The Power of Words from London: Part 2

One of my favorite things that I saw in London was the British Library. They have an exhibition right now called Propaganda: Power and Persuasion, which slaps viewers over the head with the impact language can have on people.


Although the exhibit was relatively chronological, it was actually organized thematically, which was a cool and unexpected way to showcase everything that falls under the umbrella of “propaganda” (as defined by Merriam-Webster): ideas, facts, or allegations spread deliberately to further one’s cause or to damage an opposing cause; also : a public action having such an effect.

When people think of propaganda, they most often think of linguistic messages, usually in print, that a government sends its people to tell them what’s good vs. evil or right vs. wrong. Propaganda is just another one of those examples of how humans intuitively know that their words have the power to shape their readers’ or listeners’ perceptions and behaviors… otherwise no one would bother with propaganda in the first place. Propaganda may begin as a simple message but, sort of like a snowball, grows as it’s spread farther, eventually becoming something much larger and more powerful than it started out as:

“The propagandist uses a keyboard and composes a symphony.” -Jacques Ellul

The exhibit started with Origins, which detailed the ways that earliest rulers reinforced their authority, created a sense of shared identity, vilified enemies, and justified wars.
Next was the section Nation, which focused on the aspects of society that government controls: education, currency, national symbols, and sometimes media, and how these tools have been used as propaganda to influence their people’s beliefs.
The Enemy and War sections were similar, demonstrating how nations use emotionally-laden propaganda to persuade their citizens to unite against a common enemy and to maintain morale during war.
The Health section was also interesting because public health campaigns aren’t what I’d typically think of as propaganda, but the exhibit showcased many images and slogans used to demonize or encourage different health habits.
The final section, Today, focused on digital technology and the new routes that it has opened up for states to communicate to the people but also for the people to challenge and criticize the messages they receive.

Overall, a really interesting exhibit that opened our eyes a little more to the manipulative messages that surround us in everyday life.