Jason Stanley, best known for his work in philosophy of language, seeks to explain ‘how propaganda works’, as well as to show why it is that propaganda is a threat to democracy. In addition, he argues that inequality, whether justified or not in distributive terms, is problematic in that it will tend to generate what he calls ‘flawed ideologies’ which again are a threat to democracy. These are clearly topics of great importance, and it is very welcome to see a philosopher of language of Stanley’s prominence giving such attention to political philosophy. Here, he self-consciously follows the lead of a group of primarily feminist philosophers, such as Rae Langton, Sally Haslanger, Jennifer Hornsby and Miranda Fricker in using arguments and analysis from epistemology and philosophy of language to illuminate issues connected to the political use and misuse of speech. The book is rich in its sources, also drawing on the history of political philosophy and sociology, contemporary social psychology and the writings of African-American social and political philosophers such as Martin Robison Delany and W.E.B. Du Bois.
Propaganda is defined by Stanley in an initially surprising way, as ‘the employment of a political ideal against itself’ (xiii). As the book develops, however, the picture becomes clearer. Stanley is particularly concerned with cases in which what appear on the surface to be contributions to reasonable political discourse in fact undermine that discourse by cutting off or silencing rational debate. One telling example is the statement by a politician that ‘There are Muslims among us’ (42). On a surface reading this is simply a statement of fact. Yet anyone uttering that phrase is also implying in some way that ‘Muslims are the enemy’, without stating it as such. Accordingly, it is very hard to engage with and contest the idea that Muslims are the enemy if it is introduced in this way, and so debate tends to be closed off. Hence, arguably, it is the employment of a political ideal (reasonableness) against itself.
Stanley attempts to deepen the analysis by drawing on a distinction between ‘at - issue content’ and ‘not - at - issue content’ made by Christopher Potts, to explain the difference between what can be called the explicit and unstated aspects of the example. This does help frame the discussion but there is a cost. Stanley finds he cannot extend his analysis to images used as propaganda, as he cannot apply the ‘at - issue/not - at - issue’ distinction to, for example, an article about crime illustrated with a picture of a black man (128). Given the powerful propagandist role of images, especially cartoons, it is a pity that they remain outside the core analysis.
For Stanley, propaganda is related to the idea of an ideology, which, roughly, is a class of beliefs that for the individual are held without being subject to normal processes of rational assessment. Propaganda becomes demagoguery when the ideology is ‘flawed’ (and by this Stanley appears to mean ‘against the democratic values of reasonableness, empathy and inclusion’). At its worst demagoguery also keys into the emotions of the audience, by using powerful imagery (e.g. Jews as rats and therefore a threat to public health) to raise up hatred of a group and make their interests invisible. Indeed, Stanley makes the bold claim that flawed ideology ‘robs groups of knowledge of their own mental states by systematically concealing their interests from them’ (5).
Flawed ideology (and therefore propaganda), for Stanley, does not have to be insincere or false. Many good-willed people reproduce propaganda in service of a flawed ideology that protects their own interests. For example, a rich person may sincerely believe that the economy rewards merit, and therefore their privilege is merited, even though they may be rich through the good fortune of inheritance. The flaw in the ideology here is to exclude the perspective of those who are not rich but may have worked just as hard. However, given that it would be rare, perhaps impossible, to include all possible perspectives in one’s firmly held beliefs, on this view how flawed an ideology is becomes a matter of degree rather than kind.
As Stanley recognizes, on any theory of ideology, it is no puzzle that the rich may wish to believe that their privilege is deserved. The deep question is why the poor should also believe it. Here, Stanley appeals to the effects of the American schooling system (278–91), which, he argues, was deliberately set up to reinforce and legitimize class distinction, and the mass media which also has the same effect. Perhaps this is plausible in the context in which Stanley writes, but it is a surprisingly crude account, and in itself too specific to explain something that has existed outside contemporary US contexts. Is there always something akin to a conspiracy of this sort? It seems unlikely.
The strength of the book is that Stanley has made an excellent case that propaganda contributes to a situation in which the interests of despised or excluded groups are routinely ignored. Propaganda not only renders the interests of the excluded invisible, but also closes off the opportunity to raise the right questions, by framing the discourse in such a way that a body of assumptions provide an implicit common ground that is difficult to challenge. (Incidentally, although Stanley does not mention it, this account provides an explanation of why brilliant political analysis, or even comedy, can be so startling and rewarding: they put into words the issues that are on the fringes of the discourse and are both at some level well-known but beyond the resources of most people to articulate.)
Stanley also argues that material inequality generates flawed ideologies that in turn are a threat to democracy. This is a very important claim for political philosophy, as it would provide a reason for economic equality based on non-economic concerns. Stanley, as we saw, argues that material inequality will lead privileged groups to propagate a flawed ideology about how they came to be rich. And earlier examples in the book suggest that those in power (who are likely to hold wealth) will also generate flawed ideologies about their ‘expert’ status. Privilege protects itself to the detriment of the ‘negatively privileged’, which in this contexts undermines their ability to play a role as an equal in the political process. However, put in these terms the claim is not new: for example, it is the reason why John Rawls, in A Theory of Justice (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1971 and 1999) was concerned to protect the ‘fair value’ of political liberties.
However, Stanley wants to go further and argue that the existence of flawed ideologies also ‘robs groups of knowledge of their mental states’ but I did not find myself coming away from the book with a clear sense of how this claim is established, as in part it relies on other work in philosophy, by Stanley and others, which is only sketched out here. Indeed, although it draws on decades of thought it is clear that the book was written quickly – started in October 2013 (296) and published in May 2015 – and there are many ways in which it would have benefited from another round of drafting. Nevertheless, Stanley has produced a highly stimulating book that brings the issue of propaganda to the attention of political philosophers and draws on an impressive range of philosophical and social scientific sources to illustrate his analysis and provide support for his claims. It is bound to be widely discussed and debated.