Sticks & Stones: Name Calling as Propaganda

Tappys Chicks

As children we encountered the first propaganda technique identified by the Institute for Propaganda Analysis (IPA). Being called names is a painful experience, and retaliating with “Sticks and stones will break my bones, But words will never hurt me,” was a brave front and a dare. But name calling isn’t just for kids, it remains an effective propaganda tool of adults.

From the IPA:

Propaganda Tricks of the Trade
#1: Name Calling

Giving an idea a bad label is used to make us reject and condemn the idea without examining the evidence.

Bad names have played a tremendously powerful role in the history of the world and in our own individual development. They have ruined reputations, stirred men and women to outstanding accomplishments, sent others to prison cells, and made men mad enough to enter battle and slaughter their fellowmen. They have been and are applied to other people, groups, gangs, tribes, colleges, political parties, neighborhoods, states, sections of the country, nations, and races.

The world has resounded with cries of “Heretic,” “Hun,” “Red,” “Yankee,” “Reb,” “Democrat,” “Republican,” “Revolutionary,” “Nazi,” etc., and their equivalents in all languages. Our personal lives have echoed with such words as “sissy,” “moron,” “bully,” “tramp,” “wayward,” “unscientific,” “unprogressive,” “inhuman,” “grasping,” “easy-going,” and “backward.”

Individuals and groups can be found who bear any one of these labels proudly. Other individuals and groups can just as easily be found who regard any one of these labels as the worst epithet to shout at an enemy.

Practically all primitive tribes call themselves by names that mean “the people” or “the real people.” All outsiders they call “foreigners,” “earth-eaters,” “cannibals,” “ill-speakers,” or some other term they regard as disreputable. The Welsh, for example, called themselves the Cymry, but our present term for the Welsh derives from an Anglo-Saxon word meaning “foreigners” or “jabberers.”

One of the most treacherous things about Name Calling is that bad names, like Glittering Generalities, are omnibus words. [For an explanation of omnibus words see The ABC’s of Propaganda Analysis]. They are words that mean different things and have different emotional overtones for different people. When we spot an example of Name Calling, we must ask ourselves these questions:

What does the name 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 serves my best interests and the best interests of society, as I see them, being dismissed through giving it a name I don’t like?

In other words, leaving the name out of consideration, what are the merits of the idea itself?

We must constantly remind ourselves of the danger of omnibus-word reactions. Such reactions, rather than detailed appraisals of a philosophy and its ideals, are what we commonly encounter.

How many times recently have you heard one politician call another a racist? It has been on the news constantly, and because it is one of the most overdone uses of name calling as a propaganda device this serious accusation has become a mockery.

Do you remember the 2009 DHS Office of Intelligence and Analysis report that contained broad-brush labeling of conservative political positions as rightwing extremism? Michelle Malkin wrote that in comparison, “past reports have always been very specific in identifying the exact groups, causes, and targets of domestic terrorism.” The report even admitted there was no specific information on any planned violence. It was fearmongering by name calling.

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

Name Calling. Here the propagandist gives a negative label to whatever the propagandist wants others to view negatively. The propagandist wants reactions to the negative label, not to evidence. An example would be to inappropriately label a group as “terrorists.”…

A General Semantics Interpretation

  • Non-identity. The label “terrorist” evokes negative feelings, and the propagandist hopes the audience will respond the same way to the group. But the label is not the group.
  • Non-allness. The name is not all there is to say about the group. The propagandist hopes the label “terrorist” is sufficient for the audience to form opinions without realizing there is more to be said about the group.
  • Self-reflexiveness. The propagandist hopes the audience won’t see the label “terrorist” as an abstraction of some behavior. But the label is an abstract, and as such is incomplete and inaccurate.
  • Probability principle. Things change. Even if the name had some basis once, it may no longer fit. The propagandist hopes the audience will assume that if the label fit once, it always will be accurate.
  • Symbol-signal reaction. The propagandist wants people to react automatically and negatively to the label “terrorist” without questioning the evidence.
  • Extensionalization. Here the propagandist hopes the audience will not ask whether the terrorist label has any basis in fact, and will not seek non-verbal evidence.

Name calling may be used by four-year-olds, but it also remains a favorite propaganda device of adults, and it’s a very dangerous one. When you notice name calling being used remember to critique the speaker or source, his substance, his style and his setting (see Words At Their Flood Stage).

This is the IPA’s conclusion to their list.

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) 4–5.
Cover of Tappy’s Chicks: and Other Links Between Nature and Human Nature (1872) by Mrs. George Cupples via Wikipedia.


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