Prof. Dr. Catarina Dutilh Novaes
On the purported opposition between propaganda and rational discourse
Propaganda is typically understood as communication that is used primarily to influence or persuade an audience to adopt certain opinions and behaviors, often in the context of politics and public discourse. In common parlance, the term ‘propaganda’ tends to have very negative connotations; propagandistic discourse is viewed as based on lies and deceit, and as aiming at emotional manipulation of the masses exclusively for the benefit of the propagandist. Thus understood, propaganda is often contrasted with rational discourse, in particular reasoned argumentation, which purportedly aims at the truth and does not mislead its audience. In a nutshell, propaganda is ‘bad’ while rational argumentation is ‘good’, and the two categories are sharply distinguished.
In this talk, I argue that this dichotomy is overly simplistic. Conceptions of rationality used to define propaganda negatively are often quite contentious, in particular the purported contrast between ‘reason’ and ‘emotion’. Moreover, rational argumentation that aims at persuasion is functionally similar to propaganda in that it aims at interfering with the belief states of other agents. Thus understood, argumentation also has a coercive component. If so, then the purported opposition to rational discourse is not a suitable response to what we may describe as the ‘demarcation problem’ for propaganda (what counts as propaganda and what does not). I present an alternative, non-pejorative conceptualization of propaganda, and discuss some criteria that may distinguish ‘good’ from ‘bad’ propaganda from an ethical/moral point of view.
Catarina Dutilh Novaes is Professor of Philosophy and University Research Chair at VU Amsterdam, and Professorial Fellow at Arché, University of St. Andrews. She is currently (2018-2024) leading the ERC-funded project 'The Social Epistemology of Argumentation'. She is known for her research on the history and philosophy of logic, philosophy of mathematics, social epistemology, reasoning and cognition, and argumentation theory. Her publications include Formal Languages in Logic (CUP, 2012), The Cambridge Companion to Medieval Logic (edited with S. Read, CUP, 2016) and The Dialogical Roots of Deduction (CUP, 2020), which won the Lakatos Award in 2022.