Recognizing Propaganda & Deconstructing Your Media Landscape (Or: We Are Sentimental Until We Are Ruthless)

“We are sentimental until we are ruthless.  To say that we are sentimental is not to say that we are kind.”  I read this statement a while back, and jotted it down, though unfortunately from which book I cannot recall (if you recognize it, let me know).  It made a strong impact on me, articulating thoughts that had hovered nebulously in the back of my mind for some time.  Often I dismissed it as mere cynicism, but now I have more faith in my gut feelings, and understand that that skepticism is our friend, critical thought, tapping me on my mental shoulder, saying, hey, look closer.

Emotional manipulation is a fierce weapon, catching a person in the false inverse logic that says, well, I care about love, children, and peace, for example, and good people care about these things, and so I must agree with the arguments of the presented ideas, for how can you argue with love, children, and peace?  This is how we are sold ideas as trivial as which paper towels to buy or movie to watch or treat to buy our children, and as important as who is convicted in court, which laws we support and who we vote into positions of power.

I would wager, that many people think that they are savvy about advertising and media sources like Fox News, for example, and how they frame the world.  However, recognizing propaganda means understanding propaganda in all of its forms and arenas.  Propaganda gives what novelist Chimamanda Adichie calls “the danger of a single story” on her Ted Talk.  Telling only one facet of a story presents misinformation and distorts the objectivity of a story or an issue.  One only need to scroll through your Facebook feed or watch the mainstream nightly news  to see how headlines are designed to pique your emotional interest through single-story representations of ideas and issues.

One recent encounter with propaganda came from a seemingly well-intentioned site, UpWorthy, promoting the trailer for the adoption film, “Stuck”, which portrays U.S. middle-class families who want to adopt internationally as being victims of adoption bureaucracy.  The opening scenes of the film trailer are a montage of tragic images such as small children looking out from barred windows.  Within the first five seconds alone, there are five images of impoverished-looking, unsmiling children behind bars of some sort, with the audio making intense, ominous sound effects.  This continues on into the telling of a dramatic saga of children waiting for their American families to rescue them.  Twenty-seven seconds into the trailer a middle-class white couple state to the camera that they are one child’s “only hope”.

This is a propagandist narrative, narrowly representing one aspect of international adoption, and further reinforcing the colonial, missionary savior narrative, or “the industrialized white savior complex”.  It presents the children in the film as needing only one thing: an American “forever family”, and the families as helplessly “stuck” in their attempts to procure a child.   The entire trailer is rank with images and messages that tell a story of American heroism swooping in to rescue poor, brown children around the world.  The story line is a direct appeal to heroism: “There are millions of children in need, thousands dying everyday.  Why don’t we do something about it.”  The screen zooms in on the words, “EVERY CHILD”, and the voice continues, saying, “if we shut down international adoptions, what we are saying to the children is that they don’t matter.”   The trailer continues rife with images of children peering out from behind barred windows, and the majestic score plays on and on.

The authoritative voice of the narrator then tells us that every child has the right to a family, that it’s a basic human right.  Yes.  Can’t argue with that.  But who gets to choose the family?  The child?  No, the middle-class, mostly-white adults of industrialized nations get to choose.  The trailer then continues into a montage of happy-looking children in the U.S. with their new families.  A brown teenage girl sits on a couch gazing into the eyes of her white adoptive mom and says, “I love you, Mom”.  The music has now changed from foreboding to sweet and inspirational, and ends with a sentimental anecdote of a happy ending: a small brown boy making a toast “to family” at the dinner table while his parents can hardly contain their emotion.  Precious, yes. Learned from his new culture? Yes. A reason to lambast international adoption reform?  No.  The tagline for the film is, “It’s more than a documentary.  It’s a love story.”  Well, who can argue with love, right?  Never mind the complexities of international adoption, the need to regulate the adoption industry, the need to protect children and families from child trafficking, the need to protect children and families in countries without the infrastructure to document family relationships so that separated families can find each other, the need to stay with your first family if possible, and the need to address enormous child welfare needs right here in the U.S.  Never mind the money and politics that are behind the organization who made this film.  Never mind the extraneous details.  It is a love story, no?

This film tells a single-story about adoption and about impoverished countries and families.  The traditional adoption narrative has one story.  The real adoption narrative has multiple stories, told not by the adopters, but by the adoptees–the adoptee children who became adoptee adults and know the story firsthand.

Deconstructing your media landscape means thinking before responding, not reacting to aggressive yankings on your heartstrings.

Remember, firstly, you are not a bad person if you do fall for propaganda.  It is powerfully rigged to appeal to your best qualities of humanness.  As importantly, if not more importantly, understand that you are not a bad person to question the emotional manipulation of the graphic images of poverty often used in media to coerce you into believing a single-facet of an issue or situation in impoverished areas, reducing that nation to a single story.   Rather, you are an astute person who will seek out well-rounded information and perspectives on the topic.  You are a kind person, as well, who does not want to strip people of their dignity and their humanity by reducing their life to a story of American colonial heroism.

When I messaged the UpWorthy curator to call her out on her tear-jerker manipulation of the “Stuck” documentary, she nimbly side-stepped the facts relevant to the film and the issue by stating that Upworthy is a social media site about ideas, and stated that she had no qualms about presenting her “ideas” that way.  Hmm.  However, on her website and on FB, she calls herself a “journalist”.  But fine.  Even if they are “only ideas”,  ideas need to be presented thoughtfully and critically, not as some kind of international adoption chick flick, designed to bring you to tears without addressing the depth of the matter.  Just as in a chick flick, when you must know that that douchebag guy will never change, not even for you, in “Stuck”, you must know that the white industrial savior-complex will not save a nation.  Ideas are the essence of communication and thought, and they should be presented as such with integrity and critical fortitude.

I began the draft of this post a couple of weeks ago, when the Marriage Amendment was plastered all over FB in red and pink squares.  As much as I support same sex marriage as a civil right, even the campaign’s slogan “love is love”, dissuades you from thinking critically about the Freedom to Marry campaign.  You really can’t argue with love, but the campaign is not really about allowing the legal right to love a same-sex partner; it’s about being allowed the right to join the cultural and legal institution of marriage, as it was established by religious folks from way back.  An institution that, though it has made adjustments for modernity, generally perpetuates a limited definition of family and gender roles.

And now today, in the wake of the terrible bombings in Boston, I implore people to take a thoughtful if not critical stance on how the media is and will be feeding us this story.  There is no question that what happened today is a horrific tragedy, and another tear in our collective feeling of safety in this world.  However, the sentiments I am seeing in the news and on my Facebook feed are just as frightening—a slew of people who answer violence with violence, who resort to immediately targeting the unknown and villified other with promises of vengeance, who lack information but fill in their own “facts” anyway.  In this way, the war machine is fed.  It would be for the good of our nation, and the world, to question not how to destroy an as of yet unknown perpetrator, but to question how we can best respond for the good of our families, our children, our loved ones, ourselves—for the good of our world.

The more literate we, the masses, are at reading propaganda and single-story depictions of life, and the more we expect critical analysis from media sources, the more the media will be held to a higher, more objective standard for presenting the news of the world.  We might call the standard integrity.  This standard might even be held for sites who call themselves journalists, but hide behind a company line to absolve them of journalistic ownership.   This standard might even raise the bar for the entire world.  And it starts with us expecting it.  No, demanding it.

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