"What luck for the rulers that men do not think" - Adolf Hitler
Propaganda is not always an intentional campaign of persuasion. Sometimes it is simply an idea that has become a legal and cultural fixture over thousands of years. Yet it remains technically propaganda as it cannot stand up to scrutiny with the filter of critical thought or free debate. Why do human beings carry on ideas and traditions that have not been derived from a process of reason? Because we are children of our times and our culture, and because societies continue to promote those ideas in their mores and stories. Effectively, culture and law become the medium for the message. Because of the impact of culture and law on our psyche, it continues to be difficult to look at mores and to understand their origins in an objective manner. It is difficult to be the observer and the subject.
The most ubiquitous of these ideas is that of decency. What is decency? In Judeo-Christian, as well as in Moslem, Hindu and Buddhist cultures, decency refers to a code of behaviour in which humans control what they wear (or how much they wear), how they behave sexually and how they behave in public. In particular, the idea of decency as it relates to the covering of the human body is so prevalent and internalized world-wide that most of us, no matter how liberal, cannot overcome inhibitions about our own bodies and clothing. Religious organisations maintain the absolute necessity for adhering to a rigorous code of decency so that God will be pleased. The American Decency Association is but one of many such organizations.
Present laws in most countries reflect a time when church and state were not separate, and therefore decency became entrenched in the legal system. As debate continues, and we grow as a society in North America, it is clear to many that decency today is an issue of mores, and should not be an issue of government. However, decency is still a matter of law. As recently as 1995, the Communications Decency Act was passed in the USA, prohibiting "indecency in cyberspace". This decision was reversed in 1997, but only after a good deal of campaigning by civil libertarians and internet free speech advocates such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation and Center for Democracy and Technology.
Countries such as Iran have no separation between church and state; they continue to legislate morality and decency.
"Almost every Muslim country has laws on the books against homosexuality," said Faisal Alam, president of Al-Fatiha, a Washington-based online community for gay Muslims. "In many places, the punishment may include jail time, fines, or lashing." In Iran, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, Libya, and Sudan, homosexuality is punishable by death. Alam says at least 4,000 gays have been executed in Iran since the 1979 Islamic Revolution. "And those numbers are conservative," he said. (Wired News May 8, 2000). Other Islamic laws of morality include women's apparel, including various interpretations of the Koran, in which the definition of decency varies from country to country. While women's faces may be seen in Iran, and some colour is allowed in scarves and coats, Saudi women must wear a full burqah. Both these countries see themselves as champions of the true Islamic way.
The threat of death is a very persuasive argument for behaviour modification. In a less drastic case, the threat of internalized shame and embarassment keep Canadian women from going topless in Ontario, where in fact the law had been successfully challenged to clarify the definition of "decency". However, the law remains on the books:
"The three judges did not completely agree on the scope of the law. They all agreed that (Gwen) Jacobs had not committed an indecent act. However, Judge Osborne and Mr. Justice Allan Austin suggested that acts could be indecent without having a sexual purpose. Judge Weiler on the other hand, believes that the question is whether an act would be considered sexual by a reasonable bystander. She said that the exposure of breasts in our society does not automatically mean that the act is being done for sexual gratification.
Jacob's lawyer, Margaret Buist had argued that she had a constitutional right to go topless since men could. However, the court did not deal with the constitutionality issue in its ruling." (Canadian Federation of Nudists)
The historical and present day bias against sexual deviancy and nudity (forms of indecency) is impossible to overlook. Due to the sheer force of law and the associated power to punish, this bias has been difficult to question and to rebel against. It has been easier to hide or modify such behaviours. Where behaviour had to be hidden, shame, guilt and alienation is common. Where behaviour had to be modified, people often internalized the bias to the point that they persecuted others showing weakness (the inability or unwillingness to change) and signs of the "indecency". The resulting shame and guilt undermined self-esteem, and thereby humans' sense of self and sense of power.
From where in our history do these biases come? The answer of course is speculative, but to better research them, it is important to ask "who benefitted?". Who could have benefitted from mass shame, guilt and repressed behaviours? The churches in Christian history benefitted greatly from the subservience of their members. The Catholic church gained riches and control, and both Protestant and Catholic churches were inseparable from the local political power. (Liberated Christians) Political power has always been easier for rulers when the populace is unempowered to question and engage in revolution. There is no question that churches and governments have engaged in power mongering over their subjects throughout history.
And what is my motive and bias in questioning the mores which amount to a long term promotion campaign for a set of value judgements? My thoughts are the product of my times. The pursuit of happiness, perhaps a by-product of a leisure class, has been bolstered by contemporary research into the importance of self-esteem and its relevance to social justice.
There has been throughout time some who question contemporary society, regardless of the century. However, in post-modern times, particularly in the age of the internet, the dissemination of information and broadcasting on a small scale has become so accessible that many more voices are heard. When more voices and ideas are heard, the idea of dissent and critical questioning is not so radical and lonely a proposition. My questions and my thoughts join a chorus of proclamations that the emperor is not wearing a stitch!
This long term propaganda campaign is a testament to the slow rate at which human consciousness evolves. That people have put up with death, shame, ridicule, ostracization, and unhappiness century after century rather than question the soundness of the ideas being promoted is a hard lesson to learn. Having learned it just once, it is unlikely that such history will be repeated. I dare not say that it will never be repeated.
Is the advocacy of decency truly propaganda or is it just human nature and human history? It is propaganda. Unlike most propaganda campaigns, it is long term, culturally normalized, internalized by most, ubiquitous and entrenched in the legal systems of most countries. It is usually not an intentional campaign, as one might perceive a true conspiracy to be, because the parties promoting the ideas are sincere and view themselves as righteous and benevolent and in some cases supporting the values of their founding fathers. Yet, it remains propaganda, because decency remains a collection of ideas, values, notions, that are refutable when given a chance for free debate. It is not a matter of whether the propaganda material is right or wrong, but rather whether there has been balanced access to many points of view, and whether there has been a free and safe choice for human beings in what behaviour they might like to adopt as their own.
"As generally understood, propaganda is opinion expressed for the purpose of influencing actions of individuals or groups... Propaganda thus differs fundamentally from scientific analysis. The propagandist tries to "put something across," good or bad. The scientist does not try to put anything across; he devotes his life to the discovery of new facts and principles. The propagandist seldom wants careful scrutiny and criticism; his object is to bring about a specific action. The scientist, on the other hand, is always prepared for and wants the most careful scrutiny and criticism of his facts and ideas. Science flourishes on criticism. Dangerous propaganda crumbles before it." (Alfred McLung Lee & Elizabeth Bryant Lee, The Fine Art of Propaganda, 1939.)
Malaspina University-College Media Studies