In “The Ways of Silencing” published last June inThe New York Times, Professor Jason Stanley raised a legitimate point on how political propaganda silences people. Stanley's piece drew plenty of criticism, especially with his comments on pornography. I took interest in what Stanley had to say because he drew from a speech act perspective to argue that no true political discourse takes place in American politics.
I began to wonder if the same applies to true religious discourse. If Stanley's interest is language and the ways of silencing, mine is language and the ways of believing. Among the 160 plus responses to Stanley's piece was one I gave.
Here it is: Professor Stanley raises a legitimate point, and I for one am glad that he tackles it with speech acts. Speech Act Theory is a fancy technical phrase for looking at how a speaker uses language.
The title for a collection of William James lectures delivered by J.L. Austin, and published posthumously, captures it best in “How To Do Things with Words.” Speech Act Theory lets us distinguish the various ways that humans employ language. Asking questions, promising, reporting, directing someone to do something, expressing thanks or sympathy — these are types of speech acts.
Propaganda is a type of speech act as well, and it ought to be distinguished from assertion. Why? With each type of speech act, a speaker's purpose differs greatly. The point or purpose of an assertive is to state what is the case, what is so in the world. An assertion reveals what a speaker believes. John R. Searle says a successful assertive commits the speaker to the truth of the proposition. Only if I believe it is raining can I assert successfully that it is raining. The point or purpose of propaganda extends far beyond this. A speaker doesn't necessarily have to believe what she or he is saying.
I'm unsure how Searle would classify propaganda — perhaps as an incomplete speech act? Or propaganda may very well fit into Searle's 'directive' category of illocutionary acts. With directives, the speaker desires to get the hearer to do something. With propaganda, the point is to sway, to persuade, to shape the audience's belief system. It works, quite successfully, by tapping into people's emotions. It does so either by creating fear and anger or by arousing the fear and anger already there. As Stanley argues, a speaker can silence the voice of another with certain speech acts. More is at stake, however, than just silencing.
Until we recognize the power of propaganda to shape people's beliefs, beliefs that become nearly impossible to give up, there exists no possibility of bridging the chasms in our political issues.