In the information age, propaganda is everywhere. Someone with a degree in psychology's behind everything from the latest McDonald's ad to the nightly weather map. I know these things, but somehow I think I subconsciously imagined a propaganda creation meeting to be a sinister, monocles-and-capes affair.
I certainly didn't expect brunch amidst the pleasing, muted tones of the sunny Centre for Jewish Life on the U of T campus, or the chummy presence of one David Baker, senior press officer in the office of Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon. But of course, it makes perfect sense.
You'd be hard-pressed to find people more comfortable than the U of T Hillel activists who attend for the purpose of brainstorming ways to counter negative coverage of Israel's role in the infinitely less than comfortable situation in the West Bank.
Never has a less inspiring phrase been spoken in earshot of a journalist than "off the record." It tends to kill the mood. So when Baker speaks those words halfway through the discussion, my plans for this story evaporate. What's left is a lesson in propaganda.
"What did Palestinians do to deserve tanks and bombers invading their homes?" asks one bruncher. He doesn't really want to know - he poses the question to learn ways to defuse it. Shortly after, under his breath, he says, "You can firebomb them all for all I care."
The most singularly gruesome moment comes when someone asks earnestly, as if in a math class, "How do I explain tanks running over people?" You say that humanity has become a corrupt and atrophied organism rapidly consuming all that is good within itself, I want to say. You admit that you are on the losing side and salvage what is left of your humanity, I long to spit out. But I stay silent, hoping the question will stir some deep embers of empathy. Baker gives a dazzlingly skilful answer, which I only wish I could quote here in full.
I can't. But I can extrapolate an overall pattern in his mini-lectures, and present the guiding background process: Propaganda In Two Movements.
1. Pick one or two key points that are emotionally compelling, technically true, not overly specific and easy to segue to in a variety of ways. These are your "talking points."
2. When responding to arguments, keep your talking points in mind and listen for words or concepts in your opponent's arguments that can relate, either immediately or by a stepping-stone process, back to those points. In this way, you can create the impression of having considered a question when you have simply restated your point of view. This may be the latticework of all propaganda. Here's how Baker garnishes the technique:
FACT BY ASSOCIATION. Establish a certain fact, and certain results of that fact. Once that's clear in everyone's head, you can then, in further discussion, apply that result to something else that's similar but for which there is or is likely to be considerably less support.
For instance, if you are a nectarine lobbyist, establish beyond a reasonable doubt, through repetition, that nectarines are a good and necessary source of vitamin C. Later, during discussion on a hotly contested point like pesticide residues, remind everyone of the vitamin C issue and why that means it's crucial that everyone eat nectarines.
THERE ARE DETAILS AND THEN THERE ARE DETAILS. Your audience should be well versed in the gruesome details of an attack against "your side." Morbid fascination with the unfortunate deeds of your own attack forces, however, is to be discouraged. Should someone begin debating history in any great detail, say you're not a historian and try to make it seem like your antagonist is obsessive and unwholesome.
THIS HURTS ME MORE THAN IT HURTS YOU. Especially useful when justifying government repression. Hypothetically speaking, if you were to seed your opponent's territory with whoopee cushions and they complained of constant embarrassment, you could then complain of being constantly embarrassed for them.
I KNOW I AM, BUT WHAT ARE YOU? OR IKIABWAY. When you're accused of something, accuse your opponent of the same thing, then make a big production of it, as if they had something to hide. It's helpful but not strictly necessary if your counter-accusation is grounded in fact.
LIE. The bald-faced, unapologetic fib, like the humble brick of tofu, is your most versatile but demanding ingredient, easy to swallow when used skilfully and nauseating when not.
Ultimately, your goal is not to win over your opponent. Your goal is to win over those consuming news bites. In a media war, collateral damage is not only allowed; it is necessary.