In 1928, Edward Bernays, Sigmund Freud’s nephew and “inventor” of public relations, wrote Propaganda: The Public Mind in the Making. His thesis was that a democracy needed propaganda to educate itself and be educated. Propaganda was good and (literally) godly. Here is an excerpt from Propaganda where Bernays defines the word that he admitted “carries to many minds an unpleasant connotation.”
Yet whether, in any instance, propaganda is good or bad depends upon the merit of the cause urged, and the correctness of the information published.
In itself, the word “propaganda” has certain technical meanings which, like most things in this world, are “neither good nor bad but custom makes them so.” I find the word defined in Funk and Wagnalls’ Dictionary in four ways:
- “A society of cardinals, the overseers of foreign missions; also the College of the Propaganda at Rome founded by Pope Urban VIII in 1627 for the education of missionary priests; Sacred College de Propaganda Fide.
- “Hence, any institution or scheme for propagating a doctrine or system.
- “Effort directed systematically toward the gaining of public support for an opinion or a course of action.
- “The principles advanced by a propaganda.”
The Scientific American, in a recent issue, pleads for the restoration to respectable usage of that “fine old word ‘propaganda.'”
“There is no word in the English language,” it says, “whose meaning has been so sadly distorted as the word ‘propaganda.’ The change took place mainly during the late war when the term took on a decidedly sinister complexion.
“If you turn to the Standard Dictionary, you will find that the word was applied to a congregation or society of cardinals for the care and oversight of foreign missions which was instituted at Rome in the year 1627. It was applied also to the College of the Propaganda at Rome that was founded by Pope Urban VIII, for the education of the missionary priests. Hence, in later years the word came to be applied to any institution or scheme for propagating a doctrine or system.
“Judged by this definition, we can see that in its true sense propaganda is a perfectly legitimate form of human activity. Any society, whether it be social, religious or political, which is possessed of certain beliefs, and sets out to make them known, either by the spoken or written words, is practicing propaganda.
“Truth is mighty and must prevail, and if any body of men believe that they have discovered a valuable truth, it is not merely their privilege but their duty to disseminate that truth. If they realize, as they quickly must, that this spreading of the truth can be done upon a large scale and effectively only by organized effort, they will make use of the press and the platform as the best means to give it wide circulation. Propaganda becomes vicious and reprehensive only when its authors consciously and deliberately disseminate what they know to be lies, or when they aim at effects which they know to be prejudicial to the common good.
” ‘Propaganda’ in its proper meaning is a perfectly wholesome word, of honest parentage, and with an honorable history. The fact that it should to-day be carrying a sinister meaning merely shows how much of the child remains in the average adult. A group of citizens writes and talks in favor of a certain course of action in some debatable question, believing that it is promoting the best interest of the community. Propaganda? Not a bit of it. Just a plain forceful statement of truth. But let another group of citizens express opposing views, and they are promptly labeled with the sinister name of propaganda. . . .
” ‘What is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander,’ says a wise old proverb. Let us make haste to put this fine old word back where it belongs, and restore its dignified significance for the use of our children and our children’s children.”