We all have our operating assumptions, and it can be interesting and even useful sometimes to figure out what our own and other people’s are. One of my own that I often notice is not universal, is that Things Could Be Better. That improvement is needed, that there are errors and misunderstandings that need pointing out and fixing. Of course, in one sense, that’s too obvious to need stating, and everyone knows it: no one is fool enough to think everything everywhere is perfect at all times. But some people do seem to have a default assumption that the world is all right and
straightforward and self-evident and easily managed, that problems and confusions and mistakes are the exception not the rule. One could call it optimism, which is (for some reason) widely considered a good thing, but I must say it seems to me more like obtuseness and willful refusal to notice and pay attention.
For instance yesterday in a conversation about the war an acquaintance of mine announced confidently: ‘Intelligent people can see through propaganda.’ Even apart from the obvious question, is that really true, is it really that easy simply to ‘see through’ and be uninfluenced by propaganda? there is the more fundamental question, what is propaganda? How do we distinguish it from non-propaganda? From persuasion, advertising, public relations, editorials, journalism, political speech, rhetoric, reportage? Surely it’s obvious if one thinks about it for two seconds that my propaganda may be their patriotic address, and our rallying the troops is almost certainly their flaming propaganda. Propaganda is not (obviously – surely?) a self-evident category, or even one with some good clear-edged specifications we can all agree on like those that differentiate species or elements, it is in fact far less of a useful descriptive than it is a boo-word. (Well, so is Fashionable Nonsense! I hear you exclaim. Yes, we know!)
So that’s one of my operating assumptions: that our language and conversation and writing are full of these fuzzy, ill-defined, debatable, often emotive words and phrases, that their meaning is far from self-evident, that the different meanings they convey to different people is often not peripheral but at the very center of whatever is being debated, and that it’s lazy and obtuse and willfully unobservant to take words like ‘propaganda’ as straightforward and self-evident to all.