Fake News – Propaganda in Our Day: Part 2 – Name Calling

The repertoire of the propagandist is actually quite limited but the myriad variations of this limited number of tools is astounding.  As I mentioned in Part 1 of this series, the IPA delineated 7 specific devices or tactics employed by the propagandist.  Here is that list again with a brief description of each:

Name Calling – giving an idea a bad label to attempt to get us to reject and condemn the idea without examining the evidence

Glittering Generality – associating an idea with a virtue word to attempt to get us to accept and approve the idea without examining the evidence

Transfer – applying the authority, sanction and prestige of something which is respected and revered to something completely different in order to get us to accept and approve of the second thing without examining its individual merits or faults.  Can also be applied in a negative sense to get us to reject and disapprove of the second thing without examining its individual merits or faults.

Testimonial – having someone of good reputation (or bad reputation) speak positively (or negatively) of something to attempt to get us to accept (or reject) it based solely on their reputation rather than the individual merits or faults.

Plain Folks – when the speaker attempts to persuade the audience that he and his ideas are good and worthy of accepting because he is one of the “people”, one of the “plain folks” like them.

Card Stacking – the preselection of facts, statistics or other data to paint the best or worst possible case for any idea, program, person or product.   In modern parlance it is called “framing” the conversation.

Band Wagon – the attempt to convince the listener that everyone else in their group is already accepting of the idea, so we should also “jump on the bandwagon” with our peers.

Whenever you encounter any of these strategies, IMMEDIATELY hit pause, separate the idea from the technique and examine the idea SOLELY on its merits and not the device being employed by the propagandist.   The use of one of these propaganda devices does not by itself mean the idea is a necessarily bad one or that it cannot stand on its on merits (though that may very well be the case).  It does allow us, however, to simply stop the propaganda stream and simply ask “when stripped of tricks, what is the speaker trying to sell me or convince me?  It is something I actually agree with or want?

Let’s dive into the first device (and one with a myriad of examples) Name Calling:

As a propaganda tool, both left and right camps routinely rely on this device in nearly every example of public discourse.  There is a subtle distinction to be witnessed here though.

When the right utilizes this device, they typically use the very labels of the left as a derogatory attack.  For example, when speaking of Bernie Sanders you will find conservative commentators routinely describing him as a “socialist” or “communist” which, while factually accurate, is an attempt to lump any idea or comment he has made with the bloody, violent and failure-ridden history of socialism in the 20th century (see how I also employed it here?).

When the left utilizes this device, they will not use the labels of the right instead opting for associations with labels that technically are associated with the left or for associations with concepts unrelated to the topic at hand.  For an example of the first type of association, the left will accuse the right of being “Nazis”, “KKK”, “White Supremacists” or “Fascists.”  All of these labels are actually a historical part of the left, but because of their terrible history, can be slung with abandon at anyone you wish to portray in the worst possible light regardless of any actual historical or factual connection.  For an example of the second type of association, the left will accuse the right of being xenophobic, homophobic, sexist, racist, extremist or anti-(insert identity politic group).

Now understand, I recognize that this caricature I have painted here of the left and right is obviously an EXTREME generalization and over-simplification.  I am not trying to pin any part of this discussion on the accuracy of this illustration as it is intended only to provide widely seen and recognizable-to-anyone examples of Name Calling while at the same time employing the device in my descriptions of each (did you find both?).  In both cases, using name calling to paint your opponent’s ideas in a negative light to avoid examining the merits of the idea itself is still propaganda pure and simple.

Names have been employed throughout history to shame, inspire, motivate, discourage as well as to justify a host of horrible and wonderful acts.  Kindness and evil have both benefited from the use of name calling in our history.  Why is name calling so powerfully effective?

Because names are identity and identity is personal!

The Romans called foreigners “barbarians.”  The Navajo called themselves Dine meaning “the people.”  The two examples are repeated multitudinous times across the globe and down the ages. Humans have used “in-group” and out-group” labels since the dawn of language itself.  The labeling of ourselves, our families, our tribes, our communities and our nations is foundational to our very existence.  Names define the boundaries of a vast incomprehensible universe to give us a sense of purpose, place and identity.   As you can attest yourself, very complex and powerful imagery gets tied together with names in our subconscious and conscious minds.

Okay, so people use name-calling as a propaganda device.  How do I recognize when it is being used and how do I avoid falling for its use?

Key # 1 is to immediately throw up a red flag ANY time an bad or negative name is being used.  Now this is somewhat simplified because bad names are typically OMNIBUS words.  “Omnibus words are words that have different meanings and different emotional overtones for different people” (IPA).   For example, if I call you an “idiot” the meaning is pretty clear and uniform across all human experience.  If I call you a “Nazi” the use and meaning of the word can differ widely.  Are you acting like a “grammar Nazi?”  Are you an actual member of the National Socialist Party of Germany?  Are you being an extreme authoritarian?”  Are you playing a role in a movie or historical reenactment? Are you advocating for nationally based socialist programs as opposed to globally based socialist programs? Are you acting and behaving as an anti-Semitic bigot advocating for racial purity?  It is these types of omnibus words that should make us stop and examine why name-calling is being used.  In reality, Nazis were a specific group of people who existed at a specific point in time and who did and believed specific things. ALL other uses of the name “Nazi” are nothing more than Name Calling propaganda examples.

Here is how you need to respond when Name Calling is being employed: Ask yourself

  1. What does the name mean?
  2. Does the idea in question have a legitimate connection with the real meaning of the name?
  3. Is an idea that serves my best interests and the best interest of society (as I see them) being dismissed through giving it a name that I do not like?
  4. In other words, leaving the name out of consideration, what are the merits of the idea itself?

The use of “name calling” does not always have to involve a name – it can be accomplished with innuendo as well.   This is all too common in the corporate media today with their”anonymous sources” and “We suspect although we can’t confirm at this time” accusations of their targets with associations with or support for well-known “bad people”.   For example: Trump supports white nationalism or Trump’s rhetoric encourages white supremacists, Jordan Peterson is enabling the “alt-right” or any number of variations.

If you need further validation, just watch how the accusation gets prime time, front-page coverage, while the eventual truth and retraction never are given anywhere near the same coverage.  If they were truly seeking the truth, they would be going after the lying accuser with as much vigor as the falsely-accused.

Keep a sharp eye and employ the steps listed above anytime you spot someone employing name-calling!

Let me know your thoughts in the comments below.


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