the propagandization process—after all this whole line is a reference to WWI reparations imposed upon Germany, so it sounds like ‘international capital’ must mean the treaty of Versaille and the European Allies who imposed it, and it does, but it’s definitely also a reference to the “Jewish conspiracy.” To someone who is relatively innocently unaware, the term would just be a reference to Versaille, but to someone more “in the know,” for example familiar with the then-viral fame of the “protocols of the elders of zion” hoax and ugly stereotypes about Jewish people as money-obsessed and financially powerful, to those already at least partly radicalized, it would be instantly recognizable for what it really was. So… you know, put a pin in it.
(Yes, Wir Fordern contains more explicit references to the Jewish conspiracy later on in the same text.)
Okay, so, I think that’s enough basics. I know I’ve somewhat breathlessly covered a huge breadth of related theories and ideas, but trust me there’s SO MUCH MORE. Part two will address the consequences of these cognitive principles and the general methods of propaganda apply in the context of the information age, and also the ways in which our modern-day contexts changes the nature of the messages themselves and the means by which they spread, the considerable and non-coincidental overlap with other sociological phenomena like incel culture/the pickup artist community, and a lot of other things. We are gonna talk about 4chan.
Until then, thanks for listening to the Monstrous Regiment, and we’ll see you next time.