Propaganda! What is it? Simple question. No? They say that propaganda is information that is not impartial, that is biased, used to influence or to deceive. But, that begs another question. What does non-biased information look like? Media, News, Opinion, Science?
There is, in the history of philosophy and philosophical theology, a school of thought that grounds all acts of understanding, and therefore all communication of meaning, in what’s been called a pre-conscious mode of understanding. Let us call this pre-understanding. Emerging from the work of Wilhelm Dilthey and the German school of human sciences, this concept was more fully fleshed-out by another great German philosopher in the mid-twentieth century by the name of Hans Georg Gadamer. (See his work: Truth and Method.) According to Gadamer and the hermeneutical concepts he elaborated concerning legal and biblical interpretation, all understanding (of any text or message), whether it be a biblical passage or the nightly news with Dan Rather; all acts of understanding are grounded in and guided in advance by certain presuppositions or prejudices about the subject matter at hand, its relation to the world, and how that world addresses me personally. In other words, there is no objectivity or pure impartiality in human understanding; all meaning is interpretive, perspectival, and constituted upon one’s presuppositions or pre-understanding, if you will. But, if understanding itself is already predisposed in a specific direction, than the act of communicating information must itself be chock-full of certain predispositions as well. As Martin Heidegger (another German philosopher) noted, even the act of selecting some topic for thematic development (a news story, for example) is already guided by a pre-thematic grasp of the situation, guided by prejudices lodged in our pre-understanding. In other words, we pick and choose elements to include or dismiss in our story or theory, and how they relate to one another, based again on pre-conscious assumptions, intuitions, directions. If understanding is itself prejudiced, then there can be NO impartial messages.
It is in this light that we must try to clear away some of the cobwebs and the idle chatter that contend for our attention today regarding the events in Ukraine. We must be careful not to be guided solely by those historical prejudices and presuppositions that always and already seek to control our present understanding. Those of us in the West, and I mean Americans specifically, have been raised on the mother’s milk of Russian fear-mongering and Russia-bashing. We have been trained since the earliest part of the last century to believe certain ‘truths’ about Russia, the KGB, the Kremlin, and communism. Even as babes in the womb, ontogenetically our development may have been influenced by such maternal worries. ‘Fear the Bear! He wants to devour us and make our children his slaves.’ There are a host of truisms out there like this that compose a substantive portion of our pre-understanding whenever we approach a text, a verbal report, or video on events in Ukraine. Now, of course, a similar process occurs in the minds of Russians who see or hear reports in their world about the West. Each side is constrained by, and laboring under, a different (and in this case potentially oppositional) pre-understanding. It is the way we are able to process messages, interpret them meaningfully in our world, and within the worldview with which we are familiar and comfortable. Such pre-understanding affects not only us mortals (i.e., the common people), but our vaunted press, their corporate bosses, and naturally, the politicians and lobbyists who turn the dials, press the buttons, and make the news.
Of course, each side wants you to believe their understanding of the “facts.” But, it is difficult to get beneath that pre-understanding, to shake it loose, if you will, so that one may see things differently. “I” and “Thou” become separated by an invisible wall of misunderstanding grounded in a pre-thematic grasp of the situation that was laid down long ago. We are each, in short, embodied, historical peoples, thrown into a world (with its worldview) without grasping that it is part of the very air we breathe. It informs us without our knowing, and without our blessing. It is what those German philosophers called our intransigent facticity and our unavoidable historicity. It is inscribed in our languages and our customs, in our habits and our preferences, in our values and our desires. It becomes our second nature.
Mind you, it is not human nature per se; indeed, it is not even natural, i.e., given at birth. Rather, it is cultural – a construct, an artifice. But, as civilized human beings this is our legacy and our albatross. It hangs around our necks like a studded choker, determining our reactions, beliefs, motivations, and interpretations. This is the largest problem we face talking to one another across the school yard, the street, the country, or the ocean. It is not a pessimistic view of things, but simply the way things are.
Americans want to believe that Russia is expansionist, aggressive, evil. We are programmed to believe that; it is part of our pre-understanding. Of course, the Russians are quick to defend themselves by talking about American imperialism, its cultural hegemony, and its covert support not only for Ukraine, but for other world-historical events over the past century. Who is right is often a function of where you come from; what pabulum you’ve been raised on. But, sometimes it behooves us, when the door has once been cracked open (as it was with Edward Snowden’s revelations) to rethink our values, our loyalties, re-evaluate our news reports, and our professional politicians, and see that there may be “truth” — value, substance, understanding — in what the other side is seeing that we have not seen, or have seen but only ‘through a glass darkly.’ We must work diligently to overcome the limits of our pre-conceived ideas about the Other, and learn to identify where our own prejudices and presuppositions are really inhibiting our view of what may in fact be happening.
Propaganda works because it feeds into and off our pre-understanding. It is self-validating and self-reinforcing. We must learn to see how that process is working to undermine our view of events. Try to hear the other side; not because they are “right” but because we may be listening all-too-absent-mindedly to the pre-conscious narrative playing in our heads. But, more important, it is now Western propaganda, the vicious and visceral rhetoric currently coming from America – burdened by such profound prejudice and presuppositions – that is creating this vast amount of global static, a horror that is inching all of us ever closer to war. What a shame!