What is Truth? Narrative Control and Dissident Politics in the Age of Propaganda
It is for good reason that people hate philosophers and lawyers. Truth is not what it always seems, is an elusive concept and truth is not the goal when battling the propagandist.
“Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men, even when they exercise influence and not authority; still more when you superadd the tendency of the certainty of corruption by authority.” John Emerich Edward Dalberg Acton, 1st Baron Acton
We all read Acton’s quote and implicitly we agree with him. Of course power corrupts. Lies. Deceit. Hypocrisy. Abuses. Graft. Corruption. Bribes. Oppression. Nepotism. Cronyism. Debauchery. There is a whole gamut of sins and abuses which always seem to circle around, infect and grip the powerful. At the same time we somehow see ourselves as immune. Or we think that when we oppose power, we are better. We will not fall victim to the same things. We are not corrupt like the powerful. We see ourselves as the righteous ones in the struggle. Everyone wants to see themselves as the hero of the story. But are the champions of the powerless immune to the corruptions of power in their fight against the powerful? This is one of the things I have always loved about the “Dark Knight” persona of Batman. He was an angry vigilante, driven by the murder of his parents in front of his eyes, showing no mercy to the criminal. Even in the old comic books, he dropped them from buildings rather than turning them in to the police. There is a tough, dark honesty to Batman. Hard problems. A hard response.
There is a reason that people hate philosophers and lawyers. They question too many things. They muddy the waters in regards to things like truth and falsehood, justice and injustice. As much as we want to be ruled by a mythic figure of unwavering character and nobility like Aragorn, the real world gives us figures like Pontius Pilate. For those not familiar with the exchange, during Jesus’ arrest and and trial, the Apostle John gives us this telling:
“You are a king, then!” said Pilate. Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. In fact, the reason I was born and came into the world is to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.” “What is truth?” retorted Pilate.
It is interesting to note, in the same gospel, John recounts that Jesus identifies himself as “the truth” in chapter 14, verse six. We must note that this declaration should be understood in the light of the Old Testament wisdom tradition, especially as we encounter it in Proverbs, Job and Ecclesiastes. He is the “Word,” he is “Wisdom,” he is “Understanding” who has become flesh and dwelt among us, drawing on echoes of not just Genesis one, but also passages like Job 28:
“Where does understanding dwell?
It is hidden from the eyes of every living thing,
concealed from the birds of the air.
Destruction and Death say,
'Only a rumor of it has reached our ears.'
God understands the way to it.”
[For those who are interested, John Ashton’s monograph, “Studying John: Approaches to the Fourth Gospel.” Oxford. 1994, is a good place to start learning about the connections between Jesus and the Old Testament wisdom tradition.]
This question, “What is truth?” was raised for me again in an interesting Twitter/X controversy over the verifiable veracity of a quote meme regarding the Canadian Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau. I made the observation that the changes which mass immigration have had on Canadian society were not an accident, not the result of a well intended policy that got out of hand; but rather, they are the fallout of an intentional attempt to remake Canadian society as the first post-national “nation.” The quote:
The meme took off and got some traction. As the view and like count were climbing, there were soon people in my replies telling me that the quote was a fake, demanding that I take it down. It hurts the cause when we fake quotes and tell lies, they told me. There was also a press conference video of Trudeau denying that he said such a thing. I also had reports from people whom I trust that the quote was spoken at a closed door fundraiser. The words were not meant for public consumption. They were leaked.
This got me thinking. I engaged the fray and doubled down. I had some thoughts that I could not quite put my finger on, things I was sensing and intuiting, but had never before been forced to articulate. Sometimes your really don’t know what you think until you say it or write it. I kept thinking this isn’t right. Why are some so autistically worried that everything we say be 100% “fact check” verified? After all, the quote captures the essence of his policy and intent of other things he has said, even if not exactly in these words.
In the Twitter/X dustup, I used the phrase, “spiritually true” even if they might not be “factually true.” “Spiritually true” might not be the right word. Think of it as that which captures and reveals the essence of something. Symbolically true. Metaphorically true. Essentially true —although this implies a proximity to the truth. I was arguing that when something is “spiritually true” it actually reveals the essence of things, its true being. If it happens to be “factually” true —we will discuss “the fact” more fully in a bit— that is great. But if it takes some license with “the facts” and still exposes the essential truth of the person or the situation, this is good as well. You can point out things which are “factually true” about a thing but do little or nothing to reveal the essence of that same thing.
The other factor that needs to be considered is that the point of propaganda is often misunderstood. Its purpose is not to make people believe lies. Rather, the goal of propaganda is to shape the narrative, to shape the story which people tell themselves about the world. It is about manipulating their feelings and more importantly, their actions. The point of shaping the narrative is not merely to try to tell people how to think. Propaganda is about manipulating people so as to make them serve your agenda. Here is Ellul from his seminal work on the subject:
“Propaganda is a set of methods employed by an organized group that wants to bring about the active or passive participation in actions of a mass of individuals , psychologically unified through psychological manipulations.”
“Propaganda does not aim to elevate man, but to make him serve.”
The goal of propaganda is not convincing you of things which are not true. This is how many think of it. But this is the wrong way to think about it. Propaganda, correctly understood, is first of all about getting you to act in the way the propagandist desires. Whether that action is something as simple as fearing the thing he wants you to fear, hating the person or thing he wants you to hate, or doing the thing he wants you to do. Why do you think that in schools they want kids doing mock protests long before they understand a tenth of the thing they are actually protesting. Because once the behavior is set, the propagandist has you. That child participating in the mock protest is now already becoming a activist. Adding content, a narrative, to that action established in childhood is simple once the habit of action has been established. If you put on that mask, even if you tell yourself you are doing it for the “right” reasons —you are making the decision for yourself and not because they are telling you what you do— once you have put on that mask, the propagandist has you. It becomes relatively easy to convince you about the rightness of mask wearing. It becomes easy to teach you the narrative that makes you a convinced and ideological masker. The goal is getting you to participate in a mass action of the propagandist’s choosing.
How often does the regime publish a story on page one. It is out there, doing its work. Soon the story is questioned. There is some controversy. Then days later just as the newscaster is signing off or buried somewhere in the middle to the end of the paper is a retraction or correction to the original page one story. But the damage is done. The narrative has been shaped.
But, you argue, we lack the power of the mainstream media. We cannot do this sort of thing. Really? Some are already recoiling. Should we do this thing? Shouldn’t we always be striving to tell the truth?
What is the truth?
Let me highlight a story from my youth. The year is 1974 and Robert Stanfield was running for Prime Minister as the leader of the Progressive Conservative Party (sic) against the incumbent Pierre Trudeau, leader of the Liberal Party. While on campaign, Stanfield, an otherwise competent and confident leader, a man of some athletic skill, was tossing a football around to relax and connect with people informally. While there are numerous pictures of him throwing and catching and looking pretty good doing so in suit and tie, there was this one throw where he bobbled the ball. The moment was captured on film. It made him look awkward and bumbling. The papers printed the picture. The picture was credited with derailing his campaign. This moment in time, was completely factual. This one moment became a “fact” when it was fixated upon and elevated into public consciousness by the newspapers of the day. But this one moment while “factually true” was at the same time a vicious lie. The picture evokes the feeling of an awkward bumbling man. Now that the propaganda has made you feel a certain way, it is not a big step for you then to embrace the narrative that this is the essence of Robert Stanfield, the “spiritual truth” of who he is. But this is not who he is. This “truth” was used to evoke a false narrative about him. So again, we ask, “What is truth?”
Part of the problem we have in dealing with the difficult and many layered concept that is “truth,” is that we have been deeply influenced by the Enlightenment and Modernism and its battle with Christianity as well as the embrace of science and especially scientism. In a nutshell, during the Enlightenment and the rise of scientific thinking, focus was directed towards those things which could be observed and verified, those things which could be expressed through rational abstractions. There was real emphasis on “objectivity” and “universality.” If it can’t be seen or measured, it can’t be verified it thus can’t be seen as “true.” “Truths” are those things which are true everywhere and in every time and are not tainted by human subjectivity. Objectivity. Facts. Verification. These are the things which matter. For many, many of us, this is the frame out of which we operate. Because we think of propaganda as the attempts of the powerful to make us believe lies, we believe that the best way to counter the “lies” of the media is to confront these “lies” with objective, verified “facts.”
But this is a mistaken way of thinking about the world, about truth, about propaganda and most of all about the fight that we are in. The main problem is that the understanding of truth popularized by the Enlightenment and science is itself an illusion, a myth that would soon be exposed by the acid of postmodernism. Unfortunately, and many of the right will not want to hear this, but the postmodernists were, in many ways, right about the Enlightenment. In today’s political battles over “wokeness” with its deep roots in postmodern critical theory, saying that their critiques have validity is something akin to devil worship. But as is often said today, “The only way out is through.” To find our footing again we must take the bull by the horns and grapple with postmodern critiques.
To begin, we must understand the foundations of propaganda. What is a “fact.” For many, they think of a “fact” along the lines of “true things which happened.” Facts are the data, the evidence, that grounds a particular position or understanding of the world. Our common parlance speaks to this common understanding: “He has the facts on his side.” It is roughly equivalent with saying that his statement is true because it coheres with reality. The problem is that this is a misunderstanding. The actual apprehension of reality does not work this way, especially in regards to propaganda. The saying, “He has the facts on his side” is itself a form of propaganda, a tool for shaping narrative.
Let’s begin with raw sensory information. Sights, sounds, smells, tastes, touch. There are things we see and hear and measure. Raw sensory data is utterly useless. We have to filter and select things out of the mass of data to fixate upon. If we don’t do this as human beings, we would make ourselves crazy. We begin by differentiation. We notice some things. Other things go un-noticed so that we can notice and process the things we do notice. Once noticed, we then fixate upon this particular slice of raw experience and we attach significance and meaning to it, integrating it into our memory, our collection of noticed experiences.
From a propaganda point of view, a similar process takes place. A particular slice of reality is noticed and fixated upon. The propagandist then elevates this slice of reality to popular consciousness. It is at this point, once it is noticed and accepted by the general population that it becomes a “fact.” This “fact” is then integrated into the broader understanding through framing and narrative. The “fact” is given a story that explains why it should be noticed. This “framing” can often be very intentional. Think of the narratives around the relationship between blacks and the police and the “fact” of police shootings. What happens if the only police shootings that get noticed and elevated to public consciousness are those shootings where a white officer shoots a black man? What if the framing that we are given is that these white officers are shooting them because of racist biases that they may not even themselves be aware of? Now you have created a narrative through which every shooting is seen and understood. This is the story. This becomes “the truth.”
But what about the other “facts” of the other kinds of police shootings? What about “fact” that black on black violence is far more deadly than police shootings? They don’t matter from a propaganda perspective. If they have not been fixated upon and elevated into public consciousness, it is as if they have not happened at all. They don’t exist. They are not facts. They are like the things you tune out every day with your own consciousness just to not go crazy. Unless something is fixated upon and elevated into public consciousness, seizing the awareness of the people, it simply doesn’t exist from a propaganda perspective. You can call “facts” which are presented by mainstream media outlets “lies” and “distortions” until you are blue in the face but it does not matter. Your “facts” are not “facts.” They just don’t exist. Only those pieces of information that are fixated upon and elevated to public consciousness are the “facts” of the narrative which shapes the actions and thinking of the people. This is the real power of the mainstream media: to dictate the terms of the narrative. It is the power to choose which slices of reality are fixated upon and elevated into public consciousness.
The real battle in the fight over messaging and control of the narrative is not the battle over truth and falsehood, but who is able to dictate the terms of the narrative. Who establishes the “facts” in the minds of the people, and can thus dictate the terms of what is true and false, what is fact or lie, what has meaning and what does not have meaning is the decisive question. Controlling and dictating the narrative through the process of selecting and elevating “facts” and framing them into a coherent story is what really matters. This is why you drop page one bombshells and bury the corrections or retractions in the middle of the paper. Things become fact when the masses seize upon them as fact. Can this backfire? Sure. But more often than not it is successful.
There have been notable wins for the opposition in this regard, take for example the “grooming” debate in schools in regards to transgenderism and homosexuality. Are ALL teachers groomers? Probably not. But by dictating the terms of the debate, public consciousness, the regime has been on its backfoot with this issue of transgenderism in the schools. The regime was not used to playing the role of reacting to opposition propaganda and it showed. They are usually quite deft at redirecting, choosing new facts to fixate upon and elevate to consciousness. In this case they struggled. A common redirection tactic is the “Rebublicans pounce!” counter-messaging story. The original controversy gets dropped as a new fact is fixated upon, the reaction and demagoguery of the Republicans who are “mean” for politicizing a very serious issue. Another related one. Middle Eastern immigrants involved in a attack of some sort? The “fact” of the event is not the attack itself, but the potential for the attack to spark a response of “Islamophobia.”
A “fact” is that thing which is fixated upon and elevated to public consciousness and framed so as to incorporate it into “the narrative.” The real political battle is not over true or false, but rather over who shapes the narrative.
We struggle with this because of the way that Enlightenment rationalism and science has taught us how to think. We quest for truths which can be verified and tested scientifically and thus be deemed true for all times and in all situations. We want to remove the vagaries of subjectivity or belief from our knowledge. Seeing is believing. This desire for “verified” truth leads us to take the position that we should only say things which can be verified as true. While accuracy and precision in our reporting and language is a good thing and should be valued, they are not the only thing. They may not even be the main thing. As we saw with the example of Robert Stanfield, sometimes accurate reporting can be used to propagate destructive false narratives which are believed to be true.
The problem is that there is no such thing as “objectivity.” There are no “objective facts.” They don’t exist. Period. You cannot cleanse subjectivity from knowing, either in your own subjectivity or that of others. Even so called “scientific laws,” regardless of how powerful they are in helping you understand, manipulate and control the world are still bound up within western culture. They are an artifact of the western way of thinking about the world. There are whole swaths of knowledge which western science ignores because it does not fit into its narrative. Thomas Kuhn noted this phenomena in his “Structures of Scientific Revolutions.” The very choice to study one thing over another thing and to study it scientifically as opposed to doing so in some other manner all affect the shape of what is known. The kinds of questions you ask and the design of the study affect the answers. Heisenberg, in dealing with quantum particles, noted that in the act of measuring a particle, you determine its being. It can either have position or a vector, but not both. You, as the so-called “objective” measurer, have determined the nature of thing you wish to study. In this sense, all knowledge is in some ways a form of propaganda.
As conservatives and dissidents, we often get caught up in the battles of centuries ago and these have conditioned us in our response to those who form and shape the dominant narrative. Take for example the battles over the biblical accounts of creation, the flood, Adam and Eve and all the rest of it. Modernists put Christians on the defensive saying that these stories could not be verified scientifically and so they must be just myths. They are fake. They are made up. Because of the optimism of that time period, many Christians were embracing the quest for rational and scientific truth, and they accepted the framing of the argument in rationalist, scientific terms to devastating effects. “Did God create the world in six days?” “Did God flood the world to punish man for his sins?” If you operate out of a scientific and rationalist frame, these can be very troubling questions. But they are the wrong questions.
Of course God created the world in six days. Why? Because this is the narrative which I accept in faith. And frankly, it is no more or less verifiable than the scientist who begins with the notion that there is no God and then tries to come up with a story for the beginning of things. Progress! I mean evolution, which is just the ideology of human progress applied cosmologically. And it has math! And fossilized bones! Woo hoo! Proof! Not, really, but they like to believe the story. Did it happen exactly the way the story says it happened in terms of some notion of “scientific” history? This is the wrong question. The right question is: “What is the narrative which shapes your life?” “What is the narrative that helps you understand the world we live in?” “What is the narrative that gives you a true understanding of the essence of things?” That story, that narrative, declares that God created the world in six days.
We press on.
This notion of fighting the right battle was impressed upon me again by a recent piece by, in which he argued that we get very wrapped up in trying to expose and disprove “the lies” about SARS-CoV-2 or the “lies” about global warming. He is correct in drawing this conclusion:
“It’s totally appropriate to scrutinise the empirical assertions of the climateers, but it’s equally important to recognise that the force we’re confronting here is political more than it is scientific. We can’t just argue that climate policies are bad because anthropogenic global warming isn’t real; in this universe we don’t get to determine what is considered real. We have to insist that climate policies are bad whether or not anthropogenic global warming is a thing, just like pandemic restrictions were bad whether or not they had any prospect of stopping Covid.”
In this world of propaganda and of the power of the technical administrative state, proving the truth or falsehood of the regime narratives is in fact a distraction from the real battle. The primary question we should be asking is something along the lines of, “Does it expose the power networks of the administrative state in all its forms in government, business, think tanks, NGOs and non-profits?” “Does it advance our cause of dismantling the administrative state in all its forms?” It might make you feel good to discover and make attempts to promulgate “the truth,” but this does little to expose or dismantle the regime. To that end, can the regime even be comprehended? Can it actually be exposed? Really. Is it actually possible to expose the regime? I am not convinced such a thing is even possible anymore. Increasingly the state in all its forms renders us ever more legible through bureaucratic mandates, census data (which you cannot opt out from providing), the hoovering up of our digital footprint, through AI technology (this is the real danger of AI: aiding the surveillance apparatus), and so forth. But you in turn cannot render the state legible to you. This is why Ellul makes the case that in this situation perhaps political violence is the prophetic tool which forces these networks into the open. The real question is not, “Is it true.” The real question is, “Does this help us bring down the regime?”
We press on.
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