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Relevance of Myth for Successful Propaganda

Relevance of Myth for Successful Propaganda

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Published by miasimion
an essay outlining the hero-framework used by propaganda
an essay outlining the hero-framework used by propaganda

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Published by: miasimion on Nov 26, 2010
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USC- War and Culture Course No.

020033 Professors :Brendan Dooley Clemens Schwender Student: Anamaria Roxana Simion

The Relevance of Myth for Propaganda

Although myths and heroes are commonplace throughout life, especially during the formative period of childhood, the relevance of myth in a political context is a more obtrusive issue, not immediately obvious. What is the significance of myth to the individual? What role does myth play in one’s life? What is propaganda? How does propaganda exploit myth? The reasons and importance of using myths and myth-like frameworks in propagandistic efforts have been analyzed in several works, one of the most important being Jacques Ellul’s “PropagandaThe Formation of Man’s Attitudes”, while the underlying mechanisms of myth have been thoroughly analyzed by Joseph Campbell in his book “The Hero with a Thousand Faces”. In an attempt to answer the above-mentioned questions, the two books will be quoted. In order to understand the effect of myths upon individuals, one must consider the social context in which mythologies are created. This context is represented by groups of people that share the same cultural episteme, civilizations in effect. “ Throughout the inhabited world, in all times and under every circumstance, the myths of man have flourished.” (Campbell J, pg3). Mythologies, however, have the outstanding potential of being appreciated by different civilizations because they deal with universal subjects and draw on so-called ancestral roots of the human psyche. Myths challenge reality but always appeal to the common sense, the instinctive feelings of man.“It would not be too much to say that myth is the secret opening through which the inexhaustible energies of the cosmos pour into human cultural manifestation.” (Campbell J. pg.3).This is why civilizations of completely different origin, such as greek mythology and native-American mythologies appeal to other, spatially and temporally distant

civilizations, such as the Indian. This goes to show that myths tap into a common source of information, one that transcends both time and space and remains imprinted into the psyche of the listener as axiomatic, needing no justification: “[..] in myth, the problems and solutions shown are directly valid for all mankind” (Campbell J, pg 19) Although much research has been carried out trying to explain the purpose of myth, one role, easily observed by the wide audience is the didactic one. Myths make use of their universal character to serve an educational purpose: they represent an allegory which is meant to teach the listener about the cosmic order and the punishment that awaits those who do not obey. They make accessible to the uninitiated truths that transcend one’s own power of comprehension and thus myths appeal to the feeling of sacred in each individual. It is this feeling of sacred that causes people not to doubt the source of truth in myth. Exactly how this sacred feeling is achieved remains a complex issue, but the fact that countless many previous generations have used mythology as a moral guideline to life, as well as the inner individual appeal of myth play important roles. This power of myth to communicate axiomatically, based on feelings elicited in its listeners, feelings that these individuals can relate to, this gives myth the potential for propagandistic use. Of course, propaganda does not create actual myths, it cannot, because propaganda seeks to affect a targeted group of individuals, be it entire nations, but it certainly does not address humankind as a whole. Furthermore, the time required for functional myths to appear is very long, since this process is like extracting universal wisdom from each civilization. What propaganda skilfully does, however, is to use pseudo-myths and replace the underlying universal concepts with popular feelings such as hatred towards a given group, national pride, etc, all of which elicit a similar intense response in certain audience. This is, of course, the reason why so many people become intimately convinced by the “validity” of these surrogates. Propaganda creates substitutes of myth to exploit its own sub-culture, skilfully manufactured, to give it more credibility: “The aim of modern propaganda is no longer to modify ideas, but to provoke action. It is no longer to change adherence to a doctrine but to make the individual cling irrationally to a process of action. It is no longer to transform an opinion, but to arouse an active and mythical belief.” (Ellul, pg.25) Therefore, a whole range of themes need to be presented in this pseudomythology, from the hero-leader, to examples of wrongfulness, wrong-doers, as well as attempts to endow the propagandized organization with the sacred feeling that myths generally elicit.

What makes propagandistic stories even more believable is the literary form in which they are depicted. This generally takes on the phrasing and structure of myths, with a narrative thread that closely resembles the genuine. Propaganda basically replaces within the myth certain values like who is good, who is bad, what is the driving force of justice, which results in a pseudo-myth “tailored” to fit the propagandized organization, thus proving a powerful weapon of mass inoculation. Bearing in mind the power of myth over people’s judgements, it is easy to understand why modern propaganda, which seeks to create conditioned-reflex behaviour in its target audience, would employ myths, or at least the form of the myths. From a propagandistic point of view, the myth is defined as “an all-encompassing, activating image: a sort of vision of desirable objectives that have lost their material, practical character and have become strongly coloured, overwhelming and which displaces from the conscious all that is not related to it”(Ellul, pg.31). Presenting information in the form of mythical formulations, for example assigning good and bad value to the propagandist party and the opposing one, respectively, is a common technique. On a larger scale, the re-invention and re-interpretation of history in order to fit an artificial myth is also widely used and causes much more profound changes in the audience. Examples of manufacturemyths include: the myth of race, of the proletariat, of the Fuehrer, of Communist society, of productivity, all of which have a precise purpose, that of efficient manipulation of the audience in the direction desired by the leading party. But how is it that propaganda can create all these “modern” myths in a way that people actually believe them and are ready to accept the facts they convey? One way is to begin advertising these manufactured stories in institutions where myths are generally employed. Schools and the young generation, much less discerning than the adult one are the best targets, as "the impact and implications of the re-socialization of children in schools through education efforts not focused on reality but rather wrought with teachings about cultural and societal myths: myth teaching, necessary to promote feelings like national unity, is an education of deception” (Ellul, pg.28 ). Children are often indoctrinated, for example, to embrace their own culture without question, place their own culture at the center, and repudiate other cultures or place them at the periphery. This kind of indoctrination leads to a distorted view of reality, of the real history and character of one's own people, and also encourages adverse responses towards other nations. Children become less conscious of the true nature of their reality, as well as the

reality of others. From a propagandistic viewpoint, this is the ultimate goal, creating individuals who will respond positively to any treatment imposed by the state, the propagandized institution in this case. The importance of myth construction about one’s own history, contemporary policies and national behavior is a key element in the process of building a framework by which a nationalistic education can emerge and have a profound impact on intercultural and interreligious communication. Nationalistic propaganda and ethnocentric myth teaching are used concomitantly in order to induce the desired isolationism of thought in the audience, thus creating the prerequisites for complete takeover of individual reasoning and replacement with the propagandistic agenda. The construction of pseudo-myths has become an effective mechanism employed by modern propaganda in order to reach the subconscious of the public. One of the most blatant exploitation of the power of myth over its audience is illustrated by the sanctification process operated on every political leader. Propaganda turns ordinary men into heroes, people endowed with extraordinary courage, intelligence and power, all on account of increasing the political influence of the leader. The significance of a strong political figure for successful propaganda cannot be overstated: the validity of the state’s decisions, as well as the way they are implemented at the level of the individual rely strongly upon the perception of the leader as an infallible decision-maker, a genius in all matters and an especially adept problem-solver. Since modern propaganda aims at triggering an action-response in the public, mythical leaders are needed to re-enforce these decisions, by mechanisms that address the unconscious, rather than the reasoning power of individuals. Modern propaganda, however, does not rely entirely on myths in order to produce the desired effects; rather, the myth is seen as an accompanying tool to the diverse and wide range of physical and psychological methods used. As a theoretician of propaganda, Ellul suggests that propaganda must be total, employing all accessible means to re-enforce a given agenda. However, within the psychological section, named sub-propaganda,“the two great routes that sub-propaganda takes are the conditioned reflex and myth” (Ellul J, pg.31). “Propaganda tries first of all to create conditioned reflexes in the individual by training him so that certain words, signs or symbols, even certain persons or facts, provoke unfailing reaction.”(Ellul J, pg. 31). It is only after this psychological basis has been achieved that myths are ready to take over and fill in the information people need to know, the information that propaganda delivers to them: “only

when conditioned reflexes have been created in a man and he lives in a collective myth can he be readily mobilized.”(Ellul J, pg. 32) The apparatus that modern propaganda is able to form has long gone unnoticed by the general population, mainly because one of its goals is to be very subtle, deceiving people into believing that their decisions were not influenced by outside factors. One of the best ways for propaganda to go unnoticed is to use pre-existent structures and mould them according to the needs of the propagandized institution. Using myths is one of the most efficient ways to infiltrate facts as well as implement desired responses in the population, and that has led to the emergence of some of the most dangerous, strong beliefs in history, able to dramatically re-shape entire cultures.

References: • • Ellul, Jacques The Formation of Men’s Attitudes, Random House, 1965 Campbell, Joseph The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Princeton University Press, 1949

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