Influence vs. Propaganda

Today I am thinking about influence and propaganda.

I had a really good conversation with my friend Gorm about “social campaigns“. We studied social campaigns briefly in the communications course I recently took and although I did not have time to really dive deeply into the ramifications of it, I had warring thoughts in my mind about the rightness of them….
In case your scratching your head about what I mean exactly, I’ll give you smoking for an example. In the US we have had some kind of campaign or another since I was quite young concerning cigarette smoking. While I don’t believe it’s healthy or wise to smoke cigarettes, I do see that there are definitely elements of propaganda in many of these campaigns. Everyone will agree that it is bad for your health to smoke cigarettes but part of the reason I have trouble with these campaigns is that they make comparisons that are just not true. Many of the stop smoking commercials or ads link smoking to immediate death… 100% immediate death.
On the other hand, smoking is bad for your health and there are now WAY fewer smokers in the US than in most countries who have not had this particular campaign going on for so long.
So the campaign works and because of it, many people have a better sense of smell, they themselves smell better- they breath oxygen more efficiently and as a result do a lot of other things better, like running or playing with their kids. They are also a bit less likely to die of some form of cancer although not smoking will not ensure that they don’t die.

But we want a better world right? We want AIDS eradicated and the dehumanizing effects of poverty minimized. We want human trafficking to be a myth of the past and genocide eliminated.

Unfortunately, being totally factual in social campaigns would be much less effective. You can tell people that unprotected sex leads to getting AIDS and that smoking cigarettes may give them cancer when they’re in their 50’s and will certainly cause food to taste slightly less delicious right now but this will not change a lot of other things that are holding them to the activity that is bad for them. Often unless one of these harmful things impacts them directly through someone they love, they will not change their behavior.
In other cases, they will still believe really inaccurate things about cause and effect and in these cases even knowing someone who has died of AIDS may not keep them from having unprotected sex because they don’t believe it’s about their actions as much as it’s about some spirit that curses people…. Taking the control, and the responsibility out of their hands.

Which leads us back to exaggerations and scare tactics, right?

At this point in the conversation Gorm mentioned something about having loved ones who are drug addicts – what is more loving, telling them the truth about how you feel and letting them choose their own destruction or doing something to force the choice out of their hands? This is not hypothetical for many people, but an immediate and horrible reality.
I thought of having a kid who is in many ways a good kid- makes healthy decisions, is nice to others, cares about his family- say that kid makes friends with another kid who is a really bad influence. That bad influence kid steers your good kid into all kinds of bad behavior- stealing, lying, drugs. Do you  keep your son from being friends with this kid who is being a bad influence?
What do you really want for your kid? If you just ban them from hanging out with this bad influence you may not only damage your relationship with them (thus your influence) but they also might not actually understand why you’ve been so mean and controlling.

This is when a little light went off in my head.
What if you didn’t ban your kid from hanging out with this other kid? What if you let them experience the consequences of their actions but at the same time, you started talking with them about the unhealthy activities… talking with them in a way that allows them to see the truth for themselves? I’m not talking about having arguments, but real, loving conversations wherein your respect for not only your child’s humanity, but the humanity of this other kid are evident.

I think that social campaigns can be quite effective. But the Nazis used them, too to influence society.
How can we love the people around us in a way that leads them to making right choices for themselves and others?

It’s messy. It’s hard. I keep losing heart and hope but I ache to express this very thing with my life. I deeply believe that Jesus is part of this equation…

What do you think? What are we missing and what can we do better?

6 Comments

  1. Sarah
    Jan 10, 2012

    I’m SO with you.

    It’s only been two days since school started, but every day, my math instructor gives a little sermon about taking responsibility for our actions and being “creators” of our own circumstances instead of “victims”, i.e. instead of being late to class every day and blaming the parking situation, leave your house earlier in the morning.

    I really don’t need the sermons and wish we could get down to doing the math, but I’m in the meathead class and probably someone needs to hear it.

    Um… my point. My point is that so many people are raised with this idea that they don’t have to THINK. It would be good if, much sooner in life, people were forced to be responsible for their own actions, which would lead them to actually thinking about what they do, which would hopefully lead them to seeking health and positive change in their lives. I find Social Campaigns insulting because they assume that I’m too stupid to figure out things like smoking isn’t good for me.

    Now… I did smoke for much longer than was healthy–especially for someone with asthma (duh)–but it wasn’t because I didn’t know better. It’s just hard to quit! Let’s acknowledge that instead of treating smokers like pariah or idiots.

    I hope that as my kids grow up, they stay good and choose friends who help them with that instead of presenting temptations. But, if my kids choose friends who influence them negatively, I hope that I have the wisdom to handle things properly.

    • pegster
      Jan 10, 2012

      I think the hard part is that although we have high ideals, we are bad at making time for what is really most important.
      In our conversation Gorm said something about single parents who have to work two jobs and don’t actually have TIME for being involved directly and positively in their kid’s lives so instead they have rules and use propaganda style parenting to keep their kids safe.

      We are too busy and… full of fear.

      • Sarah
        Jan 10, 2012

        Certainly. And it’s always easy to say, from the outside, do this or that. It’s harder on the inside of a situation to see things clearly. So, parents have a rough time of that–sometimes a situation is so immediate that acting wisely is a challenge.

        But, when we’re talking about schools or the government, there isn’t that excuse. There is certainly time to think through the causes and effects of a social campaign. I once read some statistics about the efficacy of the DARE campaign and I don’t remember what they were but, basically, the DARE campaign was a miserable failure. Guilt and fear are not always effective deterrents against undesirable behaviour. And, well, for that matter, good solid information isn’t always a good deterrent either, but we have to look at what our goals are. At least with good information, people are treated with dignity.

        • pegster
          Jan 10, 2012

          I didn’t realize that about the DARE campaign although… I could be a prime example because I “graduated” from the DARE program and then took drugs in high school. So clearly “Just Say No” didn’t really sink in and effect my actions.

          If we don’t start with our own kids (says the woman without kids) then we leave it to others. I suppose we have to actually start with ourselves!!
          Do I know how to think and make good decisions??

          • Sarah
            Jan 10, 2012

            (This conversation is getting thin).

            Erin read (I believe) about some study where they did a healthy eating emphasis at some school, and while the emphasis was being promoted, kids generally ate healthier, but as soon as the promotion was over, the kids all went back to their old way of eating. The kids were more influenced by family habits than by education.

            I think starting with ourselves is good. We can be positive examples to the people who surround us or, at least, simply live our own healthy lives.

            The difficult thing is that there seems to be a line between letting people experience the consequences of their actions and neglecting to help them, and a line between helping them and not making them accountable for what they do. And everyone has a different opinion on which side it’s better to err.

  2. Amara
    Jan 11, 2012

    I think that as imperfect beings, any time we attempt to exert control over others there is potential for harm and abuse. (if not a guarantee) Social campaigns are hoping to control/modify behavior, so while they are usually the lesser of two evils, they are the tool of a broken society. Ideally this kind of information should be related in a relational setting (such as your parenting example) but I would say most true solutions to our world’s ills lie in relationship and community.

    Your light bulb moment sounds like how Jonathan and I hope to parent Zion. I have no desire to control my children, I am far too flawed for that to have a good outcome, and isn’t likely to happen anyways. What I pray is that they will join Jonathan and I in seeking how to love those around us, that we can nurture and guide them to the point that they will choose to be active participants in learning with us.

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