Wednesday, March 30, 2005

Propaganda Machine Tools: Glittering Generalities

There are many words in our language that illicit strong emotions. In name calling the propagandist tries to attach a negative emotional message to what seems like a normal communication. Glittering generalities involves the skillful use of words that already have an emotional message attached to them. Glittering generalities carry a positive emotional message that many people can identify with and at the same time can mean different things to different people. A good example of a glittering generality used by the current propaganda machine is the word Christian. For many people in the United States the word Christian sends a positive emotional message. Even people who don’t participate in organized religious activities or people who have even a small degree of exposure to the fundamentals of Christianity feel emotionally positive about the word Christian. At the same time the word Christian means one thing to me and an entirely different thing to a fundamentalist Christian. A skilled propagandist can use a glittering generality to help win approval for a communication that is non-logical or non-intuitive. A statement like, “ It is the duty of this Christian nation to fight for democracy and freedom” is a good example of the use of glittering generalities. This message can be interpreted in many ways and is cloaked with the glittering generalities; Christian, democracy, and freedom. One only has to turn on the TV or read a newspaper to see glittering generalities being constantly used by the surrogates of the conservative propaganda machine. President Bush’s talking points are filled with them. Their effectiveness lies in how they are able to get all of their surrogates to use the same talking points with the same glittering generalities at the same time. They are then repeated again and again in the willing corporate media. Before long it is almost impossible to separate the issue they are trying to perpetuate from the glittering generalities that have been used to disguise it.

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4 Comments:

Blogger Lisa said...

This reminds me of something Ted Olson said on C-SPAN's Washington Journal on Tuesday. Olson represents the Recording Industery & the Motion Pictures Association in the Supreme Court case against Grokster. He stated the many Christians supported his client because they believe in the commandment "Thou shall not steal."
It seems to me that, in your words, this is a "glittering generality" aimed at convincing listeners without saying anything of substance about the case.

4:33 PM  
Blogger JusticeE.R. said...

I wouldn’t necessary classify the phrase “Thou shall not steal” as a glittering generality. Religions create belief systems that are perpetuated by dogma that can be both good and bad. Most of us would agree that it is good to discourage stealing. What seems to be happening in this case is that Ted Olson is trying to appeal to Christians with an emotional charged statement that reaffirms their belief system. And yes, it seems he is also attempting with the use of that statement to suggest that this particular religious principal in this particular form has a role to play in deciding something that should be decided by logic and the rule of law.

10:01 PM  
Blogger Lisa said...

I should not contradict the definition of your own term, but here goes: I agree that most people believe that it is good to discourage stealing. But I think this only supports the notion that we are dealing with a generality here, since things which are general are pretty much the only things that we can widely agree on. That which is particular and exacting is usually much more contentious.

Your example illustrates this. "It is the duty of this Christian nation to fight for democracy and freedom." This statement draws a lot of popular support. Even I can get behind a statement like this in some cases, and I am not even a Christian. But when you get down to applying this idea, there is a lot more room for disagreement. Many Americans, myself included, disagree with this sentiment when it is used to justify the invasion of Iraq.

Ted Olson, and those speakers that exploit "glittering generalities" (as I understand them) know this. They ask: Why make a technical argument that can be refuted when I can just throw out of few generalities that people already agree upon?

So Olson calls up a general understanding of stealing (by putting it in the context of biblical law), even though his argument refers not to the confiscation of tangible goods, but of intellectual property. His argument actually rests on a very particular notion of stealing on which neither the general population nor the law has come to a complete consensus.

The Ten Commandments really have nothing to say about the laws of intellectual property. But Ted Olson refers to them with the hope that he will win a consensus with this generality, putting a positive Christian spin on a very technical argument. Also, he probably felt that statement "Thou shall not download copyrighted material" just didn't have the right ring.

But maybe I am way off here. Let me know if I still misunderstand your term.

6:07 PM  
Blogger JusticeE.R. said...

Lisa,
No, you are not way off at all. I’ll first go back to the definition of what a glittering generality is. It is usually a word that has widely accepted positive emotions attached to it. The key word here is “positive” emotions. When we hear or see the word democracy, we might think of the flag or some other patriotic thing. We associate with what we “feel” democracy means to us. The problem lies with the fact that even though we generally all feel positive about the word democracy not everyone has the same idea of what democracy means. I might be the type of person who believes that the Christian religion is so much a part of our democracy that the word democracy conjures up emotions about my religious values. So we have a widely accepted word with a set of positive emotions already attached that means sometimes completely different to different people. So “thou shall not steal,” although widely accepted in our country does not illicit a strong set of positive emotions that can have different meanings to different people. It does illicit strong emotions from fundamentalist Christians. And by using “thou shall not steal,” he is trying to appeal to the emotions of that particular group of people. The statement “It is the duty of this Christian nation to fight for democracy and freedom,” could be interpreted by a particular fundamentalist group to mean it is the mission of the nation they feel exists to actively spread what they feel is Christian democracy and Christian freedom. So you have a statement that has glittering generalities that make us feel positive and we might generally agree with, that is sending a different and sometimes group specific messages. As for using one of the Ten Commandments, you are correct that he is using a component of the Christian “belief” system and trying to inject it into civil law. Religious beliefs have no place in our judicial system. The rule of law and logic should always prevail without religious interference. One only has to look at a country like Iran to see the possible extreme results of mixing civil laws with religious dogma.

8:25 PM  

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