Josef Goebbels came to a horrible end in Hitler’s bunker, shooting himself and his wife after poisoning their six young children. But his ghost may be gloating over his erstwhile enemies’ whole-hearted adoption of the marketing and PR stratagems he pioneered. Goebbels explained for example that:
There was no point in seeking to convert the intellectuals. For intellectuals would never be converted and would anyway always yield to the stronger and this will always be ‘the man in the street’. Arguments must therefore be crude, clear and forcible, and appeal to emotions and instincts not intellect. Truth is unimportant and entirely subordinate to tactics and psychology.
Goebbels’ colleague Hermann Goering further explicated this stratagem, telling his interrogators at Nuremberg that ‘of course most people don’t want to go to war’ but it is easy to make them do so by repeated warnings that they are under attack by enemies; and that those who deny this truth are traitors.
The 21st century has seen political leaders, would-be leaders, marketing managers, spin doctors, media consultants and others everywhere putting Goebbels’ techniques into practice, drawing on the vastly expanded opportunities provided by modern communications. We know how successful they are, because most of us buy at least some of the fairly useless products that are advertised; and large numbers of Australians have been persuaded that Afghanistan and Iraq were dangerous enemies that we needed to attack; that asylum-seekers fleeing the very governments we were attacking were themselves dangerous enemies; and that allowing ASIO and its brother bodies to harass some citizens will render us ‘real’ citizens more secure.
Thanks to Hive
As Goebbels pointed out, most intellectuals are not too impressed by crude appeals to the passions. Their big problem lies in understanding how so many people do fall for these crude appeals; for example, why they vote for government that lied us into a catastrophic war. I keep hearing colleagues asking each other ‘Why don’t people care?’
Answers come there none. So maybe we need to shift the focus a little, and give more thought to the vagaries of those human passions that are so readily manipulated.
Evolutionary theory holds that humankind has evolved a set of basic instincts that are finely tuned to respond to particular triggers, like fear to certain animals. These old instincts still form a major part of our neurological set-up, and can be readily ‘dog-whistled’ up. You just have to know the right tune: although, with a strong basic instinct, a pretty basic whistle will do.
In political life, what are the operating instincts and the effective whistles? As a case study, let’s look at asylum seekers, and how it is that the Australian population that once welcomed Jewish and Vietnamese refugees could be Goebbel-ed into regarding them as enemies.
Well, firstly, fear of strangers. Along with large animals, snakes and spiders, strangers are potent fear elicitors, and especially when they look different, arrive uninvited, are believed to have unnatural characteristics (throw their children overboard/ eat babies), have sharp teeth and lots of hair. Goebbels drew on the hair and teeth aspect in anti-Semitic propaganda films that equated Jews and rats. Lynton Crosby evidently chose gypsies as (rather surprising) fear/ hate objects in the recent UK election, because of their abundant hair and wandering habits. And the uninvited arrival of asylum seekers has featured strongly in our government’s depiction of them as ‘queue-jumpers’ who must be opposed because ‘We will decide who comes to this country ‘
Secondly, attack. The natural reaction to fear is flight or fight. From the viewpoint of leaders, mass follower flight is not desirable, so encouraging fight is essential. As Goering explained, this requires strengthening the attack instinct, along with its brother instincts, righteous anger and resentment against those who are trying to do us down. Or who seek, in our Prime Minister’s famous words, to ‘intimidate us with our own decency.’
Thirdly, envy: in this case, downwards envy of the particular kind that perceives poor refugees as somehow enjoying advantages not available to ordinary Australians. As one man grumbled to me at a bus stop, ‘They’re a bloody sight better off [in detention centres]than where they come from, and I’m paying for it ‘
How to combat Goebbelisation? If we accept Goebbel’s view that appeals to the intellect are useless, then maybe appealing to other, more positive basic instincts is the way to go: for example, altruism, and human affection for small children. So hats off to the Sydney Morning Herald‘s feature-photo series of babies and children behind the razor wire. A brilliant start!
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