Aldous Huxley on propaganda and why we fall for it

This is a repost of an article I wrote last year. In light of the present events surrounding the murders in Tuscon, AZ and the resulting commotion regarding “inflammatory political rhetoric”, I figured I would post this again.

Reading through Aldous Huxley‘s follow-up to his popular (and insightful) work, A Brave New World, titled A Brave New World Revisited I came across a section where Huxley discusses the role and use of propaganda. Specifically how propaganda is the central means by which totalitarian regimes control their populace.

To do this he uses a well-known master of propaganda during his time, Adolf Hitler, to explore the role modern communication plays in the spread of propaganda. But first, Huxley’s definition of propaganda:

There are two kinds of propaganda — rational propaganda in favor of action that is consonant with the enlightened self-interest of those who make it and those to whom it is addressed, and non-rational propaganda that is not consonant with anybody’s enlightened self-interest, but is dictated by, and appeals to, passion.

To highlight the importance of this point, Huxley includes a quote from Thomas Jefferson:

“If a nation expects to be ignorant and free,” said Jefferson, “it expects what never was and never will be.
. . . The people cannot be safe without information. Where the press is free, and every man able to read, all is safe.”

From here Huxley discusses how intentional and continual distraction and the minimization of rational discourse is exploited in modern dictatorships:

In their propaganda today’s dictators rely for the most part on repetition, suppression and rationalization — the repetition of catchwords which they wish to be accepted as true, the suppression of facts which they wish to be ignored, the arousal and rationalization of passions which may be used in the interests of the Party or the State. As the art and science of manipulation come to be better understood, the dictators of the future will doubtless learn to combine these techniques with the non-stop distractions which, in the West, are now threatening to drown in a sea of irrelevance the rational propaganda essential to the maintenance of individual liberty and the survival of democratic institutions.

And from here Huxley discusses how propaganda was exploited with frightening effectiveness under Hitler (emphasis mine):

At his trial after the Second World War, Hitler’s Minister for Armaments, Albert Speer, delivered a long speech in which, with remarkable acuteness, he described the Nazi tyranny and analyzed its methods. “Hitler’s dictatorship,” he said, “differed in one fundamental point from all its predecessors in history. It was the first dictatorship in the present period of modern technical development, a dictatorship which made complete use of all technical means for the domination of its own country. Through technical devices like the radio and the loud-speaker, eighty million people were deprived of independent thought. It was thereby possible to subject them to the will of one man. . . . Earlier dictators needed highly qualified assistants even at the lowest level — men who could think and act independently. The totalitarian system in the period of modern technical development can dispense with such men; thanks to modern methods of communication, it is possible to mechanize the lower leadership. As a result of this there has arisen the new type of the uncritical recipient of orders.”

Today the art of mind-control is in the process of becoming a science. The practitioners of this science know what they are doing and why. They are guided in their work by theories and hypotheses solidly established on a massive foundation of experimental evidence. Thanks to the new insights and the new techniques made possible by these insights, the nightmare that was “all but realized in Hitler’s totalitarian system” may soon be completely realizable.

“Hitler,” wrote Hermann Rauschning in 1939, “has a deep respect for the Catholic church and the Jesuit order; not because of their Christian doctrine, but because of the ‘machinery’ they have elaborated and controlled, their hierarchical system, their extremely clever tactics, their knowledge of human nature and their wise use of human weaknesses in ruling over believers.” Ecclesiasticism without Christianity, the discipline of a monastic rule, not for God’s sake or in order to achieve personal salvation, but for the sake of the State and for the greater glory and power of the demagogue turned Leader — this was the goal toward which the systematic moving of the masses was to lead.

Let us see what Hitler thought of the masses he moved and how he did the moving. The first principle from which he started was a value judgment: the masses are utterly contemptible. They are incapable of abstract thinking and uninterested in any fact outside the circle of their immediate experience. Their behavior is determined, not by knowledge and reason, but by feelings and unconscious drives. It is in these drives and feelings that “the roots of their positive as well as their negative attitudes are implanted.” To be successful a propagandist must learn how to manipulate these instincts and emotions. “The driving force which has brought about the most tremendous revolutions on this earth has never been a body of scientific teaching which has gained power over the masses, but always a devotion which has inspired them, and often a kind of hysteria which has urged them into action. Whoever wishes to win over the masses must know the key that will open the door of their hearts.” . . . In post-Freudian jargon, of their unconscious.

Hitler made his strongest appeal to those members of the lower middle classes who had been ruined by the inflation of 1923, and then ruined all over again by the depression of 1929 and the following years. “The masses” of whom he speaks were these bewildered, frustrated and chronically anxious millions. To make them more masslike, more homogeneously subhuman, he assembled them, by the thousands and the tens of thousands, in vast halls and arenas, where individuals could lose their personal identity, even their elementary humanity, and be merged with the crowd. A man or woman makes direct contact with society in two ways: as a member of some familial, professional or religious group, or as a member of a crowd. Groups are capable of being as moral and intelligent as the individuals who form them; a crowd is chaotic, has no purpose of its own and is capable of anything except intelligent action and realistic thinking. Assembled in a crowd, people lose their powers of reasoning and their capacity for moral choice. Their suggestibility is increased to the point where they cease to have any judgment or will of their own. They become very excitable, they lose all sense of individual or collective responsibility, they are subject to sudden accesses of rage, enthusiasm and panic. In a word, a man in a crowd behaves as though he had swallowed a large dose of some powerful intoxicant. He is a victim of what I have called “herd-poisoning.” Like alcohol, herd-poison is an active, extraverted drug. The crowd-intoxicated individual escapes from responsibility, intelligence and morality into a kind of frantic, animal mindlessness.

Twenty years before Madison Avenue embarked upon “Motivational Research,” Hitler was systematically exploring and exploiting the secret fears and hopes, the cravings, anxieties and frustrations of the German masses. It is by manipulating “hidden forces” that the advertising experts induce us to buy their wares — a toothpaste, a brand of cigarettes, a political candidate. And it is by appealing to the same hidden forces — and to others too dangerous for Madison Avenue to meddle with — that Hitler induced the German masses to buy themselves a Fuehrer, an insane philosophy and the Second World War.

“All effective propaganda,” Hitler wrote, “must be confined to a few bare necessities and then must be expressed in a few stereotyped formulas.” These stereotyped formulas must be constantly repeated, for “only constant repetition will finally succeed in imprinting an idea upon the memory of a crowd.” Philosophy teaches us to feel uncertain about the things that seem to us self-evident. Propaganda, on the other hand, teaches us to accept as self-evident matters about which it would be reasonable to suspend our judgment or to feel doubt. The aim of the demagogue is to create social coherence under his own leadership.

People may start out with an initial prejudice against tyrants; but when tyrants or would-be tyrants treat them to adrenalin-releasing propaganda about the wickedness of their enemies — particularly of enemies weak enough to be persecuted — they are ready to follow him with enthusiasm. In his speeches Hitler kept repeating such words as “hatred,” “force,” “ruthless,” “crush,” “smash”; and he would accompany these violent words with even more violent gestures. He would yell, he would scream, his veins would swell, his
face would turn purple. Strong emotion (as every actor and dramatist knows) is in the highest degree contagious. Infected by the malignant frenzy of the orator, the audience would groan and sob and scream in
an orgy of uninhibited passion. And these orgies were so enjoyable that most of those who had experienced them eagerly came back for more. Almost all of us long for peace and freedom; but very few of us have much enthusiasm for the thoughts, feelings and actions that make for peace and freedom. Conversely almost nobody wants war or tyranny; but a great many people find an intense pleasure in the thoughts, feelings and actions that make for war and tyranny. These thoughts, feelings and actions are too dangerous to be exploited for commercial purposes. Accepting this handicap, the advertising man must do the best he can with the less intoxicating emotions, the quieter forms of irrationality.

Why do people fall for fascist dictators? According to Huxley (and I believe he is right), most people prefer emotionally stimulating propaganda over and above intellectual argument as the basis for making their decisions.

Elsewhere Huxley discusses those who aren’t swayed by “herd poisoning” and how they are either A.) given rank and privledge and entrusted to serve (provided they have the trust of the dictator) B.) made to pretend to be as brainwashed as those around them, go with the flow, make no waves, or C.) they are eliminated outright, either through marginilization, social castigation, or execution.

So I suppose the question for those of us who recognize our society’s noticeable and definite shift towards being almost exclusively controlled by propaganda (mostly through means of entertainment) is this; How far are we willing to go to persuade our fellow countrymen to step back from the precipice and prevent a “Brave New World” from occurring here in America?


10 responses to “Aldous Huxley on propaganda and why we fall for it

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  6. Hitler, Mussolini and Trump. Eye opening, well written article. I stumbled upon this the morning after the Brexit vote to leave and I have to admit that I am very fearful for what could happen come November.

  7. Aldous Huxley was the one person that has really told me about few things that have brought the positive changes in everyone’s life. His agenda was really reasonable and I really like to agree with this person.

  8. Aldous Huxley was a great man, a good teacher though he taught things the hard way however the person turned out to be more stronger mentally and physically both. Great Work.

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