Fool’s Gold: Glittering Generalities as Propaganda

Pyrite elba

All that glitters is not gold;
Often have you heard that told:
Many a man his life hath sold
But my outside to behold:
Gilded tombs do worms enfold.
The Merchant of Venice, Act II, Scene VII.

From The Institute for Propaganda Analysis.

Propaganda Tricks of the Trade
#2: Glittering Generalities

Associating something with a “virtue word” is used to make us accept and approve the thing without examining the evidence.

We believe in, fight for, live by “virtue words” about which we have deep-set ideas. Such words are “civilization,” “Christianity,” “good,” “proper,” “right,” “democracy,” “patriotism,” “mother- hood,” “fatherhood,” “science,” “medicine,” “health,” and “love.”

For our purposes in propaganda analysis, we call these “virtue words” Glittering Generalities in order to focus attention upon this dangerous characteristic that they have: They mean different things to different people; they can be used in different ways.

This is not a criticism of these words as we understand them. Quite the contrary. It is a criticism of the uses to which propagandists put the cherished words end beliefs of unsuspecting people.

When someone talks to us about “democracy,” we immediately think of our own definite ideas about democracy, the ideas we learned at home, at school, and in church. Our first and natural reaction is to assume that the speaker is using the word in our sense, that he believes as we do on this important subject. This lowers our “sales resistance” and makes us far less suspicious than we ought to be when the speaker begins telling us the things “the United States must do to preserve democracy.” If we have permitted our “sales resistance” to be lowered by the use of “democracy” as a Glittering Generality rather than as a carefully defined term, we may soon find ourselves being “sold” such an anti-democratic notion as a “Corporate State” under a “democratic” disguise, one of Father Coughlin’s tricks.

The Glittering Generality is, in short, Name Calling in reverse. While Name Calling seeks to make us form a judgment to reject and condemn without examining the evidence, the Glittering Generality device seeks to make us approve and accept without examining the evidence. In acquainting ourselves with the Glittering Generality Device, therefore, all that has been said regarding Name Calling must be kept in mind, and especially should we remember what has been said about omnibus words. [See The ABC’s of Propaganda Analysis].

Propagandists are most effective in the use of both of these devices when their words can make us create devils to fight or gods to adore. By their use of “bad words,” we may be led to personify as a “devil” some nation, race; group, individual, policy, practice, or ideal; we may be made fighting mad to destroy it. By their use of “good words,” we may be led to personify as a godlike idol some nation, race, group, or the like. Before we are led to any such position, we should know what the propagandist is trying to do with us. If we are to be led, we should be led with our eyes open, not blindly.

In analyzing a Glittering Generality, we must ask ourselves such questions as these and suspend judgment until we have answered them:

What does the “virtue word” really mean?

Does the idea in question—the proposal of the propagandist—have a legitimate connection with the real meaning of the name?

Is an idea that does not serve my best interests and the best interests of society, as I see them, being “sold” to me merely through its being given a name that I like?

In other words, leaving the “virtue word” out of consideration, what are the merits of the idea itself?

The word “fair” is an ever present Glittering Generality used to make scapegoats and give credence to greed and rapaciousness. “Fair” carries connotations of a level playing field and just decisions, when in reality it’s used to tilt the table and enable power. Glittering Generalities are a two-edged sword because even as they call to mind some of our best memories or ideals, they also make virtues of our vices, and that’s a trap that can ensnare any of us.

Charles A. Fleming evaluates Glittering Generalities: (See Propaganda Shell Games a.k.a. Finding Unicorns for further explanation of General Semantics and these six principles).

Glittering Generalities. Propagandists use vague, abstract, positive terms – “virtue” words the institute called them – to win approval. They want reactions to the positive label, not to evidence. For example, a group might be called “patriotic” in hopes that people would react positively to that vague term and not to reality.

A General Semantics Interpretation

  • Non-identity. The propagandist hopes the audience will respond favorably to the “patriotic” label and, assuming the label and the group are the same, respond similarly to the group . But, the label is not what it represents.
  • Non-allness. The label does not say all about the group. The propagandist wants the audience to accept the “patriotic” label as sufficient description of the group, and not find out more.
  • Self-reflexiveness. The “patriotic” label is an abstract of something, and the propagandist hopes the audience won’t realize the label is personal, projective and incomplete, like all abstractions.
  • Probability principle. Things change – even if the name was somewhat accurate once, it may not be so now, nor tomorrow. The propagandist wants the audience to assume that whatever fit once will always be so.
  • Symbol-signal reaction. Here the propagandist hopes people will automatically and favorably react to the label without thinking about what it represents and without checking non-verbal facts.
  • Extensionalization. The propagandist does not want the audience to ask “what do you mean by ‘patriotic’ in this situation?” The propagandist does not want the audience to look for the non-verbal reality.

Glittering Generalities can be more subtle than Name Calling. Look for the hidden target.

Here again are the IPA’s concluding words on propaganda.

Our seven ABC’s of Propaganda Analysis and our seven Propaganda Devices are offered…as workable means for aiding Americans to preserve their freedom of choice and with it their other freedoms embodied so largely in the expression… freedom of speech and assembly, of the press, and of religion. In closing, then, let us merely sum up the spirit of our seven ABC’s and seven devices in the following statements:

Don’t be stampeded.

Beware of your own prejudices.

Suspend your judgment until more sides of the issue are presented.

Analyze them.

The Fine Art Of Propaganda; A Study of Father Coughlin’s Speeches” by The Institute for Propaganda Analysis, Edited by Alfred McClung Lee & Elizabeth Briant Lee, and published in 1939 by Harcourt, Brace and Company, New York via Phil Taylor’s Web Site, The Institute of Communications Studies, University of Leeds, UK.
Charles A. Fleming, “Understanding Propaganda From a General Semantics Perspective,” Et cetera, (Spring 1995) 5–6.
Pyrite xx. Elba, Hannes Grobe: Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 Generic license.


One thought on “Fool’s Gold: Glittering Generalities as Propaganda

  1. The KKK and white supremacist groups have historically clothed their appeal in a glittering and general but utterly unsupported claim to somehow be authentically “Christian”!
    Say what!?!? I have yet to hear exactly how hating anybody, particularly Jews, the people of whom Jesus came, and essentially all of His first followers were of, is “Christian”. If antisemitism or hatred toward black people is somehow a besetting sin of some (probably just nominal) Christians, that’s something to confess and deeply repent and repudiate, and stand apart from, not a virtue.

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