Political slogans: making squares into circles

By Jill Segger
October 27, 2013

Propaganda could be described as persuasion without morals. It has been a tool of power for centuries and in our own time, its use in inculcating a state of belief which is not in proportion to evidence, is most clearly seen in politicians' choice and use of slogans.

The advertising and PR industries know that short, memorable phrases stick in the mind and act as both stimulus and short cuts to decision making. If the phrase is witty, quaint, has a rhythmic quality or is associated with an entertaining character or animation, it is most likely to be successful. “Simples” probably did more for a certain brand of insurance than any amount of factual information could have achieved.

Politicians are rarely so inventive. They rely on the classic propaganda tools of repetition ad nauseum (one is tempted to say ad absurdum) and the exploitation of fear. It is worth keeping in mind the words of that arch-propagandist of modern times, Joseph Goebbels: “It would not be impossible to prove with sufficient repetition and a psychological understanding of the people concerned that a square is in fact a circle. They are mere words, and words can be moulded until they clothe ideas and disguise.”

The repetition is certainly evident. It currently appears impossible for government ministers or MPs of any party to open their mouths without referring to “hard-working people”. There are plenty of occasions where the shoe-horning of this phrase into any interchange – regardless of relevance – appears risible. But the danger is that a subliminal connection begins to be made between human rights, compassion and industrious behaviour.

When the new National Crime Agency was launched earlier this month, the Conservative Press Office Twitter feed announced that it would “keep hard-working people safe”. The unemployed, retired, sick, disabled or bone idle appear to have no right to be protected from serious crime. Their rights as citizens were disguised by being clothed in a specious and irrelevant slogan.

The rather oddly named 'protestant work ethic' has a real and enduring hold on our thinking. Few people admire laziness and most of us are well aware of the value of work in binding society together, fulfilling individuals and building self-esteem. The idea that some may be 'scrounging' or in some other way failing to pull their weight, has particular traction in a time when so many are fearful about their jobs and are struggling with the cost of living. The psychology of the target audience has, to some extent been understood. Its exploitation is costing us dear in division and ill-founded resentment.

The more politicians misuse these slick and meaningless phrases, the greater is the likelihood that they will eventually become discredited. But that process involves a growing disdain for those who display such a cavalier attitude to truth, reason and discernment. It is hard to be certain whether the authors of these phrases and those who apply them in a manner which is frankly stupid, are unaware of this or whether they simply do not care so long as they think some advantage will accrue from their falsity. Neither possibility contributes to our collective or personal cohesion or to the health of democratic politics.

While some slogans are calculated to exploit the vulnerable areas of our psyches, others are designed to embed an orthodoxy which is presented as being beyond question. The 'global race' comes in this category. This technique of short-circuiting thought, analysis and alternative is arguably even more dangerous. To raise questions of sustainability and co-operation is to lay oneself open to being dismissed as holding naïve and irrelevant views. Demonisation by category is a well-tested technique of power. But it can only work if we are too timid to challenge what George Orwell described as “the smelly little orthodoxies that compete for our souls”.

Truth-telling is so much more than refraining from lies. To distort the framing of facts or to be cunning in the techniques of exploitation is to betray the trust that alone can enable justice and freedom. If the truth is to set us free, we must strive constantly for its expression and resist its deformation in ourselves, our own causes, and the causes we oppose. It is a seamless robe.

Over a century ago, GK Chesterton prayed to be delivered from “all that terror teaches, from lies of tongue and pen, from all the easy speeches that comfort cruel men”. There's a slogan to put on a t-shirt.

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© Jill Segger is an Associate Director of Ekklesia with particular involvement in editorial issues. She is a freelance writer who contributes to the Church Times, Catholic Herald, Tribune, Reform and The Friend, among other publications. Jill is an active Quaker. See: http://www.journalistdirectory.com/journalist/TQig/Jill-Segger You can follow Jill on Twitter at: http://www.twitter.com/quakerpen

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