We tend today to exaggerate the effectiveness of persuasion as a means of inculcating opinion and shaping behavior. We see in propaganda a formidable instrument. To its skillful use we attribute many of the startling successes of the mass movements of our time, and we have come to fear the word as much as the sword.
Actually the fabulous effects ascribed to propaganda have no greater foundation in fact than the fall of the walls of Jericho ascribed to the blast of Joshua’s trumpets. Were propaganda by itself one-tenth as potent as it is made out to be, the totalitarian regimes of Russia, Germany, Italy and Spain would have been mild affairs. They would have been blatant and brazen but without the ghastly brutality of secret police, concentration camps and mass extermination.
The truth seems to be that propaganda on its own cannot force its way into unwilling minds; neither can it inculcate something wholly new; nor can it keep people persuaded once they have ceased to believe. It penetrates only into minds already open, and rather than instill opinion it articulates and justifies opinions already present in the minds of its recipients. The gifted propagandist brings to a boil ideas and passions already simmering in the minds of his hearers. He echoes their innermost feelings. Where opinion is not coerced, people can be made to believe only in what they already “know.”
Propaganda by itself succeeds mainly with the frustrated. Their throbbing fears, hopes and passions crowd at the portals of their senses and get between them and the outside world. They cannot see but what they have already imagined, and it is the music of their own souls they hear in the impassioned words of the propagandist. Indeed, it is easier for the frustrated to detect their own imaginings and hear the echo of their own musings in impassioned double-talk and sonorous refrains than in precise words joined together with faultless logic.
Propaganda by itself, however skillful, cannot keep people persuaded once they have ceased to believe. To maintain itself, a mass movement has to order things so that when the people no longer believe, they can be made to believe by force.
Source: “Persuasion and Coercion,” from The True Believer, by Eric Hoffer