Saturday, February 6, 2010

"Total Public Diplomacy"?

Thanks to the PD class I'm currently taking, I discovered Jacques Ellul and some of his striking ideas on propaganda: striking not in terms of novelty, as much as in terms of formulation and relevance for PD and all the talk that currently surrounds it.

The battle for a clear differentiation between propaganda and public diplomacy seems to have been going on for quite a while now, and I am not trying to suggest that they should be equated (although, sometimes they look as they could). And yet, I think Ellul does a great job in exploring the meaning and implications of Total Propaganda: in terms of utilizing all available techniques and media  for "reaching and encircling all men and the whole man" through continuous, consistent, and inclusive information. He sees it as "furnishing men with a complete system for explaining the world and providing immediate incentives to action," since total propaganda not only affects ideas and wills, but also the feelings, the needs, and the unconscious. Thus, it is an all-pervasive myth of some sorts, which gradually becomes the "ultimate truth" accepted and promoted by all and for all. Although "propaganda is bad," certain aspects of the "totality" part of Ellul's approach deserve more attention, especially in regards to public diplomacy.

The most common definition of PD states that it "seeks to promote the national interest and the national security of the United States through understanding, informing and influencing foreign publics, and broadening dialogue between American citizens and institutions and their counterparts abroad."

In more recent years, the element of "dialogue" in the definition has been particularly emphasized, with much greater attention paid - in theory - to equality in the conversation, especially with the increasing prominence of network-based approaches. Dialogue is essentially "a conversation between two or more persons" or "an exchange of ideas and opinions," i.e. a two-way exchange and mutual acceptance, which certainly includes listening. (Image courtesy of College Candy)

Unfortunately, seems like it has not really been the case with public diplomacy, since it relies on the assumption of "universality" of certain values, which, for whatever reason, have been established as "ultimate truths" to be exported (not to use the word "imposed"). Consequently, values and ideas such as materialism, democracy, or even human rights, are deemed as fundamentally "Western" (if not American) when communicated in such a manner, and thus, are much more likely to be rejected by societies and cultures that see themselves under threat. (Here, the reasons might be somewhat similar to the ones Ellul identified as undercutting the effectiveness of international propaganda.)

It's not that democracy or human rights are bad. It's more about how their universality is explained by the "democratic" world, and how they are understood by the Third World. Reading U. Narayan and G.W. Musambira provides a perspective that is more compatible with the notion of dialogue engagement: local, intra-cultural forces can also be liberating, democratizing, and "progressive," even if their understanding of these concepts - their "truths" - are not wholesome replicas of the Western views. The postmodern approach of "multiple-truths" and of discussions based on an equal exchange of ideas and mutual respect would then be the best choice for public diplomacy.

This is where Ellul's concept of "totality" can come into play. Firstly, all media and techniques can be put into action to engage in a genuine two-way dialogue, involving not only the foreign public, but also the domestic one: many-to-many. Secondly, being continuous and spanning long periods of time, it can ensure an uninterrupted two-way communication, that will incorporate and reflect the changing circumstances and patterns within both ends. And lastly, since it "reaches and encircles all men and the whole man," it will be inclusive, engaging, and truly representative.

(Image courtesy of Cox and Forkum)

Total PD can thus create the space where meanings are formulated, discussed, debated, and understood, as opposed to explained. It can provide the place where these meanings are socially constructed and accepted as legitimate, as opposed to imposed or persuaded. This can also be the space where the sides engage in communication for the sake of the "ritual", and not necessarily for utility (bringing about a common change in the "unconscious" on all sides manifested in the acceptance of the plurality of truths). Ultimately, it is in this space that they can become similar and yet different in their own ways.

The realist in me keeps reminding that political, economic, and institutional constraints might not be permissive of such an approach. But if we go with the three-tier view of PD, it seems like the third - long-term - dimension has got a lot of room to welcome Total PD. So, perhaps, it's not all that hopeless, especially in view of open-source PD or PD 2.0. After all, understanding and acceptance is what everyone is after. And these should come from all sides... if stability and peace are to be achieved, that is.

To be continued... as I delve further into cross-cultural communication, PD, and international PR.


  1. You are really moving towards philosophy Lena jan! I liked the "About me" piece..... :*

  2. Thought-provoking essay ... but doesn't Ellul argue that "total propaganda" dehumanizes man -- if that indeed is the case, do we really want to use such propaganda as a "model" for PD (if I understand your argument correctly)?

  3. I was hoping to explain that the "total" element should be viewed not in terms of propaganda, but rather its techniques for PD. We should not look at it as dehumanization of the individual, but rather as an inclusive, all-encompassing system where the plurality of truths and meanings can be formulated, discussed, and understood - continuously and persistently (despite what goes on in the "real" world, e.g. even if there is a war). Yes, Ellul's conceptualization has negative connotations, but what I found interesting is that the "total" approach becomes a part of the system itself - of the multi/bilateral relations - affecting all the aspects of its performance (including all the institutions and individuals involved). Even if only in the long-run...
    I'm still trying to make good sense of it all myself, though. So, thank you very much for the comment... helps me think it over once again! :)

  4. Well, I think Ellul would argue that many things in modern society alongside propaganda dehumanize man. If I remember correctly, a similar idea appears in various forms in his "Technological Society" and in "Propaganda." He also spoke about "total environment", which is created by media and which makes propaganda often invisible, yet pervasive. I think Ellul would use the term "soft power". This is actually what propaganda is all about. My feeling is that this is what media too, even in a democratic polity, is all about, while professing commitment to "inform" and "educate" or even "entertain" ...
    Thus, a question arises, should those techniques be used for PD? The old wisdom prompts what is paved with good intentions.
    ... Speaking of "dialogues" ... In theory, they are, of course, important, especially in the above-mentioned "many-to-many" format, in formulating meanings, sharing and contrasting ideas and views, debating and "discovering" truths, "liberating" minds, etc. This is nothing new, at least for the Western society, given an emphasis placed on dialogue from Socrates on...
    Reality, however, does not fit into such neat categories. By way of illustration, one could point to the (spectacularly failed) social and political experiments of "liberation" through dialogue undertaken by Paulo Freire and Ivan Illich, to mention but a few...

  5. So many issues brought up... and although I'm not quite sure I can, I'll still try to address them all! :)
    Yes, when referring to the "totality" of PD, I meant the "total environment" of it. However, again, PD comes to replace the "evil intent" of the propaganda model, since it creates the mechanism which engages - supposedly, at least - in a formulation of multiple meanings (i.e. "truths") in a horizontal setting. This mechanism can also be seen as the indispensable "organization/institutionalization" that Ellul referred to. And since propaganda is - at least, theoretically - substantially different from PD, the motives behind Total PD would be only virtuous and MUTUALLY beneficial.
    I do realize that this is quite far-fetched and indeed VERY different from the reality, or even the POSSIBLE reality. But, just as I already said, this COULD work in the long run; provided that there is a commitment to peace, of course.
    I can't say I'm all that optimistic: this was just an exploration of some ideas, and an attempt to connect various readings and thoughts... and I should say that some of what Ellul brought up provoked many more thoughts, especially the references to international propaganda and the "imposition of democracy." Might get to formulating those too, at some point..
    As for the failure of the media to fulfill its "duty" - we see it played out ever day, everyWHERE. There's no doubt about that. The sad thing is, people don't see it, or - which is even MORE TRAGIC - they choose to ignore it altogether.
    P.S. - The basic assumption is that "soft power" is somehow inherently different from propaganda.